Round-Up: Away We Go, Summer Hours, The Hangover, The Brothers Bloom
By Fernando F. Croce

Back so soon, Sam Mendes? Having less than a year ago polished suburban angst into For-Your-Consideration tripe in Revolutionary Road, he now misses the boat on another American staple, the road-movie. Away We Go lost me at hello. The thirtysomething protagonists (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) are introduced in bed, with pregnancy discovered via cunningulus: Her juices taste "fruity." Diablo Cody in da house? Nah, the screenplay is by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vita, married purveyors of "Generation-X wit" whoíd make this Gen-Xer lie about his age just to avoid blame. Moving out of their semi-heated trailer to search for the ideal place to raise their unborn daughter, Rudolph and Krasinski transverse a landscape of deformed parenthood. The gargoyles paving the road include parents (Catherine OíHara and Jeff Daniels) who have the gall of thinking of themselves instead of sticking around to provide free babysitting services for the couple, a monstrously brassy hausfrau (Allison Janney) and a sticky-voiced New Age witch (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Barren matriarchs (Melanie Lynskey) and abandoned fathers (Paul Schneider) are more benign beasts, yet nobody, but nobody, is good enough to be on the screen without eliciting mortified grins and condescending nods from our heroes. Ah, the plight of the Holden Caulfields: "No oneís in love like us. What are we gonna do?" Slick Mike Nichols imitator that he is, Mendes directs this mountain of bellybutton lint with a synthetic stolidity not helped by the charmless duo at its center. Rudolph is pissy and dour, Krasinski reminds me of fungus spreading on plaid wallpaper -- at first I assumed they were sidekicks keeping the stage warm until the actual protagonists showed up. Watching these two supposedly emitting a twee-indie glow too pure for this world, I thought of my usual retort for holier-than-thou proselytizers: If Heaven is filled with folks like them, Iíll take Hell. Away you go.

*

Olivier Assayas not only has the exploratory restlessness that eludes Mendes, heís made it the recurring theme of his work. Frenzied yet humanistic, capable of both luridness and delicacy, his films embody the vertiginous mutations of anchorless epochs. The passage of time and the disintegration of values that mark such disparate pictures as Irma Vep and Les Destinťes Sentimentales take center stage in Summer Hours. In sharp contrast to the recent demonlover and Boarding Gate, it opens in nature. The event is the family matriarchís (Edith Scob) 75th birthday, her grown children and frolicking grandchildren gather at the country cottage. Because Scob still has the sepulchral beauty of Eyes Without a Face, itís only a matter of time before the old bird expires and the family is left to deal with mementos. The heirs are dispersed across different continents: Charles Berling, a Parisian professor, wants to hang on to the estate and the memories it carries, though his siblings, New York-based designer Juliette Binoche and China-bound factory owner Jťrťmie Renier, have less interest in such a high-maintenance symbol of familial roots. Itís not that Binoche and Renier donít care about posterity, they just have adapted to a world of "objects not weighted down by the past"; Berling sheds a tear in a darkened bedroom, but accepts it. In times when everybody is always on the move, the camera lends the stillness of a wooden desk or a bulbous glass vase a mournful respect. But Assayas is no antiquarian -- the final glimpse of the country house full of dancing, toking, rapping teens is less tragedy than new beginning. ("Itís sad, but thatís life," a character says of a broken Degas statuette.) Intense yet airy, Summer Hours eulogizes whatís been lost while looking, with cautious hope, at what lies ahead.

*

Fear and loathing and douchebaggery in Las Vegas. I gave The Hangover a chance just because it didnít star Vince Vaughn, Steve Carell, and Will Ferrell. Hope dissipated around the stunningly original shot of a little kid flipping off the camera; after that, the only fun came from guessing which critter would do the honors in the obligatory animal-awakens-in-backseat-and-totals-car bit. (Deer? Raccoon? Aha, tiger.) The premise, not a bad one, is that of a memorable night that nobody remembers. The setting is a Vegas bachelor bash, the stooges include the Alpha chump (Bradley Cooper), an emasculated dentist (Ed Helms) engaged to an ambulatory root-canal (Rachel Harris), and a quasi-autistic, quasi-pedophiliac goof (Zach Galifianakis). When the smoke clears, the fellas realize that the groom (Justin Bartha) is MIA. The trail of toddlers, missing teeth, strippers, gratuitous celebrity cameos, and fa-laming! Asian gangsters must be traced back. "We, uh, tend to do dumb shit when weíre fucked up." After Superbad, Role Models and I Love You, Man (which were at least spottily amusing), has the "bromance" comedy genre entered its self-reflexive stage? With its taser-to-nuts humor, flaunted homophobia, and septic racial stereotypes, The Hangover plays like an unintentional send-up of the jock-pleasers favored by the Maxim crowd. (Horny Movie. Take note, Wayans brothers.) But no, such self-awareness would water down everybodyís beer in this pandering pantsload, which makes Judd Apatowís grotty shrines for stunted manhood look like Felliniís I Vitelloni. The director is Todd Phillips, not lifting himself any higher after School for Scoundrels. What surprised me werenít the flapping penises, which are by now mandatory, but the milky breasts. Like Maggie Gyllenhaal in Away We Go, Heather Graham here has a gag involving breast-feeding. If thatís an admission of American comedy cheerfully heading back to the womb, then itís the only honest bit in either film.

*

Blame Wes. Herr Andersonís twee shadow hangs heavily over Rian Johnsonís militantly unenchanting The Brothers Bloom, from the slow-mo use of a Cat Stevens tune to the presence of that Buster Keaton-asswipe extraordinaire, Adrien Brody. Brody plays half of the titular pair of fraternal conmen (Mark Ruffalo plays the other brother), who have since childhood been "gentleman thieves" with matching black overcoats and bowler hats. Brody is the sad-sack tagalong who wants out, Ruffalo is the motoring trickster who constructs schemes "like Russians write novels" (or so weíre told -- the ones on the screen are pretty unimaginative). Their latest (and, Ruffalo insists, last) con involves bilking a fabulously wealthy kook (Rachel Weisz), who complicates matters by stealing Brodyís heart. Johnson, who squeezed the Dashiell Hammett out of high-school hierarchy in Brick, here piles cuteness on top of cuteness on top of cuteness: the heiress juggles chainsaws and writhes orgasmically to thunderstorms, one sidekick (Rinko Kikuchi) suggests Harpo Marx reborn as a hot Japanese pyromaniac, the whole nudging affair is scored to what sounds like an oompah band on a carousel. The dialogue stresses the auteurís defensiveness over his own overproduced preciousness: "Itís not reproduction, but... storytelling." And later, of a watermelon pinhole-camera: "Hmm. The lie that tells the truth." Putting a fat man in a cape doesnít necessarily make you Orson Welles. One bright point, though: Weiszís impish smile, freed from the adoringly entombing lighting of The Constant Gardener and The Fountain. But the idea of cinema as sleigh-of-hand con games... Címon, really? Canít we just play scrabble?


Reviewed June 22, 2009.

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