Toni Collette

Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath)

Emma keeps misplacing things. For a long stretches, it misplaces second-billed Toni Collette (who goes from being the subject of the first half to an afterthought in the most of the second half to just a plot foil in the third act). There’s also lead Gwyneth Paltrow’s painting. The film opens with Paltrow’s paintings of her friends, home, and familiar places, which get used again to identify locations for a bit in the first act, and then the painting becomes a plot point… but then it’s gone, both from the narrative (which could make sense with the plot point if you’re being generous) and the film’s visuals. It’s indicative of Emma’s greatest problem—even greater than Paltrow not really being up to snuff for the lead and often mugging her way through scenes, her costars all doing the double duty of load-bearing and acting—is director McGrath. He’s got some ideas, but he’s rarely consistent with them (outside he and cinematographer Ian Wilson’s astoundingly ill-advised attempt at “natural” lighting), and even if he were… he doesn’t have the chops to pull them off. Not in directing actors (there are some rather oddly bad performances throughout), not in composing shots, and definitely not in establishing a narrative distance. Particularly bad form on the last one, as McGrath adapted the Jane Austen novel himself.

The film’s got two competing narrations, one from Paltrow and one from what we assume is one character but is actually another because getting in a pointless wink is more important than verisimilitude. But the misleading narration—which only works because the supporting cast is so thinly drawn—is just a third act problem. Paltrow’s narration, which kicks off in earnest somewhere in the second half, is from the character’s diary. The diary doesn’t come into play until well after the narration is established and has very little interesting to convey. It’s good writing (so presumably from the source novel) but it doesn’t add anything to the film because the film’s already established itself without needing diary or narration. McGrath’s constantly introducing elements the film’s already shown it can do without. Sometimes they’re competent, sometimes they’re piddling.

Ewan McGregor, for instance, is piddling.

McGregor plays Paltrow’s eventual de facto suitor. So, the film starts with Paltrow just having succeeded in marrying off governess Greta Scacchi to local widow James Cosmo and deciding she’s going to become a matchmaker. Her next subjects? Vicar Alan Cummings (who’s more middling than piddling) and aforementioned second-billed Collette. Now, Collette doesn’t have any money and Cummings is out for a rich dowry only Paltrow thinks love will conquer all. Except the condescending, gently demeaning way Paltrow treats Collette is duplicated in how the film treats her. Collette, and many of the other women in the film, are often used for laughs. Weird since Paltrow getting her eventual comeuppance involves her punching down, you’d think McGrath, adapted the novel, would be able to do something like foreshadowing… but he cannot because he does a poor job of adapting the novel. Seriously; you get done with Emma and don’t even wonder if you should read the novel. Given the film’s from the renewed era of Austen adaptations… it ought to at least encourage readership.

Anyway.

Eventually McGregor shows up as Cosmo’s son and, presumably, Paltrow’s intended. Except he’s playing the part like he’s in a bad Muppet Jane Austen’s Emma and not just because of the hair. In some ways he perfectly compliments Paltrow’s performance; they both mug for the camera, he just does it with more volume, more bluster. Their similarities even potentially become a plot point but not really because of the way McGrath directs the scene, which… is again the biggest problem with the film. McGrath’s well-meaning enough in his direction, just inept with it. And when he does try to show flourish, usually with a silly camera move—one does have to wonder about cinematographer Wilson’s agency—it ends up silly at best.

There are some okay supporting performances: Jeremy Northam’s fine as Paltrow’s male friend, though there’s a way too big performance differential between the two of them and never the right chemistry, Collette’s good, especially given the circumstances, Sophie Thompson’s probably the best, as the woman Paltrow meanest girls. Sacchi’s all right. Cosmo mugs. Denys Hawthorne, as Paltrow’s father, is literal scenery. Juliet Stevenson, as a second half punchline, does a lot better than she should given the part and the direction.

Not great editing from Lesley Walker doesn’t help things. Rachel Portman’s score has its moments but also the ones where it seems more appropriate for an ostentatious adventure picture, which then just introduces the false promise of personality to the filmmaking and what could be, if only McGrath had the chops.

The third act’s particularly disappointing as all it really needs is some narrative sincerity. It doesn’t even need to have Paltrow step up… though I guess it does make some sense how McGrath then takes the movie away from her. It’s like he gives her a vote of no confidence after he’s just made a two hour movie of her.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas McGrath; screenplay by McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by Lesley Walker; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Michael Howells; costume designer, Ruth Myers; produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steven Haft; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton), Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill), Jeremy Northam (George Knightley), Greta Scacchi (Mrs. Weston), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton), Polly Walker (Jane Fairfax), Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates), James Cosmo (Mr. Weston), Denys Hawthorne (Mr. Woodhouse), and Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates).


Fun Mom Dinner (2017, Alethea Jones)

The best thing about Fun Mom Dinner is the soundtrack. It’s all mainstream early-to-mid eighties hits–some Cars, 99 Luftballons, the song from the end of Sixteen Candles because a Jack Ryan crush is a major plot point (which is a little weird since it’s lead Katie Aselton was six when Sixteen Candles came out and she formed that crush). Sadly Jack Ryan doesn’t appear in the movie. Instead it’s Adam Levine semi-standing in as the object of her infidelity fantasy. Fun Mom doesn’t have a lot of great writing, but it’s never godawful. It’s trite and benign, but it’s not godawful. So Levine’s laughably godawful performance is all his own. Especially since it’s things like… he can’t pretend to listen to people.

Aselton is one of the four not really fun moms out at the Fun Mom Dinner. She ends up being the lead because maybe she’s going to cheat on not good parenting partner and perpetually stressed out husband Adam Scott with Levine. Also because she brings the moms together. She’s friends with Toni Collette, who seems like she’s going to be the lead at the beginning; she’s the disaffected pot-smoking mom. Only it turns out the script’s got nothing for her to do after she buries the hatchet with other fun mom Bridget Everett in their third scene together. Before the end of the third act. There’s some more character development for Collette after that point, but it’s when her husband (Ron Huebel) talks to Scott about it. Huebel and Scott are taking care of their kids while the moms are out having fun.

Everett’s kids and husband don’t matter. They don’t show up after a brief opening introduction. And the four fun mom, Molly Shannon, is in a similar situation. Only she’s divorced so the film isn’t ignoring her husband, just her kid. Or kids. They make so little impression it’s hard to remember how many Shannon or Everett have. And Shannon does get a romantic flirtation subplot with Paul Rust, which could have been cute. It’s proto-cute.

For not getting any story to herself, Everett still is the backbone of Fun Mom Dinner. She has enough energy to make moments connect, even if they don’t always work. Shannon’s character is written too slight; her performance isn’t too slight, the writing is too slight. Collette just loses anything to do except procure pot for the outing or encourage smoking pot and drinking. Aselton’s got the one-two punch of a slightly written character–really, Julie Rudd’s script has the depth of a television commercial–and a too slight performance. Aselton’s never believable. The movie’s never believable, but you can pretend with Everett, Collette, and Shannon. With Aselton. No.

Fun Mom Dinner is not some raunchy, raucous affair. If it weren’t for the moms toking some reefer and dropping f-bombs, it’ll be PG. Aselton’s threatened dalliance with Levine isn’t just bad because Levine’s awful or Asleton’s writing and acting is thin, it’s because director Jones doesn’t do dramatic tension. Not even when it seems like Everett is going to throttle Collette for being such a nasty elitist. Oh, right. It’s never explained why Collette’s such an elitist since she’s married to super-nice, super-supportive doofus Huebel.

Clearly there’s not much budget. When the moms are roaming the streets, the streets are empty. When they’re in restaurants or bars, the shots are very careful not to include too many other people. If Jones weren’t shooting it in Panavision and filling the wide frame with nothing, the movie might not seem so visibly sparse. Sean McElwee’s photography isn’t bad. It’s not great, but it’s thoroughly competent. He’d have been able to shoot the frame more concise.

Jon Corn’s editing is terrible, however; he’s worst with Levine, which is kind of hilarious. Not really. It’s just unfortunate, like everything with Aselton once she becomes the de facto lead.

Fun Mom Dinner is also really short. Eighty-one minutes. And full of filler. Karaoke filler. The movie’s target audience is moms neglected by spouses who daydream about smoking pot and singing Karaoke. Hopefully. Because otherwise it doesn’t even have an intended audience. Otherwise it’s just an exercise is fodder.

Actually the Karaoke deserved more screen time. Everett and Collette can sing. Embracing it–though Everett gets two singing scenes–would’ve helped. It would’ve had to help at least a little.

There’s an extended cameo with Paul Rudd and David Wain as a pair of pot shop owners who avoid any contact with their wives. As much as possible anyway. Like so much else in the film, no one does anything with it except the actors. The actors make it work. Sort of. They keep Fun Mom from being overrun by its own disposability. They don’t make it respectable, but they keep it from being miserable.

Except Levine. And Aselton when she’s with him.

Fun Mom Dinner isn’t terrible enough to be a curiosity. It’s inoffensively pointless.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Alethea Jones; written by Julie Rudd; director of photography, Sean McElwee; edited by Jon Corn; music by Julian Wass; production designer, Tracy Dishman; produced by Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, and Naomi Scott; released by Momentum Pictures.

Starring Katie Aselton (Emily), Toni Collette (Kate), Bridget Everett (Melanie), Molly Shannon (Jamie), Adam Scott (Tom), Rob Huebel (Andrew), David Wain (Wayne), Paul Rudd (Brady), Paul Rust (Barry), and Adam Levine (Luke).


Muriel’s Wedding (1994, P.J. Hogan)

There are a lot of things going on in Muriel’s Wedding, so many writer-director Hogan’s script gets to the point he’s constantly raveling and unraveling foreground and background threads. The threads are all wrapped around the film’s center–lead Toni Collette’s complicated desire to change herself. She mostly accomplishes it through various lies, though cheque fraud plays a big part. Her lying becomes, as the film goes on, a compulsion, one the viewer can identify even when it’s unclear how Collette is processing the situation. Despite her various wrongdoings and insensitivites, Collette is a sympathetic protagonist; she’s ill-equipped for the world, which the first act explores in detail.

Collette lives in a useless Australian tourist town. She’s a high school dropout with few career prospects, unemployed, living at home. Her father (Bill Hunter) is a mildly corrupt local politician who verbally demeans Collette, her siblings, and wife Jeanie Drynan at every opportunity. He’s also a little too friendly with local beauty supply maven Gennie Nevinson. All of Collette’s friends are insipid, shallow beauty queens who mock Collette about her physical appearance.

Everything changes when Collette runs into former high school classmate Rachel Griffiths, who could care less what Collette’s faux friends think of her and thinks Collette is doing just fine. Unfortunately, quite a bit of Griffiths’s opinion is based on Collette’s lies. Many of the lies involve Collette’s desire to get married, which would–in Collette’s eyes–undoubtedly result in her becoming a new, improved person. At the same time, Collette and Griffiths build this otherwise sincere friendship, with Griffiths the booster Collette never had.

Hogan’s script has a lot of laughs in the first half, which has Collette and Griffiths meeting on a tropical vacation, as well as during their move to the big city. The present action is rather fast in Muriel’s Wedding; Hogan and editor Jill Bilcock sometimes identifying don’t slow down to identify how much time has passed between scenes. Rarely in the next subsequent scene and usually in the one after. It keeps the film, which almost two hours, sailing.

Despite some rather bleak circumstances, Muriel’s Wedding is never a black comedy. Tragedies and hardships aren’t for laughs. The characters can be funny–or just plain mocked–but not their circumstances. As funny as the film gets, Hogan always relies on the actors to bring grounding, particularly Collette, Griffiths, Drynan, and Hunter. The laughs often come from how uncomfortable moments can get, whether through Collette’s deceptions (or naiveté) or Hunter’s willful mistreatment of his family.

As the characters react to the plot’s various curveballs during the second act, Hogan narrows the film to Collette. It also changes the pace of things. Hogan has more content in summary scene exposition than in his non-summary sequences. It fits in great with the slightly fantastical characters.

Great supporting performances from Hunter and Drynan. Griffiths is wonderful, ably essaying a part bouncing between comedy and drama. But Collette is the whole show. Even when Griffiths is being hilarious, Collette commands the attention. Hogan exquisitely juggles the dynamic of their relationship, with Martin McGrath’s moody but pragmatic photography playing a big part.

The only problem is the rushed third act, where Hogan speeds a tad fast through all the right notes.

Muriel’s Wedding is magnificent.

Oh, and a big part of the film is Collette’s healthiest obsession–ABBA. So lots of great ABBA music, sometimes for comic effect, sometimes for emotional.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by P.J. Hogan; director of photography, Martin McGrath; edited by Jill Bilcock; music by Peter Best; production designer, Paddy Reardon; produced by Lynda House and Jocelyn Moorhouse; released by Roadshow Film Distributors.

Starring Toni Collette (Muriel Heslop), Rachel Griffiths (Rhonda Epinstall), Bill Hunter (Bill Heslop), Jeanie Drynan (Betty Heslop), Gennie Nevinson (Deidre Chambers), Daniel Lapaine (David Van Arkle), and Matt Day (Brice Nobes).


Enough Said (2013, Nicole Holofcener)

For most of Enough Said, I marveled at how director Holofcener–apparently in an act entirely lacking irony–created the perfect film to fail the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test, which is all the rage, requires two female characters talk about something besides men.

Well, besides talking about men, the characters in Said do not do much. Lead Julia Louis-Dreyfus otherwise makes acerbic observations about those around her or the minutiae of her life; I wish I could know how the film played if one is unfamiliar with a certain show about nothing starring Louis-Dreyfus, but I cannot. It probably wouldn’t be much better, because Holofcener isn’t just lazy at the plotting, she’s lazy with the characters.

Here’s the idea (straight out of a “Seinfeld”). Louis-Dreyfus starts seeing James Gandolfini (even though he’s fat–she’s supposed to be out of shape too, in one of Enough Said’s more absurd requests for the viewer to suspend their disbelief). She’s a masseuse. Her new client–an exceptionally wasted Catherine Keener–turns out to be really cool and they become friends. Oh, and Keener’s Gandolfini’s ex-wife. Which Elaine–sorry, sorry–which Louis-Dreyfus figures out and keeps to herself.

The film wastes the more interesting empty nest subplot involving Louis-Dreyfus bonding with her daughter’s friend, Tavi Gevinson. Sure, they fail the Bechdel test too, but not as bad as the rest of the film.

Bad editing from Robert Frazen. Great performance from Gandolfini.

Enough’s pointless and slight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener; director of photography, Xavier Grobet; edited by Robert Frazen; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Keith P. Cunningham; produced by Stefanie Azpiazu and Anthony Bregman; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Eva), James Gandolfini (Albert), Tracey Fairaway (Ellen), Toni Collette (Sarah), Ben Falcone (Will), Catherine Keener (Marianne), Eve Hewson (Tess), Tavi Gevinson (Chloe), Amy Landecker (Debbie), Toby Huss (Peter) and Kathleen Rose Perkins (Fran).


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).


Like Minds (2006, Gregory J. Read)

If Like Minds weren’t shot in Panavision and it didn’t star Toni Collette (just because she hadn’t fallen off the radar far enough yet), it’d be the pilot for an Australian crime drama. Collette would be the criminal psychologist with Richard Roxburgh as the brutish but noble cop who had to put up with her (they’re ex-lovers no less). Well, and for the plotting, which casts Collette and Roxburgh aside, telling most of the story in flashback, as she tries to discover just what happened to a dead teenager. The prime suspect? His friend.

The whole thing is–down to the Hitchcock reference, but sadly not Rope–a cheap attempt to turn that TV episode script into a feature. As a director, Gregory J. Read isn’t terrible. His Panavision is not geared for 4:3 (or even 16:9); a not insignificant compliment. However, as a writer, he’s an idiot. Like Minds is astoundingly predictable–one of the major reasons for finishing it is the assumption an accomplished actor like Collette wouldn’t sign on to a project with a cheesier ending than Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan… but she apparently did. What’s more criminal is how interesting, with Roxburgh a solid copper and Collette capable of so much more, a barely competent screenwriter could have made Like Minds.

Had the film been about Collette and her ambition, it would have been… well, maybe not stunning, but pretty good and at least a decent thriller and not a stupid one.

Nigel Bluck’s cinematography is rather nice and he gives the pseudo-British countryside (why make an Australian movie look like a British one) a rather widescreen scope. It’s rather nice and sometimes succeeds in distracting from Read’s script’s more glaring illiteracies.

As the two teenagers, Eddie Redmayne is better as the suspect. He’s questionable at times, but decent. Tom Sturridge is competent–sometimes–as a creep, but most of the time he’s just awful. Read also misses the big gay theme in his “yes it is, no it’s not” Leopold and Loeb modernizing–occasionally, as Sturridge runs around in a wet t-shirt, I thought he’d get around to the homoeroticism… but he never does. Why? Because it’d make sense and be competent. And Read’s anything but.

As for Collette, she ought to be embarrassed. Another one like Like Minds, she’ll be to Australia what Val Kilmer is to New Mexico.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Gregory J. Read; director of photography, Nigel Bluck; edited by Mark Warner; music by Carlo Giacco; production designer, Steven Jones-Evans; produced by Jonathan Shteinman and Piers Tempest; released by Becker Films.

Starring Eddie Redmayne (Alex), Tom Sturridge (Nigel Colbie), Toni Collette (Sally), Richard Roxburgh (McKenzie), Patrick Malahide (Headmaster), Jon Overton (Josh), Amit Shah (Raj), David Threlfall (John Colbie), Cathryn Bradshaw (Helen Colbie) and Kate Maberly (Susan Mueller).


The Last Shot (2004, Jeff Nathanson)

The Last Shot is a comedy–and a funny one–but I’m not sure it qualifies as a story. It’s an idea for a movie–the FBI fakes producing a movie to catch mobsters, hiring Hollywood wannabes without telling them–but Nathanson’s execution of the idea is flawed. Alec Baldwin’s FBI agent is lying to would-be director Matthew Broderick for the entire movie and Nathanson expects the audience to think it’s funny. He mistreats his characters, not because they deserve it (though he does give Broderick an unimportant deception late in the film–Baldwin’s clear except the whole faking a movie production), but because he can move the story and get laughs out of it. The beginning, thanks to Baldwin’s excellent performance, suggests the film’s going to be a lot better than it turns out, but once Calista Flockhart shows up screaming obscenities (look everyone, Ally McBeal swearing), it’s pretty obvious Nathanson’s really cheap.

But it’s still a Hollywood comedy–that inane (but watchable) genre, which has produced maybe one good film in the last twenty years–and Nathanson is funny. He gets Joan Cusack to be funny, not hard, but she’s real funny. He’s got Robert Evans offering wacky cut-in commentary on the story. Every time Evans breaks in, it cuts a scene (Evans is wearing some great clothes, but I assume they’re just his) awkwardly and it becomes clear Nathanson doesn’t have any regard for his own movie either, at least not in terms of it being a worthwhile narrative. As a series of jokes and tricks, he seems to respect it.

Tony Shalhoub is also good, but lots of the supporting cast misfires. Tim Blake Nelson is never believable as Broderick’s brother and Buck Henry’s small part would have been much more interesting if someone besides Buck Henry had been playing it. Broderick’s no good, but the character’s supposed to be lame (see, he has friends who play the guitar and sing songs about him, we’re supposed to laugh at him… the only way Nathanson could have done anything halfway honest with this film was to give it a Beaver Trilogy viewer self-awareness moment, but those aren’t funny, so no way Nathanson’s doing it). Toni Collette’s funny here too, real good even, in terms of acting, even though her character’s moronic. I think it was when Collette showed up, I really started feeling bad for The Last Shot. The cast list sounds good, but watching it… it’s embarrassingly pointless.

Nathanson’s got some other funny things–except he can’t seem to keep it set in 1985, not when he drops Sundance references and the like–but he ends it on a sentimental tone and the movie certainly never earned it. The music by Rolfe Kent’s a constant annoyance and, otherwise, the film’s technically uninteresting. But Baldwin’s real good and it’s so funny at times, it’s practically acceptable. Though, given Nathanson’s history as a blockbuster ghostwriter, one might think he’d know it doesn’t make any sense to have Baldwin be movie crazy in the third act without establishing it in the first. Rifle on the wall and all.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Nathanson; screenplay by Nathanson, based on a magazine article by Steve Fishman; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by David Rosenbloom; music by Rolfe Kent; production designer, William Arnold; produced by Larry Brezner and David Hoberman; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Alec Baldwin (Joe Devine), Matthew Broderick (Steven Schats), Toni Collette (Emily French), Tony Shalhoub (Tommy Sanz), Calista Flockhart (Valerie Weston), Tim Blake Nelson (Marshal Paris), Buck Henry (Lonnie Bosco) and Ray Liotta (Jack Devine).


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).


The Dead Girl (2006, Karen Moncrieff)

I had assumed, just because of the large cast, a Nashville approach for this film. However, frighteningly, I think it might have been inspired by Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity (the film, not the short story collection). The stories are all independent, more about their central characters than about the event tying them together, in this case, a dead girl. The stories range in quality from terrible to mediocre. Even if they’re mediocre, they don’t have a decent conclusion. The most interesting part of these stories is what is going to happen next. In fact, in most cases, the only important thing is what is going to happen next and the film makes no assumptions. In some ways, it creates unsolvable cliffhangers for the characters… baiting the viewer with an ominous promise (the possible killer, the suicide attempt) then delivering on nothing.

There are five stories. The first two are traditional romances. The third is an awful, dumb thriller, which creates an impossible situation then cheats its way out with the end of the section. The fourth has the most promise but only in terms of what happens immediately after the story ends and then at some point in the future in those characters’ stories. The last story, which finally gets around to revealing the dead girl, is terrible, but not the worst. The way Karen Moncrieff ends it, syrupy, tragic sweet… is an offense to the good work a lot of her actors put in.

The most amazing performance in the film is easily James Franco, just because he not only doesn’t suck, he’s actually really good. He’s in the second story with Rose Byrne (Byrne being the whole reason I had any interest in the film in the first place). She’s good, but her role’s so simple, it’d be hard for her not to be good. Other good performances include Marcia Gay Harden, Josh Brolin, and Giovanni Ribisi. Terrible, unspeakable ones… well, just Mary Steenburgen, who plays a stereotypical role (just like everyone else in the film except maybe Brolin and Ribisi) and does a really bad job of it. Kerry Washington’s good when she’s not doing her Mexican accent. I guess her eyes emote well. Mary Beth Hurt and Nick Searcy have the dumbest roles in the film and there’s really nothing for them to do with them.

The Dead Girl offers absolutely nothing new to… anything. It’s a useless film, filled with decent and good performances. Moncrieff’s an adequate director in parts, but usually not. There’s nothing distinctive about her composition (something I realized in the first five minutes, never a good sign). I guess her dialogue’s okay, but the film’s a bunch of Oprah episodes strung together, which might be fine if there were some artistry or competence involved.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff; director of photography, Michael Grady; edited by Toby Yates; music by Adam Gorgoni; produced by Eric Karten, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Kevin Turen and Henry Winterstern; released by First Look International.

Starring Josh Brolin (Tarlow), Rose Byrne (Leah), Toni Collette (Arden), Bruce Davison (Bill), James Franco (Derek), Marcia Gay Harden (Melora), Mary Beth Hurt (Ruth), Piper Laurie (Arden’s Mother), Brittany Murphy (Krista), Giovanni Ribisi (Rudy), Nick Searcy (Carl), Mary Steenburgen (Beverly) and Kerry Washington (Rosetta).


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