Steve Carell

Café Society (2016, Woody Allen)

Woody Allen opens Café Society himself, with a voiceover. It’s a deeper voice mix than usual for Allen–who doesn’t appear in the film–and even though he’s doing expository narration, there’s an intentional distance in that deeper voice. Allen’s not the star of the film. In some ways, even lead Jesse Eisenberg isn’t the star. It’s the 1930s, he’s a young man from New York trying to break into Hollywood. He works for his successful uncle (Steve Carell in a genially morose performance), he romances Kristen Stewart. Things don’t go as planned, of course, which sets Eisenberg on an unexpected path.

The narrative toys with the idea of being an epical look at this young go-getter’s rise and fall, but Allen’s not interested in it. He likes the characters too much and the film loiters around them. Maybe there’s some dramatic narrative going on off-screen–if Allen and Corey Stoll, as Eisenberg’s gangster brother, ever wanted to do a picture about Jewish mobsters, Society shows the two of them would excel at that collaboration. The main story does follow Eisenberg, with these short interludes with the rest of his family and then Stewart, but the gangland ones with Stoll are just phenomenal.

Eventually, it’s Eisenberg who gets those interludes and not everyone else. There’s just too much good material for his family–Jeannie Berlin as the mom, Ken Stott as the dad, brother Stoll, sister Sari Lennick and her husband Stephen Kunken. It’s a movie set in Old Hollywood, gorgeously and glamorously photographed by Vittorio Storaro with beautiful attention to period detail (especially Stewart’s costumes) and all Allen wants to do is get back to New York. Hollywood, for Eisenberg, Allen and Café Society in general, is too false a dream.

Great performances from pretty much everyone and very good ones from everyone else. Eisenberg’s character doesn’t get an epic story arc, but his performance does get to mature throughout. Society is often very funny. Even when it’s sad, it’s still pretty funny. Allen’s clearly enjoying the production. Problematically, his narrative doesn’t emphasize the things he and editor Alisa Lepselter end up focusing on. Lepselter saves the third act. There’s lovely work from Stewart and Eisenberg as it winds down, but Lepselter is the one who puts it all together.

Stewart’s great, Eisenberg’s good–though his family steals his thunder (particularly Berlin and Stott)–Parker Posey is fantastic in a smaller but showy part. It’s an extremely solid motion picture, exquisitely visualized. It might have helped if it had gone on longer; it only runs ninety-six minutes, which isn’t enough for all the great performances Allen gets from his cast.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Vittorio Storaro; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg (Bobby), Kristen Stewart (Vonnie), Steve Carell (Phil Stern), Blake Lively (Veronica), Parker Posey (Rad Taylor), Jeannie Berlin (Rose Dorfman), Ken Stott (Marty Dorfman), Sari Lennick (Evelyn), Stephen Kunken (Leonard) and Corey Stoll (Ben Dorfman).


The Way, Way Back (2013, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash)

At a certain point during The Way, Way Back, it became clear the film was never going to do anything interesting. Then, all of a sudden, writer-directors Faxon and Rash get to their “realistic” ending–by realistic, I mean it doesn’t resolve the most important story lines–and even though the film isn’t going to reward the viewer, at least it’s doing something different.

Then they go back on it. And given both Faxon and Rash appear in the film, when they show up, it almost feels like they couldn’t make that bold a move. Back is a film without any bold moves. It’s about a teenager (Liam James) who goes off to spend the summer with his mom, her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s daughter.

Steve Carell’s a great jerk as the boyfriend, but there are no layers to his character. Toni Collette plays the mom; she’s similarly shallow, though Faxon and Rush seem to get she shouldn’t be.

Thanks to the cute girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) and the awesome, immature water park owner–Sam Rockwell in just as much a type-casted role as Collette’s–James eventually comes into his own. Yep, it’s a standard growing up story.

I won’t spoil if Collette gets her act together thanks to her kid.

A lot of the film is appealing. James is good in the lead–he plays it hostile, which is cool. Robb’s good, Alison Janney’s fun as her partying mom, Rockwell’s great.

But there’s nothing to it.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Tatiana S. Riegel; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Mark Ricker; produced by Tom Rice and Kevin J. Walsh; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Liam James (Duncan), Sam Rockwell (Owen), Toni Collette (Pam), Steve Carell (Trent), AnnaSophia Robb (Susanna), Allison Janney (Betty), Maya Rudolph (Caitlin), Rob Corddry (Kip), Amanda Peet (Joan), Zoe Levin (Steph), Nat Faxon (Roddy), Jim Rash (Lewis) and River Alexander (Peter).


Bewitched (2005, Nora Ephron)

If there’s anything more horrific than Will Ferrell trying to be a straightedge romantic leading man, Bewitched makes one forget about it. Director Ephron is either completely blind to the complete misfire she’s directing or she just didn’t care. Seeing as she and sister Delia Ephron wrote the script, one has to suspect she actually thought she had something. Some of her direction–straight out of Technicolor musicals–allows supports the idea she thought Bewitched was good work.

She’s very, very wrong.

She also apparently told Nicole Kidman to try to sound like Marilyn Monroe, which is hilarious since Kidman can’t even keep her Australian accent hidden. One wonders if she can walk and chew gum.

There are good things about Bewitched, however. Heather Burns is great in a small part, Shirley Maclaine’s hilarious, John Lindley’s photography is competent.

None of these good things make up for Ephron seemingly telling Ferrell to ad-lib scenes and then choosing his worst takes for the final cut. If the insipid selections in the film–a lot of Bewitched seems like Ferrell’s mocking himself–are the best Ferrell came up with… I can’t even imagine the worst ones.

For such a high concept–witch Kidman stars in a relaunched “Bewitched” series–the Ephron sisters don’t come up with anything good. It should be a no brainer, but they can’t even figure out the concept has to play out im real time.

Particularly terrible are Kristin Chenoweth and Jason Schwartzman. Especially Schwartzman.

It’s heinous.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nora Ephron; screenplay by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, based on the television show created by Sol Saks; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by Tia Nolan; music by George Fention; production designer, Neil Spisak; produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Nora Ephron and Penny Marshall; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Isabel Bigelow), Will Ferrell (Jack Wyatt), Shirley MacLaine (Iris Smythson), Michael Caine (Nigel Bigelow), Jason Schwartzman (Ritchie), Kristin Chenoweth (Maria Kelly), Heather Burns (Nina), Jim Turner (Larry), Stephen Colbert (Stu Robison), David Alan Grier (Jim Fields), Michael Badalucco (Joey Props), Carole Shelley (Aunt Clara), Katie Finneran (Sheila Wyatt) and Steve Carell (Uncle Arthur).


The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005, Judd Apatow), the unrated version

I don’t get it. I mean, I kind of get it–the movie’s cute and funny–but I don’t really get it. Not the critical acclaim. I think it’s actually my first Judd Apatow movie–I don’t remember Celtic Pride though I know I saw it–and I’m disappointed. It’s like a sitcom. Apatow directs it like a lot of unimaginative sitcoms are directed. It looks like an episode of “Joey.” A bad episode of “Joey.”

But the script’s not particularly strong either. It’s really heavy on sentiment and it’s version of gross-out humor (gross-out but heartwarming, something Something About Mary did seven years earlier and more successfully), but it’s not at all heavy on creating realistic characters. I don’t believe in The 40 Year Old Virgin. I believe in them, in their existence, I might even believe Steve Carell’s character is one… but I don’t believe he’s a real person. The film goes through lengths to seem “real,” from the eBay store to the lame jobs, but it’s very… sitcom-like. A lot of that fault is Apatow’s direction, but the script isn’t helpful. The characters aren’t real. I don’t believe Paul Rudd has a close friend who’s been to prison twice.

I am also iffy on Carell as a movie star. He was so successful in this one, he turned it into his character for “The Office.” Laughable but sympathetic.

Some of it might have to do with the joylessness of it all. It felt mechanical.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Judd Apatow; written by Apatow and Steve Carell; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Brent White; music by Lyle Workman; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by Apatow, Clayton Townsend and Shauna Robertson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Steve Carell (Andy Stitzer), Catherine Keener (Trish), Paul Rudd (David), Romany Malco (Jay), Seth Rogen (Cal), Elizabeth Banks (Beth), Leslie Mann (Nicky), Jane Lynch (Paula), Gerry Bednob (Mooj), Shelley Malil (Haziz), Kat Dennings (Marla), Jordy Masterson (Mark), Chelsea Smith (Julia) and Jonah Hill (eBay Customer).


Dan in Real Life (2007, Peter Hedges)

Is there a dearth of WASP family dramas right now? I guess there must be. Dan in Real Life certainly fills the void–and is probably the only time I’ve ever thought about a movie in terms of it being a WASP affair (that accusation against Wes Anderson is, for example, one I find unfounded).

It’s a bunch of shiny happy people–shiny happy family–who get together once a year to play charades, do crossword compositions, do a talent show, on and on. No television in sight. John Mahoney’s the wise and all knowing father, Dianne Wiest is the wise and all knowing mother. There’s the good son, the good daughter, the wild but good other son and then there’s the titular Dan. I think that character’s position in the film is the most interesting thing about Dan in Real Life–he’s suffering and no one’s helping him. There’s the silly suffering of the present action, but it’s a long-term thing and it’s never implied he gets any support. Dan in Real Life only makes sense in its present action, anything before and anything after… it’s too complex.

Watching the movie, it occurred to me the French could do the story well (people off in a relative isolation–Rules of the Game for a multiplex) but Hedges just can’t handle it. Everything’s too perfect, but Hedges doesn’t seem aware he’s not giving the film any texture. It’s like one of the Meyers/Shyer Disney movies without the tacit agreement of a Utopian setting.

As a director, however, Hedges is fantastic. Technically, down to the music by the Norwegian pop star, it’s perfect. Sarah Flack’s editing is incredible. It’s just fantastic.

Lots of the acting is good. Dane Cook (who everyone hates for some reason) is decent as the wild but good brother, Juliette Binoche is fine. Wiest and Mahoney, though neither of them are doing much different from what they’ve both done countless times before. Amy Ryan is criminally underused. Matthew Morrison is memorable in a small role.

I was going to save a whole paragraph for Steve Carell, but it’s probably impossible to describe how good a performance he gives here. Even when he’s spouting the ludicrous dialogue (he’s going to consign himself to misery for his kids–it’s like Superman II!), he’s great.

Unfortunately, Hedges hired the three actors playing his daughters on their cuteness and precociousness instead of their acting. Brittany Robertson gives the worst performance, though Alison Pill is the most annoying.

The movie never has a high potential–the mediocre plotting kicks in before the opening titles I think–and it’s impossible to think of it working on a higher level, so it’s not really a disappointment. It’s a watchable WASP comedy-drama with some outstanding particulars.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Hedges; written by Pierce Gardner and Hedges; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Sarah Flack; music by Sondre Lerche; production designer, Sarah Knowles; produced by Jon Shestack and Brad Epstein; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Steve Carell (Dan Burns), Juliette Binoche (Marie), Dane Cook (Mitch Burns), Alison Pill (Jane Burns), Brittany Robertson (Cara Burns), Marlene Lawston (Lilly Burns), Dianne Wiest (Nana), John Mahoney (Poppy), Norbert Leo Butz (Clay), Amy Ryan (Eileen), Jessica Hecht (Amy) and Frank Wood (Howard).


Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)

Calling Little Miss Sunshine an independent film–regardless of its Fox Searchlight banner at the front–is a misnomer. While the financing might not have come through the traditional channels, it’s got a very high profile cast and its content is about on par with, say, Miramax films of the late 1990s, which means it’s on par with non-Miramax films of every year before 1996 or so. Whenever everyone else gave up. It’s a very traditional story. It doesn’t introduce any new filmmaking techniques and the very nice and effective editing style is probably about forty years old. Maybe even longer, I was only taking Hollywood movies into account.

But–we don’t get to see movies like Little Miss Sunshine much anymore. Independent movies with every adult in this cast–with the exception of Steve Carell I think–go straight to video. All the time. There are a bunch from reasonably well-known filmmakers starring well-known sitting on a shelf in a film can right now. So, a Little Miss Sunshine, with its good writing, good acting, good direction, stands out. It ought to be the norm (and would have been ten years ago) for a adult comedy. I thought about genre a little while watching it and American Pie ushered in new genre labels and Little Miss Sunshine, as IMDb so clearly states is a “comedy / drama.” But it’s not. One of those Alan Arkin scenes is enough to classify it firmly as a comedy.

Why am I saying so little about the film itself? Well, it’s a well-written comedy. There are some too long scenes and some of the plotting is off, but those little things are expected. How’s the acting? Why am I using rhetorical questions (I’m tired). Gee… Toni Collette is great, Alan Arkin is great (though, with the exception of some choice monologues, he’s been playing this role for ten years plus), Greg Kinnear is great. They’re great actors. Steve Carell was initially surprisingly good, but he’s so good I got comfortable with him real fast and am now upset he’s making crappy Hollywood movies. He ought to be doing something else. The kids, Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin, are both really good, but it didn’t occur to me they wouldn’t be good. Little Miss Sunshine is unexceptionally solid. Like I said, it’s what the expected norm for a film starring the people it stars, released by the studio releasing, should be.

That all said… I do think it was a little unfair not to let the viewer get to see Alan Arkin wreck havoc on the beauty pageant organizer.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; written by Michael Arndt; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Pamela Martin; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Kalina Ivanov; produced by Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Greg Kinnear (Richard), Toni Collette (Sheryl), Steve Carell (Frank), Paul Dano (Dwayne), Abigail Breslin (Olive) and Alan Arkin (Grandpa).


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