BLOCKERS (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Teen sex comedies exploring new boundaries are a Hollywood tradition. ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), PORKY’S (1981), AMERICAN PIE (1999), and SUPERBAD (2007) all pushed the limits of decency for their era, and provided varying levels of laughter while doing so. In her directorial debut, Tina Fey protégé Kay Cannon (“30 Rock”, PITCH PERFECT franchise), offers up what has been called the first “Feminist teen comedy”, and the risqué humor is far more extreme than that of its predecessors noted above.

We have become quite accustomed to the all-too-common male-centric perspective in these types of movies, so kudos to director Cannon for taking a look from the other side: a Female-centric teen sex comedy. Co-writers Brian and Jim Kehoe unfortunately try to cram too much into what should mostly be a laugh-a-thon. We get the #SexPact2018 from 3 high school senior best friends who agree to lose their virginity on prom night. We get the far-too-involved parents trying to prevent that from happening. We get those same parents dealing with the pending empty nest syndrome, while those three friends are immersed in drugs, alcohol and sex talk. If that’s not quite enough, there is also a sexual identity awakening and a hotel party more extreme than you would find in Las Vegas.

Leslie Mann plays Lisa, the helicopter single mom to Julie (Kathryn Newton). WWE star John Cena is Mitchell, the overprotective dad and life coach to Kayla (an outstanding Geraldine Viswanathan); and comedian Ike Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project”) is Hunter, the estranged/absentee/banished dad to Sam (Gideon Adlon). Julie envisions the perfect romantic encounter, while Kayla just wants to be done with it, and Sam is still trying to figure out why she isn’t so attracted to boys.

Riffing off of the “one wild and crazy night” theme, prom night is chosen by the three amigas, and what follows is outrageous and periodically hilarious. Most of the humor comes courtesy of the parents on the ill-fated ‘blocking’ mission. The story bounces from heartfelt emotions of parents to ‘butt-chugging’ at a party. There is also a car explosion, felony breaking and entering, and projectile vomiting. Perhaps there is an overuse of hulking John Cena crying, but that’s less cringe-inducing than the role-playing of Gary Cole and Gina Gershon (parents of one of the girl’s dates).

Setting the story in Chicago allows the filmmakers to take on the conservative Midwestern attitudes toward sex, while also providing a teenager with the “I’m getting as far away as possible” (UCLA) comeback. It makes sense that SUPERBAD co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are Producers, as this film often feels like the female cousin to that 2007 film. Hannibal Buress has a small memorable role, as does Jimmy Bellinger, as fedora wearing Chad. The real standouts here are relative newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan, and John Cena, who previously has excelled with less screen time (DADDYS HOME 2, TRAINWRECK). Many will be offended on numerous occasions, and certainly most parents will be uncomfortable with the drug use and sexcapades of teenagers. However, the theater was often filled with boisterous laughter, proving that this is what constitutes contemporary cinematic comedy. Only you can decide if you are OK with that.

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THE COMEDIAN (2017)

February 2, 2017

the-comedian Greetings again from the darkness. It’s often seemed as if Robert DeNiro existed in two unrelated cinematic worlds. He’s a 7 time Oscar nominee and 2 time winner (The Godfather: Part II, Raging Bull) renowned for his dramatic work, while also seemingly intent on proving he’s as funny as he thinks he is. His work in Analyze This, Analyze That, and the Fockers franchise takes “playing against type” to an extreme. This latest is his return, 35 years after The King of Comedy, to playing a stand-up comedian.

Of course Jackie Burke (DeNiro) is no regular comedian. He’s pushing 70 years old, has anger issues, no close friends, a strained relationship with his brother (Danny DeVito) and agent (Edie Falco), and fights his popular legacy as “Eddie” from a decades-ago popular sitcom. He strives to be recognized not as Eddie, but as Jackie Burke, the king of insult comics.

That anger lands him in community service where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) who is also serving her time. It’s kind of creepy to watch the 30 years older dude hit on her, but it’s explained away by her ‘daddy issues’ with Harvey Keitel. Of course, DeNiro and Keitel have a natural rhythm (that spans 5 decades of working together), but it’s really DeNiro and Mann who have the best scenes (outside of the unnecessary romantic interlude). Ms. Mann is especially fun to watch and brings a sense of realism to a film that’s mostly lacking.

Taylor Hackford directs a script written by a blend of 4 writers: a Producer of Fight Club, a standup comedian, an Oscar nominee for The Fisher King, and a writer best known for the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s a weird mix that explains the periodic flashes of genius and the overall mismatched parts.

There are no shortage of familiar faces that pop up, including Billy Crystal, Lois Smith, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, and Gilbert Gottfried. Patti LuPone is enjoyable in her role as DeVito’s wife and Jackie Burke-hater. It’s nice to see Charles Grodin in a Midnight Run reunion with DeNiro, and Cloris Leachman proves that comedy kills in her brief time on screen.

Although there is a more cutesy humor segment at a retirement center when Burke leads the residents through a make-shift version of “Makin’ Poopie” set to the rhythm of “Makin’ Whoopie”, anyone seeing this should be braced for raunchy humor. Lots of raunchy humor. Jackie Burke is an insult comedian in the vein of Don Rickles, only he adds a dash of Jim Norton and Amy Schumer. With all the uncomfortable laughs, it might best be described as that rare film genre – blue humor for the blue hairs.

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I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS (2009)

December 11, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The real story of Steven Russell is downright fascinating. He is the ultimate con man and has been nicknamed “King Con”. A master of reading people, gaining trust and manipulating many systems, Russell was proved to have stolen from a major food service corporation and a major healthcare organization. Stolen, as in hundreds of thousands of dollars. The smaller cons are too numerous to count. And don’t forget his string of jail/prison escapes!

Glenn Ficarra and John Regua (the writing team behind Bad Santa) co-direct this story based on Steve McVicer’s book on Russell. Somehow they have delivered a hokey, boring film despite the man at the center of the story. Luckily for them, Jim Carrey drums up a terrific performance as Russell and provides some relief from the amateurish script and direction.

The role of Phillip Morris is tackled by Ewan McGregor in a manner we have not previously seen from him. His effeminate naivety offers a nice contrast to the domineering Russell/Carrey. The support work is minimal but provided by the very capable Rodrigo Santoro and the very talented (but totally wasted here) Leslie Mann.

The film shows us the beginning of the fall for Russell. His parents tell him he was adopted and he responds by tracking down his birth mother. He pretty much falls apart after that meeting and commences with his endless stream of cons. Is he a happily married man or is he gay? Is he a brilliant strategist or an embezzler? His life changes during one of his trips to jail. He meets Phillip Morris. Their life together is full of excess, thanks to Russell’s latest scam. As always, the con is exposed and Russell spends his entire life alternating between being on the lam or in jail.

I found the film inferior to Catch Me if You Can, a better (not great) film about another real life con man, Frank Abignale. The cat and mouse chases of that film held my interest. This film has little drama despite the obvious talents of this off-center man. My guess is that in the hands of better filmmakers, this could have been a much improved film.

Apparently, Russell’s biggest con was played on himself. He never really figured out who he is. He is now serving a life sentence in near-solitary confinement in prison. Mr. McVicker, the book’s author, has stated two very telling observations. First, he suspects Phillip Morris was not quite as innocent as he would have us believe. Second, his description of Russell as a man “who makes you want to believe” tells you all you need know about this ultimate con man.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: You still need proof that Jim Carrey is a real actor and not just a goofy side show OR the Enron scandal just wasn’t quite funny enough for you

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: You have read the book OR don’t find much humor in con men