"To movies with heart," Be Kind, Rewind toasts. For Michel Gondry, the poor village idiot's Jacques Demy, that means anything that can be jauntily dismantled and reworked into insufferable whimsy. The precious Romper Room this time is a neighborhood in Passaic, New Jersey, where the world's last VHS-only rental store stands, shabbily but proudly, as the alleged birthplace of jazz great Fats Waller. The fatherly owner (Danny Glover) faces gentrification by studying the mysteries of DVD, while Mos Def and Jack Black play Harlequin dolts flea-hopping across Gondry's antic mise-en-scène. Black gets electrocuted mid-sabotage at a power plant, but unfortunately, instead of dying, he becomes a human magnet and erases the shop's entire inventory; to keep the customers satisfied, the two buddies slap together short, cardboard-and-tinfoil re-enactments of such blockbusters as Ghostbusters, Rush Hour and Robocop, which become wildly and predictably popular with the King of Hearts refugees who make up the neighborhood. Strange that I should miss Charlie Kaufman's onanistic morbidity, and yet here we are with the second Gondry naïf-saga written by himself, and what a foul junkyard of Quirk it is: After what felt like many hours of low-tech illusionism and Black's King Kong mugging, Joel Schumacher starts to look less unclean. If Be Kind, Rewind is in the end less nightmarish than The Science of Sleep, it's because Gondry briefly acknowledges the uselessness (oh all right, "fragility") of his fantasy bubble -- the communal opus is unveiled for a rapt audience, but the real world of copyright infringement bulldozes in all the same.
The Other Boleyn Girl might have been more endurable as a 20-minute goof with Jack Black and Mos Def donning Reformation gowns made out of trash bags. It's that dreary. The main point of interest lies in seeing Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, fetching and spirited actresses both, handling the heavy Tudor-era corsets and the heavier dramaturgy of Peter Morgan's (The Queen) view of royal power games. Henry VIII (Eric Bana, hairy and lupine) needs a male heir, so the Boleyn girls, Anne (Portman) and Mary (Johansson), are dangled before him by their shrewd old uncle (David Morrissey), who understands the role lust plays in politics. The wily Anne is pushed forward, but the King is more interested in the demure Mary; the whole gang is moved to the court, where anybody who remembers history class can fill in the blanks in the limp intrigue. (Director Justin Chadwick has a cleaver fall into a slab of meat as Henry rides into the village to see the maidens. See? And you thought foreshadowing was a subtle, complicated thing!) Neither actress is shown to advantage, though Portman works far better here than she did in Goya's Ghosts, while Johansson, scrubbed as she is of her ripe sense of desire, is nevertheless affecting. Both are outacted by Ana Torrent, who, best remembered for her sublime dark eyes as a child in the '70s (The Spirit of the Beehive, Cría Cuervos), essays a fierce, splendid Catherine of Aragon. Like Samantha Morton's Mary Stuart in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, it's a portrait of reigned-in wrath deserving of a better, less tasteful movie.
The fake nose-thumbing of Charlie Bartlett has been traced to the usual gaggle of inspirations (Harold and Maude, Rushmore, Pump Up the Volume), although Jon Poll's galling would-be satire is closer to the equally deplorable Running With Scissors. There's the same penchant for smug caricature, the same glibly inhuman view of dysfunction, and practically the same prick-protagonist. Charlie (Anton Yelchin) goes to a public high-school after being expelled from his private academy, and is dunked into the toilet moments after strolling the halls in blue preppie suit and valise. After tricking his many analysts into giving him a supply of prescription drugs, however, he goes from hapless bully-magnet to Ritalin entrepreneur, turning the boys' room stall into an office, pharmacy and confessional for his suddenly adoring peers. Love interest comes in the shape of the most sunshiny Goth gal imaginable (Kat Dennings), the voice of dubious adult authority is represented by the barely medicated hysteria of Charlie's mother (Hope Davis) and also the boozy haze of his principal (Robert Downey, Jr.). (The Downey, Jr. of Less Than Zero and Johnny Be Good standing in for uptight institution? Man, twenty years just fly!) Like the John Hughes-Wes Anderson films it smarmily apes, Charlie Bartlett playacts at rebellion while really yearning to be accepted into the system, complete with Afterschool Special wrap-up. "It is our duty as teenagers to piss off our parents," Charlie says. The film succeeds only in pissing off the viewer.
By now, going to a Will Ferrell comedy to me is like going to the dentist. Semi-Pro is root-canal territory all the way. The basketball entry in the Ferrell Sports Troika (Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory are the other two), it takes place in 1976, which is before the American Basketball Association merged with the NBA and, more to the point, another chance to make fun of those wacky afros-'n'-polyester '70s. (Remember, guys, in three decades hack comics will make fun of the way you dress, too.) Ferrell is the owner-coach-announcer-presiding jackass of a low-rung Flint team, prone to stunts like wrestling a bear and Evel Knieveling over a row of cheerleaders. The plot involves a has-been pro (Woody Harrelson, gallantly trading haircuts with Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men) joining the team in an attempt to save it from oblivion, but the bulk of the running time is spent on sounded-funny-during-rehearsal bits like the guys hitting the court with runny mascara and Tim Meadows getting shot in his cast-wrapped arm. Tellingly, Ferrell's squad is happy to land fourth place in the finals -- it that isn't a depressing metaphor for the lowered expectations of current American comedy, then I don't know what is.
Reviewed March 7, 2008.