Posts in: December 26th, 2010

Helena from the Wedding (2010)

If Woody Allen had let John Cassavetes take over September, it might have turned out a lot like Helena from the Wedding. (I admit, though, that throwing out those two names might give the impression that this film is better than it is—it’s good, but nothing revelatory.) At once raw yet theatrical, insightful yet mundane, and cynical yet romantic, the film’s jumbled yet effective stylistic choices sort of match the characters’ mixed feelings about life, the universe, and everything.

Delivering finely understated performances, Lee Tergesen and Melanie Lynskey play seemingly happy newlyweds Alex and Alice. We first see them traveling into the mountains on the way to a cabin (owned by Alex’s parents), where they intend to host a New Year’s Eve party for their friends. As they prepare for the friends’ arrival, Alex and Alice focus most of their attention on the worry and confusion bringing these friends together might yield.

Don and Lynn (Dominic Fumusa and Jessica Hecht) have been married the longest, have kids, and seem to hate each other. She drinks staggering quantities of wine while henpecking him; he kowtows to her every whim, no matter how absurd. Nick (Paul Fitzgerald) has recently gotten divorced and isn’t terribly thrilled to be among a bunch of marrieds. Steven and Eve (Corey Stoll and Dagmara Dominiczyk) decide to bring a friend not well-known to the rest of the group, the titular Helena (Gillian Jacobs, sporting an awful English accent for no apparent reason, other than possibly wanting to seem more exotic). On some level, Helena serves as a catalyst to bring everyone’s problems to the boiling point, but there’s a strong probability that the amount of wine and cocaine consumed might have led to the party playing out the same way even if she hadn’t tagged along.

As the characters splinter, real feelings emerge. The happy façade maintained by Alex and Alice dissolves over the course of the 36 hours or so the film covers. She bitterly complains to Eve that Alex has jeopardized their future by unsuccessfully pursuing his passion (writing, in the form of a play that opened and closed in two weeks) instead of a more practical career choice. Alex, meanwhile, finds himself deeply uncomfortable around Helena. Before he and Alice got married (but while they were engaged), Alex spent the better part of a wedding reception trying to get into Helena’s pants. She knows this, and he knows this, and Nick figures it out quickly, but Alice remains in the dark.

On some level, Helena has the There’s Something About Mary curse, causing men to lust after her simply by existing. Alex, desperately trying to hide his lust, fumbles around her like a schoolboy. He humiliates himself in front of her with some regularity, though luckily nobody catches him sneak outside (in full hunting gear) with a set of binoculars to watch her shower from a distance. Don, meanwhile, starts to see Helena as an avenue of escape from his worthless marriage. Of the men, Steven is the only one whose jaw doesn’t hang on the floor whenever she enters a room (possibly because he knows her better than the others), though ironically Eve suspects him of cheating.

Writer/director Joseph Infantolino crafts this story in such a way that Helena’s bewitching qualities are not a product of anything she says or does. She’s probably the most underused character in the film, which focuses more on the effects of her presence than her presence itself. She’s not an engaging conversationalist, she doesn’t flirt—she just has that elusive magnetism about her. Or maybe she doesn’t—maybe the men are just so unhappy in their marriages, they’ll flock to any single woman.

Infantolino mines both comedy and drama from the idea of a group of people—not all friends, but all connected through one half of the central couple—coming together awkwardly and, in some cases, unwillingly. Sometimes, he forces the awkwardness a bit too much, but the story of Alex and Alice pulling apart and then coming back together allows the film to overcome its occasional missteps. The film boasts great performances (aside from Jacobs’s misguided accent choice—she’s a fine actress, but it adds nothing and detracts quite a bit from her otherwise good performance) from actors often mired in bland supporting roles instead of the meaty characters they’re more than capable of playing.

Helena from the Wedding may not transform audience perceptions in the same way its characters transform, but it’s an alternately funny, thoughtful, and occasionally touching look at thirty-somethings in crisis. It’s worth a look.

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Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

I’ve never read an angrier novel than Gulliver’s Travels, which has become inexplicably regarded as a children’s fairy tale despite not containing a single sentence appropriate (or, for the most part, readable) for anyone under the age of 15. People make a big deal about the disturbing content found in the stories of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen—and they’re not wrong, but the key difference here is that Gulliver’s Travels was never intended for children. It used the Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, and Laputans to reflect the overarching views of contemporary English politicos, ending in the misanthropic notion that Gulliver lives out the rest of his years in his horse stables, because humans are intolerable but his beloved, horse-like Houyhnhnms are an intelligent, advanced race far superior to our own.

It’s insane to think an innocuous Jack Black comedy aimed at the same kids who fell for him in the infinitely better School of Rock would retain the satirical edge of Jonathan Swift’s novel. The Jack Black of Tenacious D and High Fidelity might have made that movie, updating the satirical targets in the same way this film updates the character of Lemuel Gulliver into a sad-sack loser of a writer. But this is a big-budget studio film designed to appeal to a broader base via fart- and urine-based humor. (To the film’s credit, though, the pissing-out-a-fire gag does come directly from the novel, which sort of pulled off The Simpsons‘ trick of combining lowbrow, groundling humor and highbrow social commentary.)

Like most of the adaptations to come before it, this film only adapts the Lilliput section of the novel. Black plays his usual slacker self, though a bit sadder, who washes up on a hidden island of miniature people after going through some sort of portal while traveling in the Bermuda Triangle (no, really). Seen as a giant and a threat by the citizens of Lilliput, they try to hold him captive. They fail, of course, but when he uses his size to (sometimes inadvertently) heroically save Lilliputians from disasters like the aforementioned fire, he’s regarded as a hero and ingratiates himself to the Lilliputian royalty.

In addition to operating as a Jack Black vehicle, the film tries to mine some A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court-type humor by making Lilliput resemble a 17th-century kingdom. A king and queen (Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate) reign somewhat ineptly, and Gulliver ends up in a somewhat demented but rarely funny love triangle with Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) and stuffy soldier Edward (Chris O’Dowd).

Really, there’s not much plot here. The film exists primarily as a showcase for cartoonish comedy and special effects—to the degree that it probably should have been a cartoon—and it surrounds the usually reliable Black with ringers like Jason Segel, Romany Malco, T.J. Miller, and the aforementioned Connolly and Tate. Unfortunately, the script by Joe Stillman (who co-wrote the first two Shrek films and the unwatchable Planet 51) and Nicholas Stoller (who directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but also wrote and directed Get Him to the Greek) lets them down. Never using Black to his full potential, the film mainly combines stale fish-out-of-water comedy with never-funny gross-out gags.

Desperately trying to salvage something from the lackluster script, director Rob Letterman (a veteran of DreamWorks Animation films, yet another sign that perhaps this should have been a cartoon) focuses more energy on the special effects than on the comedic pacing and what little story exists to string everything together. Some of the special effects are quite good, but they lack the immersive quality of Lord of the Rings, which it draws immediate comparisons to by simple virtue of the fact that it draws so much attention to the ability to combine giants and tiny people on the same screen at the same time, seeming to fully interact.

Whereas the Lord of the Rings films rarely drew attention to their effects, using them only to enhance a rich fantasy universe populated by well-developed characters and a complex (some might say convoluted) plot, Gulliver’s Travels really wants us to be impressed, trying too hard to look like it’s not trying too hard. It walks the precarious line between parodying recent blockbusters (like Transformers, an obvious choice for a film about a giant) and outright stealing from them. (Full disclosure: I did not see this movie in 3-D, so there’s the slim possibility that three dimensions will make the film more immersive. Unfortunately, it won’t make the film’s flaws any less apparent.)

Sadly, much as I usually enjoy Jack Black, this film tries hard to please everyone but ends up not providing much of anything for any member of the audience. I can’t say that surprises me, but it certainly disappoints me.

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