Category Archives: Comedy

The Goodbye Girl (1977, Herbert Ross)

The Goodbye Girl is excessively genial. Usually at the expense of lead Marsha Mason. It’s her movie too. Not hers to lose, because it’s so much her movie–she’s The Goodbye Girl–instead hers to be taken away. And take it away writer Neil Simon does. The film starts being about single mom Mason getting dumped by her live-in boyfriend. He’s a New York actor, she was a Broadway dancer. He goes to Italy, dumping her and the kid (Quinn Cummings) instead of taking them to L.A. as promised.

Of course, the ex-boyfriend is never in the movie. He’s got his pictures up all over the apartment, but he’s never in the movie. It’s the best thing Simon and director Ross end up doing in the film. The establishing of this awful ex-boyfriend just through exposition and visual suggestion.

The ex sublets the apartment out from under Mason and Cummings. Enter Richard Dreyfuss, Chicago actor come to New York, subletter.

The apartment is central to the film. Simon’s script has play trappings while still paced like a movie; Ross never goes stagy. The direction’s not great, but it has a lot of depth. The apartment becomes gradually familiar in the first half of the film. It becomes comfortable. Even though Mason and ten-year old Cummings are living with part-time nudist, wheat germ enthusiast Dreyfuss. Though all of Dreyfuss’s first act eccentricities disappear right after being established.

Goodbye Girl has some behind-the-scenes drama and some of it might explain Simon’s disjointed script. But the lack of consistency just comes off as lazy. It makes a lot of Simon’s set pieces come off contrived. Especially once they become at the expense of Mason. First couple times, it’s not at the expense of screentime for her, it’s at the expense of her performance. See, once Dreyfuss warms to Mason–which seems impossible after their first few scenes together–and takes a liking to Cummings (who’s likable in the thinnest part in Simon’s atomic-thin cast of characters), he sort of starts stalking her. Like he goes to her job to mess with her.

Then Mason stops doing anything but decorating; once she and Dreyfuss do hook up, she stops caring about anything except redecorating.

The movie has some problems with plotting. Ross doesn’t do summary well so it’s never clear how long they’re living together before the third act. It just makes for a disjointed picture–Dreyfuss and Mason go from bickering funny to romantically funny in about five minutes. And it’s Dreyfuss becoming a completely different character.

That character is far from an organic development. The movie doesn’t even really acknowledge that his character is developing. While he should be warming up to Mason and Cummings, Dreyfuss is busy in the play from hell subplot with Paul Benedict as a misguided but insistent director.

So, while Dreyfuss is doing all that stuff, Mason gets to keep her movie. Then she loses it.

By the finale, all Goodbye Girl has got keeping it going is the charm of its three stars. Because everyone else in Goodbye Girl is disposable. It’s just Dreyfuss, Mason, and Cummings. If their parts were stronger, it’d be enough. If their parts were at least consistent, it might be enough.

The film’s dramatically inert. But pleasant–even when it’s being creepy–and amiably acted. David M. Walsh’s photography doesn’t help with the excess geniality. His lighting is too soft. Dave Grusin’s score is a little light too. Everything in Goodbye Girl is too thin, too soft, or too light. They have to be to match Simon’s unsubstantial script.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by John F. Burnett; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Albert Brenner; produced by Ray Stark; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Marsha Mason (Paula McFadden), Quinn Cummings (Lucy McFadden), Richard Dreyfuss (Elliot Garfield), Paul Benedict (Mark), Barbara Rhoades (Donna), and Theresa Merritt (Mrs. Crosby).


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In the Bleak Midwinter (1995, Kenneth Branagh)

In the Bleak Midwinter is a sweet movie. It’s kind of a Christmas movie–it takes place at Christmas–and it’s this gentle, thoughtful, sweet but never saccharine or even really acknowledging its sweetness sweet movie. Writer and director Branagh puts a lot of work into the plotting of the film, without ever appearing to be putting a lot of work into it because it’s usually in the background. Because Midwinter is an often uproarious comedy and the comedy gets the foreground. But, in the end, it’s pretty clear Branagh’s made a sweet movie. It’s about a production of Hamlet, but the film itself is more akin to a Shakespeare comedy.

The opening titles has some monologue from lead Michael Maloney, then goes to a scene with Maloney–an out-of-work actor–having lunch with his agent, played by Joan Collins. Collins is great in the scene. She shows up more later, but she’s never as perfect as in that first scene. She helps set the first of Midwinter’s moods. The film has different moods and different narrative distances throughout. Usually they don’t change at the same. Maybe never. But as one changes, the other might react, leading to its change.

All right, I need to explain Midwinter. It’s black and white, it’s about a group of actors trying to put on Hamlet while all living together in this ramshackle church they’re trying to save. Their Hamlet is going to save the church. It’s Maloney’s church from childhood. He’s able to put the show on because of Collins.

There’s a funny casting sequence, setting up the eclectic band of actors. Then they all go to the church to prepare. It’s a big cast–nine principals. Maloney keeps the lead just because he’s directing the play. Hetta Charnley is his sister, who is the one who wants the church saved. She still lives in the unseen town with the church in it. Then there’s Celia Irmie as the production designer (sets and clothes). Richard Briers is the angry old actor. John Sessions is the openly gay actor–Midwinter’s 1995 after all–who’s playing Queen Gertrude. Nicholas Farrell, Mark Hadfield, and Gerard Horan are the male actors. Julia Sawalha is the Ophelia. Everyone’s got distinctive story details. Turns out Branagh doesn’t just want his actors doing comedy–including physical comedy–he’s got some character drama.

Midwinter is really well-written through the first half. It’s really funny, it’s really well-directed. Branagh’s not messing around. He and cinematographer Roger Lanser get some phenomenal shots in the black and white. The filming locations, the production design (from Tim Harvey), all great stuff. But then Branagh gets into the characters and all the actors get this revealed depth to work with. Except Maloney, actually. Maloney’s character arc is something else entirely.

And the movie’s only ninety-nine minutes. Branagh does all sorts of narrative moves in this thing and it’s under 100 minutes. The actors all get these great parts, then they get even better arcs and relationships. And all the relationships are building from scratch because the movie starts before they all meet. So Branagh is building all this stuff quickly and profusely. Nine characters he’s building in ninety-nine minutes. Plus Collins.

Over half the actors give great performances. The others give excellent ones. That latter group gets more material but not as sublime material.

Neil Farrell’s editing is a whole other great thing about Midwinter. The comedy, the character drama, every cut is perfect. Even though Midwinter is a shorter film about a rushed Shakespeare production, the sometimes rapid cutting never seems hurried. Farrell and Branagh always give the actors enough time. Then they cut.

It’s kind of a showcase for its actors, actually. A technically brilliant, marvelously written showcase for the cast. In the Bleak Midwinter is wonderful.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Neil Farrell; music by Jimmy Yuill; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by David Barron; released by Rank Film Dists Ltd.

Starring Michael Maloney (Joe Harper), Richard Briers (Henry Wakefield), Celia Imrie (Fadge), Julia Sawalha (Nina Raymond), John Sessions (Terry Du Bois), Hetta Charnley (Molly Harper), Nicholas Farrell (Tom Newman), Gerard Horan (Carnforth Greville), Mark Hadfield (Vernon Spatch), and Joan Collins (Margaretta D’Arcy).


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Tin Men (1987, Barry Levinson)

Tin Men is expansive. So expansive writer-director Levinson can’t get everywhere. He doesn’t have time in 112 mintues, he doesn’t have the structure for it either. Tin Men establishes its narrative distance firmly, deliberately, and usually hilariously in the first act. When Levinson gets to the end of the second act, he’s way too interested in all the plot strands he’s got going on. By that time, the film has–for better or worse (worse, but more on it in a bit)–become Danny DeVito’s movie. DeVito had been sharing more with top-billed Richard Dreyfuss, but then Levinson moves the focus away from Dreyfuss. Except then Levinson becomes immediately more interested in everything going on around DeVito. Except DeVito’s completely unaware of all the things going on around him. So it changes the film’s tone.

At one point, DeVito gets called out on his apathy; while he doesn’t improve, he does start getting more likable. Likable is one of Tin Men’s biggest problems. Levinson loves all of his characters way too much. They’re all a little too precious. When the film starts, however, the characters aren’t likable or lovable or precious. In fact, they’re not supposed to be any of those things, much less all of them.

Tin Men opens with a very nostalgic, sentimental opening title sequence. Levinson’s got some issues with the sentimentality in the film. There’s very little, except when he forces it. After the titles, we meet DeVito and suffering wife Barbara Hershey, then DeVito runs into Dreyfuss. Literally. Car accident.

From their inital argument, which is before the characters are established (and it takes Levinson around half the movie to establish DeVito), Tin Men moves on to setting up the ground situation. DeVito and Dreyfuss are both aluminum siding salesmen. They work for different companies. They have acquaintances in common, but don’t know one another.

Then it’s time to introduce the acquaintances, which is where Tin Men is often its most easily amusing. Big list. Here we go. John Mahoney is Dreyfuss’s sidekick. Jackie Gayle is DeVito’s. Mahoney and Gayle have about the same size parts, except Mahoney’s drama and Gayle’s comedy. Levinson sets DeVito up to have the more humorous storyline, which requires no one like DeVito. Not the other characters, not the viewer.

Sorry, off track already.

Supporting acquantiances–Seymour Cassel, Richard Portnow, Matt Craven, Alan Blumenfeld, and Michael Tucker are Dreyfuss’s entourage. Cassel’s amazing. His delivery of his one-liners transcends. Every one of his scenes is phenomenal. Portnow and Craven are background. Blumenfeld’s a new salesman, so he gets more. Tucker’s a cameo. He’s good, but it’s a cameo. A meaty one, because Levinson loves the characters so much. When he’s being overindulgent with the characters, he’s able to keep the sentimentality in check. When he’s just trying to package the film? That sentimentality flails, always at the wrong time. Levinson can’t figure out how to package the film because it’s not sentimental, even if he intends it to be.

I’m off track again. Tin Men is so much at once, so much.

DeVito’s entourage is Stanley Brock, Bruno Kirby, and J.T. Walsh as the boss. Brock’s hilarious. He’s the Cassel analogue but the delivery is different. Kirby’s the straight man and he’s great. His deliveries of Levinson’s speedy dialogue is magical.

So back to complaining about the packaging. Between the opening and closing bookends, Levinson examines all sorts of things. Sure, there’s the overarching story of Dreyfuss discovering true love with Hershey after stealing her away from DeVito as a prank, but Levinson loses track of that story. He focus on Hershey briefly, setting her up to have a bigger part separate from Dreyfuss, Levinson pulls back. And it’s a shame because Hershey’s awesome and Levinson writes her scenes well. He just can’t keep the film away from DeVito.

Because DeVito is spellbinding. He never learns. He never impresses. He should be loathsome but he’s not because he’s kind of a dope. The character’s usually unpleasant but watching DeVito isn’t.

Dreyfuss is excellent. His part’s not as good.

DeVito overpowers Tin Men until Levinson gets distracted with the American Dream angle. Once Levinson grazes that idea, he can’t stop circling it. Because Tin Men is positive. It adores the trappings of its time period while eagerly anticipating coming progresses. Levinson beautifully foreshadows in the film.

Whenever there’s something deft, Levinson can handle it. When it’s the big stuff like Dreyfuss and Hershey’s romance, he gets distracted. And maybe even bored. Dreyfuss and Hershey get some movie moments–like a lovely rain reconcilation–but Hershey’s best opposite DeVito, not Dreyfuss. Levinson fumbles the character focus in the second half.

Great score (and songs) from Fine Young Cannibals. Stu Linder’s editing is breathtaking. Levinson and Linder cut loose a few times and create these bombastic and sublime sequences. Superb editing.

Peter Sova’s photography is all right. Tin Men is a Touchstone eighties movie and it looks like one. It’s overly saturated, which is great to emphasize the clothes and sometimes the cars; it doesn’t help with the rest. It’s not crisp enough. It’s Levinson’s fault. Sova seems perfectly capable of lighting an interior with some personality. Levinson isn’t tasking him.

Great production design from Peter Jamison.

Tin Men is an excellent (if oversaturated) production. It looks wonderful. It moves wonderful. It sounds wonderful. Tin Men just doesn’t get anywhere wonderful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Barry Levinson; director of photography, Peter Sova; edited by Stu Linder; music by Fine Young Cannibals; production designer, Peter Jamison; produced by Mark Johnson; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (BB), Danny DeVito (Tilley), Barbara Hershey (Nora), John Mahoney (Moe), Jackie Gayle (Sam), Stanley Brock (Gil), Seymour Cassel (Cheese), Bruno Kirby (Mouse), J.T. Walsh (Wing), Richard Portnow (Carly), Matt Craven (Looney), Alan Blumenfeld (Stanley), Brad Sullivan (Masters), and Michael Tucker (Bagel).


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The Invention of Lying (2009, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson)

The Invention of Lying is a 100 minute exploration of a gag. In a world without lying–or any fictive creativity whatsoever–co-director, co-writer, and star Ricky Gervais one day spontaneously mutates and lies. He lies for personal gain, only to discover exploiting people doesn’t make him feel good, so he lies to make himself and others feel good, but it gets him into trouble. It doesn’t get him what he wants and it just ends up making him rich, famous, and miserable.

The film opens with Gervais on a low point. He’s about to lose his job and he’s out on a date with his dream girl, Jennifer Garner, only she thinks she’s too good for him. Because, objectively, his genetic material isn’t good enough to mix with hers. So the other thing this world doesn’t have is any relatable version of love. Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson aren’t even comfortable getting into the lust questions, because once they start down any problematic avenue, they run away as fast as they can. It’s like they release they can’t make the joke funny and hightail it away. So why do the joke in the first place?

The film takes place in a small New England town where there is, inexplicably, a movie studio. Except movies are just filmed lectures of history lessons because there’s no fiction and there’s no concept of it. Gervais and Robinson entirely ignore how the world would function and how history would have progressed without imagination or creative ambition. For a while, they just keep falling back on the gimmick–what if everyone just says what they’re thinking, no matter how awful. There are a lot of flashy cameos–Ed Norton is the best–but they can only distract so much. Eventually, the film has to reconcile itself, because Gervais is in love with Garner and Garner doesn’t want him because of his genetic material.

There’s this scene where Gervais explains how he imagines peoples lives upon seeing them and Garner just sees them as fat, bald, nerdy, losers. It comes right after Gervais telling Garner she’s the kindest, best person he’s ever met, which makes absolutely no sense, but whatever, she’s supposed to be angelic.

Eventually, Garner’s part contracts and the movie moves ahead an indeterminable time, becoming just Gervais moping with buddies Louis C.K. and Jonah Hill. By this time, Gervais has increased the scale of his lying, making up God. That subplot is the best one in the film; Gervais and Robinson don’t have to be subtle about their jabs yet still manage subtely in said jabs. It operates on two levels, something the film never does otherwise.

Sadly, it’s not about Gervais inadvertently becoming a messiah, it’s about him pining for Garner. Conveniently, Gervais’s first act nemesis (Rob Lowe, one note as a successful bully) also has eyes for Garner so there’s a love triangle thing towards the end.

It’s a yawn, partially because Garner and Lowe are extremely limited in their roles, partially because Invention can only handle so much emotion. If people can’t have creative expectation, their emotions are stunted. And even when they aren’t, Gervais and Robinson are focused entirely on characters on hand, not this world they’ve ostensibly created.

Gervais drops out during the third act way too much too. He’s the only relatable character in the film; everyone else is a caricature to be mocked. He’s a caricature too (maybe the thinest one), but he’s not supposed to be mocked.

Okay photography from Tim Suhrstedt covers for Gervais and Robinson’s lackluster directing. There are a lot of songs and song montages–including a criminally atrocious Elvis Costello cover of Cat Stevens’s Sitting–and they don’t make any sense since there’s no music in Lying’s world.

Gervais’s performance is fine. Garner ranges from inoffensive to miscast. Hill is an overblown cameo, while C.K. is an underdeveloped sidekick. Besides Ed Norton, Martin Starr’s probably the funniest cameo. Others are earnest but with limited material.

The Invention of Lying would’ve made a great six part sitcom or something, but Gervais and Robinson don’t have a full enough narrative for 100 minutes. It’s not funny enough to make up for all the laziness.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Chris Gill; music by Tim Atack; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Lynda Obst, Oliver Obst, Dan Lin, and Gervais; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ricky Gervais (Mark Bellison), Jennifer Garner (Anna McDoogles), Rob Lowe (Brad Kessler), Louis C.K. (Greg), Jonah Hill (Frank), Tina Fey (Shelley), Jeffrey Tambor (Anthony), and Fionnula Flanagan (Martha Bellison).


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