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The Producers
dir. Susan Stroman
Opens Sun Dec 25.

Over the closing credits of The Producers, Matthew Broderick sings "There's Nothing Like a Show on Broadway," which features the couplet: "Movies drag/Their endings sag." Which begs some questions: Is this rueful hindsight? Or a winking take-the-money-and-run confession from sly Producers producer Mel Brooks? In any case, there's your self-written capsule review.

At length: Stuffy accountant Leopold Bloom (plump-ish Broderick, channeling a low-rent Pee Wee Herman) and gigolo Broadway producer Max Bialystock (the sometimes-fun Nathan Lane) put on a can't-miss flop of a show, Springtime for Hitler, with plans to embezzle the funds. You probably know the story of The Producers: First it was a movie, then one of Broadway's biggest hits, and now, with the leads reprising their stage roles, a movie again. The script, once scathing in its mockery of our culture's love for camp, now sounds like a knowing joke told too many times.

Is the movie more enjoyable than the original? No. Is it a better musical? Yes, and how: The songs' production values are terrific, featuring ornate sets, leggy showgirls wearing nothing but pearls and smiles, and some very funny slapstick. But Susan Stroman's stage expertise weighs down the film. Any chemistry that may have once existed between the leads is now too smoothly polished—but the camera still thuggishly demands close-ups of their mugging. It's as though everyone is hamming it up from the Broadway stage so they can be seen in the cheap seats out in Nebraska. It's an unevenly funny movie that practically dies of a stroke toward the end, when the leads sing about their Magical Man-Love and make doe eyes at each other and the audience. The overpowering air of self-congratulation crowds out the jokes that, in any case, we've all heard before. PAUL CONSTANT

Casanova
dir. Lasse Hallström
Opens Sun Dec 25.

If any actor is deserving of a year-end victory lap, it's surely Heath Ledger. Returning from self-imposed, post–Knight's Tale exile, Ledger delivered two of 2005's most distinctive performances, first as the babbling-brook stoner headcase in Lords of Dogtown, and then, more notably, as the lockjawed, emotional black hole at the center of Brokeback Mountain. After that, filling the powdered wig of a legendary horndog would seem to be a walk in the park.

If the extremely silly farce Casanova will be remembered for anything, it may be as a cautionary reminder that Ledger still has earthly limits. Matinee-idol mug aside, the actor's minimalist approach is all wrong for the material, which sees 18th-century Venice as a place where spit-takes graced every meal, mandatory pie-fights broke out on the hour, and even the filthiest urchin possessed bullwhip comedic timing. In its sheer desire to entertain, the film takes whimsy to levels normally outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

To their credit, Ledger and Sienna Miller do manage to find a few grace notes within the chaos, suggesting the discarded skeleton of a smaller, more delicate farce. Unfortunately, whatever nuance they bring to their characters is quickly drowned out by a succession of barn-broad performers, all of whom seem to be constantly humming the Benny Hill theme under their breath. Only two actors manage to break free from the fluff. Wearing what appears to be four or five fat suits simultaneously, Oliver Platt takes his jilted suitor role to such buffoonish lengths that you just have to laugh. Greater still is Jeremy Irons, as Ledger's Vatican-sent foil. Sporting a ratty Astroturf hairpiece and a vocal pattern that somehow apes both James Earl Jones and Harvey Fierstein, Irons creates a hissable bastard for the ages. When he finally submits to a last-reel pratfall, it's as if God himself placed the banana peel. ANDREW WRIGHT

Fun with Dick and Jane
dir. Dean Parisot
Now open.

Corporate crime makes for great comedy: From shattered dreams to missing pensions, gut-busting Ralph Nader cameos to gems like "Maybe we didn't know how to use Quicken! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!"... Will the hilarity never stop?

Dick Harper (Jim Carrey) lives in a house on a street with a wife and a kid and a dog. Dick has a job at corporate-giant Globodyne that allows him to drive a BMW, but he longs for a Mercedes-level position. I'm sure we can all relate. Unfortunately, the day after his Big Promotion, he becomes the fall guy for CEO Jack McCallister's (Alec Baldwin) white-collar grifting. Inexplicably incapable of finding new employment, Dick and wife Jane (Tea Leoni) turn to a life of crime. They learn some lessons, and they teach a few, too.

Carrey is his usual wiggly self, but his trademark spazziness feels half-hearted and forced, and destroys any credibility he might have had as a corporate climber. With its occasional Bush-bash and sappy, tacked-on moral, Dick and Jane aims for topical satire, but does so awkwardly, at the expense of those whom it's trying to defend.

It's also totally racist. In the movie's most consistent running gag, Blanca, the Harpers' house-Mexican (she's just thrilled to be paid in kitchen appliances), teaches their son to speak Spanish. And he's white! Then she sends "Meester 'Arper" out job-hunting with her cousin (Paco or Guillermo or something) and—I don't want to spoil the punch line, but can you say igrant-may ork-way? Then everyone gets deported (natch), and Jane has to orchestrate the funniest sneaking-across-the-border-under-threat-of-death EVER.

I'm sure all the Enron victims and illegal immigrants will pee their pantalones laughing. Or they would, if they could afford movie tickets. Or pants. Zing! LINDY WEST

Rumor Has It...
dir. Rob Reiner
Opens Sun Dec 25.

Rumor Has It... is a tragic waste of a career. Not Jennifer Aniston's (she's never had much in the way of potential) but her character Sarah's: Aniston plays an obituary writer for the New York Times. As the movie pretends not to know, the bulk of a New York Times obituary is prepared in advance, thereby making the writer a kind of prognosticator of indefinitely scheduled doom. That's what I call ripe. But in Rumor Has It..., the business of writing elegies for the not quite deceased never comes up. Sarah says she's in a dead-end job, and that's that. The screenplay quickly moves on to the supposedly titillating subject of incest.

You see, Sarah thinks she's the product of the sexual union that inspired The Graduate. Sarah's deceased mother had had a premarital tryst in Cabo San Lucas with a dude named Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner, washed up), who had previously been sleeping with Sarah's grandmother (Shirley MacLaine, wasted) in Pasadena. Sarah finds out the author of The Graduate went to school with her mom, delays a flight back to New York to track down Beau Burroughs, and well... like mother, like daughter. The third act of the movie is all about narrowly escaping having sex with one's father.

If the plot doesn't convince you that you'd be in for an hour and a half of blown-up daytime TV, the drab lighting, flat jokes, and lame attempt at skewering Pasadena's upper classes should do it. Rumor Has It... is incredibly dull. ANNIE WAGNER

Wolf Creek
dir. Greg McLean
Opens Sun Dec 25.

Watching Wolf Creek, the highly touted, no-budget debut from writer/director Greg McLean, makes your brain (and gag reflex) do backflips. Throughout, I found myself genuinely admiring the skill both behind and before the camera, while simultaneously searching for a blowtorch so I could destroy the negative. This is a recommendation, I guess.

McLean's screenplay, which disingenuously claims to be based on true events (it's actually a composite of several unrelated incidents) follows a trio of attractive backpackers as they roadtrip through the Australian outback. After car trouble puts them in contact with a suspiciously friendly hermit (Tarantino fave John Jarratt), they slowly get turned into piles of screaming meat. The End.

This is standard slasher material, to be sure, but the ferociously single-minded approach (there's no real subtext, other than "stay the hell out of Australia") makes their fate uncommonly horrible. Combined with the real appeal of the actors and the skill of the protracted setup (which includes a beautifully awkward hint of romance), the results are likely closer to snuff than most rational viewers will want to go. (At the press screening, a reviewer walked out at the halfway point, for which I don't blame her in the slightest.) Riding some thunderous Sundance buzz, the director is clearly headed for bigger things. (His next film is apparently about a giant man-eating crocodile, which is the sort of thing that I can't help but look forward to.) Ungracious as it sounds, it's difficult not to wish that he weren't already so good at what he does. ANDREW WRIGHT

Cheaper by the Dozen 2
dir. Adam Shankman
Now open.

Cheaper by the Dozen 2 is, if nothing else, an instructional film about parenting strategies. Tom Baker (Steve Martin) governs his prodigious, pasty brood with love, but without discipline. Baker's lifelong rival, Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy), on the other hand, employs some creepy eugenics, proclaiming, "Children can be groomed to reflect the best aspects of any given gene pool." The clans converge at their old summer stomping grounds, and proceed to settle their differences the old-fashioned way: through beach volleyball, an egg toss, and a three-legged race.

Each family includes (but is not limited to) a set of demonic trained twins, a skateboarding tween or two ("That's such a cool stick! Can you bang any tricks?"), and a post-adolescent babe. In Baker's corner is newly emaciated (and, it seems, toupee-d) Hilary Duff, as preening daughter Lorraine. Murtaugh's got trophy wife Sarina (Carmen Electra, who looks like she's carved out of ham). The reliably delightful (or should that be delightfully reliable?) Bonnie Hunt, as Kate "Mom" Baker, is reduced to reciting nonsensical platitudes such as, "The tighter you hang on, the more they're gonna pull away," and, "When you like a boy, never be anybody but yourself." Boats explode, forbidden loves kindle, music swells (and swells, and swells), and much harm befalls Steve Martin's crotch region. That's about it. Oh, and fans of Eugene Levy's leg hair won't leave disappointed.

Not funny enough for kids, or anything enough for grown-ups, this movie is forlornly pointless, except as a vehicle for crushing our comedic heroes. Thanks a lot, Cheaper by the Dozen 2—Steve Martin and Eugene Levy are dead to me now. Levy's tan is more memorable than his performance, and Martin—bland, pink, and no kind of funny—might as well be Tim Allen. LINDY WEST

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