Category Archives: Romantic Comedy

Flowers of bromance: I Love You, Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 28, 2009)

Oh, bloody hell…not another Rush tribute band.

Matt Groening once observed: “Sex is funny. The French are a funny people. Then why is it that no French sex comedies are funny?” On the other hand,  Roger Ebert once lamented about “a trend in which Hollywood buys French comedies and experiments on them to see if they can be made into English with all the humor taken out.” I generally concur with both those sentiments, but I think I have found the exception to Groening’s and Ebert’s rules- in the guise of a smart, funny and warm French comedy that has inspired an equally smart, funny and warm American remake.

Okay, so Patrice Leconte’s Mon Meilleur Ami  (my review) was not a “sex” comedy, nor was it a huge hit with critics or audiences (I caught flak from some readers for including it in my Top 10 films list for 2007). I’m not gloating here-but obviously, someone felt Leconte’s film to be worthy of a Hollywood makeover, and the latest vehicle for Paul Rudd.  I Love You, Man is all that (and a large orange soda).

Rudd is Peter Klaven, a  good-natured L.A. real estate agent who has decided to pop the question to his ladylove, Zooey (Rashida Jones). Zooey immediately phones up a bevy of close girlfriends to share the happy news. When she asks her fiancé why he isn’t jumping on the horn to tell all his pals, he mumbles some vague excuse and tries to change the subject. It turns out that while Peter is adept at meeting women, he is more diffident when it comes to interacting with the dudes; he can’t readily cough up a candidate for his Best Man. Someone is going to have to come up with an Action Plan.

Desperate to find a good bud on such short notice, Peter seeks assistance from his gay brother (SNL’s Andy Samberg), who encourages him to go on a few “man dates”. Zooey pitches in. brokering a “poker night” invite for Peter from her best friend’s reluctant husband (a skulking Jon Favreau, hilariously effective here playing a supreme dick weed). Most of these intros and invites end in embarrassment and/or some form of social disaster. Just when all seems lost, a Dude ex Machina arrives in a free-spirited man child named Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). Teach me to dance, Zorba.

In its best moments , I was reminded of Barry Levinson’s Diner, which I consider the granddaddy of all modern “bromantic” comedies, as well as one of the most keenly perceptive observations about male friendship ever put on screen. I think it’s interesting to note that screenwriter Larry Levin (who co-scripted with director John Hamburg) also wrote a classic 2-part Seinfeld episode called “The Boyfriend”, in which Jerry develops a “man crush” on one of the N.Y. Mets (this film could be seen as an extrapolation on that theme).

In its worst moments, the film threatens to lean on that tiresome crutch of cheap gross-out humor that has put me off contemporary “comedies”, but thankfully, the reins are judiciously pulled in (Woody Allen has managed to make tons of funny films over a 40 year period without one scene involving projectile vomiting-so why can’t the current crop of comedy directors take lessons from this?).

Rudd and Segel (who previously teamed up in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) play off each other extremely well, and are obviously developing a solid comedy duo franchise (I think it would be a real kick to see them remake one of the Hope-Crosby “Road” movies-or perhaps that’s just me).

Rudd continues to perfect an onscreen persona as the modern comic Everyman. Segel’s performance recalls Donal Logue’s slovenly yet endearing self-styled hipster saint in The Tao of Steve. Thomas Lennon (best known as “Lieutenant Dangle” from the wonderfully twisted comedy series, Reno 911) is a riot as a love struck stalker (no spoilers, please). Lou Ferrigno (as himself) is an unexpected delight, unveiling some previously hidden comic chops, and air guitar geeks will swoon at the cameo appearance by the Holy Trinity of Canadian prog-rock. And if you have to ask who that is-you ain’t my bro, man!

Daze of love: Whatever Works *** & The 500 Days of Summer **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2009)

The fine art of eating and complaining: Whatever Works.

I anticipate a chorus of detractors. “So-Woody Allen has written and directed yet another fantasy about a neurotic, misanthropic middle-aged Jewish intellectual Manhattanite who meets a young, hot, wide-eyed Shiksa who is irresistibly (and inexplicably) attracted to him? Enough, already!” So he has written and directed another fantasy about a neurotic, misanthropic middle-aged Jewish intellectual Manhattanite who meets a young, hot, wide-eyed Shiksa who is irresistibly (and inexplicably) attracted to him, OK? And it’s smart, insightful and funnier than hell. You got a problem with that?

Allen may have found his most perfect avatar yet in Seinfeld co-creator/Curb Your Enthusiasm star (and fellow native Brooklynite) Larry David, who I think proves here that, contrary to what many may assume, he really can act. In his HBO series, David plays “himself” as a self-absorbed character whose latent hostility is primarily channeled via classic passive-aggressive behavior.

As Allen’s protagonist Boris Yellnikoff, there is nothing latent at all about the hostility. He openly hates everybody, including himself. A text book fatalist, Boris never passes up an opportunity to unceremoniously kick any tiny hint of enthusiasm to the curb and remind anyone in his proximity that it is all for naught.

A “retired” quantum mechanics physicist, Boris has chosen to live in a dumpy apartment and make a few shekels here and there giving chess lessons to “cretinous” children, whom he browbeats and berates like a Parris Island drill instructor. His social skills with adults aren’t so hot, either; still, he manages to find several intellectual Bohemian friends ; one suspects it’s because they are the only people who can  tolerate his continuous,  bristly diatribes about our cruel and unfeeling universe for any length of time.

When it comes to love and romance, Boris subscribes to accepting whatever Fate and Chance throws your way with a shrug; “Whatever works,” as he is fond of telling his friends. That credo is put to the test when Fate and Chance drops a young homeless woman with the unlikely moniker of Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) onto his doorstep (literally).

Melodie is a southern bumpkin who has run away to the Big City to escape her fundamentalist Christian mother (Patricia Clarkson) and good ol’ boy father (Ed Begley, Jr.). Boris reluctantly offers her his couch for a night, and I think you can guess what comes next. After this setup, Allen kicks the story into his patented Urban Fable mode, adding flourishes of Pygmalion and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It’s very theatrical, flirting with door-slamming farce, but Woody Classic. The cast is game, especially the always wonderful Clarkson and Begley, who both chew major scenery as their stereotypical Southern countenance undergoes an unlikely transformation once each gets a taste of the Big Apple. Allen also tosses a barb or two at the N.Y.C. art scene (reminiscent of John Waters’ Pecker).

Admittedly, this is the cinematic equivalent of a 12” remix of Woody’s Greatest Hits, but it’s got a great beat, and you can dance to it. Allen is not getting any younger, and if he occasionally relents his cranky contrarian tendencies and gives his most ardent fans what they want (i.e., something resembling his early, funny films), is that a bad thing? He’s given us 40 years of great laughs; and though I know in my heart of hearts that his best work is history, I’ll keep looking forward to his movies. What I am trying to say is: I know he’s not a chicken…but in these tough times, I can use the eggs.

Deconstructing Zooey: The 500 Days of Summer.

Speaking of Woody, some have compared director Marc Webb’s Sundance hit  500 Days of Summer to Annie Hall. While it obviously draws narrative inspiration from Allen’s post-deconstruction of a fizzled romantic relationship, it offers a fluffier, albeit ingratiating variation on that  theme, buoyed  by a hip  soundtrack, winking references for film buffs, and the charm of its two leads.

At the beginning of the film, a narrator with mellifluous pipes informs us what we are about to see is “…not a love story.” It is, rather, a retrospective appraisal of a relationship that didn’t work out, between a hopelessly romantic young man named Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a more cautiously pragmatic young woman named Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Tom and Summer Meet Cute at the office. She is “the new girl”, he writes greeting cards (uh…soul of a poet?). And in portents of a love affair born in emo heaven, they bond over a mutual appreciation of Morrissey (I’m sure that the filmmakers had ‘em at the Smiths reference at Sundance).

The “500 days” of the title refers to the length of said relationship. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber opt for the non-linear approach , giving us characters who (like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim) appear to have become “unstuck in time” (day 147 might segue into day 18, which dissolves into day 310, etc.).

While this device does become “gimmicky” rather quickly, director Webb takes full advantage of the footloose structure to inject a lot of visual playfulness. He throws in everything from Bergman references to an exuberant, audience-pleasing MTV-style number.

Under scrutiny, the film isn’t much deeper than an MTV video; but it’s a fun ride all the same, with enough originality and inventiveness to separate it from the pack of largely vacuous piffle that passes as “romantic comedy” these days (I don’t sound bitter, do I?).

I’ve only seen Gordon-Levitt in two other films (Brick and The Lookout) but I’m impressed by his range; I think he’s got a long career ahead of him. Deschanel (America’s answer to Audrey Tautou) has an effervescent screen presence that (for me, at least) makes up for the fact that she plays the same quirky, saucer-eyed Object of Desire in everything I’ve seen her in; but who can resist those baby blues?

Like many first-time directors eager to pull out all the stops, Webb may have put too many eggs in one basket here-but I look forward to seeing what else this promising filmmaker has up his sleeve.

Like one of his earlier, funnier films: Vicky Cristina Barcelona ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2008)

Ay, mama.

Dare I say it? Woody Allen’s new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is his wisest, sexiest and most engaging romantic comedy in years. Okay…truth? To rate it on a sliding scale: as far as his own particular brand of genial bedroom farces go, it may not be in quite the same league as, let’s say, Hannah and Her Sisters, but it handily blows the boudoir doors off of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

The Barcelona-bound Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young Americans who have decided to take a summer breather in the form of a Mediterranean getaway. Vicky, engaged to be married in the fall, is enjoying her last holiday as a single woman, and is looking forward to indulging her scholarly interest in Catalan architecture (she has a Gaudi fixation).

Cristina is taking a mental health break after self-producing and starring in a short film (which “she hates”) about the Meaning of Love. The women are warm friends, but polar opposites. Vicky is practical, analytical and guarded; a no-nonsense, borderline control freak. Cristina is adventurous and free-spirited, but suffers a bevy of neuroses and insecurities. In their own symbiotic manner, Vicky and Cristina are really two sides of the same coin.

Enter seasoned coin-flipper Javier Bardem, who drops the cattle prod and picks up an artist’s brush for a return to his main forte-portraying a smoldering heart breaker with the soul of a poet. In this outing, Bardem is Juan Antonio, a lusty Spanish painter who espies the two women in a Barcelona restaurant one sultry evening. Eschewing the usual small talk, he strolls up to their table and announces his sincere wish that the two of them come away with him in his private plane for a romantic weekend on a Spanish isle.

The incredulous Vicky bristles at the presumptuous come-on; Cristina shrugs off her friend’s warnings and votes for calling Juan Antonio on his bluff. What the hell, they’re on vacation-why not venture a little spontaneity (besides, it’s Javier Bardem, fer chrissake). Against her better judgment, Vicky reluctantly acquiesces to her friend, and off they go.

What ensues that weekend ultimately changes the lives of all three; not to mention any previous notions they may have had about los misterios del amor. Things really get interesting when Juan Antonio’s tempestuous ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) enters the mix

Allen’s playful screenplay deftly addresses the age old question: Are human beings really monogamous by nature? Is it realistic (or even fair) to expect one Significant Other to nurture and fulfill all of our physical and intellectual needs? And what’s wrong with occasionally breaking the mold of what constitutes a “relationship” between consenting adults? Jesus Cristos lizards, I’m sounding like Dr. Phil here…but you get the gist.

To be sure, this is a perennially popular theme in film; Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim being the most famous example and most obvious touchstone here. Also, the contrast of the voluptuous and almost shockingly blonde Johansson against the deep azure of the Mediterranean recalls Godard’s similar utilization of Bardot. Then again, Allen has made no secret of his long time infatuation with European cinema; to paraphrase the Woodman himself, “Hey, he had to mold himself after someone!” There are worse influences.

After three films in a row, I have now grumpily accepted Scarlett Johansson as Allen’s latest muse (we all know how he gets obsessed with his leading ladies). Is it just me, or does she always have the dazed look of someone who has just been shaken awake from a nap? Don’t get me wrong, the camera really loves her (her translucent beauty is a DP’s dream) but I find her husky monotone a bit stultifying at times. Perhaps her “method” is too subtle for me? Or am I just pining too much for the halcyon days of Diane Keaton?

Rebecca Hall (a Brit, actually) is a wonderful seriocomic actress, and someone to keep an eye on. She’s like a less twitchy Parker Posey. I think Cruz should get an Oscar nod for her work here (she’s that good). The Bardem and Cruz reunion is comedy gold (their first onscreen pairing since Jamon, Jamon in 1992).

Wisely, Allen gives Bardem and Cruz several scenes where they get to flex their acting  chops in-language; their performances really jump out of the screen in those moments. He is smart enough to understand an unfortunate anomaly that sometimes occurs when accomplished foreign actors are cast in American productions: their broken English often gets unfairly perceived as stilted acting.

I think Woody is back. And he’s made something that (sadly) is a bit of an anomaly itself at the multiplex these days: A hot date movie for grown-ups. So call the sitter, already!