Burlesque (2010)

By coincidence, just last night Funny Girl was on TV. There's a scene in that movie where Fannie Brice (Barbra Streisand) is in a big dance number with the Ziegfield Follies. She performs as a singing bride, but she doesn't like the song, so to protest, she appears as a very pregnant singing bride. That risque joke must have prompted an interesting conversation with the censors back in 1968.

Burlesque has two things in common with Funny Girl. Maybe three. One is that it is approximately as risque as Funny Girl, which is to say, surprisingly tame for 2010. The second is that it is very clearly a star vehicle for a legitimate singer, in this case Christina Aguilera. The fashion in movie musicals, of late, is to feature movie stars who are neither singers nor dancers. There is no shortage of perfectly good singers and dancers out there, many of them probably unemployed, so there isn't much reason for an audience to have to put up with iffy singing and awkward dancing in a musical. Third, Burlesque is another iteration of the apparently timeless tale of a gal who rises from obscurity with pluck and tenacity and a nice set of pipes, and becomes a star.

The gal in this case is Ali (Aguilera), a small-town Iowa waitress who buys a one-way ticket to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a singer. After not very much struggle (apparently her dues were pre-paid back in Iowa), she talks her way into a job as a waitress at the Burlesque Lounge, a financially strapped nightclub where scantily-clad dancers bump and grind and lip-synch to songs from other, older musicals. Ali happens to walk in just as Tess (Cher), the proprietess, sings "Welcome to Burlesque." Perfect timing. Tess is about to lose her club to the bank if she can't pay the mortgage. Her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) tries to talk her into selling the place to Marcus (Eric Dane), a wealthy real estate developer. Tess won't sell, and spends most of the movie wringing her hands and being alternately defiant and in despair (sometimes in song!). Her best friend and stage manager Sean (Stanley Tucci) commiserates, and they exchange wisecracks and hugs just like girlfriends (because Sean is gay, and effectively one of the gals). Any star-is-born story needs both backstage drama and lots of song and dance, and Burlesque has them both. There's also a little side romance between Ali and Jack (Cam Gigandet), the club bartender and a would-be songwriter, and Ali and Marcus. But really, nothing lights up Ali's life like being on stage.

The plot is economical and fuel-efficient, which is to say that if some seemingly random bit of information should come up in conversation, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will prove pivotal later in the movie. Thus, the plot of Burlesque is pretty predictable. Ali will be a star. The Burlesque Lounge will be saved. Love will find a way. Real estate deals will be signed. But originality and surprise are not the point of Burlesque. Writer-director Steve Antin has crafted an old-fashioned take on an old-fashioned musical, with just enough plot to fill the gaps between musical numbers. This would be a bad thing if Aguilera were not a very good singer, but she is. She's an adequate actress and dancer, which is all the movie requires her to be. Cher has two musical numbers in the movie, which is noteworthy because Cher, despite a lengthy singing career, has never been in a musical before. She's exactly the kind of dramatic, power-ballad singer who can be nicely framed by a musical, even one as slight as this. She's also a better actress than you'd know from the clunky plotting and dialogue of Burlesque, and the scenes she shares with Tucci are the most interesting in the movie.

The musical numbers are relatively tame by burlesque standards -- there's a fan dance, sure, and implied nudity, but Burlesque could have been filmed in a fig forest for all the naughty bits it reveals. (The musical numbers run the gamut from intimate to spectacular to physics-defying supersized, but none are set in a fig forest.) The movie's most salacious dance number features a woefully underutilized Alan Cumming (how can you make a musical with Alan Cumming and not put him in every single number?) and a dancer eating a banana. Anyone going to Burlesque hoping for another Showgirls will be sorely disappointed. Not that the world needs another Showgirls -- one was more than sufficient. If you miss Busby Berkeley musicals, on the other hand, Burlesque might be right up your alley. The anachronistic tameness and lingerie-clad sexlessness is sort of charming in a goofy, sparkly, innocuous way.


The Next Three Days (2010)

There are two reasons to release a new movie against the unstoppable juggernaut that is Harry Potter: you've got a great movie and you're hoping to capitalize on counter-programming and grab the miniscule Potter Resistance audience, or, you've got a movie that's not especially good or marketable, and you're hoping to let it sink into obscurity without attracting too much attention. In the case of The Next Three Days, a jailbreak thriller starring Russell Crowe and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash), it is the latter. Sorry dudes, but I watched your movie.

The Next Three Days (based on the French film Pour Elle) takes about 15 minutes to establish the plot. John and Lara Brennan (Crowe and Elizabeth Banks) are a Pittsburgh couple with a young son. John teaches literature (Don Quixote, to be exact) at a community college; Lara is diabetic, and has an unspecified job, but importantly, she has a furious argument with her boss. The next day, she's arrested for murdering said boss, by bludgeoning her in a parking lot with a fire extinguisher. Slam, bam, three years go by, she's in jail, and all her appeals are exhausted. Did she do it? The evidence is against her: fingerprints, blood stains on her raincoat, the argument, motive and opportunity. John has faith in his wife; she grows despondent in the hoosegow. Thus begins John's transformation from shlubby, tweed-wearing professor to jailbreak mastermind. When Lara is scheduled to be transferred to the penitentiary in three days, John's planning goes into overdrive.

The remainder of the movie is essentially a very detailed guide to how to break your wife out of jail in three days. The internet is a big help: you can apparently watch all kinds of detailed instructional videos about criminal activity on YouTube. John also interviews Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson, in and out of the movie in about ten minutes), an escaped con-turned-author who offers helpful advice about the tricks of the trade, and planning one's escape. Damon cautions John that Pittsburgh, with all those bridges and tunnels, is particularly challenging. If the movie had been set in Tuscon, it would have been a lot shorter. John works out a plan in meticulous detail, with the movie crew tagging along. I'm not saying that The Next Three Days is boring. It's moderately interesting, as a purely procedural movie, but it's also implausible, and since I don't anticipate needing to know how to break someone out of jail, the implausibility factors looms larger. Could a mild-mannered professor break his wife out of the Allegheny County Jail, escape Pittsburgh, and flee the country? Sure, I suppose. Go from a guy who needs to be shown where the bullets go in a gun (has he never watched a movie?) to a guy who can confront street thugs and meth dealers? Errr, I guess so. Can he do it without turning into Russell Crowe, Gladiator? I'm not feeling it. 

And there's the problem with The Next Three Days. It has a modicum of momentum, but no drama. It could be about the physical and psychological transformation of an average Joe into a desperate action hero, but the movie is so caught up in the mechanical details of John's activity that there's no room for anything else. As for Lara, she's practically a nonentity. It's not hard to believe that she's terribly unhappy in jail, but the movie tries, in the eighth inning, to play coy about the matter of her guilt or innocence, without providing the emotional or psychological substance needed to support either certainty or doubt. Everything depends on John's faith in his wife's innocence, but since John is himself an underdeveloped character, that's not a whole lot to go on. Banks and Crowe are both able actors who could create the substrate of character needed to give The Next Three Days some weight and believability, but they're never given the chance. What is it about John's personality that would make him capable of becoming a desperate outlaw? (Can't just be a too careful reading of *Don Quixote*, and the literary parallels there are both obvious and strained.) What is it about Lara that makes it either possible or impossible that she committed a cold-blooded murder?  

In the end, The Next Three Days turns into an action movie, with the requisite high speed chase. A trio of police detectives (Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, and Lennie James -- all actors the movie could have used a lot more of) exist to turn the gears and create some momentary speed and peril, but there's nothing particularly plausible about the way they almost instantaneously figure out that the game is afoot. Either the Pittsburgh police department is incredibly efficient, or they operate in a parallel Pittsburgh where time moves at a different pace. The Next Three Days is all about technique and mechanics -- and the movie itself is technically and mechanically sound until the turbo-boosted end, when the engine starts to groan.


Morning Glory (2010)

Becky Fuller's got spunk. She's got spunk like Mary Richards (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) had spunk. And like the venerable Mary Richards, she's got spunk enough to talk herself into a terrible job as the producer of a terrible television news show. And to stride purposefully and confidently through the streets of the big city, and to leap for joy when she gets the job. Mary threw her hat in the air, but nobody can do that again. Not even ironically, and certainly not in a cheerily bland movie like Morning Glory, which is inspired partly by The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and partly, it seems, by the movie Broadcast News.

So Becky (Rachel McAdams) leaps, and lands her dream (or nightmare) job, producing Daybreak, the IBS network morning show, perennially in fourth place behind those other shows you've heard of, with their chipper co-hosts and cheery weathermen. (Maybe the show would do better if the network didn't have the same name as an unpleasant gastrointestinal disease -- if there's a joke there, the movie doesn't exploit it.) Daybreak has Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) and a revolving door of co-anchors -- the position's current occupant is a pervert named McVee (Ty Burrell). Becky boosts staff morale and wins the respect of her team when she fires McVee on her first day, showing that she's tough and dedicated. Then she has to find a replacement, and through some contractual extortion (see, she's really tough), she lands Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), a legendary, award-winning news anchor who is still fighting the hard news versus fluffy human interest news battle (there's the Broadcast News part). Another producer (Patrick Wilson), who becomes a tepid love interest for Becky, calls Mike the third worst person in the world (a joke that's pretty funny when you know who the first two are). Mike lives up to his reputation as a hard customer, and he is mightily misquemed* at having been shanghaied into a job that he unambiguously thinks is beneath him. He pretty much refuses to do anything except read "real" news stories in a grave, stentorian voice, and glare at his co-anchor.

Mike's still fighting the good fight, even though the battle is pretty much lost. Becky embraces the fluff, she defends the fluff, she thinks the fluff has value. It entertains. It makes people happy. Mike's not happy, and Mike doesn't care if anyone else is happy either. Will perky Becky get crabby Mike on board in time to save Daybreak from cancellation? Will her perkiness rub off on her torpid, ratings-challenged TV show?

Morning Glory accepts that frothy, forgettable, disposable entertainment is not only the norm, both on morning TV and in movies, but that it's just fine. The script by Aline Brosh Michell (The Devil Wears Prada) offers up funny dialogue aplenty for its paper-thin characters, but not much else. Becky is a peppy workaholic, stubbornly devoted to her job. She'll do just about anything for Daybreak. Mike is grumpy and hard-drinking and one mean old SOB who likes to cook eggs. Mike is a dinosaur, and though the movie gives him one last chance to roar and bare his teeth, there are no apologies made here for pushing the kind of fluffy, upbeat entertainment Mike abhors (even though he's the most interesting human interest story in the movie). The rest of the movie's characters have little going on, although the cast is terrific, and make the most of their roles.

Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) keeps Morning Glory moving at a peppy pace, with lots of bright and insistent pop songs filling in the emotional gaps and leaving no feeling unemphasized. Morning Glory practices what it preaches -- it's a perky movie about the triumph of perkiness. 

*Misqueme means displease. It's an endangered word, a victim of disuse, and the Oxford English Dictionary has begun a campaign to save endangered words from extinction. You can adopt an endangered word by pledging to use it and keep it alive. I've adopted misqueme, so you can expect to see it again in the future. Get your own word at savethewords.org. 

Due Date (2010)

The odd couple road trip is a venerable, oft-repeated movie formula. Come up with a pair of guys who can't get along, find a crazy reason  -- the wackier the better -- for them to be stuck in a car together for thousands of miles, and your work is half done. This is precisely what writer-director Todd Phillips (with three co-writers) does with Due Date. The movie rips off (or pays homage to) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), and a host of other road movies in telling the tale of an anxious father-to-be and a shlubby wannabe actor on the road from Atlanta to Los Angeles. (Phillips is apparently a fan of the road trip formula, having already made a road trip movie, cleverly called Road Trip. He also directed last year's megahit The Hangover, and specializes in movies about men behaving badly, of which Due Date is also an example.)

Peter Highman (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a tightly-wound architect. His wife (Michelle Monaghan) is about to have a baby, by scheduled C-section (a fact the movie delivers, but never explains). Soon-to-be-pater Peter runs into man-baby Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) at the airport in Atlanta. Actually, Ethan runs into Peter, literally, and takes the door off his limo. This is but the first in a series of unfortunate events that eventuates in both Peter and Ethan being thrown off their flight, and placed on the no-fly list. Peter loses his wallet in the process, and is thus forced to ride with Ethan in a rental car, all the way to Los Angeles. Ethan is heading to Hollywood to meet with an agent. He's an aspiring actor. His aspiration is, primarily, to appear on the sitcom Two and a Half Men. Peter just wants to get home in time for the birth of his first child.

Ethan has a french bulldog named Sonny, and a coffee can containing his father's ashes. He also has "glaucoma," which he "treats" with copious amounts of "medical" marijuana, which he buys from dealers he finds on the internet. He's not a very good driver (which is probably true even when he isn't stoned), he's not very smart, and he's a terrible traveling companion. Among other things, both he and his dog masturbate a lot. In the car. Peter suffers a great deal of physical pain and injury, mental anguish, and legal trouble on the hellish journey, and lashes out at Ethan -- which Ethan completely deserves. All of this is a recipe for male bonding, no?

It has to be, because bonding is the point of the movie road trip. Peter (who isn't so good with kids, it turns out) is stuck with a big man-baby who is every bit as uninformed, self-absorbed, destructive, and oblivious to danger and social mores as the average two year old. This is the sort of character Galifianakis specializes in, and it isn't much of a departure from his character in The Hangover, although that guy both was a baby (figuratively) and carried around an actual baby. Ethan just carries his little self-pleasuring dog around. He is appalling, an oversized character in a clumsy, oversized body -- he's got quirks and personality to burn. At his core, he's innocent -- the damage he does is unwitting and unintentional. Downey's Peter, on the other hand, is an underwritten character whose  personality traits are fussiness about baby names and a tendency to get apoplectic when provoked. He is provoked frequently, of course. Neither of these guys becomes any less, or more, in the course of their odyssey -- they arrive at journey's end much as they were at journey's beginning, although Peter is much the worse for the wear. Much of the appeal of the movie, of course, is that Downey and Galifianakis are opposites in so many ways that they make the incendiary chemistry between Peter and Ethan credible, even if the circumstances of the plot are forced. Both actors are good enough that they even manage to sell (mostly) the warm and fuzzy ending to this buddy comedy.

The plotting of Due Date is hectic and extravagant, the comedy is uneven but fitfully funny. When it's funny, it's quite funny, though in a nasty, calculatedly outrageous way.


You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

I've grown a bit weary of Woody Allen's films, but no more so, I suspect, than he himself has. There's a real weariness to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen's latest pessimistic epistle about love and marriage and ruin and people behaving badly. Maybe he'd have more fun making a neurotic zombie movie or something, because one gets the sense he's in a rut, and not really enjoying his own movies anymore. It's a rut of his own making -- he's been down this road many a time before.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger follows two couples, one married, one recently divorced. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) ended his long marriage to Helena (Gemma Jones) in a fit of anxiety about his own mortality (aka meeting the Tall Dark Stranger). Alfie takes up with an actress (aka a prostitute) named Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Helena tipples too much and spends a lot of time with a psychic named Cristal (Pauline Collins), who offers her sherry and prognostic succor. Alfie and Helena's daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a trained doctor who gave up medicine to write novels. Now he's a once-promising novelist in the agonizing throes of failing to live up to his potential. Sally wants to have a family, but she and Roy (who doesn't have a paying job) are financially dependent on her mother. Helena, consequently, feels free to drop in at any time and impart advice (mostly second-hand, from her psychic) and passive-aggressive criticism. Sally works for an art gallery, and has a crush on her charming boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), who is also in an unhappy marriage. Roy, meanwhile, begins a flirtation with Dia (Frieda Pinto), the young, beautiful musicologist who lives across the courtyard and apparently has forgotten how to operate windowshades. 

Allen hasn't appeared in a movie since Scoop (2006), but often, for whatever reason, at least one actor in his movies ends up practically impersonating him. Maybe it's the dialogue, which is, as always, distinctly Allen's, although not, in this case, particularly funny. Banderas and Brolin both, at times, act and talk like Allen in *Tall Dark Stranger*, but so does Watts, which is even weirder. 

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is mostly rather uncomfortable and unpleasant, but not in a good way. Brolin's Roy is angry and whiny, and his flirtation with Dia (who is engaged) is utterly unbelievable. He confesses that's he's been spying on her, which anyone else would find creepy and icky, but she finds it charming enough to  take him to meet her parents and contemplate calling off her marriage. Or maybe she has a thing for unkempt, unemployed peeping Toms. The relationship that does make sense is the one between Alfie and Charmaine -- she finds his money absolutely irresistible, and he wants a trophy wife, and a son. Punch's character is pretty simple: a gold digging dumb blonde who likes working out and nightclubbing. Allen's script doesn't give her a way to be sympathetic or interesting, but that's also true of Hopkins' Alfie, whose motives aren't sufficient to make him more than pathetic. There's even a joke about Viagra at his expense, which shows you how low Allen is willing to go for a laugh (about halfway, as it turns out). The movie is most sympathetic towards Helena, while also mocking her spirtiualist faith in soothsayers and reincarnation and  other wishful thinking  that helps her believe life is meaningful. The annoying narrator (Zak Orth) of the movie starts out by quoting Macbeth (life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing...") and ends with a verbal shrug of sorts, noting that the secret to Helena's happiness (in case the audience missed it) is her belief in illusions. All the others? Too messed up and too smart (or too dumb) to succeed in matters of the heart. The more desperately they chase happiness, the more it eludes their grasp.