Paul

In the olden days, comedy troupes like the Marx Brothers didn’t have the luxury of sticking with their favorite directors; they got whoever the studio threw at them. But the writing-and-acting team of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg have had a kickass collaboration with Edgar Wright that’s resulted in two exhilarating, gut-bursting features: the parody-plus Shaun of the Dead and the hyperactive Hot Fuzz. (The drug that psyches up Jason Statham in Crank is like Crystal Light by comparison.) Apart, all three have done fine work as free agents. In fact, they’ve transcended their material: Pegg, with his brains, in Star Trek, and Frost, with his belly, in Pirate Radio. Working with a good director, Greg Mottola, and an even better cast that includes Seth Rogen, the duo is reconstituted in the brand-new Paul. Rogen, at 25, played a cop who yearned to be a kid in Superbad—and Rogen really was a kid when he co-wrote the first draft of its script. That film’s mixture of nostalgia and juvenilia is not a unique blend, but the miniscule distance between the writers and the characters lent it a fresh perspective; and Mottola, who directed, served up their bluntness with subtlety, their dirty-mindedness with dreaminess—and gave it a creamy, ambient look that evoked American Graffiti. When Wright directed Michael Cera (one of the stars of Superbad) in Scott Pilgrim, he pumped a shot of adrenaline into the actor’s runty lassitude; but in Paul the process is not reversed. It’s a small-potatoes failure that’s a huge disappointment because it could’ve been so much better.

Rogen has gone from surfing the zeitgeist, and giving an exceptional performance in an artistic and financial failure, to being a second-tier superhero and now opening his own X-File as an extraterrestrial baller called Paul. He’s a little green man on the lam, abetted by a pair of schlubbery English tourists (Pegg and Frost) who’ve come to the States for an excursion through flying-saucer country. This is a killer setup for a pop culture-palooza. Now that U.F.O. mythology is as codified in the public imagination as the clichés of the Old West are, Paul could’ve been shaped into a guided tour through the demimonde—one that pace-conscious Mottola would be qualified to conduct—or turned into something punchy, along the lines of Zombieland or the Wright stuff. But not only does the movie skirt the wingnutty quirks that this landscape is rolling in, it is condescending to rural Americans, and particularly the religious. (Are the filmmakers really trying to rectify this with their dodgy reference to stem cells? The laid-back humanism of Cedar Rapids puts these shenanigans to shame.) When the plot kicks in, the film conks out; it’s a duddy stoner comedy that requires toxically dank weed to wheedle any hearty chuckles out of it. The mellowness—sometimes sheepishly likable—heats up in a few spots. A clipped Jason Bateman is funny at first; Sigourney Weaver channels Carmen Sandiego as a Nuyorican slam poet; Jane Lynch is graciously de-Glee’d and fluffed up with a trucker-café waitress’s ’do; but Bill Hader’s part makes no sense; and Kristen Wiig is aware of how much better she deserves. She plays a cuss-word newbie—a comedic old standard that makes fart jokes look like rocket science. As I laughed, I could feel my expectations drop, bit by bit. Set your phasers to skunked.

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Vision

I was going batty trying to figure out who the star of Vision, Barbara Sukowa, reminded me of—and then, like a godsmack, it hit me: Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. This is an odd affinity, considering that Sukowa is playing Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century Rhenish abbess whose resurgence has made strange bedfellows of Catholic, New Age, and feminist circles. (She was so ahead-of-her-time she was a Renaissance woman during the Middle Ages.) I’ll let Wikipedia fill you in on the bulk of her impressive C.V., but Hildegard believed herself to be the recipient of visions from the Almighty, which put her—in her own words, “a weak, unlearned woman”—in the good graces of the boy’s-club cognoscenti, enabling her to publish passels of treatises, correspondences, chorales, and one of the earliest extant morality plays. (Though even the prophet didn’t foresee that she’d get shout-outs from Oprah eight centuries after biting the dust.) If there’s a commonality between the loony-bin nurse and the comeback-kid nun, it’s imperiousness. Like botox, it renders your face too flaccid to project anything but an impersonal, intractable, “professional” demeanor: that “poised” look that makes medieval paintings so cold and creepy. I’m sure that under normal circumstances our ancestors were more wont to flash the “o face” than strike the blank poses in those pictures. But even if nuns were exceptions to that rule—there were no o’s for Hildy, as she’d be quick to point out—one goes to a biopic to see beyond the subject’s public persona, an impulse that isn’t entirely prurient. So the writer-director of Vision, Margarethe von Trotta, is stuck between a rock and a hard face.

Barring an imposture on the historical record, à la Tarantino, I could’ve used a little “blasphemy”: something suggestive, like the chaste alienation that Bresson brought to Diary of a Country Priest, or the sublimely abject teardrops that accumulated on Falconetti’s eyelashes in The Passion of Joan of Arc, or even the terror inherent in doubt in the much more recent Martyrs. Vision is a religious film that tries to circumvent religion. And since Hildegard left her personal life as one long lacuna, we feel at a double loss—like we’re watching the transcript of an official record, one calculated to not offend all those Catholics, New Agers, and feminists. It’s an unenviable position for any artist to be in, and a prison for both Sukowa and von Trotta, two grandees of the German New Wave. However, I think there were ways that they could’ve peeked through the bars of their self-imposed jail cell: themes that could’ve been developed without inciting excommunication. For starters, one misses the potentially meaningful contrast between a volunteer nun, like Richardis (the bright-eyed Hannah Herzsprung, a groupie with a girl-crush on her mother superior), and one whose aristocratic parents have pawned their eight-year-old off to a life of celibacy, like Hildegard. (Is there something more than adulation and daughterly love when the protégé embraces her tutor, who is not so easily given to spasms of enthusiasm?) When Richardis accepts a (politically motivated) appointment to become an abbess in her own right, Hildegard’s breakdown comes out of left field: There are no indications that she’d react this way; she’s no Charlie Sheen. (You’d think she’d become passive-aggressive and catty, scratch out Richardis’s innocent little heart—and ultimately come to regret it.)

Sukowa also bears a vague resemblance to Fletcher physically. Born in 1950—though you wouldn’t guess it—she’s an ageless beauty, even when she breaks free from her habit and reveals her long, golden ringlets. It’s a graceful, intelligent performance—but, mostly, it isn’t poignant. Her breakdown is one exception, despite the curveball it throws; there’s another one (undeveloped) when she sees the effect of a chain-mail chastity belt on her mentor’s corpse; and a big one, early on, when an illicitly pregnant younger nun supplicates the abbess, imploring her not to shear her, a black sheep, from her flock. Cooly sympathetic but servile to doctrine, Hildegard casts her out, prompting the poor girl to commit suicide; and the filmmaker intelligently cuts not to the visionary’s immediate reaction, but to her accusing the grouchy old abbott of abetting his horny monks, whose bad behavior is not as easy to trace as that of their female counterparts. But later, when Hildegard insists that God told her in a vision to move her nuns to their own convent, apart from the monks, one wonders if this move is politically motivated—a bone thrown to the skeptics in the audience? This seems especially fishy when she says that the new cloister is “conveniently located.” Nuns are homebodies, so convenient to what? To the places where Hildegard later goes on preaching tours—that’s what. Is Hildegard a modern career woman disguising herself as a pious servant of the Lord? This is an uncomfortably divisive question that the movie raises, yet avoids like the forthcoming plague.

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The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau has a rather writerly conception of theology. “The Chairman”—who the movie neither confirms nor denies to be Frank Sinatra—never seems to be satisfied with the most recent draft of Creation, so he’s constantly tweaking it. In order that everything goes to plan, he has agents of the eponymous bureaucracy always on the beat—a beatified beat, really, as it’s manned by an all-male choir of fedora-festooned angels. Not a one is as chubby as the cherubs, nor as lucky, because these agents are stuck on Earth; but they’ve got a spiffy, mid-century dress code, which makes sense because a.) one of them is played by John Slattery from Mad Men; and b.) the source material—a surprisingly undistinguished short story, considering it was written by one of the doyens of the dystopic, Philip K. Dick—was first published in a pulp magazine, in 1954. But George Nolfi, the screenwriter and first-time director, has gleaned the promising core idea of the story and pimped it out in a very intelligent way: Matt Damon plays David, an up-and-coming political superstar, and Emily Blunt is Elise, the modern dancer he falls in love with after they meet at random, in a men’s bathroom. (A setting which is cleverly, and very dryly, reprised toward the climax.) They aren’t meant to meet again, but Agent Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie, who gave a tour-de-force in The Hurt Locker) fails to prevent David from seeing an adjustment in progress, so David’s treated to the 4-1-1 and told never to repeat it—on pain of lobotomy. David is also forbidden from seeing Elise again—alone, he’ll be elected president and she’ll become a major choreographer; together they’re fated to merely fall in love—but he’s smitten. He has to literally fight fate: It’s a Twilight Zone romance.

I think it was definitely a clever idea to make the protagonist a politician, even if that entails ironies that Nolfi doesn’t dare tackle. Just some free-associating: As our tribunes, do elected officials have their own voices, really, or are they—or are they supposed to be—our ciphers? And in this political climate, when congressmen are soaked in money and media, not all of it honorably intentioned, and spirited away to fundraisers more often than they make decisions, how does that affect “free will”—the pols’ and our own? To be fair, this mass-market movie is cozily idealistic: David, such a man of the people, rides the bus to work. And the polls that have him becoming New York’s next senator by wide margins are overturned by a cheeky cover-story photo scooping him shooting the moon back in college. “The voters want their politicians to be mature,” David’s aide tells him. Uh-huh. Even his interview on The Daily Show seems painfully fake. But Nolfi isn’t bad with civilian life. Damon and Blunt may not be lovers-for-the-ages, but they prod each other on the bus with all the zest of sexual gamesmanship—disguised in the smartaleck sparks they shoot off. And there’s some plain goofiness. When the couple crosses party lines—into a Red Hook rave—and the pol shakes hands with his constituents, you wait for the paparazzi, who never arrive.

From a certain point of view, there are a lot of missed opportunities here. In the hands of Terry Gilliam or Rian Johnson or even Steven Soderbergh, this film could have gravitated toward Kafka or Paul Auster; its bald literalization of Man vs. Fate could’ve been a cerebral spoof—or a cloak-and-dagger assault on the audience, with God as grumpy as he was in A Serious Man. There’s only one scene that teeters on emotional devastation. Two cars smash into one another, as a result of David defying the senior agent you really don’t want to mess with (Terrence Stamp). Who knows what havoc David’s revamped reality has wrought? (Another narrative byway untaken: Harry, who goes rogue to help out the senatorial candidate, goes the way of Satan. I’ve always felt a little bad for these ministers of grace, who God always shafts out of His love for humankind. What spoiled children we are….) But—and this is not necessarily a bad thing—God and his G-Men (read: Nolfi) are soft on His beloved creatures. Being soft on his audience, the director does a good job of keeping the story smooth and lucid; the themes are as ironed out (and gonzo) as his suspense scenes, which provide a uniquely truncated tour of the Big Apple. The price he pays is that The Adjustment Bureau is no visionary sci-fi epic. It remains, however, likable—especially at a time when concepts like free will and individualism are taken for granted by real politicians and propagandists, reduced to platitudes, or used as a rhetorical cloak over things downright sinister. The film arrives at a hokey-but-satisfying, and very American, Compatibilist position: Free will is something to fight for.

Cedar Rapids

Depending on your age, and other demographic factors, Cedar Rapids is like seeing your parents’ friends—or friends’ parents—in their element. Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), and Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) are workaday insurance agents from the Upper Midwest who want to make the most of an industry convention in Iowa; Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is the 40-year-old virgin they must, in their genteel way, corrupt. Lippe—that suffixal “e” is inelegantly audible—has lost his physical innocence to his former teacher, played by Sigourney Weaver (who expertly walks the line between cougar-cold and nursemaid-sweet), if he hasn’t shed it elsewhere; but his brain hasn’t caught up with his balls. It’s an uncoincidentally Oedipal fling.

We’re all accustomed to man-children by now, in movies as well as in life. In one trendy iteration, they’re a white, middle-class phenomenon that seems to take its cue from a proletarian mentality (*cough* Jersey Shore), yet their muscles bulge not from manual labor but Gold’s Gym; their skin color reflects not long hours spent outdoors (except maybe at the beach) but under the tanning lamp. Then there’s another subset, spurred by a generalized nihilism, whose suburban, subterranean dwellings—astride mom’s washing machine and the Xbox—have long since earned them the title of “slacker,” and a place in the annals of cliché. I’m generalizing, too, of course; and sympathetic. Because beneath all that braggadocio and blasé exists a widespread insecurity: “Pre-adulthood,” according to The Wall Street Journal, is “an expression of our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men.” Uncertainty (buzzword!) bathed Hot Tub Time Machine in semi-ironic backwash last year, and it splashed around the subconscious of The Hangover, to which Cedar Rapids has been predictably, nearsightedly compared. (From a marketing point of view, I wouldn’t challenge such analogies; but from a critical vantage, it would seem that some reviewers should be advised to take two or three aspirins, and down them with a carafe of water.)

It may seem premature to say so, but this film is a sort of throwback to The 40 Year Old Virgin; Cedar Rapids may actually be a purification of it. I wouldn’t call the L.A.-set Apatow comedy cynical, but it looked as if it were carved out of plastic—like a sitcom on Nickelodeon—and, though I’m not passing judgment on the movie for this, it represented the triumph of pre-adult values. Steve Carell was being indoctrinated into the slack-tastic world of “You know how I know you’re gay?” and video games; he may have been a 40-year-old virgin, but his entourage consisted of 30-year-old high school dweebs. Cedar Rapids is distinguished by its contentedly mature sensibility. Tim’s advisors are older and have more responsibilities than Carell’s coterie did. And Tim isn’t quite an arrested adolescent; Helms suggests Tom Hanks as the kid in a yuppie’s body in Big. He wants to grow up.

Knocked Up, though more naturalistic in approach than Virgin, moved Seth Rogen’s stoned-testosterone chorus to its center and fashioned an attractive fantasy around them by approving of their admission into Katherine Heigl like a bouncer falling down on the job. Maybe the bromances that have blossomed in movies like Pineapple Express and Due Date—I almost typed “Dude Date”—are attempts to “realistically” bridge the sex-appeal gap between a Heigl and a Rogen. These pre-adults can’t handle more than one X chromosome at a time so they’ve given up trying; brahs and masturbation are all they have—and few films, particularly mainstreamers that aim, smack-dab, at the 18-to-24 demo, have the guts to stir this oil and water together with any real vigor.

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