Bill Hader

Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola), the unrated version

Superbad is exceptionally funny. In terms of how often you lose your breath from laughing, it’s hard to think of a better movie than Superbad. Watching Superbad probably burns between 118 and 315 calories. This unrated version anyway. The rated version would burn about four minutes less. Next time I watch it I’ll have to try to measure it on my Apple Watch. It’s one of the funnier films ever made. A smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. It’s a peerless success in terms of those laughs, a combination of script, actors, and material. Utterly obscene teen male virgin comedies—the kind screenwriters Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg apparently grew up watching—needed the Internet and culture to hit 2007 to fully realize the genre’s potentials.

But it’s just a smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. The script’s got an amazing first act, plotting-wise; the rest of the movie doesn’t. Director Mottola takes a hands-off approach, not really showing much personality until the last shot when you get the feeling he wishes he were making a different, less utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy, but maybe even smarter. Lead Jonah Hill (playing “Seth”) loses his first act protagonist role once the second act hits. By the third act he’s even more reduced. Instead, it’s more about Hill’s best friend, Michael Cera (playing “Evan”), and their awkward third wheel, the hilarious Christopher Mintz-Plasse. They’re all high school seniors. It’s the last two weeks of school. They’re going to a party.

Mintz-Plasse’s side plot is all about his fake ID, liquor, and two party animal cops (Bill Hader and Rogen—who are playing older analogues to the teen boys, but not generally, it’s not one-to-one). It’s the even funnier stuff in the extremely funny movie. Because even though Hill and Cera have a lot of humor in their own liquor hunt (Hill promised dream girl Emma Stone he’d bring all the booze for her party, Cera promised dream girl Martha MacIsaac he’d bring her a special bottle of vodka), they’ve also got their “best friends since the fourth grade who go to different colleges and can’t be joined at the hip anymore” arc. For all their excellent insights into the male psyche, Rogen and Goldberg can’t crack that arc. Meanwhile Mottola is focused on the “boys finally learn girls are people they want to spend time with” arc, which is really awkward because Hill, Cera, and Mintz-Plasse are way too old for that arc.

Their being too old for it does provide a decent backdrop for some of the jokes, but the only time it gets directly referenced is with dream girl Stone. She’s too wise for Hill; he’s been intentionally confusing maturity and vulgarity his whole life and it won’t work with Stone. Meanwhile Cera gets this strangely paternalist arc with MacIsaac, which—given how shallow Cera’s performance schtick gets as the film goes along—is really bad for her. MacIsaac gets a little more screen time than Stone (it feels like a lot more; Stone’s forgettable) and somehow even less character. They’re both dream girl caricatures (albeit 2007 ones). The film never even hints at them being anything more. MacIsaac’s got friends, Stone’s got parents out of town. Done.

Other big problems include the progressive gay jokes. It’s lazy writing more than anything else. Superbad’s got a really big anti-toxic masculinity statement it hints around making without ever having the balls to make it. Also interesting is the lack of teen male virgin shaming, which sort of breaks the genre.

I also don’t understand how the Richard Pryor shirt Hill wears through the first act didn’t become the Garfield-in-the-car-window of the late aughts. Pryor’s expression gets laughs of its own, like he’s offering commentary on the surrounding events. It’s awesome.

Lots of Superbad is awesome. It’s peerlessly funny. It’s also astoundingly not ambitious.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; director of photography, Russ Alsobrook; edited by William Kerr; music by Lyle Workman; production designer, Chris Spellman; produced by Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jonah Hill (Seth), Michael Cera (Evan), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fogell), Seth Rogen (Officer Michaels), Bill Hader (Officer Slater), Kevin Corrigan (Mark), Martha MacIsaac (Becca), Emma Stone (Jules) and Joe Lo Truglio (Francis the Driver).


Clear History (2013, Greg Mottola)

Besides J.B. Smoove, Clear History does not reunite Larry David with any of his “Curb Your Enthusiasm” costars. David and Smoove have their fantastic chemistry and it’s a little strange not to see them hanging out in the film. Instead, David hangs out with Danny McBride, who probably gives the film’s must mundane performance. He’s fine… he just doesn’t get any of the laugh lines.

The first third of Clear sets the scene. In an alternate reality where the electric car catches on like hotcakes, David’s character gives up a stake in the company. Destitute, he creates a new life in Martha’s Vineyard–unlikely location maybe, but it’s very pretty scenery. Everything goes well until Jon Hamm–as David’s former boss–arrives on the island.

Antics ensue. With a relaxed plotting structure, Clear feels a lot like three episodes of a TV show strung together. David and his co-writers, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, do put in a lot of subplots, but they’re all for joke payoff throughout. Heck, they even miss one involving Liev Schreiber, which is too bad. He’s hilarious.

Great work from Hamm, Kate Hudson and especially Michael Keaton. Keaton gets to do his wacky thing as a local mad at all the changes to the Vineyard. Very funny. Nice smaller turns from Eva Mendes and Amy Ryan. It’s perfectly cast and performed, it’s just slight.

Greg Mottola’s directorial fingerprints are invisible. Besides transition shots, he just lets the actors act.

Clear’s pleasantly mediocre.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Larry David, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer; director of photography, Jim Denault; edited by Steven Rausch; music by Ludovic Bource; production designer, Sarah Knowles; produced by Monica Levinson, David, Berg, Mandel and Schaffer; aired by Home Box Office.

Starring Larry David (Rolly), Danny McBride (Frank), Kate Hudson (Rhonda), Jon Hamm (Will Haney), Michael Keaton (Joe Stumpo), Bill Hader (Rags), J.B. Smoove (Jaspar), Eva Mendes (Jennifer), Amy Ryan (Wendy), Philip Baker Hall (McKenzie) and Liev Schreiber (Tibor).


Paul (2011, Greg Mottola)

Maybe Simon Pegg needs Edgar Wright or maybe Nick Frost just shouldn’t be writing because Paul should be great and it’s not.

Some of the problem comes from having Seth Rogen voice the titular, CG alien. Rogen does a fine job but he’s such a dynamic presence, Pegg and Frost sort of fade into the background. But it’s also a really busy script, with Jason Bateman hunting down the fugitives, Kristen Wiig meeting up with them and then John Carroll Lynch (as her father) chasing them down too.

Oh, and Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio as Bateman’s subordinates.

It also occurs to me it’s Pegg’s first American film (as a co-writer and production force) and that factor might be the damning one. Mottola is the wrong director for this film. He brings no personality to it and he probably got Hader and Wiig the jobs. Hader’s awful and Wiig’s mediocre. And whoever casted Sigourney Weaver should have realized his or her mistake when her painfully unfunny comic performance showed up in the dailies and done something about it.

However, it’s got a wonder part for Blythe Danner. If the film had been more Danner and less everyone (except the alien), it would have been a lot better.

Jeffrey Tambor is pretty funny in an unfortunately tiny role.

Still, it’s not awful and is mildly entertaining. The jokes in the script are pretty funny, it’s just not a good script.

Paul even manages to bore in its obvious shortcomings.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Chris Dickens; music by David Arnold; production designer, Jefferson Sage; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Nira Park; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Simon Pegg (Graeme Willy), Nick Frost (Clive Gollings), Seth Rogen (Paul), Kristen Wiig (Ruth Buggs), Jason Bateman (Special Agent Lorenzo Zoil), Bill Hader (Agent Haggard), Joe Lo Truglio (Agent O’Reilly), Jane Lynch (Pat Stevenson), Sigourney Weaver (the Big Guy), Blythe Danner (Tara Walton), Mia Stallard (Young Tara Walton), John Carroll Lynch (Moses Buggs), David Koechner (Gus), Jesse Plemons (Jake) and Jeffrey Tambor (Adam Shadowchild).


Adventureland (2009, Greg Mottola)

I hate Adventureland. I mean, it’s a rather good film, but I’m going to have to say nice things about Ryan Reynolds now and so I hate it. Reynolds has a small but significant role in the film and he’s fantastic, bringing humanity to what should be a common character. I cringed at his name in the credits then proceeded to love his performance. So I hate Adventureland.

Greg Mottola’s film isn’t revolutionary. It’s a coming of age story. But there’s a lot of nice nuance to it. It’s a post-college coming of age story, set in 1987, but nothing like a movie from 1987. Then there’s the whole undercurrent of anti-semiticism, which gets a specific scene, but not a lot of notice–the film’s primary three characters are Jewish (I’m just guessing with Jesse Eisenberg’s character, as it wouldn’t make much sense if he wasn’t) and they have this awkward relationship with the Catholics they work with. Mottola doesn’t establish it, he just later refers to it–it’s part of the ground situation, something everyone knows about and the viewer has to get caught up on immediately. It’s beautiful. Or Eisenberg being the youngest guy drinking at the bar. It just goes on and on.

But what Adventureland is all about, what makes it singular, is Kristen Stewart. I’ve been a fan since Speak–though I’ve never gotten around to seeing any of her films–and Adventureland is something of a showcase for her talent. Mottola seems to realize Eisenberg’s problems can’t carry an entire film, so he juxtaposes it with Stewart and her situation. Her situation is slightly more singular than Eisenberg’s and, even if it weren’t, it’s clear Stewart would be amazing in more pat scenes. Fingers crossed Stewart doesn’t let the paychecks of Twilight-like malarky sway her from doing good films.

So what about Eisenberg, the film’s ostensible lead? He’s great too. He’s nothing compared to Stewart, but he’s great. He’s got a great way of delivering Mottola’s dialogue–there’s always this thoughtful pause. It’s impossible to imagine the film without this cast.

Martin Starr’s solid as Eisenberg’s sort-of friend, Matt Bush hilarious as the childhood friend Eisenberg has outgrown (another one of Adventureland and Mottola’s lovely moves). Bill Hader has what would be the most traditional comedy role and he’s funny. It works.

Mottola’s direction is excellent. His strengths as a filmmaker more than make up for the film running about five minutes too long, maybe seven.

But I still hate Adventureland for making me say nice things about Ryan Reynolds.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Greg Mottola; director of photography, Terry Stacey; edited by Anne McCabe; music by Yo La Tengo; production designer, Stephen Beatrice; produced by Ted Hope, Anne Carey and Sidney Kimmel; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg (James Brennan), Kristen Stewart (Em Lewin), Martin Starr (Joel Schiffman), Bill Hader (Bobby), Kristen Wiig (Paulette), Margarita Levieva (Lisa P.), Jack Gilpin (Mr. Brennan), Wendie Malick (Mrs. Brennan) and Ryan Reynolds (Mike Connell).


Pineapple Express (2008, David Gordon Green)

Maybe American cinema is okay after all, maybe it is evolving. Or maybe Pineapple Express is just an exception. It certainly seems like Seth Rogen’s finding the right mix for popularity and quality, but Express outdoes anything I thought it’d be.

After a shaky prologue sequence–which overuses Bill Hader for some kind of a Superbad reference and underuses James Remar, who only gets a couple lines–Express moves into safe territory. It’s Rogen being a funny pothead while he goes about doing funny things as a process server. It’s all very funny and very safe. Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg manage to incorporate the most astounding plot elements and make them work–Rogen’s got an eighteen year-old high school girlfriend and there’s a great scene with him getting jealous over one of her classmates. It shouldn’t work, but it does and beautifully.

Then James Franco enters the story. Pineapple Express is, while still very funny in its quick scenes at this point, able to take a break for Franco and Rogen to sit around for a long scene. The scene’s funny, but it’s also character establishing. Express does narrative work while it’s treading water. The film mixes genres better than any American film I’m familiar with.

The film then evolves into the stoners on the lam comedy the trailers advertise. This period only lasts a little while (it’s hard to tell how long the periods last in Express, which runs close to two hours) and includes a hilarious fight scene.

But when the film becomes a buddy action movie–Pineapple Express owes more to Lethal Weapon than anything else–it gets fantastic. It plays with the genre it’s aping while never leaving it. It’s Lethal Weapon with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson hugging. But it still maintains that original genre–the stoner comedy–even during the intricate action scenes.

Director Green does a great job with those action scenes–seeing Gary Cole do John Woo is a great sight gag–but it’s kind of strange how little I thought about the direction throughout. Green does a fine job, but Pineapple Express is all about the script. Down to the relationship between Cole and Rosie Perez (who better have a comeback after her performance in this film), it’s absolutely perfect. I know Green did something–he got Franco his t-shirt design, for instance–but it seems like the script dictated the direction. There was only one way to do these scenes and the film does them in that way.

At the center–eventually–of Pineapple Express is the relationship between Rogen and Franco. The script gives the male friendship the language of a teenage romance, which works–both comedically and not. The film pushes the past the humor and stays with the approach. It isn’t for the one laugh, it’s for the entire film, which makes it rather affecting.

Danny McBride is really funny in the film’s flashiest role, but in terms of acting, Craig Robinson kind of runs away with the film. Every line reading he gives is fantastic and there’s a joy in waiting for him to appear and deliver another. Nora Dunn and Ed Begley Jr. are also hilarious in small roles, again thanks to the script.

There’s a certain level a film like Pineapple Express can attain–and it does–so there’s a question to exactly how good of a film Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg can write. If they keep at this level, or even a little under, it’d be fine–there aren’t many new American films as good as this one–but I’m wondering if they’re capable of doing even better. I can’t wait to see what they do next….

I’ll probably still be laughing at jokes from Express until then.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Gordon Green; written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, based on a story by Judd Apatow, Rogen and Goldberg; director of photography, Tim Orr; edited by Craig Alpert; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Chris Spellman; produced by Apatow and Shauna Robertson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Seth Rogen (Dale Denton), James Franco (Saul Silver), Danny McBride (Red), Kevin Corrigan (Budlofsky), Craig Robinson (Matheson), Gary Cole (Ted Jones), Rosie Perez (Carol), Ed Begley Jr. (Robert), Nora Dunn (Shannon), Amber Heard (Angie Anderson), Joe Lo Truglio (Mr. Edwards), Arthur Napiontek (Clark), Cleo King (Police Liaison Officer), Bill Hader (Private Miller) and James Remar (General Bratt).


Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola)

Superbad opens with the 1970s Columbia Pictures logo, features a 1970s soundtrack and, for much of the film, features its main character, played by Jonah Hill, wearing something seventies-esque. Those elements go far in creating a flavor for Superbad, as does the Southern California landscape. I’m not sure how important the flavor is to Superbad‘s success, since it’s still a funny movie. The script’s lulls rarely go on for a full minute, a good example being when Hill interrupts a soccer game to tell Michael Cera their plans for the evening (and setting the present action limits for the film) and Hill calls a bothersome soccer player (Cera’s in the middle of a game) a bed-wetter, recalling a bladder incident from eight years earlier. Then they don’t let the joke go. The player responds, Hill responds. Rogen and Goldberg’s script is the perfect comedy on the scene level. They know how to make it work and they know how to get the most from every scene. There’s not a single scene with an incomplete feeling to it (not a comedic scene, anyway).

The film’s getting a lot of online attention because of Michael Cera, who rabid fanboys seem to like almost as much as they like that sixteen year-old girl in the Harry Potter movies. Cera’s excellent in the film, except it’s not really an acting job. He’s playing his existing persona in a sex comedy for the first time. His performance is perfect; it doesn’t appear to have been much work. I wouldn’t even be commenting on it (Cera’s scenes are hilarious, especially the one where he has to sing for a bunch of violent adults at a party), if it weren’t for Hill’s performance. Hill gives a singular performance in this film–most of the raunchy lines are his, but he still manages to be the deepest character in the film. Cera’s depth possibilities get hurt by the handling of his big scene, when it’s more about the audience getting it than Cera getting it. But Hill… every scene with the guy, he’s amazing. And he’s amazing in ways suggesting his next performance will be as good (hopefully it won’t be in a Roland Emmerich movie as the comic relief).

Greg Mottola’s direction is as anti-hip as Hill and Cera’s clothing. He shot Superbad with the new Panavision Genesis digital camera and it’s hard to believe. Mottola’s job is pretty simple, to record the funny action going on, and he does it well. But there are a few times I remember really appreciating him.

Now for the problem. It’s really sentimental and really simple. While Cera and Hill have their adventures, another kid has adventures with a couple cops who act like Hill and Cera will if they never grow up. It’s a boy-to-man transition movie and it gets hammered in with a jackhammer. Instead of being content with its position as the funniest movie I can remember seeing, Superbad has to go and turn in a loony coda, taking all kinds of shortcuts with character development, just so it can have its sentimental, significant ending. Like most one night present action films, Superbad sets itself up for needing some real resolution and–since it’s already running 110–it hurries it through in three minutes, sucking a lot of the interesting possibilities from what it previously established. It’s a cheap ending masquerading as a good ending.

But even if the last four minutes of screen action are, basically, laugh-free, the preceding 114 are full of them. It’s a mixed bag and should not have been one.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; director of photography, Russ Alsobrook; edited by William Kerr; music by Lyle Workman; production designer, Chris Spellman; produced by Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jonah Hill (Seth), Michael Cera (Evan), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fogell), Seth Rogen (Officer Michaels), Bill Hader (Officer Slater), Kevin Corrigan (Mark), Martha MacIsaac (Becca), Emma Stone (Jules) and Joe Lo Truglio (Francis the Driver).


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