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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Sept. 15

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DESPICABLE ME When James Stewart offers to lasso the moon for Donna Reed in Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life, it's purely a romantic gesture. When Gru (Steve Carell), the star of the 3-D opus Despicable Me, plots to shrink the moon to a size small enough so that he can make off with it, it's clearly to show that he's the baddest dude around. After all, if a supervillain isn't feared and respected, then what good is he? Despicable Me is a witty, congenial lark that obviously won't have the staying power of Toy Story 3 but serves quite nicely as a pleasing placeholder in the cinematic summer of 2010. Sweet-natured yet also avoiding the cloying sentiment that tarnishes any great number of toon tales, this finds Gru enlisting the aid of three oblivious orphan girls to help him one-up his biggest competitor in the supervillain sweepstakes, a self-satisfied nebbish (Jason Segel) who calls himself Vector. Naturally, Gru knows nothing about children, and just as naturally, the girls will teach him about family and responsibility. But that comes later. First, the movie has to let loose with a volley of inspired sight gags, a smattering of adult-oriented humor (note the homage to The Godfather), and some screen-pushing innovations to justify the 3-D expense. ***

DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS France's The Dinner Game was a subversively funny picture about a smug book publisher named Pierre who takes part in a game in which he and his buddies all invite the most boring or idiotic people they can find to a dinner simply to make fun of them. Sentimentality and sympathy had no place in this ruthless comedy, as Pierre was a thoroughly venal character. But, to paraphrase Homey the Clown, Hollywood don't play that. In this remake, the detestable Pierre has been transformed into the likable Tim (reliable Paul Rudd), and even his treatment of his chosen one (Steve Carell) has been softened. But here's the surprising thing: Despite its squishy center, the picture still manages to sport a prickly exterior that leads to countless scenes of squirm-inducing hilarity. For that, primarily thank Carell, whose performance nails the character's social ineptitude and physical retardation to an almost painful degree. Unfortunately, the film peters out once it reaches the actual dinner party, as the finale crams in a number of broadly played "schmucks" and asks us to laugh at them before pitying them. But the laughs came earlier, when the movie stood by its comic convictions. The clever coda notwithstanding, the ending mainly offers a mild case of indigestion. **1/2

EAT PRAY LOVE Not haven't read Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir, it's entirely possible that, in comparison, this film version seems about as complicated as an episode of Dora the Explorer. But on its own, it's a richly rewarding experience, following one woman's journey both across the globe and within herself. Julia Roberts delivers her strongest performance since Erin Brockovich a full decade ago — as Liz Gilbert, she brings to the forefront the doubts, frustrations and longings inherent in a woman who realizes she's not content with her marriage or her surroundings and elects to set out on new adventures. Liz finds both spiritual and physical nourishment during her travels to Italy, India and Bali, but her lessons aren't conveyed to us in the usual cookie-cutter platitudes; instead, the dialogue is frequently lyrical and lovely, never cheapening the thoughts or feelings being revealed. In a summer dominated (as always) by male-skewering titles, Eat Pray Love is certain to get dismissed in some quarters as Sex and the City 2's sister in failed counter programming. But with its themes of self-discovery and its impressive roster of award-caliber actors (Javier Bardem, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis), it's actually an intelligent movie for discerning grownups who wouldn't be caught dead seeing Grown Ups. ***1/2

THE EXPENDABLES The Truth In Advertising award for the summer of 2010 goes to The Expendables, which employs (however unintentionally) its own title to push the fact that this is a disposable action film that will dissipate from memory almost immediately. Its primary — make that only — selling point is its large cast of macho action stars ... but the truth only goes as far as the marquee. As the leader of a group of mercenaries hired to take down a South American dictator, Sylvester Stallone is almost always front and center, but those expecting him to share significant screen time with fellow Big Boys Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger will be disappointed that the other two are only in one scene. And really, is it that big a deal to have a cast that includes Steve Austin, Randy Couture and Terry Crews? These guys would line up for a straight-to-DVD American Pie sequel if asked. Nobody goes to this type of movie for the acting, but given the lack of excitement in most of the action scenes (more mano-a-mano skirmishes would have better served the film rather than the ceaseless gunfire and explosions), there's little else to discuss. Faring best are Jason Statham and Mickey Rourke; delivering the worst performance is Dolph Lundgren, who apparently hasn't learned a single thing after 25 years in the business. **

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