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New Releases

RV One would have to travel deep into the 1990s -- during the era of Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage -- to find a comedic Robin Williams performance that was more than simply incessant and annoying shtick. RV, therefore, marks the first time in at least a decade that Williams merges his patented humor with a recognizably human character, and the balance suits him well. It's just a shame that the vehicle that carries this engaging performance doesn't offer a smoother ride. Williams stars as Bob Munro, a workaholic who spends far more time sucking up to his unctuous boss (Will Arnett) than racking up quality hours with the wife (Cheryl Hines) and kids (Joanna "JoJo" Levesque and Josh Hutcherson). Ordered to attend a business meeting in Colorado right when he's supposed to take the family to Hawaii for a vacation, Bob decides to meet both obligations by renting an RV and heading out to the open spaces with his clan -- and thereby making it easier to sneak away long enough to participate in the powwow. That quintessential modern-day tug-of-war between career and home is too omniscient to ever be ignored by filmmakers looking for an easy angle, but for a while, RV looks as if it's going to be a poignant, perhaps even perceptive, take on the matter. But no: Director Barry Sonnenfeld, whose one-two punch of Get Shorty and Men In Black once promised a brighter future, and scripter Geoff Rodkey, who recently hacked up the screenplay for Tim Allen's The Shaggy Dog, reveal an obsession with labored slapstick and potty humor, meaning we get tiresome scenes in which Bob falls down hills, gets run over or finds himself covered head-to-toe in fecal matter. By the end, the crudity is so excessive, it makes National Lampoon's Vacation look as sophisticated as The Accidental Tourist by comparison. Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth offer some broad laughs as married yahoos who permanently live out of their RV; the roles are condescending, but the pair invest them with vibrant personalities -- and it's worth a chuckle just to hear Daniels' character deliver the word "chagrin." **

Current Releases

AKEELAH AND THE BEE The pattern holds that every decade's midway stretch gives us an underdog worth supporting. In the 1970s, it was Rocky, in the 1980s, it was the Karate Kid, and in the 1990s, it was Babe. And now here comes 11-year-old Akeelah to carry the torch for the little people. Akeelah and the Bee, which in addition to its underdog roots also manages to come across as a mesh between the documentary Spellbound and Boyz N the Hood refitted with a happy ending, centers on Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), a south LA girl who, with the help of her mentor (Laurence Fishburne), works her way through the national spelling bee circuit. What sets the film apart is the manner in which it details how Akeelah's triumphs end up lifting the entire community: Her success is their success, and it's truly inspiring to watch neighbors from all walks of life throw their support behind her. There's no need to hide that lump in your throat or tear in your eye -- this movie earns its sentiment. ***

AMERICAN DREAMZ The decline of the American empire -- or at least the dumbing down of its populace -- began in earnest some time ago, but it has clearly reached its zenith with the twin threat of the Bush presidency and reality TV. Both, of course, are obvious targets for satire, but it's hard to mock something that in itself is already a mockery of sorts. Writer-director Paul Weitz nevertheless takes a stab with this comedy that ties together a moronic talent show hosted by a callow Brit (Hugh Grant) and a clueless US prez (Dennis Quaid) unable to think for himself. American Dreamz is a crushing disappointment, a weak-willed, ill-conceived film with a scarcity of laughs and a maddening tendency to let its subjects off with a slap on the wrist rather than go for the jugular. Lacking the lockjaw clench of a Dr. Strangelove or a Network, it's content to offer toothless stereotypes and defanged targets. This isn't a black comedy -- it's more like a whiter shade of pale. **

FRIENDS WITH MONEY Movies like Friends With Money can often be termed "slice of life" films, but when they're as tasty as this one, a slice won't suffice: We end up longing for the whole pie. Set in LA, this rich seriocomic gem centers on the daily activities of four close female friends. Three of them indeed have money: screenwriter Christine (Catherine Keener), clothing designer Jane (Frances McDormand) and stay-at-home mom Franny (Joan Cusack). The friend without money is Olivia, whose lifestyle forces the others to reflect upon their own circumstances. I greatly enjoyed writer-director Nicole Holofcener's previous two pictures, 1996's Walking and Talking and 2002's Lovely & Amazing, but this might be her most accomplished work yet. Her greatest strength as a writer rests not in her dialogue (though it's top-grade) but rather in the manner in which she proves to be enormously generous of spirit with all her characters. ***1/2

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