Saturday, October 3, 2015

Movie Reviews: Playing It Cool, The Impostors

Playing It Cool
directed by Justin Reardon
Romantic comedies are usually pretty cliched. You (with the occasional exception of films like Annie Hall, 500 Days of Summer or Don Jon) pretty much know how these things are going to go down before you even start to watch them. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy has to do some serious self-examination and internal rework. Boy has to do something desperate or humiliating to win girl's love again. This last part normally includes a sprint through the train station, bus station, airport or for films set in earlier days, the port so that he can tell his baby just how he feels before something horrible happens and the star crossed lovers are forever separated. So for the most part when you watch movies like this you probably aren't looking for too many surprises, violent conflict or really out of left field writing. Most romantic comedies are formulaic. The skill on display with romantic comedies, as with similar seemingly simple styles such as haiku or blues music, comes with being able to say something new and entertaining while using a relatively limited palette of emotions, story lines and characters. Playing it Cool did this well enough. It will definitely remind you of similar entries in this field. I don't know that it stands head and shoulders above its counterparts. If you can't stand this genre then obviously don't even bother watching this film. I can't stress strongly enough how much this film relies on a number of well worn cliches and tropes. To the extent that it works it does so because of the relentless cheerfulness and completely unconscious narcissism of the lead character, only ever identified as Me (Chris Evans).

He's a screenwriter/novelist who hangs out with a circle of writer friends of varying levels of success. This group includes his depressed and nihilistic ex/friend-with-benefits Mallory (Aubrey Plaza), Lyle (Martin Star), an itinerant who lives in his van, Scott (Topher Grace) a gay man whose gaydar doesn't work as well as it should, and Samson (Luke Wilson), an older writer with some grudges and some wisdom. These people all argue incessantly and don't necessarily always like each other. But they provide advice and commentary for each other's struggles, professional and romantic. When the chips are down they're there for each long as one of them doesn't have a really hot date. Evans' character is not a man who believes in love, primarily because his mother abandoned him when he was a child. Raised by his crusty grandfather (Phillip Baker Hall), he's a resolute devotee of the love em and leave em style. But this starts to change when he meets a woman only ever identified as Her (Michelle Monaghan). She's beautiful, witty, and sexy. The problem is that this woman already has a fiance (Ioan Gruffudd) But does any hero worth the name let a little thing like a woman being engaged to someone else stop him from running his game? And it just so happens that this man, who previously didn't believe in love, has also been tasked by his agent (Anthony Mackie) to write a romantic comedy screenplay. The quality and progress of the screenplay vary with the couple's happiness or sadness.

Humor and cliches ensue. The lead character is only able to listen to other people's stories by imagining himself in their positions. This is funny. Sometimes. He also imagines that his heart is a chain smoking black-and-white film noir tough guy who is always apart from himself. This was a decent movie but certainly nothing earth shattering or that reworks the genre. It throws a few curve balls here or there. If you're in the mood for something light and frothy this might work for you.

The Impostors
directed by Stanley Tucci
Speaking of light and frothy this older homage to 1930s and 1940s screwball comedies is a funny film that I like a lot. It's not perfect but with one or two exceptions has aged pretty well. The writing is tight, the acting delightful and everyone looks like they're having a lot of fun. With so many American comedies trying their best to be as crude and disgusting as possible it is somewhat refreshing to look back to a film like this and realize that there is a different way to get laughs. Now make no mistake, I wouldn't claim that this is a roll on the floor belly laugh type film, though there are one or two scenes that get me, at least. And it is a R rated film though by today's standards it would be PG-13.  But whatever the film misses in outrageous setpieces it more than makes up for in just general craziness. The story is more Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin than Three Stooges. The film is set in the 1930s but with very minor changes it could happen at any time. The stories and situations are timeless. There are always going to be depressed people, people in love, people with secrets, desperate starving actors, silly people, crazy people and people who are completely clueless to everything that is going on around them. Tucci's direction, much like his work in Big Night, (this movie shares some of that film's cast) is that of someone who really likes film. Very little is rushed.
Arthur (Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are best friends, roommates and actors whose acting career hasn't really worked out that well. They have little money and less food. And to quote bluesman John Lee Hooker, their landlord doesn't need to be bothering them about the back rent. Heck their landlord is lucky to get any front rent! They protect their egos, as many do in such situations, by reasoning that they are ahead of their time and have too much integrity to lower their acting chops to more pedestrian standards. They also protect their egos by attending performances by much more successful but wholly untalented actor Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina) and disrupting them or making fun of Burtom. However Burtom is as unstable as he is untalented. When Maurice makes a particularly broadly humorous interpretation of Burtom's bad acting, Burtom loses it. Seeking to avoid a beatdown or worse and reasoning that they could deal with a change of scenery anyway, Arthur and Maurice stowaway on an transatlantic ocean liner. Of course as it turns out that happens to be the same ocean liner Burtom will be travelling on. Arthur and Maurice try to avoid Burtom. In the meantime they make an ally out of the forward looking feisty ship social director Lily (Lili Taylor). The ship first mate, the German (and Nazi) Meistrich (Campbell Scott) is on the lookout for the stowaways. He's also trying to put the moves on Lili, who has no use for him. There are some funny subplots involving a mad bomber (Tony Shalhoub), a sad exiled queen (Isabella Rossellini), a clinically depressed lounge singer (Steve Buscemi), a gay deranged tennis pro (Billy Connolly), the distracted audition director (Woody Allen), a depressed debutante (Hope Davis), a gangster (Richard Jenkins), and an African prince (Teagle Bougere). Arthur and Maurice aren't the only people pretending to be someone that they aren't. There are any number of plots and plans going on that Arthur and Maurice don't know about. This film always brings a smile to my face when I watch it. The film's fun is not necessarily in its dialogue but rather the situations.
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