Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Biding my time until he teams up with Bill Cosby for "Cos and Affleck": "Argo"

I don't know if I can pinpoint my low point with Mr. Benjamin Geza Affleck. I fortunately managed to sidestep the worst, never seeing "Forces of Nature," "Bounce," "Gigli" or "Jersey Girl," and turning off "Pearl Harbor" in the first 20 minutes or so. True, I did see "Phantoms," but we all know he was the bomb. And I actually have a soft spot for "Daredevil," between Colin Farrell having fun as a villain and Jennifer Garner kicking butt in a bustier.

Anyway, this is all to say I know Affleck took his lumps as a would-be marquee idol and hit bottom at some point. I just can't say when. What I do know is that we are witnessing his high point (so far) right now. And if you had told me 10 years ago that he would be a director whose movies I would always pay good American dollars to see, without question, I would have said, no, you cannot join in any "Reindeer Games."

By now, just about everyone knows the deal with "Argo." Affleck directs and stars in the sort-of true story about six Americans trapped in Iran in the late 1970s after the Shah is exiled and the Ayatollah takes over. Unlike many more at the U.S. Embassy, these six are hiding in the Canadian ambassador's house, and therefore possibly extractable. Which is good because they eventually will be arrested and likely killed if the CIA doesn't figure out how to smuggle them out. Fortunately, our man Ben comes up with an idea just crazy enough to work: Pretend you're a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a cheesy sci-fi film, and then just walk everyone onto the return flight home.

So that's the set-up, and it results in a somewhat different but often thrilling movie. First we get the uprising in Tehran and the hiding of the Americans, with a few familiar faces; I picked out Tate Donovan right away and Clea DuVall a little later but totally missed Rory Cochrane. Back in the U.S. we see the bigger names -- not only Affleck but Walter White from "Breaking Bad" and Coach Taylor from "Friday Night Lights."

Once they figure out the fake movie deal, "Argo" takes a left turn that totally works, with Affleck hooking up with John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood insiders who can pull this off -- not just the movie but all the stuff that goes with it, e.g. a production company, press event, etc. It's hilarious and fascinating at the same time, and before long Benny is off to Iran, ready to bring our folks home.

This understandably is where the laughs end and the tension grows, although it's worth noting that Affleck includes moments of humor, some of them built around the idea of these six people from the Foreign Service being asked to play a film crew. The last part of the movie shows a race against time to get everyone out as the Iranian police are closing in. And if you don't think there's a chase at the airport, then you just don't know Hollywood.

If there's a quibble with "Argo," that's it: Some of this isn't historically accurate and has been sexed up to heighten the drama. And of course that's the case, especially when the rubber meets the road in the last 45 minutes or so. But did they say these six people got out when they actually didn't? No. Did they substitute the Canadians for the British? No. Did many of the men have awesome mustaches? Yes. In the end, I'm OK with Affleck saying, "Hey, we can fudge this a bit and tell an exciting story without being totally wrong."

In all, a really good movie that takes a historical event and turns it into a great story. After "Gone, Baby, Gone" and "The Town," Affleck shows he can go outside Boston and make an Oscar-caliber movie. And yes, he has arrived as a Director to Respect. I know there have been others to reach this stage by age 40, but I don't think it's been many, and certainly not after several years of acting. Even Eastwood was older than 40 before he did a turn in the director's chair, and his first efforts were merely OK. (And that's before the double whammy of "Bronco Billy" and "Firefox.") If Affleck keeps this up, I'll be more willing to look past all those 10-82s ...

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Rudd awakening, Mann … : “This is 40”

So this one is a little tough, friends, and not because it hits close to home. That’s right … guess who turns 40 in two months! No, it’s more a matter of our male lead and this painful admission: My bromance with Paul Rudd may be in jeopardy.

This sad possibility has been on the horizon for a while. Like many relationships, this one caught me by surprise. I thought little of Paul when I first saw him in “Clueless.” Subsequent appearances in “The Object of My Affection” and “The Shape of Things” didn’t set my heart aflutter, either. Then he surprised me a bit with his story arc on “Friends” before positively making me swoon in “Anchorman.” Yes, YES … I WOULD like to meet the whole gang!

More great ensemble/supporting roles followed, entertaining me in different ways. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” … “Reno 911: Miami” … “Knocked Up” … “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Now our man Paul was ready to help carry a movie, with “Role Models” and “I Love You, Man” uneven but generally amusing buddy pictures. Mr. Rudd may not have been firing on all cylinders, but he was tracking upward nicely.

Then, the warning signs. Despite re-teaming with Steve Carell, “Dinner for Schmucks” was painfully one-note and wrongly cast Rudd as straight man. Going 180 degrees with “Our Idiot Brother” wasn’t any better. Another recurring sitcom role, this time on “Parks and Recreation,” showed that Paul hadn’t gone completely soft. But to say I was disenchanted is not out of bounds.

Which brings us to the sort-of sequel to “Knocked Up.” After entertaining us as the married couple foil to the Rogen-Heigl mess, Rudd and on-screen wife Leslie Mann take center stage here, making all their angst, arguing and yelling – lots and LOTS of yelling – the focus of a motion picture. Just in case you don’t have enough of that in your house.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. Yes, there’s the stuff with the sex and the jobs and the kids and their schools and friends and the finances and the in-laws. But really, this is just meant to be “Whoa, look at these two people who are turning 40.” And let’s admit it: There’s a big target audience for that sort of thing.

The movie actually starts off well-enough, even with a Viagra-related conversation. For me, the high point was the family driving and Rudd jamming to “Debaser” by the Pixies – my favorite song by one of my favorite bands. And he even explains what the song is about! But while it’s not ALL downhill from there, it certainly doesn’t elevate after that.

Rudd and Mann try, and both are fine, I guess. As we all know, Mann is Mrs. Judd Apatow, the guy behind this movie, “Knocked Up” and others listed above. That could be a strike against her, but you know … she’s all right. (Right here I will say only that I can’t be as charitable about their two kids, who get WAAAAAYYY too much screen time in this movie. I shall leave it at that.) Not only has Mann been funny in various roles, but lord almighty … has she gotten hotter with age. I remember seeing her “The Cable Guy” a long time ago and thinking, “Eh, kind of cute.” Since then, and now that she *is* 40, she definitely has it going on. In other words, if I weren’t married, why yes, I would do sex with you.

As for Paulie, he’s not bad, but he sure as hell isn’t good. He participates in the yelling and sulking and drops a few mediocre quips. But he’s also given a bum hand here, made out to be the lesser of the couple and an immature, hapless oaf in general. Apatow may not think that, but it’s clear. Mann isn’t shown as a saint by any means, but no question her transgressions aren’t anywhere near his, and that doesn’t help the story at all.

What also doesn’t help is the interminable length. If I told you they were doing a sequel to “Knocked Up” revolving around this couple, what would you guess as the running time? Maybe 90 minutes? An hour and 45? Yeah, try, 2:15. I’m trying to think of any reason why this kind of movie should top two hours, and I’m still waiting. Absolutely no question “This is 40” could have been 30 minutes shorter, and maybe more.

So yeah … while it’s nice to see Megan Fox in both a bra and bikini – did I bury the lede? – and Albert Brooks and John Lithgow bringing the fatherly love (hate) and Melissa McCarthy doing her crazy thing … in the end I just kept waiting for this damn movie to end. I *get* it. Being married after several years and having kids and jobs is HARD. Sure, *I* don’t have a BMW sedan and Lexus SUV, or a pool in the backyard, or easy access to In-N-Out Burger. But I see it’s hard. There, there …