MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

WILMINGTON ON DVD: Fish Tank, Sweet Smell of Success, Megamind, The Steig Larsson Trilogy, Due Date



Fish Tank (Three and a Half Stars)
U.K.; Andrea Arnold, 2009 (Criterion Collection)

Sometime an amateur actor can embody a role so thoroughly, so effortlessly, that, watching them, we seem to watching drama-turned-documentary-and-back-again. Katie Jarvis, the young non-professional whom writer-director Andrea Arnold (Red Road), picked to play the lead in Fish Tank, her second feature film, is a case in point. We seem to be not so much watching a performance, as eavesdropping on a character.

Jarvis plays, or embodies Mia Williams, a young British girl — 15, foul-mouthed and rebellious — who lives in the projects with her blonde curvy hell-raiser of a mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), her equally foul-mouthed little sister, Sophie (Charlotte Collins) and whatever new boyfriend Joanne is bedding at the moment. In this case, the bloke of choice is Conor (Michael Fassbender of Hunger), a security guard who seems smart and responsible and very nice to Joanne’s daughters, especially Mia.

Too nice, maybe? Arnold and Fassbinder keep us guessing. But the possibility always looms — as Mia rocks around the house in the aggressive hip-hop routines she wants to try out at a local strip parlor dance contest, and as Conor applauds and helps out and encourages her — encourages her a little too much for the quality of the dancing.

Soon, something happens, and then something further happens, more drastic, more dangerous, when Mia, who’s a bit of a psychopath, breaks through the barriers for a chilling try for revenge. This sequence, which we won’t describe (You‘ll know it when you see it) has been damned by some of the film’s more fastidious admirers as melodramatic, though, given Mia‘s personality and background, it’s not all that implausible.

Perhaps only the extreme naturalism of most of the rest of Fish Tank, and its superficial similarity to the work of British realist moviemakers like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh — though often it seems closer to the Lynne Ramsay of Ratcatcher and the Alan Clarke of Scum — lulls some viewers into too casual a sense of what some fifteen year old girls are capable of. Certainly actress Jarvis and filmmaker Arnold give us plenty of preparation. And the movie is often a knockout.

Fish Tank won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It looks as if it deserved it.

Extras: Three Short Films by Andrea Arnold: Milk (1998), Dog (2001) and the Oscar short film winner Wasp (2003); Interviews with Fassbender and Wareing; Audition footage; Booklet with Ian Christie essay.


Sweet Smell of Success (Two Discs)
U.S.: Alexander Mackendrick, 1957 (Criterion Collection)

Sweet Smell of Success, an American movie masterpiece and one of the best, truest and gutsiest of all the classic film noirs, is a sleek killer of a dark comedy/drama about New York City’s Broadway in the ‘50s — centering around two of its scurvier but nevertheless fashionable and influential denizens: megalomaniac star gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and one of his more energetic publicist/sources, scummy but fashionable Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis).

Falco, who wears a suit black as night, a dazzling white shirt, curly black hair and a poisonous scowl/leer that always implies he‘s seen something dirty and know something even filthier, buzzes up and down Broadway (like Mosca the fly) and lives and dies each day by whether he gets a story planted in Hunsecker’s hugely successful column. Hunsecker, meanwhile, mostly holds court in the night spots which are his fiefdom, condescending to all the people, from Sidney and the other flacks, to movie stars to a U. S. Senator, who come to sip whiskey, smoke, chase tail and pay court to him.

J. J. and Sidney are unashamed users, almost proudly amoral. Hunsecker clearly thinks he’s above morality; Falco thinks he cant afford it now. Sidney treats his potential padrone with a fawning but mean-eyed servility. Hunsecker, with his huge ominous spectacles masking eyes of ice, condescends or freezes out Falco with an offhand contempt that suggests a sadistic monarch playing with a slightly disobedient puppy. “Match me, Sidney,” the donnish Hunsecker tells the weaselly Falco, in one of this movie’s many, many famous lines, and it becomes a split-second point of moral conjecture whether or not Falco will actually scramble to light his cigarette. (He doesn’t. Don’t worry though; he does far, far worse.)

Both these Broadway glamour monsters, as it happens, have need of each other this dark, blazing night and smoky day, in this world is bounded by the Stork Club, 21, the theater district and 42nd Street and maybe, if you’re slumming, the Carnegie Deli. Sidney wants to use J. J. to ascend higher in that world, into the sweet, smelly heights of Broadway gossip success, to become another J. J.. Meanwhile, Hunsecker has nominated Falco for one of the dirty jobs he can’t get too close to. He wants his predatory little flunky to covertly sabotage the budding romance between J. J.‘s sweet younger sister Susan (played by movie newcomer Susan Harrison), and her blond straight-arrow musician lover Steve (Martin Milner), who plays cool jazz guitar, a la Jim Hall, with the hip, popular Chico Hamilton Quintet.

When you watch J. J. and Sidney do their routines in Sweet Smell of Success — and they are routines, snazzy, cruel, funny if mostly unsmiling performances repeated over and over for a captive audience in the clubs and below the theater marquees and the blasts of neon, with streams of people pouring past indoors or out — you’ll never, never forget them. You’ll hear Hunsecker telling Falco “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.“ Or that classic squelch “Maybe I left my sense of humor in my other suit.” Or Sidney circling blonde cigarette girl Rita (Barbara Nichols) and answering her query about whether he’s actually listening to her with the legendary crack “Avidly, avidly.”

Falco and Hunsecker are classic American movie characters — written with knife-like wit, commanding craft and true street genius by Ernest Lehman (who worked in this world) and Clifford Odets (a one time playwright king of Broadway), and directed with stinging life, energy and flawless insight by Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick, a Scotsman born in America who became one of the ‘50s comedy experts of that British treasure-house, the Ealing Studio.

“Sweet Smell” was a sometimes chaotic production, with directors (Lehman) replaced, and scripts pounded out (by Odets) in the last minute. But Lehman or Odets never signed a better script. Mackendrick never directed a better movie — though his original 1955 The Ladykillers, with Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Katie Johnson, comes close. Elmer Bernstein, fresh from 1955‘s The Man With the Golden Arm, for Frank Sinatra and Otto Preminger, rarely wrote a jazzier, sharper score. The master cinematographer James Wong Howe (Hangmen Also Die, Pursued, Body and Soul) never shot a darker, more brilliant noir.

Lancaster did better, but not much. Though the matchlessly brutal J. J. Hunsecker earned Burt a slot on the AFI’s all time movie bad guy list, he was sometimes (not often) more impressive, more richly colored and dominating, in tonier classics like Elmer Gantry, From Here to Eternity and The Leopard.

But Tony Curtis never topped Falco, not even in Some Like It Hot. These two streetwise costars, Curtis and Lancaster, from the Bronx and East Harlem, at the top of their photogenic Hollywood chops, fresh from a huge movie hit together in the Carol Reed directed 1956 Trapeze, scored a controversial delayed knockout in “Sweet Smell“ even though they were both playing against type — so much so that many of Curtis‘s adoring femme fans revolted and attacked or ignored the film. (Nice Jeff Donnell, of In a Lonely Place and The George Gobel Show, who plays Sidney’s adoring secretary Sally, may symbolize them all. She can’t believe Sidney is a bad guy either.)

Lancaster was not Mackendrick‘s choice for Hunsecker. He wanted Orson Welles or Hume Cronyn (whom he thought looked a bit like Winchell). But it’s a weird piece of casting that works, and it makes this a stronger, sexier film — and even a more subversive one.

Lancaster, boss of the film’s production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, could be a conventional (or unconventional) hero, a noir guy, a good soldier, or one of the screen’s great swashbucklers (in The Crimson Pirate). He has that rapt, bedazzled quality and an overwhelming athleticism that enlivens both his heroes and villains, gives them a bizarre energy and a burning magnetism. His sexually bent Hunsecker (who seems to be in love with his sister) seems contemptuous not just of Sidney, not just of thes celebrity and publicist ass-kissers swarming around them, but of the whole world. He doesn’t remind you of Winchell, so much as what Winchell, in a dream, might have wanted to be: a brawny god and a muscular, intimidating king of Broadway, ensconced at the Stork Club, ruling the night, rattling out a lead in his mind.

What the hell can you say about Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco? Sidney brings a grin to your lips, and he makes your flesh crawl. He’s a prince of slime. Just as the movie‘s title (from Lehman’s original story, changed by the editor) suggests something both sweet and rotten in the American dream, Curtis, here in his movie star prime, creates a best-dressed Broadway louse, a dirty-minded ace of backstage deception, a fast-talking seductive scumbag. Like Kirk Douglas, like Mitchum, like Lancaster himself, Curtis was a big ‘50s star not afraid to look evil, and even though Falco’s badness almost pales next to Hunsecker’s, top-notch callous hucksterism and junior-grade evil is what Tony gives us, straight up.

He’s the ultimate wise-ass, toady and celebrity flack, the Paparazzo of publicists. Gleaming like an ultimate street hustler, he looks as if he just stepped out of both Toots Shor’s, and the Via Veneto of Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita, or “The Sweet Life“ (a movie which, coming three years later in 1960, had to have been influenced by Sweet Smell of Success). As Gary Giddins says in this movie’s Criterion booklet, Curtis acts the hide off this part, plays the spots off it. It‘s a role you can’t imagine being done better by anyone else, ever.

Everyone else on screen hits a hot streak too: the eternal fat ‘50s city cop Emile Meyer (in a part intended for Ernest Borgnine of the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Oscar winner, Marty) as the brutal copper Harry Kello; bosomy Barbara Nichols as Cigareeta Rita, a bit hamstrung here by the Production Code; newsroom-regal Edith Atwater as J. J.’s column manager Mary; and blacklist victim Sam Levene as Sidney’s good Uncle Frank. (Good being relative of course.)

I said Sweet Smell of Success was gutsy. Boy, is it ever. In the waning years of the McCarthy era, with a crack cast and crew loaded with lefties of all types (starting with Lancaster himself), the movie attacks Red-baiting, drug and Commie hysteria, gutter journalism, police brutality and corruption, the phonier side of the American dreams of sex, celebrity and success, and, almost incidentally, its main target, the lies and hypocrisy and scummy double-dealing of Broadway and show biz press agentry, publicity and gossip columnists — that last something ex-gossip column item ghost Lehman (of Irving Hoffman’s “Tales of Hoffman”) knew well.

And yes it‘s true. “Sweet Smell” also deliberately patterned its main villainous character, the venomous sicko Hunsecker, after one of the country’s most famous and powerful newspapermen, Mr. and Mrs. America’s (and all the ships at sea) favorite Broadway scribe, Walter Winchell himself. (Winchell‘s daughter Walda was the model for J. J.’s sister Susan.) Not everybody who saw “Sweet Smell of Success” in 1957 knew that Winchell was the model for Hunsecker, but you can bet your ass most of the Broadway crowd from 42nd street to 57th street knew. And so, of course, did Winchell, whose reign was nearly over, but who probably rooted for the sour stink of failure to sink this movie — which it almost did — as he tipped his fedora and waited for “The Untouchables.”

Sweet Smell of Success lost money. But it fairly quickly became a classic. A classic it remains. I can remember yearning to see it, out in the sticks, in 1959. Now, thanks to Criterion, I can watch it any time I want. I think I’ll put it on at midnight. I’ll have a lot to watch. Criterion’s package for this great film is a wonderful one; James Naremore gives this two-disc set one of the best audio commentaries I‘ve heard. And the film itself deserves it: a terrific package of high talents in their prime, taking chances and winning the only game that counts.

Tell me something. Seriously. Why can’t we have more movies this smart and tough and sharp and beautifully made today? Movies about real American subjects? In the ‘70s there were a ton of similar pictures made by filmmakers — Scorsese, Coppola, Cassavetes, Friedkin, Lumet, Rafelson, Altman — who probably loved Sweet Smell of Success. What‘s our equivalent today? The Social Network? Give me a break. The Coen Brothers and Marty Scorsese? Well yeah, but they can’t do it all.

We need our own movies, today, to be more like this great picture by Lehman and Lancaster and Curtis and Odets and Mackendrick (a top director who made precious few afterwards.) We need our movies to take chances like this, to be irreverent, smart, bold and stylish as hell. It isn’t just the dialogue that’s great in Sweet Smell of Success. It’s the ideas. And the people. The style and the craft on all levels.

The newspapers are dying, but TV is there and boy, does it need to get a laser-eyed once-over like this. Broadway’s still there too, all the way to 42nd Street. The subjects are there. The people are around. The movie makers are there. And the movies? We’re waiting for them.

Avidly, avidly.

Extras: Commentary by James Naremore; Documentary Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away (Scotland: Dermot McQuarrie, 1986) (Three Stars), with interviews with Mackendrick, Lancaster, James Coburn, James Hill, and others, written and narrated by Michael Pye; Documentary James Wong Howe: Cinematographer (U.S.:  Arthur M. Kaye, 1973) with conversations and tutorials with Howe; Interviews with Walter Winchell biographer Neal Gabler and filmmaker/Mackendrick student James Mangold; Booklet with essays by Gary Giddins, and a memoir and two “J.J. Hunsecker” short stories by Ernest Lehman.


Megamind (Three Stars)
U.S.: Tom McGrath, 2010

You should have a pretty good time at Megamind, a DreamWorks 3D feature cartoon from director Tom McGrath (of the “Madagascar” movies), that satirizes superhero comics and, like Despicable Me, tells things from the villain‘s point of view.

Of course this is a villain — initially a nasty little blue brainiac bad scientist with a hatchet face and beady eyes, named Megamind and voiced by Will Ferrell — who has more strings to his bow than just villainy. Like the supercad in Despicable Me, Mega has his good side. And he even discovers, after finally vanquishing and apparently destroying his longtime superhero nemesis, Metroman (Brad Pitt), that he misses the Superguy and that villainy doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a hero to bash and maul and try to destroy every day or two.

After all, these two go back a long way, somewhat like Superman and Luthor (or The Prankster, or Mr. Mxyztplk), like Batman and the Joker (or the Penguin), like Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. And they share a kind of joint saga of super-parallelisms.

Metroman, like Superman and Megamind, came to Earth in a spaceship from a distant planet, but Superman (or actually, Superboy) was raised by a good solid Midwestern farming family, the Kents — while Metroman grew up rich, and Megamind was raised by criminals, a clear case of environment determining degrees of supergood or superbad. No wonder they can’t stop fighting each other; they’re superbrothers under the skin. There, but for the grace of Dreamworks, go I…

Megamind (the name was borrowed from a Japanese comic strip) is also a villain who finds he has a heart, who grows to dig and woo heroine Tina Fey as intrepid TV reporter Roxanne Ritchie, and who also has a cute sidekick, Minion (David Cross), a whirling, whisking fish in a robot spaceman’s suit and head-bowl helmet. (Remember Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet? Remember Phil Tucker’s great God-awful hilarious mess of a movie, Robot Monster? Then you gotta love Minion). Finally, desperate for kicks, Mega decides he has to whip up another superhero, so he turns a nerdy cameraman named Hal into superdude Titan (played by Jonah Hill, cooking), to make life mean something again.

In other words, bad needs good and vice versa. Quite a heavy moral for a kid‘s picture — although, like many feature cartoons, this one isn’t just for kids. Or adults, whether superhero or supervillain-inclined. It’s for anyone who ever picked up a superhero comic, or wanted to, or will some day — or who looked up at the starry night and shook a fist at the whole black, blazing, endless super-universe and cried “Kryptonite be damned! I‘ll fight for truth and justice and the American way!”

Of the actors, Tina Fey, Pitt, Hill and Cross all seem to match up perfectly — and Ben Stiller, JK Simmons and Justin Theroux are also around productively, and so is McGrath himself, who scorches up the soundtrack as an aristocrat named Lord Scott and a bewildered prison guard, whose prisoners keep changing shapes.

The only voice I sometimes had problems with was Will Ferrell, who’s been cast against type as Megamind instead of his trademark lecherous phonies and bewildered doofusses, and who could use a little more pizzazz and Vincent Price style sinister hamming at the start. But, to be fair, Gene Hackman wasn’t really right as mad inventor Lex Luthor, in the Donner-Lester Superman series. (It was  Telly Savalas’s part.) And yet now, for most movie fans of that era and afterwards, Hackman is Luthor. So by the same token Ferrell may be Megamind, just as Cross is Minion and Jonah Hill is Titan, or Tighten, or whatever.

What can you say? Megamind certainly won’t change your life, unless you’re a troubled super villain, or an exploited minion, or a psycho with a camera. But it’s a funny movie and also a visually spectacular one. (The settings look like Fritz Lang gone a little Chuck Jones). It uses 3D imaginatively, cracks some funny jokes (not too many, but enough), and ends with an avalanche of action. It isn’t as snazzy and creative as The Incredibles, but so what? It isn’t as snazzy and creative as La Dolce Vita either. And I’ll freely admit it isn’t as good as Despicable Me. But then, sauerkraut isn’t as good as chocolate cake, unless you really like sauerkraut.

Extras: Featurettes; Lost scene; Gag reel; Games; Video comic book; Picture-in-Picture material; Interactive comic creator.


The Steig Larsson Trilogy (“The Millennium Trilogy”) (Four Discs) (Three Stars)
Sweden: Nils Arden Oplev & Daniel Alfredson, 2009-2010 (Music Box)

In this trilogy of thrillers, Noomi Rapace, as Lisbeth, the tattooed beyond-the-fringe suspected murderess/hacker heroine, and Michael Nyqvist as Mikael, her muck-raking leftist journalist/ally, tear off the scabs from some old social/political wounds (just this side of fascism) in this scorcher of a Swedish crime thriller trilogy: a mostly engrossing adaptation of the world-wide literary/bestseller trio by Steig Larsson — a leftist muckraker himself.

The Swedes have been unusually good at literary thrillers, just as they’re also unusually good at rock ‘n roll, and tennis, and lingonberry jam, and movies. Ingmar Bergman is still their best movie-maker ever, and one of the world’s best as well: one film writer-director who probably should have gotten the Nobel Prize for literature. (I‘m serious.) The Larsson books are, of course, what Graham Greene, another famous Nobel non-recipient, called “entertainments,“ crowd-pleasers mostly ignored by upper-echelon critics and prize-givers. But, sales-wise, they were world-wide phenomenons, and the writer’s own story is a fascinating one.

Like his hero (or maybe Lisbeth’s sidekick) Mikael, Larsson was a leftist Swedish investigative reporter himself, engaging in obvious literary wish-fulfillment. He wrote the three novels (and maybe more), but died before any of them could be published. Put out posthumously, the Larsson trilogy have all become spectacular international best-sellers, and opened up a real life mystery drama, as well an inheritance battle between his long-time girlfriend and his family.

Then came the movies and they’ve all been crowd-pleasers too, if not quite on the lofty financial level of the books. Many of the main actors thread their way through all, or most, of the trilogy: led by Nyqvist as the angst-ridden, determined Mikael and Rapace as the bewitchingly sullen and silent half-pint dynamo Lisbeth. The supporting cast includes brilliant, warm Lena Endre (of Bergman and Ullmann‘s great Faithless), in the less flashy part of Mikael’s expose’ magazine colleague Erika; Georgi Staykov as Lisbeth’s brutal Russian defector father Alexander Zalachenko, Anders Ahlbom as her scum-sucking pedophiliac pig of a psychiatrist Dr. Peter Teleborian , and, the best of all the movie’s many malevolent male villains, Micke Spreitz as the huge, blonde assassin Ronald Neiderman, a behemoth who feels no pain and looks as if he could take on three Robert Shaws from From Russia with Love and send them all back to Moscow, mangled.

If you compare these movies to the recent British crime trilogy Red Riding, which is also based on a (far less popular) novel trilogy about social corruption and dark secrets written by novelist David Peace, adapted and scripted by Tony Grisoni for three different directors, and something of an unsung modern movie masterpiece, the Swedish film holds up very well. The Steig Larsson Millennium Trilogy may be less than an epic, but it’s more than an entertainment.

Includes: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden; Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) Three and a Half Stars. A terrific, smart Swedish mystery thriller. Based on the first Larsson novel, this one is about Nazis, serial killers, and cold-case murder mysteries on an isolated island — with an incredible performance by newcomer Rapace as Lisbeth, a black-leather, bisexual, computer expert on the trail of misogynists and monsters, and strong support from Nyqvist as Mikael, the Larsson-like left-wing investigative journalist (in temporary disgrace) and Sven Bertil-Taube as a rich industrialist who wants Mikael to solve the decades-old disappearance of his daughter.

Larsson’s book was originally called “Men Who Hate Women“ and the movie is, likewise, a full-throttle assault on violent sexism, to the extent that some viewers may get repelled and disturbed. But, like The Silence of the Lambs, this is a shocker that turns misogyny inside out. (In Swedish, with English subtitles.)

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Sweden; Daniel Alfredson, 2009) (Three Stars)
Perhaps the least of the Larsson Trilogy, but still a corker, this movie delves into Lisbeth‘s fiery past, sends her on the run and introduces two sadistic and frightening villains, Lisbeth‘s own father (played by Staykov) and Spreitz as the blonde monster Neiderman. There’s a problem with the last two “Girl” stories though: Lisbeth is a damsel in distress and in jail or the hospital for much of their joint running time, and she’s more fun when she’s roaming free and kicking ass. (In Swedish, with English subtitles.)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Sweden; Alfredson, 2009 (Three Stars) The third of the Steig Larsson “Girl” movie adaptations — about Blomkvist, Lisbeth, and the rat’s nest of government corruption, private depravity and cold-blooded murder they uncover — is not quite as good as the first “Girl” movie (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), but about as good or a little better than the second (The Girl Who Played with Fire), and overall, a pretty entertaining show.

Back is director Alfredson, who also worked on “Played with Fire,“ but not, suggestively, on “Dragon Tattoo,” which was directed by Niels Arden Oplev and written by Nikolai Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. Oplev may be a slicker director than Alfredson, but there also may be a script problem. Each of the unusually big Larsson books is arranged as a stand-alone murder mystery by itself, but they’re also part of a continuous saga, and by the end, there are so many strands to untie, that the last movie seems too rushed, even though it’s nearly two and a half hours long.

“Dragon Tattoo” didn’t have to wrap everything up and audiences were probably so startled and/or delighted by their first look at Rapace’s hard-boiled anti-heroine Lisbeth that they didn’t care. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest also mixes up thriller and romance movie genres, though in this case, the romance seems to be doomed: Mikael‘s apparently unrequited crush on Lisbeth, scourge of an astonishing gallery of vile male rapists, pedophiles, fascists and murderers. Mikael, the relentless reporter, has the same soft eyes as Erika, but Lisbeth’s glare pierces like a knife, and what they share is almost like Brief Encounter, crossed with a James Bond movie and All the President‘s Men.

As for the upcoming American remake of Larsson, to be directed by David Fincher, with Daniel Craig as The Reporter and Rooney Mara as The Girl, well, you owe it to yourself to see Noomi and her tattoo and mohawk first. If Ingmar Bergman deserved a Nobel Prize for Literature, Noomi Rapace deserves a Palme d’Or for Punk. (Swedish, with subtitles.)
Extras: Documentary; Interviews with Nyqvist, Rapace, others of the cast and crew; Fight scene anatomized.


Due Date (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Todd Phillips, 2010

An odd-couple road trip comedy about a wired-tight middle class architect (Robert Downey, Jr.) and an effete but slobby Hollywood-bound wanna-be actor (Zach Galifianakis), thrown together on an impromptu cross-country drive from Atlanta to L.A., Due Date isn’t up to the best of its most obvious antecedents, Midnight Run and Planes, Trains and Automobiles — even if it compares favorably enough to Phillips‘ own 2000 comedy crash-out Road Trip.

This movie made me laugh, though not nearly as much as Phillips’ last show, the stratospheric comedy hit The Hangover. Due Date has a tendency to try for too many Farrellyisms, to get too big and car-crashy explosive too soon, and to waste the virtuosic Downey and overstretch the newly omnipresent Galifianakis. It’s not bad, but too frequently, it’s not too good.

Actually, Due Date lost me somewhere around the Mexican border at Ciudad Juarez, which Downey‘s Peter Highman and Galifianakis’ Ethan Tremblay accidentally cross, falling into the hands of some descendants of Alfonso Bedoya who have gotten jobs as border guards. But the trip actually started to go south even earlier, when Ethan fell asleep at the wheel and flipped his rental car off a bridge on its roof somewhere west of Atlanta. Or maybe it was the over-cozy scene when Peter and Ethan curled up together on the front seat (Why? Nobody wants the back seat?) for a nighttime snooze, and Ethan started jacking off (his substitute for a sleeping pill) and his French bulldog with a sun collar started masturbating too. (Could Rin Tin Tin do that?)

But give “Date“ its due. The movie at least has some character comedy and personality gags, and it also has Downey, which puts it ahead of most recent comedies.

Downey is a master at both humor and drama and their various hybrids, even when the script won’t back him up (as it often won’t here). With his haggard soulful eyes balancing his glib run-of-the mouth exasperation, he mostly nails Peter Highman (Highman: Get it?), an expectant father summoned back to L. A. to witness the birth of his baby. Michelle Monaghan is the mom, another inducement.

Things are hectic and about to get worse. Just outside the airport entrance doors, Peter bumps into Galifianakis’ Ethan (“Tremblay” is his stage name) when Ethan’s car clips Peter’s Town Car and he loses a door. In the mix-up, the two future co-stars and road buddies scramble suitcases, and later Ethan gets them both thrown off the plane, when he sits behind Peter and starts babbling about terrorists and bombs, refusing to shut up despite frantic shushing form Peter. (A rather odd lapse in this post-9/11 era.)

Peter, slowly losing his temper, has now also lost his luggage, his wallet, all his I.D. and credit cards and everything but a cute huggie-toy rescued for him by thoughtful Ethan — and they’ve also been both plastered on the “no-fly” security list. But he foolishly acquiesces when Ethan offers to give him a ride to L. A. in a rental car, and to pay all his expenses. Off go the boy-os, toward what mad adventures we can only wildly surmise — accompanied by that friendly French bulldog, Ethan’s medical marijuana (for glaucoma, he keeps insisting ) and a coffee can containing the ashes of Ethan’s recently cremated father. (I give you two guesses what the pay-off gag for that one is.)

Well, I don’t want to telegraph any more jokes. (The movie does that better.) But Downey is one of my favorite thesps, and proof of his histrionic skills comes here conclusively when Ethan breaks out his weed, and Peter insists he‘s never touched the stuff. Wow! What an actor!

If only Galifianakis could match him.  I thought he could also use a few moments of early Gene Wilder-level hysteria, something to throw things even more off-kilter. But Galifianakis always seems too much in control, a bit apart from his own nuttiness.

Phillips, who once made a documentary called Frat House, and who directed Will Ferrell, Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn in the Back to the Fraternity comedy Old School, has a bent for this kind of high-and-horny frat-boy humor. Maybe he’s the king of it — and it’s good to be the king (of something). But in Due Date, he’s up against our formidable memories of  Candy and Steve Martin in “Plains, Trains” and of Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro in Midnight Run, not to mention Lemmon and Matthau (or Randall and Klugman) in The Odd Couple.

Merely introducing these guys to each other and spending a lot of money, or flipping cars off bridges, or going all Judd Apatow on us, isn’t enough. As they said in Damn Yankees, “You‘ve gotta have heart.” (Even if the way to that heart is through Galifianakis’ stomach.)

“Due Date” just goes too far, too fast, and is too automatic and undercooked on one end of its odd couple attack. But there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours. “Saw 3D,“ for example. (Aaaargh!!!) “life As We Know It” for another. (Yeccccch!) By comparison, Phillips’ movie is like an old buddy who shows up, tells some good jokes, tells some groaners, farts a little, barfs the beer, doesn’t always flush the toilet, but is basically a good guy. (Just keep him away from your girlfriend.)

By the way, why didn’t Peter just take a train?

Extras: Featurettes; Deleted scenes; Gag reel; “2 ½ Men” sequence.

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One Response to “WILMINGTON ON DVD: Fish Tank, Sweet Smell of Success, Megamind, The Steig Larsson Trilogy, Due Date”

  1. point parts says:

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon