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Sunday, 27 September 2009

Charlie & Boots

Maybe it's time to face facts: Paul Hogan just doesn't want to be funny any more. Or at least, he doesn't want to be funny like he used to be. Not for him the laugh-out-loud days of his various TV series and the first Crocodile Dundee: now he happily sticks to bland but watchable family films - and frustratingly, there's usually just enough going on to suggest that he could still get big laughs... if he wanted to.

So how much you'll enjoy this gentle tale of a recently widowed farmer (Hogan) whose estranged son (Shane Jacobson) decides to take him on a road trip from Warnambool to Cape York depends on you. Hoges fans will enjoy his quality grumpy old man work (no-one says "dickhead" like Hoges), the chemistry between him and Jacobson, and the occasional glimpse of Hoges' ability as a straight actor. Everyone else will be left watching a moderately fun travelogue through rural Australia that goes out of its way to leave no impression whatsoever on the viewer.

It’s hard to really say anything bad about this film, because it clearly achieves everything it sets out to do – it’s just that it sets out to make the kind of cozy, inoffensive movie that even those who enjoy will have difficulty remembering the next day. "Gentle" isn't an insult when it comes to this kind of film, but unless you have an elderly relative to take along you might look a little out of place. If Hoges ever sets out to make another full-on comedy he’ll be dangerous; until then, this is merely a reminder that he’s still got it… and can’t be bothered using it.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #461)

(500) Days of Summer

There's a big difference between describing an event and actually having something to say about that event. 500 Days of Summer makes the mistake of thinking that a fancy structure - in this case, various days in a 500 day relationship are sometimes shown out of order so that we get a grumbly day 350 after a perky day 50 - adds depth to a fairly lightweight story. But like all relationships, it starts out strong as a greeting card writer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets and falls for office assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who kinda doesn't fall for him but goes along with it for a while.

There's a light touch to events (a dance number is a highlight) and the occasional shifts in time serve to highlight the roller-coaster nature of a relationship's early days and how jokes can go stale over time. But as the film progresses it doesn't get any deeper: we can see that Summer isn't into him as much as he's into her and when things go sour he's put through hell, but there's really nothing more to this film than that. It's too even-handed to really get into the pain of being dumped: we're shown that it's as much his fault as hers, and the single line where any kind of hurt is addressed ("you pretty much just do what you want") feels like the only true thing this film has to say.

It's nice for the characters that they're all so adult about things, but when a lightweight relationship segues into a lightweight breakup it makes for a fairly, well, lightweight viewing experience no matter how charming it seems.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #462)

Funny People

In the past Judd Apatow has been really, really good at finding ways to find the comedy in real people. Much of it's thanks to his much-vaunted commitment to improvisation - anyone who's watched the extras to The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up will know that he lets his actors run on and on looking for the funny. But it also comes from telling stories that have a nugget of truth buried deep in the wacky set-ups and endless dick jokes. The 40 Year-Old Virgin was at it's heart the story of a guy becoming someone who could have a relationship, Knocked Up was about how tricky is it to become a father, and now with Funny People we get to see Apatow talking about what it takes to settle down into a proper adult life.

But being an Apatow film, it doesn't start off as a lecture on adult responsibilities: it starts off with would-be stand up comic Ira (Seth Rogen) trying to get his career going. While his flatmates seem to be climbing the career ladder just fine - Mark (Jason Schwartzman) is the star of a crappy sitcom called Yo, Teach! while Lee (Jonah Hill) seems to be free of self-doubt, perhaps because everyone loves a funny fat man - the slimmed down Ira is racked with doubt. Meanwhile, George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a massive comedy star thanks to what seems to be a stream of fairly lame gimmick movies (he's a merman; he's a baby again) and yet lives alone in his huge mansion, perhaps because he doesn't exactly seem all that likeable. Then he gets a rare, fatal blood disease and through a chain of circumstances ends up hiring Ira as a joke writer because hey, he's not feeling all that funny at the moment.

What develops between them is the usual Apatow male bond, but Sandler - who's in amazing form here in a largely serious role - and Rogen bring a heavy core to their banter and gags that gives the film a heft Apatow's previous films didn't have. But just when you think you've got this film pegged as a serious tale made tolerable through humour, there's a twist: Simmons gets better. With a new lease on life, he decides to rectify the mistakes of the past. Namely letting true love Laura (Leslie Mann) get away. She's now married (to Eric Bana, who is hilarious here) but a new life is tempting, and suddenly we've gone from a film about struggling comics to a family drama.

The shift works even though most of the comedy falls away for a while, but it gives the film an odd rambling feel, like it would have worked better as a TV mini-series. But Apatow knows what he's doing, and he knows what he wants to say; if you're willing to go with it, you'll find there's a lot to like about Funny People.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #461)