Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)
★ / ★★★★
A dinner with two friends who are about to get married (Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen) proves unpleasant when one of them speaks up about how awkward it is that although Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have been separated for six months and in the process of getting a divorce, they continue to hang out with each other all the time as if they were still a couple. Celeste and Jesse have been best friends since they were young and so it is unimaginable for them to let a romantic separation get in the way of their friendship. However, when a woman named Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), a random hook-up Jesse has had somewhat recently, enters the equation, the dynamic duo are forced to reevaluate what is left in their relationship.
“Celeste and Jesse Forever,” based on the screenplay by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, has a wonderful premise and the title characters share a believable camaraderie. Unfortunately, its uniqueness is drained by the chugging machinery of the plot, resting on typical conflicts and questions such as whether or not Jesse and Celeste will eventually end up in each other’s arms. What could have been an exploration of a complex relationship rooted on a friendship that blossomed into a romance and its eventual wilting turns into a tired storyline of a sitcom prior to its halfway point.
One of the ways to allow the material to stand out is to make the supporting characters interesting. Celeste and Jesse start seeing other people eventually, but the people they encounter are caricatures. Some examples include Veronica being exotic and mysterious, Rupert (Rafi Gavron) being very good-looking but too young, and Paul (Chris Messina) being too eager and way into himself. They are not boring, but since the supporting characters lack depth, most of the time it is difficult to be convinced that there is a big threat who may permanently sever the ties between the former couple.
The story feels one-sided. We see a whole lot of Celeste and how hard it is for her to try and move on but what about Jesse? He may be a man—someone who is not especially tough—but he is not without feelings or conflicting thoughts about what they are going through. When we do see him, he shares the frame with Celeste consistently. We cannot help but feel more for the latter since we understand her better. It is a shame that the material fails to communicate that a break-up, in this case, hurts both people.
The film is jolted from its slumber when Jesse and Celeste fight. When they get so angry and frustrated to the point where they remove the filter and tell each other about what they really think and what destroyed their marriage, then the material has a semblance of an identity. We get to realize and appreciate how young they really are. Despite their age, there is a sadness in how tired and restless they look. We root for them to get out of the dumps even though it starts to feel like it is a real possibility that the two can never rekindle what they had lost. Sometimes that’s just the way it is.
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” gained some of my affection but for a fascinating premise, it feels too safe in execution and as a whole. There are some good bits like the squirm-worthy but hilarious moments whenever Jesse and Celeste get anywhere near objects that resemble a phallus. At least the fixation feels true to their relationship. The characters deserve to have a lot more fun—and true—moments like that.
Hotel Transylvania (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) builds Hotel Transylvania not only as a haven for monsters but also a place where his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), can grow up and live a life that is away from humans. Over the years, Dracula has led his fellow monsters to believe that people hate their kind, that monsters are meant to be maimed and destroyed. When a backpacker named Jonathan (Andy Samberg) ends up in the hotel during Mavis’ one hundred eighteenth birthday, however, Dracula’s lies to his daughter and community finally come to light. Maybe not all humans are intolerant of monsters.
Despite the glitz, color, and energy of “Hotel Transylvania,” it is ultimately hampered by a screenplay that touches upon too many themes without devoting the necessary time and attention to any of them. The central lesson about tolerance is often upended by a possible romance, constant whining between father and daughter, and initially funny jokes recycled so many times that sitting through them becomes a miserable experience.
The best thing it has going for it are the supporting characters that have been already embraced by popular culture. Most visually appealing is a Murray the Mummy (CeeLo Green), the way his eyes glow behind those white wrappings and the manner in which he jumbles about as he moves from one spot to another. Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade), Frankenstein (Kevin James), and Bigfoot, occasionally appearing as one giant foot, are welcome but mostly uninspired additions. It is a shame that other than about two jokes regarding our stereotypes of them, they are not given anything interesting to do or say. They are a bore at times because they seem to share one personality. For instance, when Dracula’s lies are exposed, not one of them is given an appropriate reaction.
The script is confused. It is bizarre that Dracula is immediately unlikeable when he is supposed to be the conduit between the monster and human spheres. If the first scene had established the reason why Dracula has grown to dislike humans, perhaps the character’s foibles would have been more tolerable. Instead, the very protective father earning our sympathy becomes a pointless uphill battle. The interactions he has with his daughter are supposed to have a level of sensitivity but since a clear motivation is lacking, not only do they seem forced, they also scream a lack of sophistication. It becomes noticeable that the writing is barely there. The more the characters speak, it is all the more transparent that they do not actually say anything worth listening to.
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, “Hotel Transylvania” will mostly appeal to very young kids with very short attention spans. There is something flying or being thrown across the room in every other scene. But for children, teens, and adults who want to feel either a sense of wonder from putting these memorable monsters in one place or something genuine between a parent and his child, such qualities are absent here. A picture book about classic monsters that require only five minutes to peruse is better than spending ninety minutes you will never get back.
Friends with Benefits (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jaime (Mila Kunis) were recently dumped. Kayla (Emma Stone) claimed Dylan was emotionally unavailable while Quincy (Andy Samberg) thought Jamie was emotionally damaged. The next day, Jamie, a head-hunter, picked up Dylan, an art director, at the airport. She was from New York, he was from L.A. Their friendship began when Jamie attempted to persuade Dylan that taking up a job for GQ magazine and moving to NYC was the right thing to do for himself as well as her bank account. While watching a romantic comedy, Dylan had a great idea: they were to take their platonic friendship to another level by sleeping with each other without the emotions inherent to labels like “boyfriends” and “girlfriends.” Jaime thought it was a great idea. Based on the screenplay by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, “Friends with Benefits” was hip, fun without overbearing, and overzealous to please even the most cynical viewers. The first half was strong because with each passing scene, it was increasingly transparent why Jaime and Dylan made a good team that we could root for. Interestingly, the script imbued Jaime with enough masculine qualities for men to be able to relate with her. She was the kind of girl that guys would be comfortable drinking beer with. Conversely, Dylan had feminine characteristics in order for women to find him cute and relatable. He was the kind of guy who could get a mani-pedi and not feel uncomfortable with his sexuality. The first couple of sex scenes worked because we wanted them to just do it. The sex scenes didn’t just feature naked people touching each other. It was somewhat like getting in bed with another person: you have fun and you get to learn each other’s weird quirks. But the film suffered from diminishing returns. There were one too many scenes of the non-couple in bed and sharing caring looks while out and about in the city. But the movie really took a nose-dive when Dylan decided to take Jaime to L.A. to meet his family (Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Nolan Gould) because it started to feel like a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. The edge was brought to a minimum and the story began to feel like a soap opera. The questions no longer involved how far Dylan and Jaime could take their newfangled sexual freedom and what they were willing to sacrifice to maintain the status quo. The question became about Dylan and when he would realize that Jaime was “the one” for him. Even the word “soulmate” was thrown around a couple of times. “Friends with Benefits,” directed by Will Gluck, was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It wanted to poke fun of romantic comedies but, at the same time, pass as one. It didn’t need to try so hard. With supporting characters like Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), Jaime’s mom, who liked the idea of loving men but not actually being with them, and Tommy (Woody Harrelson), Dylan’s co-worker in charge of the sports articles, who constantly asked Dylan if he was sure he was straight, I felt that the writers could’ve taken their material, plagued with product placements, in a myriad, more interesting, elliptical directions. Nevertheless, the movie managed to survive from its typicalities by having a strong first hour. It wanted to be daring. Who’s to say you can’t end a romantic comedy just after it passes its one-hour mark because there is nothing to solve? That would have been a statement.
I Love You, Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Paul Rudd stars as a guy who can relate more to women than men, but he needs a best man for his wedding so he decides to start making some guy friends. He goes on a series of “man dates” and he eventually meets Jason Segel, a fun-loving guy who Rudd can genuinely connect with. Although I really liked this film, I didn’t quite love it because the middle portion wasn’t as funny as the beginning and the end. That inconsistency is glaring because when one experiences a lot of laughter in the beginning, expectations rise and a successful comedy should be able to deliver all the way through. However, all of the actors such as Rashida Jones, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin and Andy Samberg added something to the table. Even the side characters are interesting and hilarious because each of them has a certain quirk that doesn’t get old. I thought this buddy comedy was successful at making fun of the quirk instead of the character itself (when it wants to). However, there were moments when the film is actually making fun of the character which acts as a mirror on what the society expects from an individual. Ultimately, Rudd is the star here. I’ve seen him in a plethora of films where he’s the best friend or the funny brother. I think this movie, written and directed by John Hamburg, would’ve fallen apart without Rudd. In many scenes, I could feel his character’s awkwardness to the point where I wish he would stop talking to save himself further humiliation for trying so hard to be one of the guys. In a way, I saw his character’s silent suffering as a commentary about society–how guys are expected to act, look and speak a certain way in order to be accepted as a “man.” So the laughter that the movie gets from the audiences acts as a confirmation that guys who are more in touch with their feminine side are expected to change their ways and be how a “normal” guy should be. Like “Superbad,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” this is a really enjoyable, bona fide film and I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of awkward characters being forced to deal with awkward situations.