Category Archives: Comedy

Raising Arizona (1987, Joel Coen)

Halfway through Raising Arizona is this breathtaking chase sequence. Until this point in the film, while there’s been a lot of phenomenal direction, it’s all been brief. Raising Arizona starts in summary, with lead Nicolas Cage narrating, and it doesn’t start slowing down the narrative pace until just before the chase sequence. But then the chase happens and it’s amazing and Arizona seems poised to just keep going with that precise, outrageous filmmaking.

Then it doesn’t. Instead it gets lost in its supporting cast for a while before getting back on track, which is too bad. But there had been warning signs–like the film never really giving Holly Hunter reasonable character motivation, instead letting Cage’s narration–and charm–sell their romance. Though, at the halfway point, it certainly doesn’t seem like Hunter and Cage are going to get the narrative shaft for supporting cast members John Goodman and William Forsythe. Yet they do.

It’s during Goodman and Forsythe’s tedious time in the spotlight one has time to reflect on just how few of its promises the film has fulfilled.

The starting narration is long. Arizona runs about ninety minutes (without end credits) and it’s got a long, narrated opening summary sequence, then the lengthy chase sequence right in the middle. And then a substantial “epilogue” but more wrap-up.

Cage is front and center, literally–he’s getting his mug shot taken–right at the start. Hunter is taking his mug shot. He robs convenience stores (without bullets so it’s not armed robbery). She’s a cop. They fall in love. Without her saying very much. It’s all from Cage’s perspective, which is great. He’s a lovable, well-meaning recidivist. Right from the start, Cage’s performance is amazing. His narration and his regular performance. It’s all amazing.

No one else is amazing. There are some other excellent performances, some quite good ones, no bad ones, but nothing compares to Cage’s. So it’s really too bad the Coen Brothers’ script gives him so little to do in the second half of the film. Better than Hunter, of course, who doesn’t really get to show any personality until the prelude to the chase sequence–and then barely anything the rest of the film. And that epilogue demotes her importance, which she’s sort of been clawing to get.

Cage and Hunter get married. In the narrated summary. Cage has been in and out of prison, but he settles down once they’re married. Hunter wants kids. Only she can’t. It’s not a story arc for her. It’s a plot detail in Cage’s story. Hunter becomes scenery for a while until they hear about some quintuplets and decide to kidnap one. This decision isn’t discussed in any scenes, it’s all covered in Cage’s narration. Because apparently the Coen Brothers couldn’t figure out a way to get Hunter to go from cop to kidnapper in scene.

Cage–and the film–can cover it. It’s shocking how much it can cover, which just makes it even more shocking when it no longer can cover. Even though Goodman and Forsythe give fine performances, it’s stunning how much lost the film gets in the weeds with them.

See, once they kidnap a baby–from unpainted furniture king Trey Wilson (who’s fantastic) and his wife, Lynne Kitei (who gets a scene and a quarter)–Goodman and Forsythe break out of jail and visit old buddy Cage. They need a place to lie low, unaware there’s a bounty hunter (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) after them.

Pretty soon Cobb sees the news about the kidnapped baby and decides to go after it too.

Then there’s a throwaway subplot involving Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray as a couple Hunter wants to be friends with. It’s a contrived, connective subplot, just there to move things around and to be funny. There’s some gorgeous photography from Barry Sonnenfeld during that sequence; the photography’s always good, always great, but the couples picnic sequence is about the only time Sonnenfeld gets to shoot exteriors during the day. It’s also a place where Hunter could get some material.

She doesn’t. Instead, the Coen Brothers focus on McMurray’s dipshit, who’s Cage’s boss; that detail comes out of the blue, since the only person Cage is ever working with is M. Emmet Walsh in a two scene cameo.

Eventually everyone wants the baby. The script uses it as punchline, not actual character motivation. It’s during that weedy period in the runtime when it doesn’t seem like Arizona is ever going to get back on track.

It does, finally, because it puts Cage and Hunter together in scenes and as a team. Despite the film being all about their whirlwind, glorious romance, they don’t get to establish actual chemistry–between the actors, not chemistry created through editing–until the third act. Way too late.

But then there’s this great action showdown in the third act, with a small but excellent chase scene, and director Coen, cinematographer, Sonnenfeld, and editor Michael R. Miller work some magic. Not as magical as the chase sequence, but magic enough to find the movie in the weeds and get it out onto the road again.

There’s some great writing. But most of it is in the first act. Wilson ends up with better scenes than anyone else in the second half. The movie doesn’t just sacrifice Hunter for Goodman and Forsythe, it eventually sacrifices Cage.

Great music from Carter Burwell. The whole thing is technically marvelous. It just doesn’t have anywhere near enough plot for the story it says it’s going to be telling. Even if the Goodman and Forsythe stuff were good, there’s not enough of it.

Raising Arizona has got plenty of problems, but it’s still a fairly thrilling success. You just have to wait through a lot of second half of the second act lag. But the filmmakers do come through. It just doesn’t make any sense why they don’t for a while.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Michael R. Miller; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Ethan Coen; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Nicolas Cage (H.I. McDunnough), Holly Hunter (Ed), John Goodman (Gale), William Forsythe (Evelle), Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona Sr.), Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb (Leonard Smalls), Sam McMurray (Glen), Frances McDormand (Dot), Lynne Kitei (Florence Arizona), and T.J. Kuhn (Nathan Junior).


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Johnny English (2003, Peter Howitt)

Johnny English runs just under ninety minutes, which is one of the film’s secret weapons–nothing ever goes on too long, not the good stuff, not the bad stuff, not the mediocre stuff. There’s not a lot of bad stuff–more varying degrees of mediocre; when things then get better, when things finally pay off, it’s a cause for celebration. When Johnny English gets funny, it gets funny.

The film is a Rowan Atkinson vehicle masquerading as an incredibly safe James Bond spoof. Atkinson is a British Security Service office worker who gets promoted to number one agent. Because, through his incompetence, everyone else has been killed. Somehow his boss, Tim Pigott-Smith, never holds Atkinson accountable for the very inept and dangerous things he’s done, instead railing on him for the things where Atkinson is actually right.

Like how French private prison-owning billionaire John Malkovich is a bad guy.

Malkovich is another of English’s secret weapons, because he doesn’t play his part like a Bond villain. He plays it like a goofy Malkovich comedy part. He’s never outrageous or campy–unfortunately–but he’s always got enough energy to make the scenes work. Atkinson never gets to be showy. Malkovich gets to be showy. He’s the only one who gets to be showy.

Bringing us to the other–and probably last–secret weapon: Ben Miller. He plays Atkinson’s subordinate. Miller is the spy office peon who should be the secret agent. There’s a lengthy period where Miller’s not in the film and Atkinson is playing sidekick to real secret agent Natalie Imbruglia and Malkovich isn’t really in the movie and it gets long. There are also too many poop jokes. Because without Miller and Malkovich around, English has to go into the literal potty to get some humor going.

Because Imbruglia doesn’t bring anything. It’s not a great part and she’s not terrible, but she’s got no presence and less personality. Her comic timing–at least in her timing as it reacts to Atkinson–is fine though.

Atkinson has some great physical comedy in English. Nowhere near enough, but the movie wouldn’t really know what to do with any more. Director Howitt does an adequate, uninspired job. He doesn’t get in the way of the good jokes and he doesn’t make the bad ones any worse. So he wouldn’t know what to do with more physical comedy. Howitt’s impatient, while everyone else seems completely comfortable not being rushed. Not ninety minutes but also not rushed. The film’s self-awareness about its limitations increases its charm.

Anyway, back to Atkinson. He’s good. He’s hilarious at times. His straight man performance as the stupid secret agent is most impressive–at least during the expository scenes–in how seriously Atkinson takes the part. He’s going for it’s funny because he’s so serious. When other actors aren’t as serious about their parts as Atkinson, it hurts. Imbruglia, for example. Miller gets it, Malkovich gets it. Pigott-Smith not really.

Of course, the writing tends to be thin. Pigott-Smith not transcending the caricature isn’t entire his fault.

Howitt’s lack of enthusiasm for directing his actors–he showcases the comedy, focusing tightly on the comedy, not the actors essaying it–doesn’t help either.

Technically the film’s fine. Nothing stands out, good or bad. The music isn’t overtly “Bond,” which is kind of nice, and the Robbie Williams theme song is fun.

Thanks to Atkinson (and the professionally executed production), it’d be difficult for Johnny English to fail too hard. It’s both a surprisingly pleasant comedy and a not insignificant disappointment. With Atkinson, Miller, and Malkovich, it seems like it could be better. However, it’s not clear if it should be any better.

Additionally… if you’re going to have Prunella Scales play the Queen, give her at least one joke. What should be an inspired comedic casting is instead an end credits curio.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Howitt; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and William Davies; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Robin Sales; music by Ed Shearmur; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam, and Lucette Legot; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Rowan Atkinson (Johnny English), John Malkovich (Pascal Sauvage), Natalie Imbruglia (Lorna Campbell), Ben Miller (Bough), Tim Pigott-Smith (Pegasus), Oliver Ford Davies (Archbishop of Canterbury), and Kevin McNally (Prime Minister).


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The Station Agent (2003, Tom McCarthy)

The Station Agent is not a character study. It does try, at almost exactly the one hour mark (it runs a breezy, but deliberate eighty-nine minutes), to become a character study, but it is not a character study. It is actually a perfect example of how to not make a character study.

Writer-director McCarthy spends the first hour avoiding showing the audience enough about protagonist Peter Dinklage to even hazard an understanding, then gives Dinklage a series of challenges to overcome in the third act. The challenges are mostly hackneyed; if they aren’t hackneyed, McCarthy doesn’t want to stick with them because there’s no character development for Dinklage (onscreen). So instead of achieving something sublime, Station Agent rushes a finish. It’s a long rush–the last third–and an obvious, predictable one.

It’s all thanks to the actors it works out. Dinklage is awesome. If McCarthy weren’t terrified of making the film about him, Dinklage would be even better. There’s the potential for a great role, but McCarthy doesn’t write for it. He wants to keep things genial. Station Agent is a comedy with some melodrama. Most of the comedy comes from Dinklage’s sidekick, Bobby Cannavale.

Dinklage inherits a train station depot. He’s a train enthusiast. He moves across New Jersey to live in the depot. Cannavale runs his recovering father’s food truck–inexplicably stationed in the same remote lot as the depot. It’s got nice scenery, I suppose. Station Agent is a visually precious film. Oliver Bokelberg’s photography–except at night, really–John Paino’s production design, the locations. McCarthy succeeds with a visual result better than his composition.

Anyway, Cannavale wants to be friends because there’s “no one cool in town.” Dinklage doesn’t want to be friends because he doesn’t want to make friends; he lives a solitary life, avoiding social interactions because he has dwarfism. McCarthy’s inability to convey that aspect of Dinklage’s character in the script (and plot) is Station Agent’s big problem. He can’t figure out a way to talk about it.

Dinklage even tells Cannavale–who is so charming and lovable and downright good, they have to become friends–Dinklage even tells him he doesn’t want to talk about it. Because Station Agent doesn’t want to think about it, even though it informs all of Dinklage’s actions.

Again, movie can get away with it because it’s got a good sentiment, great performances, and solid dialogue. It’s fun to watch.

Dinklage and Cannavale find a third Musketeer in Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson’s good, but she gets the shaft as far as a character. She’s separated from husband, painting (weird faces), her toddler son has died. If it weren’t for Clarkson’s nervous distraction, the character would be as caricature on screen as in script. But Clarkson does a lot with the part.

Until McCarthy kicks her out of the movie. Then he kicks Cannavale out of the movie. In their place, he brings in Michelle Williams as a possible love interest for Dinklage. Williams’s good, she and Dinklage have chemistry, but McCarthy chickens out of it.

The Station Agent is a charming, beautifully acted, solidly constructed film. But seeing as how everyone showed up to do some work–even Stephen Trask’s slightly overbearing, omnipresent score excels–it would have been nice if McCarthy had something for them to do after the movie hits the one hour mark.

I mean, it’s not even clear Dinklage gets water and power at the train depot. The one plot thread McCarthy follows up on is to make a plotting thing work. The subplots are all fake; Cannavale’s father is a contrivance, ditto Williams’s home situation, ditto Clarkson’s mourning. Dinklage gets a charming but empty subplot with a fellow train enthusiast, middle schooler Raven Goodwin. Because McCarthy’s scared to do an actual subplot. And, no surprise, Goodwin even gets a fake subplot in an otherwise disposable, yet charming scene.

The Station Agent is good. But it’s frustratingly close to being great; it just needed some development for its characters. Onscreen character development for its cast. Dinklage, Cannavale, and Clarkson are all good. And they all showed up ready to be exceptional. And McCarthy chickens out every single time they can be.

But always in a charming way.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tom McCarthy; director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Tom McArdle; music by Stephen Trask; production designer, John Paino; produced by Robert May, Mary Jane Skalski, and Kathryn Tucker; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Peter Dinklage (Finbar McBride), Bobby Cannavale (Joe Oramas), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia Harris), Michelle Williams (Emily), Raven Goodwin (Cleo), and Paul Benjamin (Henry Styles).


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Frances Ha (2012, Noam Baumbach)

Frances Ha relies on exposition but depends on summary. Or it depends on exposition but relies on summary. One or the other. Director and co-writer Baumbach and star and co-writer Greta Gerwig move Frances in the summary. Even when the film slows down for a longer scene, the style and tone don’t really change, so it feels continuous. Time passes–the film takes place over a year or so–but is never particularly defined. Because Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t seem to particularly define time either.

The film’s a fractured character study. Baumbach and Gerwig’s script plays with the narrative distance a lot; they established Gerwig’s character as a somewhat unreliable narrator at the start–using comedic social awkwardness to call into question the degree of the unreliability–but as the film progresses, they further explore that unreliability. The film examines Gerwig, while–for the most part–she’s also the protagonist.

Though it’s not a traditional character study by any means. There’s a decided lack of melodrama, partially because Gerwig and her costars live in a carefree New York City, partially because Frances (film and character) willfully create that carefree New York City. There’s a varying narrative distance to the film’s four locations (New York, Sacramento, Paris, Vassar College) as well, as Gerwig experiences them. As the film moves along, more and more people come into it. Even if they’re background; New York, at the beginning, is entirely focused on Gerwig’s experience of it. In crowded rooms, for instance, the focus is all on Gerwig and the objects of her immediate attention. The film doesn’t show Gerwig around other people. Because she’s living in her head.

The film does have a structure, however. It has chapters with titles. Not the locations but Gerwig’s changing address. The first one doesn’t make much impression, but eventually they become a guide to the film. The narrative distance might be changing, time to adjust your attention. As a director, Baumbach is very intentional. He and cinematographer Sam Levy–shooting in black-and-white–keep a lot out of focus. They let shadows be too dark. They guide the viewer’s eyes, they cause them frustration. But that attention to detail might be surpassed by Jennifer Lame’s transcendent editing. Even when the film is at its most cloying–which isn’t bad, it’s just cute banter comedy, which is cloying for Frances–Lame is able to maintain that summary momentum. Not just the cuts in the actual montage sequences, but the cuts in expository scenes. Lame cuts for actors’ performances, whether they’re in the middle of a monologue or silent in a long shot. It’s a beautifully made film, as well as being utterly gorgeous to watch.

Gerwig’s performance is outstanding. And entirely overshadows the rest of the cast. The inciting action of the film is Gerwig’s best friend and roommate, Mickey Sumner, moving in with someone else. It sets things in motion, the things Gerwig’s aware of and navigating, the things she’s not.

Sumner’s okay. She gets a lot better in the third act, but she’s always okay. Adam Driver and Michael Zegen are Gerwig’s next set of roommates. Driver’s showy, but Zegen’s got a heart of gold. The performances are spot on. No one else really has much to do. Charlotte d’Amboise is the leader of Gerwig’s dance troupe, so she’s got scenes, but they’re all expository. Grace Gummer is another roommate and she’s around for a bit, but she doesn’t get anything significant.

And it’s fine. Because it’s Gerwig’s show. Both as actor and writer, she’s pacing out character development in an almost entirely passive character–in an almost entirely passive film. And she does it. And the filmmaking is there to meet her. Some aspects of Gerwig’s performance work apart from the filmmaking, just as some aspects of the filmmaking work apart from the script. Frances Ha perplexes, but in the best ways.

Truly awesome soundtrack too.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; director of photography, Sam Levy; edited by Jennifer Lame; production designer, Sam Lisenco; produced by Baumbach, Scott Rudin, and Lila Yacoub; released by IFC Films.

Starring Greta Gerwig (Frances), Mickey Sumner (Sophie), Michael Zegen (Benji), Adam Driver (Lev), Grace Gummer (Rachel), Patrick Heusinger (Patch), and Charlotte d’Amboise (Colleen).


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