Nanny McPhee Returns (2010)

When last we visited Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), she was helping frazzled widower Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) to manage his unruly mob of children in Victorian England. Nanny McPhee was a stern, menacing and mysterious figure who dispensed disgusting medicines to malingering little ones and found ways to give wicked kids a taste of their own medicine too. Though she dressed (more or less) like Mary Poppins, she was warty and blobby and had unfortunate teeth. She did not sing. But she was patient and loving, although for Nanny McPhee, love means teaching children to do what's in their own best interest (and to be kind and helpful and all that).

Nanny McPhee is back, warts and all, in Nanny McPhee Returns, although the setting is now the English countryside during World War Two. Nanny McPhee (Thompson) looks none the worse for her decades of caring for misbehaving miscreants. This time around, she's summoned to assist Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a frazzled mother  who does her best to keep the family farm afloat while her husband is off fighting in the war. Her three children, Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods), and little Vincent (Oscar Steer) are a bit naughty, but they turn into violent monsters when their haughty, snooty cousins arrive from the city. Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) are ill-mannered brats who instantly judge the farm to be a sea of poo, and their cousins to be poo-wallowing hayseeds. Meanwhile, Isabel is constantly pestered by her brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans), who wants her to sign over her family's half of the farm. Phil's got some hilarious heavies (Sinead Matthews and Katy Brand) leaning on him for the deed to the farm. As has become traditional in *Nanny McPhee* movies, illustrious British thespians make right fools of themselves playing English caricatures. To wit, Maggie Smith is family friend dotty old Mrs. Docherty (who has a secret identity) and Ralph Fiennes turns up as a stodgy, stern, stiff upper lip military man.

Nanny McPhee Returns, written, like the original movie, by Thompson, lacks some of the menace and also some of the charm of the first movie, but this might be in part because the story's essential mystery is gone. The movie's a bit tamer too -- as directed by Susanna White, it lacks the acid colors and vinegary bite of the first movie and opts for a more muted, earthy palette to go with a slightly gentler approach to herding children. One hates to think that Nanny McPhee is becoming a soft touch! 

The movie goes for a broad, slapsticky brand of comedy, involving a great deal of barnyard animal waste, and Nanny McPhee makes more liberal use of her unspecified supernatural powers -- she can make children want to behave, but she can also make a motorcycle fly, and, for that matter, she can make pigs fly too. The movie makes more liberal use of compter-generated special effects as it hurtles through the plot and the life lessons. Nanny McPhee Returns, like its predecessor, is chockablock full of twists and turns and antic, frantic activity, embracing the kitchen sink approach to storytelling. Nanny McPhee is always the calm eye of the hurricane,  while everyone around her swirls and spins and frets and breaks things, and burps. Did I mention the burping blackbird? His name is Mr. Edelweiss, and he figures prominently in the story's wacky conclusion.

My 8 year old companion to Nanny McPhee Returns is a huge fan of the nanny, and she was not disappointed by the sequel. It's funny, and sweet, and endearingly quirky, with cute kids, cute pigs, and much agricultural mayhem. 

Eat Pray Love (2010)

Julia Roberts is immensely likable in Eat Pray Love. She's as likable onscreen as Liz Gilbert, on whose memoir the movie is based, is on the page. Funny, charming, witty, self-deprecating, neurotic, brutally honest about her own shortcomings, fully aware that she might rightly be accused of whining at times. Anything less and the reader or viewer might come away thinking this Liz Gilbert character is a little spoiled and full of herself -- who gets to take a year off to find herself and, by the way, travel to Italy (to eat), India (to pray) and Indonesia (to fall in love)? (The love part was a surprise -- the eating and praying were premeditated.) Writer-director Ryan Murphy (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jennifer Salt) has managed to preserve much of Gilbert's charm and sense of humor, as well as her supple and straightforward language in the movie adaptation of Eat Pray Love.

There's something very retro about the navel-gazing wanderlust of this sensual, picturesque travelogue and spiritual quest. Eat Pray Love is, in its way, an Easy Rider or On the Road for the modern thirty-something woman (the Neil Young songs on the soundtrack add to the retro mood). Gilbert is in search of peace and enlightenment, but also liberation and autonomy, and what she hears, constantly, is not the mantra of feminist liberation, but of marital bliss and coupled contentment. She is interrogated about her single status (she's recently, painfully divorced) in Italy; she comforts a friend on the verge of an arranged marriage in India; she's told she needs to get laid in Bali. That she's in search of something other than love puts her at odds with the Hollywood tendency to place romantic love first and foremost among the things women desire and need to find fulfillment and feel whole. "I am woman, hear me roar" has been replaced by "Get thee to an altar, spinster!" Yet here's Liz Gilbert, smart, capable, single, and determined to figure out how to move past needing a husband or boyfriend to get right with herself.

The book was glorious in its descriptions of the sensual pleasures of the mouth in Italy -- the food and the language. Likewise the movie, which revels in the luscious indulgence of linguini and lingua. The book was wonderful in India, where Gilbert spends time at an ashram and encounters Richard from Texas (Richard Jenkins), who nicknames her "Groceries" and speaks in  homespun aphorisms layered over deep spiritual wisdom. I thought the book petered out when Gilbert landed in Bali, and unexpectedly fell in love. The movie, on the other hand, is just getting warmed up when Javier Bardem arrives to light up the screen as Gilbert's charming Brazilian paramour Felipe, and Hadi Subiyanto steals scenes as the adorably toothless medicine man Ketut. What gets slighted in the movie (in favor of the Indonesian happy ending) is the ashram interlude, which was the soul of the book and gave the fullest exploration of Gilbert's spiritual quest, her soul-searching, and her inner struggle to love (herself, her god, her world) without being the object of love. I could have done with a whole lot more of Richard from Texas too -- reading the book, I always pictured Richard as M.C. Gainey, but Jenkins totally owns the part with his warm, funny, natural performance.

Eat Pray Love is not an entirely unconventional movie adaptation -- it's a little more superficial than the book, and a little less insightful (in a nutshell, a little light on the "pray"). But it's the exceptional movie that can do enlightenment and capture numinous, divine experience as well as movies can do love and food and the sacred love of food. This is a minor complaint, because the movie is, all things considered, warm, genial, and delicious, a nicely balanced blend of the serious and the sensuous, with beautiful scenery and unconventionally beautiful people. 

The Other Guys (2010)

The other guys in The Other Guys are ordinary, workaday cops, as opposed to the kind of cops movies are made about. The movie star style cops are represented too -- Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson poke fun at themselves, and their action hero personas as a couple of greatly admired, but not terribly useful NYPD supercops. They break a lot of windows and cause a great deal of vehicular mayhem. The other guys are Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell), a milquetoast forensic accountant who gets very worked up about building permits, and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), a good but extremely unlucky detective who achieved notoriety by shooting a beloved New York athlete. His penance is to be partnered with Gamble. They are a classic odd couple -- Hoitz is crabby and has a short fuse; Gamble's a slow-burner. Hoitz is an able fighter and an excellent marksman; Gamble is a large, lumbering clod who can barely shoot a gun, and would prefer to sit behind a desk pushing papers all day.

Gamble and Hoitz stumble upon a hot case involving a crooked equity fund manager (Steve Coogan). Hoitz sees a chance to be a hero and redeem himself, and Gamble gets to put his accounting skills to good use, but they find their investigation thwarted at every turn by politicians, ruthless corporate sharks, and a weary, hapless police chief (Michael Keaton) who doesn't want anyone in his precinct making waves. The plot doesn't really matter, however. (Although in the closing credits, it does: Rage Against the Machine performs "Maggie's Farm" while colorful graphics detail the outrageous perfidy of Ponzi-scheming Wall Street swindlers.) The story merely creates assorted occasions for a lot of funny riffing and bickering. The latter is particularly inspired in The Other Guys, which features long, meandering, nonsensical contretemps involving the relative badassery of tunas and lions, among other things.

Director Adam McKay (who cowrote the script with Chris Henchy), has collaborated before with Ferrell (on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Step Brothers), but Gamble is an uncommon character: he's gullible, sincere, timid, officious, irresistible to beautiful women -- including his hot wife (Eva Mendes) -- but apparently immune to their charms, he prefers easy listening music. He's also cheery and smart. He can't understand why Hoitz hates him, and Hoitz can't understand why women throw themselves at him (the movie offers no explanation). I've never found Ferrell especially hilarious, but he's really funny as Gamble, and he doesn't play him as a mere caricature, but digs beneath the character's skin to find a kind of suppressed belligerence. Wahlberg has turned out to be a stealth comedian (and a pretty good dramatic actor too). Ferrell and Wahlberg, with their high voices, are like a couple of bellicose roosters together, which adds to the overall comic effect. They both simultaneously play the straight man and the joker, the comic and the foil. The screenplay provides them with plenty of goofy, raucously funny material.

The Other Guys spoofs the conventions of supercop/buddy cop movies, but it throws in plenty of car chases, explosions, and shootouts just the same. It tries to walk the fine line between making fun of witless guns-a-blazin' action movies, and actually being one. It succeeds, not because it does anything especially great or innovative plot-wise or action-wise, but because it is completely committed to its snappy, waggish nuttiness, prolix illogicality and extended incongruity. 

Dinner for Schmucks (2010)

Dinner for Schmucks is about a  couple of nice guys who do rotten things. One of them does rotten things on purpose, although he doesn't want to; the other one can't seem to control himself -- he hardly does anything intentionally, but leaves destruction in his wake.

The comedy, directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) and written by David Guion and Michael Handelman, is based on the French farce Le Diner de Cons by Francis Veber. The obscene title notwithstanding, Dinner for Schmucks has been sanitized for your protection. Notably, no one in the movie ever utters the word "schmuck," and the ending is positively heartwarming in the way that everyone -- good and bad -- gets what's coming to them. Dinner for Schmucks balances its fairly mild meanness and crudeness with an equal measure of mild sweetness and affirmation, and a weirdly zig-zaggy script that's loaded with goofy oddities. The movie, like its protagonists, is nice at heart, but sometimes behaves badly.

Tim (Paul Rudd) is a nice guy who works in a shark tank, also known as  an equity firm. He'd like to get ahead in the company, and comes up with a bright idea that gets him noticed by his boss, Fender (Bruce Greenwood). He's invited to attend a "dinner for idiots," where everyone brings as a guest the biggest eccentric they can find, so that Fender and associates can humiliate them. Then they give an award to the "best" of the unsuspecting victims. Tim's tempted to do it, because he'd like to get a promotion and impress his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), an art curator. This is a stupid plan, because Julie thinks the whole thing is so appalling and cruel that she walks out on Tim just for considering it. 

As fate would have it, Tim literally runs into Barry (Steve Carell). This is because Tim was driving while texting, which is an idiotic thing to do. Barry, on the other hand, was in the middle of the street retrieving a dead mouse, because his hobby is amateur taxidermy, and he specializes in incredibly detailed mouse dioramas, which he calls "mouseterpieces." (The mousterpieces, replicas of great works of art, and reenactments of historical events, with mice, are really pretty cool.) Tim concludes that Barry is just the sort of guy one invites to the idiot dinner, which is how it comes to pass that over the course of 24 hours, well-meaning, kind-hearted Barry almost single-handedly destroys Tim's life.

What's the deal with Barry? Perhaps it's the formaldehyde fumes, because he's not particularly sharp, and he's apparently incapable of interpreting even the simplest social cues, but he's also genuinely nice. His true eccentricity is that he is apparently so clueless, so guileless, so gentle and so sincere that he's virtually impervious to cruelty. He's like the proverbial rubber in the great rubber vs. glue, everything-you-say-bounces-off-of-me-and-sticks-to-you debate. Although he doesn't know it. He just *is* it. With the best intentions, Barry manages to sabotage Tim's relationship with Julie, help Tim's stalker ex-girlfriend (Lucy Punch) find him, and cause general mayhem. Barry also introduces Tim to Therman (Zach Galifianakis), a nutjob who believes he has the power to control minds. 

Galifianakis would have walked away with the movie if not for Jemaine Clement (*Flight of the Conchords*), who plays Kieran, a pompous, pretentious artist who says funny, outrageous, utterly nonsensical things. Barry's a master of tiny, adorable, melancholy and slightly macabre works of art; Kieran specializes in massive, self-aggrandizing self-portraits of himself dressed as a goat. Clement, Galifianakis, and to a lesser extent Punch and Kristen Schaal (Tim's assistant Susana) keep the movie lively, offbeat and interesting, and run circles around Rudd and Carell, who are stuck playing out the inevitabilities of the plot. That is, what's least interesting about Dinner for Schmucks is the main course -- the best and most memorable bits are all the weird, unexpectedly inventive side dishes.

The point of all this, of course, is that the real idiots are the people who think everyone else is an idiot. Or something like that. If you're an idiot for thinking other people are idiots, and Dinner for Schmucks forces you to conclude that the idiots are the people who think other people are idiots, then doesn't that also make you an idiot? Maybe that's too meta for this movie. Probably. But conveniently, the biggest idiots of Dinner for Schmucks are arrogant rich men who work in finance -- easy targets, surely, ever since Christ let the moneychangers have it in the temple. (There's a Christ mouse in Barry's replica of The Last Supper, for what it's worth.) The movie, anyway, is not idiotic. It supplies an ongoing parade of quirky oddballs,  misunderstandings, miscommunications, surprises, and moments of slapstick, culminating in a farcical dinner party of epic eccentricity.