Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe the only great thing about adolescence is that dreams are still alive … and in full bloom. Writer-director Tim Federle has adapted his own best-selling Young Adult novel for the big screen, and the result is a fun, uplifting adventure that should really hit home for theater kids. It’s very much in the vein of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, and that makes sense as Mr. Federle is the creator of “High School Musical: The Musical – The Series”.
Casting is crucial in a film like this, and Rueby Wood excels as the titular Nate, a 13-year-old growing up in suburban Pittsburgh while dreaming of starring on Broadway. One of Nate’s challenges is that he can’t even get cast for a significant role in his school’s stage production. This is the first big screen appearance for young Wood, though he has starred in the national tour of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He is immensely talented and sings, dances, and acts his way through this story in a way that draws us in to the point that we embrace his dreams and cheer him on.
To help her best friend overcome his disappointment in the school play and encourage him to chase his dream, Libby (Aria Brooks) informs Nate that auditions are being held for a Broadway production, “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical”. Excited for the opportunity, the two sneak off to New York City. By this point, we’ve seen that Nate’s mother and father (real life married couple Michelle Federer and Norbert Leo Butz) accept that their son is ‘different’, while Nate’s jock brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) puts up with him the way most big brothers do with their weird siblings.
Once in NYC, the story takes a turn. Nate and Libby run into his Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow). Although estranged from her sister, Nate’s mom, Heidi’s experience as an actress in New York has made her an idol to the young actor wannabe. Of course some of what happens at the audition is a bit far-fetched, but Nate’s optimism and determination and faith restore some of those long-past emotions in Heidi and the two establish quite a bond. In an interesting turn, Libby is much more than the loyal friend to Nate, as the experience/adventure shines a light on a path that suits her oh so well.
Rueby Wood delivers a sparkling performance as Nate, flaunting his vocal pipes in Times Square. Aria Brooks is every bit as impressive as Libby, and we get the feeling her career is about to explode. This is comedy and quasi-musical that acts as an uplifting adventure movie serving up life lessons along the way. Most parents would prefer their unaccompanied minor kids not hop a bus to the Big Apple, but the messages of pursuing a dream and the importance of friendship and family are well made. It’s nice to see a film directed at theater kids and one that the whole family (other than the youngest of kids) can enjoy together.
Greetings again from the darkness. Every generation tends to get the high school movie (the movie about high school life) they deserve. Going back to James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and Sidney Poitier in TO SIR WITH LOVE(1967), what followed were such memorable films as CARRIE (1976), GREASE (1978), FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), most every John Hughes movie from the 80’s, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986), SAY ANYTHING (1989), DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993), CLUELESS (1995), 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999), MEAN GIRLS (2004), HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL (2006), JUNO (2007), and SUPERBAD (2007). It’s that last one on the list that this directorial debut from Olivia Wilde is likely to draw the most comparisons to.
Kaitlyn Dever (“Justified”) and Beanie Feldstein (LADY BIRD, and sister of Jonah Hill) star as Amy and Molly, two best friends and high school seniors who have sacrificed a social life (i.e. partying) for academics in order to position themselves for the best colleges. Amy has decided to take a gap year doing charity work in Botswana, while Molly wears her intelligence and class ranking on her sleeve and sits in judgement of her less disciplined classmates. She is headed to Yale with her ultimate life goal being an appointment to the Supreme Court (she has an RBG poster up in her room).
Imagine their shock when, the day before graduation, Amy and Molly discover that many of their less-disciplined (i.e. hard partying) classmates will also be attending elite schools. The besties immediately scheme to make up for 4 years of nose-to-the-grindstone by attending the biggest party of the year … and showing others how much fun they can be. Plus, the party affords each the opportunity to pursue their crush: skater-girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) for Amy, and athlete Nick (Mason Gooding) for Molly.
Although (full disclosure) I was never a high school girl, the one thing that stands out about the film is how the kids seem like real kids. That’s not to say most every aspect isn’t slightly exaggerated, because it is. The level of gayness in the Drama club is a bit difficult to take, and the teenage body is objectified in more than one shot; however, director Wilde has a knack for making high school look cinematic. Two sequences are particular standouts for the way they are filmed: the swimming pool scene with Amy underwater, and the house party as the characters weave in and out of rooms in the large house
Supporting roles add depth to the comedy thanks to Jason Sudeikis as the school Principal/Lyft driver; Billie Lourd (daughter of Carrie Fisher) as Gigi, who is always popping up and stealing scenes; Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents; Molly Gordon (“Animal Kingdom”) as the misunderstood ‘Triple A’; the aforementioned Victoria Ruesga and Mason Gooding; and star-in-the-making Diana Silvers as Hope – the aptly named rebel who clicks with Amy.
Co-written by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, the film presents a realistic friendship between two teenage girls, and mines some common and recognizable personalities for comedy gold. Smart and funny female characters are interesting at any age, and “no one knows me” is the anthem of most every high school student since caveman days. The inevitable comparisons to SUPERBAD will likely be favorable to this film, and it will probably be the perfect fit for this generation – even if we hope most students avoid many of the happenings. With Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as producers, you should prepare for the harsh language high school kids are known for, as well as that ‘brazen, yet insecure’ blend so common to the age. Of course, we can’t help but find the timing of release quite interesting, given the recent college admissions scandal. It won’t replace AMERICAN GRAFFITI for me, but with Olivia Wilde having been known as an actress, we now recognize her as a legitimate director.
Greetings again from the darkness. Romantic Comedies and Political Parodies are staples in the film industry, and have been for many decades. The combination of the three – a political romantic comedy – is a bit rarer, though we have seen it in such films as DAVE (1993), THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), BULLWORTH (1998), and LOVE ACTUALLY (2003). This latest from director Jonathan Levine (50/50, 2011) has elements of those well-known movies, while incorporating a very high level of raunchiness in a gender-reversed template of PRETTY WOMAN(1990).
We first meet Fred Flarsky (played by Seth Rogen) at a neo-Nazi/white supremacist gathering. He’s actually a left-wing journalist for an alt-weekly publication, and he’s so intent on getting the story that he’s willing to get a swastika tattoo and leap out of a second story window. Standing firm on his idealism, Fred quits his job when informed that his magazine has been bought out by Wembley Media … a right-wing organization in the vein of Fox News. It’s an odd opening for the film, but sets the stage for Fred to be reunited with his one-time babysitter Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) who is now the U.S. Secretary of State.
When President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) summons Charlotte for an Oval Office meeting, we get our first glimpse of the filmmakers’ parody of the actual current office holder. Chambers is a former TV star who was Golden Globe nominated for acting like a President on his show, and now wants to capitalize on his popularity by transitioning to a more prestigious career … movies. He’s willing to endorse Ms. Fields for the nation’s highest office in the next election, and she’s all in.
Charlotte’s reconnection with Fred leads her to hire him to “punch up” her speeches with some humor. See, testing has shown that she scores high in most categories with voters – but not for her sense of humor. Despite the protests of her staff, Maggie (June Diane Rafael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), Fred comes on board and quickly works his way into Charlotte’s favor – to say the least.
Yes, on top of the political jabs and typical Rogen stoner humor, there is an inherent comedic element placing glamorous Charlize Theron and schlubby Seth Rogen in a blossoming romance … together. The idealism of their characters play a role in the story (she truly believes in her environmental initiative), and the supporting cast is terrific, but this is mostly a show for Ms. Theron and Mr. Rogen to go full-force comedy (including a Molly-trip). We have seen this from him many times, but the real gem here is Oscar winner Theron, who is likely the only actress who could pull off such diverse films as MONSTER (2003), MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), TULLY (2018), as well as this crowd-pleasing political raunch-fest with a political bent.
Additional supporting work is provided by Lisa Kudrow, Randall Park, and Alexander Skarsgard (who excels as the awkwardly funny Canadian Prime Minister, in a direct spoof on Justin Trudeau). There is also an unrecognizable Andy Serkis as a frumpy Steve Bannon type, and O’Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube’s son) is a standout as Fred’s best friend … one with some terrific one-liners and a secret that nearly crushes Fred’s idealism. The campaign travels the world (though the film barely takes advantage), and the script from Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah serves up a clever Jennifer Aniston joke, a sight gag to rival THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and enough bawdy sex comedy that the political satire sometimes fades (but never for long). It’s meant to be a crowd-pleaser and it seems to succeed on that; although its greatest strength may be in showcasing another side from the immensely talented Charlize Theron.
Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound) takes the approach that many wedding guests would prefer – he skips the wedding and heads straight to the reception. Another wise move by the filmmaker is assembling a very talented ensemble of funny folks. This cast proves they can wring a laugh from dialogue and moments that would probably otherwise not elicit much of an audience reaction. Instead, the full house on this evening had quite boisterous responses on numerous occasions.
The initial set-up drags a bit as we are introduced to the characters that will soon enough populate Table 19 at the reception. Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotelbellhop) is Renzo, the longing for love (or anything similar) high schooler who might be a bit too close to his mother (voiced by the great Margo Martindale). Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson are the Kepp’s, a mostly unhappily married couple who own and run a diner together. June Squibb is Jo, the bride’s long-forgotten nanny who sees and knows more than most. Stephen Merchant plays the outcast nephew/cousin who has been recently released from his prison sentence for white collar crime. Lastly we have Anna Kendrick as Eloise, the fired maid of honor and former girlfriend of the bride’s brother (Wyatt Russell), who also happens to be the best man and now dating the new maid of honor.
This is the island of misfit wedding guests known as Table 19, and purposefully placed in the back corner as far as possible from the family and favored guests. Of course we know immediately that this Team Reject will unite for some uplifting purpose at some point, and the movie improves immediately once that goal has been revealed. Comedic timing in a group setting can often come across on screen as forced, and it’s a tribute to the cast that these characters come across as human and real.
Make no mistake though, this is Anna Kendrick’s movie. She plays Eloise as we would imagine Anna Kendrick in this real life situation. Sure, a wedding reception is low-hanging fruit for comedy, but it’s the third act where Ms. Kendrick’s talent really shines. Comedy drawn from emotional pain is the most fulfilling because we’ve all been there. The melodrama that creeps in is pretty predictable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good time. The scenes with Ms. Kendrick and Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some!,and Kurt and Goldie’s son) are the best, and it leaves us wishing for more attention to both.
Don’t worry, the film features the required wedding cake mishap, a flirtatious wedding crasher (Thomas Cocquerel) and a drunken mother of the bride singing karaoke to Etta James’ “At Last”. It’s designed to be a crowd-pleaser, and mostly succeeds with a nice blend of silly, cute, and emotional tugs.