Jeffrey Tambor

The Invention of Lying (2009, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson)

The Invention of Lying is a 100 minute exploration of a gag. In a world without lying–or any fictive creativity whatsoever–co-director, co-writer, and star Ricky Gervais one day spontaneously mutates and lies. He lies for personal gain, only to discover exploiting people doesn’t make him feel good, so he lies to make himself and others feel good, but it gets him into trouble. It doesn’t get him what he wants and it just ends up making him rich, famous, and miserable.

The film opens with Gervais on a low point. He’s about to lose his job and he’s out on a date with his dream girl, Jennifer Garner, only she thinks she’s too good for him. Because, objectively, his genetic material isn’t good enough to mix with hers. So the other thing this world doesn’t have is any relatable version of love. Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson aren’t even comfortable getting into the lust questions, because once they start down any problematic avenue, they run away as fast as they can. It’s like they release they can’t make the joke funny and hightail it away. So why do the joke in the first place?

The film takes place in a small New England town where there is, inexplicably, a movie studio. Except movies are just filmed lectures of history lessons because there’s no fiction and there’s no concept of it. Gervais and Robinson entirely ignore how the world would function and how history would have progressed without imagination or creative ambition. For a while, they just keep falling back on the gimmick–what if everyone just says what they’re thinking, no matter how awful. There are a lot of flashy cameos–Ed Norton is the best–but they can only distract so much. Eventually, the film has to reconcile itself, because Gervais is in love with Garner and Garner doesn’t want him because of his genetic material.

There’s this scene where Gervais explains how he imagines peoples lives upon seeing them and Garner just sees them as fat, bald, nerdy, losers. It comes right after Gervais telling Garner she’s the kindest, best person he’s ever met, which makes absolutely no sense, but whatever, she’s supposed to be angelic.

Eventually, Garner’s part contracts and the movie moves ahead an indeterminable time, becoming just Gervais moping with buddies Louis C.K. and Jonah Hill. By this time, Gervais has increased the scale of his lying, making up God. That subplot is the best one in the film; Gervais and Robinson don’t have to be subtle about their jabs yet still manage subtely in said jabs. It operates on two levels, something the film never does otherwise.

Sadly, it’s not about Gervais inadvertently becoming a messiah, it’s about him pining for Garner. Conveniently, Gervais’s first act nemesis (Rob Lowe, one note as a successful bully) also has eyes for Garner so there’s a love triangle thing towards the end.

It’s a yawn, partially because Garner and Lowe are extremely limited in their roles, partially because Invention can only handle so much emotion. If people can’t have creative expectation, their emotions are stunted. And even when they aren’t, Gervais and Robinson are focused entirely on characters on hand, not this world they’ve ostensibly created.

Gervais drops out during the third act way too much too. He’s the only relatable character in the film; everyone else is a caricature to be mocked. He’s a caricature too (maybe the thinest one), but he’s not supposed to be mocked.

Okay photography from Tim Suhrstedt covers for Gervais and Robinson’s lackluster directing. There are a lot of songs and song montages–including a criminally atrocious Elvis Costello cover of Cat Stevens’s Sitting–and they don’t make any sense since there’s no music in Lying’s world.

Gervais’s performance is fine. Garner ranges from inoffensive to miscast. Hill is an overblown cameo, while C.K. is an underdeveloped sidekick. Besides Ed Norton, Martin Starr’s probably the funniest cameo. Others are earnest but with limited material.

The Invention of Lying would’ve made a great six part sitcom or something, but Gervais and Robinson don’t have a full enough narrative for 100 minutes. It’s not funny enough to make up for all the laziness.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Chris Gill; music by Tim Atack; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Lynda Obst, Oliver Obst, Dan Lin, and Gervais; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ricky Gervais (Mark Bellison), Jennifer Garner (Anna McDoogles), Rob Lowe (Brad Kessler), Louis C.K. (Greg), Jonah Hill (Frank), Tina Fey (Shelley), Jeffrey Tambor (Anthony), and Fionnula Flanagan (Martha Bellison).


Muppets from Space (1999, Tim Hill)

Muppets from Space is definitely missing some important elements (like subplots and a first act), but it usually doesn’t matter. Even though Hill is a poor director–the film doesn’t just lack personality, it looks like a TV show–the Muppet performers are incredibly strong and the script has a bunch of great lines.

The film focuses on Gonzo, which might be the major problem. The Muppets are a team and, while everyone else gets into the act (to some degree), it’s mostly Gonzo’s show. And there’s not enough for him to do. The script lacks narrative ambition–Gonzo gets kidnapped by the Men in Black and the Muppets free him. Then there are space Muppets.

A little bit more happens at the beginning, but that description pretty much covers it all. It’s as though the screenwriters know they can get away with certain things–like not giving the rest of the Muppets story arcs–and still be genially okay. They’re right… but geniality doesn’t make up for ambition.

For the Muppets, Pepe, Bobo and Miss Piggy are the standouts in this one. Most of the cameos are with Piggy–she has great scenes with Ray Liotta, Andie MacDowell and Josh Charles.

In the primary human role, Jeffrey Tambor is funny. David Arquette and Rob Schneider work well too, probably because they’re only slightly less manic than the Muppets.

The funk soundtrack is occasionally amusing but a little forced (original songs would’ve helped).

It’s perfectly fine… just feels like television.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Hill; written by Jerry Juhl, Joey Mazzarino and Ken Kaufman; director of photography, Alan Caso; edited by Richard Pearson and Michael A. Stevenson; music by Jamshied Sharifi; production designer, Stephen Marsh; produced by Martin G. Baker and Brian Henson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Kevin Clash, Bill Barretta, Kevin Clash and Frank Oz as the Muppets.

Starring Jeffrey Tambor (K. Edgar Singer), Andie MacDowell (Shelley Snipes), Pat Hingle (General Luft), David Arquette (Dr. Tucker), Rob Schneider (UFO Mania TV Producer), Josh Charles (Agent Baker), Hulk Hogan (Man in Black), Ray Liotta (Gate Guard), Kathy Griffin (Female Armed Guard) and F. Murray Abraham (Noah).


A House in the Hills (1993, Ken Wiederhorn)

A House in the Hills is, for the majority of its running time, pretty darn funny. It’s a romance novel run through a black comedy filter, with Helen Slater playing the lead. The film takes place in LA; Slater’s an actress and ends up being the one character the film never actually explains. It’s one of the many surprisingly subtle nuances to the script.

The mysterious stranger is Michael Madsen, who gives one of his best performances, who breaks into the house where she’s housesitting. In some ways, the script could be a play—it’s mostly the two of them sitting around for forty or fifty minutes, but there are these little comic moments, even when Slater’s ostensibly in danger.

It turns out, of course, there’s more than meets the eye to the situation they both find themselves in. One of the great parts of director Wiederhorn and Miguel Tejada-Flores’s script is how they get more and more backstory into the film as the action progresses.

As a director, Wiederhorn gets how to balance the humor and the reality of Slater’s character. The first ten minutes are excellent working actor moments. Richard Einhorn’s score, revealing the comedy, helps the film immeasurably.

The supporting cast—Jeffrey Tambor, James Laurenson and Elyssa Davalos—is strong, but Hills really depends on Slater and, to a lesser degree, Madsen. While they’re both good, she’s the essential component. She makes the role—able to be flustered but still calculating—believable.

It’s a smart comedy.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ken Wiederhorn; written by Wiederhorn and Miguel Tejada-Flores; director of photography, Josep M. Civit; edited by Peter Teschner; music by Richard Einhorn; production designer, Morley Smith; produced by Wiederhorn and Patricia Foulkrod; released by Live Entertainment.

Starring Michael Madsen (Mickey), Helen Slater (Alex Weaver), Jeffrey Tambor (Willie), James Laurenson (Ronald Rankin), Elyssa Davalos (Sondra Rankin), Taylor Lee (Patty Neubauer) and Toni Barry (Susie).


City Slickers (1991, Ron Underwood)

City Slickers is a mid-life crisis comedy. I had forgotten about that aspect of it. All three principals–Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern–start the movie in a funk. Well, actually only Crystal. The other two’s problems reveal themselves throughout. Especially Kirby. His backstory takes so long to reveal, it strains believability. It’s not believable his friends would know so little about him.

Anyway, in order for the movie to work, it has to be believable these problems will work themselves out at the end and the trio will be able to happily get on with their lives. It’s a comedy after all.

Except it’s not really about the three of them, it’s about Crystal. So if Crystal’s problem can work itself out… the movie works itself out.

And, within the constraints of the film, it does work. Underwood is able to sell it. It doesn’t make up for the dragging parts of the film, but it does make it work. In fact, it’s a somewhat strange resolution. It’s not subtle, though they never verbalize it; verbalizing it would make Crystal’s character a little… unlikable actually.

Underwood does a good job except when he’s repeatedly zooming in for effect. It just doesn’t work.

Crystal, Kirby and Stern are all good. Crystal gets better when he’s dramatic. Jack Palance and Crystal are great together. The supporting cast in general is strong.

Marc Shaiman’s music is a weak spot.

City Slickers has its ups and downs but it’s fine.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Underwood; written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by O. Nicholas Brown; music by Marc Shaiman; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Irby Smith; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Billy Crystal (Mitch Robbins), Daniel Stern (Phil Berquist), Bruno Kirby (Ed Furillo), Patricia Wettig (Barbara Robbins), Helen Slater (Bonnie Rayburn), Jack Palance (Curly Washburn), Noble Willingham (Clay Stone), Tracey Walter (Cookie), Josh Mostel (Barry Shalowitz), David Paymer (Ira Shalowitz), Bill Henderson (Dr. Ben Jessup), Jeffrey Tambor (Lou), Phill Lewis (Dr. Steven Jessup), Kyle Secor (Jeff), Dean Hallo (T.R.), Karla Tamburrelli (Arlene Berquist) and Yeardley Smith (Nancy).


The Hangover (2009, Todd Phillips)

Huh. Either blockbuster comedies are getting better or I’m getting stupider. The Hangover is actually a rather neat narrative–it’s kind of like Memento if Memento wasn’t like a concept episode of “Miami Vice.” There are some questions of the film’s sexual politics–apparently going to Vegas and carousing with strippers is okay for certain married men to do, but not others (the more callous the man, the more permissible), but whatever. It’s not like there’s a joke about physically abusing spouses or anything.

Oh, wait, yeah, there is.

But it’s hardly anymore despicable than its peers and it does have that neat narrative structure, kind of like a film noir, only sunny and a gross-out comedy.

I’d heard a lot about Bradley Cooper, but he really doesn’t seem like much other than a less creepy, more greasy version of Ralph Fiennes. A more commercial Ralph Fiennes. He’s fine and he can get some of the jokes done, but it’s Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis who deliver actual laughs. Cooper’s role could have been a standout, but he’s just not dynamic.

Helms and Galifianakis, while funny, don’t exactly deliver a lot of solid acting either (Helms isn’t believable as a dentist–he’s the “Office” guy, nothing more) and Galifianakis is doing a bit. So, strangely, Heather Graham comes off as the most professional actor in the film. She’s utterly fantastic.

Phillips is an okay director. Not sure if he needed Panavision for anything but his ego, but who cares?

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Todd Phillips; written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Debra Neil-Fisher; music by Christophe Beck; production designer, Bill Brzeski; produced by Phillips and Daniel Goldberg; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bradley Cooper (Phil), Ed Helms (Stu), Zach Galifianakis (Alan), Heather Graham (Jade), Justin Bartha (Doug), Rachel Harris (Melissa), Mike Epps (Black Doug), Ken Jeong (Mr. Chow), Jeffrey Tambor (Sid) and Mike Tyson as himself.


Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, Guillermo del Toro)

Once I heard the concept for Hellboy II–Hellboy versus elves–I knew what was going on. Del Toro was going to make a (tonal) sequel to Pan’s Labyrinth instead of an actual one to Hellboy. As my wife said on the way home, there’s a big difference between demons and elves. It’s like del Toro’s psychic and was jockeying for his Hobbit gig before it was even announced.

It’s hard to identify the movie’s biggest problem. There’s the flushing of the original’s atmosphere for a fantasy one (it’s never scary or disturbing–Luke Goss’s villain is created from special effects, not a performance… he’s as intimidating as Bronson Pinchot on “Perfect Strangers”). Del Toro also fills the film with fight scenes in confined areas and he’s not particularly good at making the fight scene interesting. I mean, Hellboy’s never going to die, right? The one great “fight” scene is more an action sequence, with Hellboy trying to save a baby while battling a giant tree. That scene works, mostly because it’s more like the action in the first film.

As a sequel, Hellboy II compares terribly. It isn’t just the script, it’s practically everything. But the script’s lack of real development is problematic. The present action is short, probably two days, and the setup reveals the characters aren’t much different than they were in the first one (four years ago). Except del Toro has changed Jeffrey Tambor’s character completely (for the worse, he’s a babbling buffon and the idea of him holding an advanced degree is sillier than the elves), in one of the movie’s stranger moves. The other negative developments stem from del Toro’s direction… basically, he’s asking his actors to do things they cannot.

First, Doug Jones. Doug Jones cannot act. From the first moment he utters a sound, the absence of David Hyde Pierce is felt. Jones tries to mimic Pierce’s performance, but a) doesn’t sound smart and b) can’t really properly emote. Jones isn’t an actor, voice or otherwise. He’s the guy they dub over. Still, del Toro does give him some amusing scenes–most of the scenes not involving the elves are okay, even if they are just filler.

Worse is Selma Blair, though I almost think del Toro noticed how terrible she is doing a Ripley impression. She’s in it sparingly after a point and other times she’s just silent and background. Del Toro’s subplot for Blair and Ron Perlman is idiotic, mainly because it leads to him ripping off the end of Patriot Games (sort of).

Perlman’s great.

John Hurt shows up for a second and he’s real good. Seth McFarlane’s a poor choice for the headless German guy, because McFarlane just does his German accent from “American Dad.” I guess it’s fine, but it’s kind of stupid. The only other actor is Anna Walton as Goss’s sister and Jones’s love interest. Her character is terribly written, but I suppose she isn’t atrocious.

Besides the last shot, Guillermo Navarro does a wonderful job shooting the film. His lighting works well with del Toro’s frequent CG composite shots (del Toro’s an amazing fan of CG composites apparently). The special effects are good and the visuals are interesting and impressive and all… even if it is dark and claustrophobic. Hard to see why the elves are so great if they live in caves all the time. Danny Elfman’s score is terrible, derivative of his Batman work–and most everything else he’s ever done.

Hellboy II kind of reminds me of Batman Returns, actually. Del Toro got free reign much like Burton did on that film (del Toro even apes some Nightmare Before Christmas here). The difference is what Burton did with his free reign and the narrative pointlessness del Toro commits with his here.

Perlman makes the whole thing passable–and del Toro still is a fine director, he’s just become an insipid storyteller.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; screenplay by del Toro, based on a story by del Toro and Mike Mignola and on the Dark Horse comic books by Mignola; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Bernat Vilaplana; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Stephen Scott; produced by Lawrence Gordon, Mike Richardson and Lloyd Levin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning), Luke Goss (Prince Nuada), Anna Walton (Princess Nuala), Seth MacFarlane (Johann Kraus) and John Hurt (Professor Buttenholm).


Hellboy (2004, Guillermo del Toro)

If I recall correctly, Mike Mignola never had Hellboy and Selma Blair’s firestarter get together (romantically) in the comics, even though Hellboy is flame resistant. That filmic development was all Guillermo del Toro’s. del Toro is responsible for everything successful in Hellboy and, subsequently, everything unsuccessful. Hellboy works, which is probably the film’s greatest achievement–it’s about a goofy, beer-drinking demon who hunts monsters. It’s got lots of humor–from David Hyde Pierce’s Niles-like observations to Hellboy liking cats–not to mention Jeffrey Tambor’s entire role is solely for humor.

Ron Perlman’s Hellboy performance is so unassuming, it’s hard to think of him standing there wearing fifty pounds of make-up or whatever. del Toro and his make-up team don’t just make Hellboy real, but also Doug Jones’s fish-man (who Hyde Pierce voices). These accomplishments are noteworthy, since no one’s really tried doing talking “alien” leads like Hellboy since the proliferation of CG in the mid-1990s. Fantastic characters suddenly became glossy synthetics, instead of tangible figures.

So it’s kind of too bad del Toro doesn’t set Perlman up as the lead until the very end. The rest of the movie is run first by John Hurt as his adoptive father and then Rupert Evans as his assigned caretaker. Hurt does a fine job, even if it’s just stunt casting (Hurt has almost nothing to do, never having a significant scene with Perlman). Evans, on the other hand, is fantastic. Without Evans, Hellboy would not have worked. While everything might happen to Perlman or hinge on the character, it’s Evans who leads the viewer through the film. I understand the narrative reason for this perspective, but it’s a Hollywood cop-out. Having it just be Perlman, in his forty pounds of make-up, doesn’t sell well as a mainstream narrative. Evans’s character is superfluous, but his performance makes him the most important element in the film.

del Toro saturates the viewer in the milieu–the creepy, the exciting–and it works. When Tambor’s stunned at the bad guys, it’s a shock–it’s hard to remember not everyone in the film is used to the oddities, since the viewer has to accept them from the first scene. The Prague shooting doesn’t help the atmosphere. While it all looks great, there’s an unreality to it. It’s clearly not Manhattan or New Jersey… it’s artificial. del Toro’s color schemes work great–director of photography Guillermo Navarro does a wonderful job (except one really jarring, apparently shot on video and cut in, moment)–and, for the first half, Hellboy looks so good, it’s hard to think about anything else. The narrative works, it just doesn’t pay off in the end.

One big problem is the villain–Karel Roden is no good. It’s like he’s out of a TV movie.

But for what del Toro’s going for, Hellboy pretty much does it all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; screenplay by del Toro, based on a story by del Toro and Peter Briggs and on the Dark Horse comic books by Mike Mignola; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Peter Amundson; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Stephen Scott; produced by Lawrence Gordon, Mike Richardson and Lloyd Levin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Ron Perlman (Hellboy), John Hurt (Professor Bruttenholm), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Rupert Evans (John Myers), Karel Roden (Rasputin), Jeffrey Tambor (Manning), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien), Ladislav Beran (Kroenen), Biddy Hodson (Ilsa Haupstein) and Corey Johnson (Clay).


Article 99 (1992, Howard Deutch)

Director of not one, not two, but three 1980s John Hughes movies, Howard Deutch applies those hard-earned skills to remaking M*A*S*H and, shockingly, doesn’t do too bad of a job. Sure, Article 99 is absurd and Lea Thompson as a doctor is a hoot, but its well-intentioned and sensitive to its characters. I’d heard of the movie before–I think I even have an Article 99 scrub shirt–but I thought it was a period piece, set either during Vietnam or just after. Instead, it’s set in modernity, which allows for the villains to be Republicans without military service who are trying to save a buck at the expense of veterans. Kind of eerie, isn’t it?

Even with a terrible opening–after a moderately classy, if way too forced Americana title sequence–pissed off vet Leo Burmester (nicknamed Shooter) tries to take the hospital hostage. It’s a loony sequence, but it introduces all of the characters pretty well and is one of the few times Article 99 is trying to be its own thing, instead of that M*A*S*H remake. It’s also the first time Danny Elfman reuses some of his more famous scores in Article 99 (though his love theme for the film, which seems to be an original, is nice). Following that sequence, Article 99 calms down a bit. There are hijinks, evil bureaucrats and so on, but it doesn’t jar the viewer’s suspension of disbelief until the end.

The reason Article 99 succeeds, even with the cartoonishness, is its actors. Kiefer Sutherland is earnest (even if his character making it through medical school seems unlikely) and likable. Forest Whitaker and John C. McGinley are good in supporting roles. I already mentioned the unbearably terrible Thompson, but Deutch seemed to realize it and only kept ten of her lines in the picture. But there’s Eli Wallach and Keith David to make up for it. Wallach has some great scenes with Sutherland and some great dialogue too (the script’s got a bunch of good one liners). David’s the all-knowing vet and even though the character’s goofy, David makes it work. John Mahoney’s villain is a solid John Mahoney villain, if a little less ruthless (he doesn’t get to kill anyone) than the usual.

I saved this paragraph just for Ray Liotta and Kathy Baker. Liotta’s performance–a leading man performance–is fantastic. It’s hard to believe he couldn’t make it as a lead, just because he’s so obvious great at it. Except then there’s the romance with Baker. Their courtship–and Elfman’s score for it–is one of the best things about Article 99, even if it seems totally out of place, both in terms of plot and quality.

Article 99 has its highs and lows, but wisely starts at its lowest point (the silly plot development at the end is more palatable after Burmester driving his car into the hospital in the opening). There’s a real sincerity to it, not just in the approach to the content, but also in the presentation of it. Liotta has a scene where he lectures amoral boss Mahoney on the duties of VA doctors and makes it work. It shouldn’t work, but it really does.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Deutch; written by Ron Cutler; director of photography, Richard Bowen; edited by Richard Halsey; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Virginia L. Randolph; produced by Michael Gruskoff and Michael I. Levy; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Ray Liotta (Dr. Richard Sturgess), Kiefer Sutherland (Dr. Peter Morgan), Forest Whitaker (Dr. Sid Handleman), Lea Thompson (Dr. Robin Van Dorn), John C. McGinley (Dr. Rudy Bobrick), John Mahoney (Dr. Henry Dreyfoos), Keith David (Luther Jermoe), Kathy Baker (Dr. Diana Walton), Eli Wallach (Sam Abrams), Noble Willingham (Inspector General), Julie Bovasso (Amelia Sturdeyvant), Troy Evans (Pat Travis), Lynne Thigpen (Nurse White), Jeffrey Tambor (Dr. Leo Krutz), Leo Burmester (Shooter Polaski), Ernest Abuba (Ikiro Tenabe) and Rutanya Alda (Ann Travis).


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