Tag: greg mottola

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The silly action-comedy “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” written by Michael LeSieur and directed by Greg Mottola, has a strategy all too apparent when it comes to comedies these days: It relies solely on the charisma of its four leads to carry the audience from beginning to end. It is a lazy approach, almost offensive, and I wished that more effort were put into the script because the leads try the best they can to work with subpar material. The picture offers a few chuckles—not because the material is funny but because the performers commit so much that at times they manage to elevate deadly dull lines toward something marginally amusing—but this is not enough to warrant a recommendation.

Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher play Jeff and Karen, a married couple living in the suburbs whose love life has lost its spark. Even when their kids are away in summer camp, they’d rather watch television than go out and experience something new for a change. When a worldly, highly attractive, polished couple, Tim and Natalie (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot), move next door, expectedly, Jeff and Karen gravitate toward them since the new neighbors appear to be exciting people. The Joneses, as it turns out, are government operatives and their move to the sleepy suburbs is merely a cover to track and prevent an illicit exchange.

For an action-comedy, it is quite odd that there is only one extended action sequence. Predictably, it involves a car and flying bullets but I found some joy in a highly familiar template. The material works best when Fisher, Gadot, Hamm, and Galifianakis are in the same room—the more cramped, the better. There is an innately amusing element in putting four big personalities in a limited space. However, looking closely into this sequence, notice it is mostly composed of reaction shots done in a studio. Thus, we never fully believe that any of the characters are in danger despite the rain of bullets and the vehicle moving a hundred miles per hour—backwards.

There is one fresh idea that I thought the writers should have taken farther than they did. Within the first fifteen minutes, Karen suspects that there is something off about their new neighbors. For a while, the script gives the impression that the characters—or at least one character—will be smarter than those we’ve encountered in similar movies. Fisher stands out among the four because I believed that she can be both intelligent and silly—a challenging line to straddle that only a few performers can pull off convincingly. So, it is quite disappointing that once the Joneses’ true motivations are revealed, the most promising character proves to be ordinary. Notice she is much quieter post-reveal, almost fading into the background.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” plays it too safe when it actually needs to take risks because successful action-comedies are all about taking chances, whether it be in terms of story, character development, the wild situations the protagonists end up finding themselves in. Clearly made for mass public consumption, perhaps a movie like this might have done well in the late 1990s, but these days it is substandard. It is too dilute to be palatable.

The Daytrippers

The Daytrippers (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

It appears to be yet another typical day in the D’Amico household. After Louis (Stanley Tucci) leaves for work, Eliza (Hope Davis) decides to clean the house. While putting things away, out of the corner of her eye, she spots a folded piece of paper lodged between the wall and cabinet. She picks it up and reads it. Her eyes reflect heartbreak: it turns out to be a love letter from a so-called “Sandy.” Following the initial shock, Eliza convinces herself not to make a big deal out of it. Her husband, after all, works in a publishing company so there is a chance that it is from a fictional work, all of it just a big misunderstanding. Still, she feels compelled to tell her parents about her discovery.

Written and directed by Greg Mottola, “The Daytrippers” is highly enjoyable because it is not clear whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama. It works that it is a little bit of both. Just about every giggle is almost immediately countered with a melancholic undertone. This makes the picture come alive, especially since we think we may have a true idea of what might be going on and where we expect the story is heading.

For instance, when Carl (Liev Schreiber) decides to talk about the novel he has just written about a man born with a dog’s head, it is funny because no one seems to really understand what it is all supposed to be about. Jo (Parker Posey), the dutiful girlfriend, appears to have his back. And yet at times Jo comes off somewhat desperate to try and pretend that her boyfriend’s novel has something profound to say. He looking good makes her look good. Many of us are likely to think Carl is being pretentious.

The script is clever and surprising because we often learn plenty about a character when he or she is not the center of attention. When I noticed that Eliza barely speaks, it made me question the method employed for characterization because the picture is supposed to be about her journey in finding out whether or not her husband is indeed loyal to her. Having realized that the material is also about how people react to those who have the chance to speak, there is a wealth of information embedded in the awkward pauses, subtle frowns, and looking (or not looking) someone in the eyes.

Eventually, Eliza visits the city to confront her husband with her family in tow for moral support. Although the car ride starts off relatively swimmingly, the travelers inevitably get on each other’s last nerves. Most fascinating is the way the emotional fissures in sharp-tongued Rita (Anne Meara) and taciturn Jim’s (Pat McNamara) longtime marriage are revealed. Rita’s little verbal jabs that most of us may consider sassy but entertaining later reveal an ugly sting. I wished that the older couple had more scenes together but at the same time I admired that the writing does not intend to iron everything out for the sake of our entertainment. In other words, it avoids feeling too movie-like.

It does, however, provide enough hints in terms of how each relationship will eventually turn out. We do not feel cheated from its seemingly lack of resolution because by allowing us to spend time with the characters, hearing them speak, and understanding their point of views, it trusts us to imagine what is next for them. “The Daytrippers” is smart about not putting people in defined boxes. Though its characters can be argued as archetypes, they are allowed to break the rules in surprise and welcome ways.

The Virginity Hit

The Virginity Hit (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Four desperate friends (Matt Bennett, Zack Pearlman, Jacob Davich, Justin Kline) made it a tradition that they would only smoke weed using a special hookah when each of them lost their virginity. When all three but Matt finally had gone all the way, they decided they would help him out and document every step of the way. But when they found out that Nicole (Nicole Weaver), Matt’s girlfriend, had cheated on him with a frat guy, Matt and his friends had to find other means for Matt to experience his first sex. Written and directed by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, “The Virginity Hit” interestingly adopted a faux-documentary style but completely missed the mark. In the end, it felt like a cheap imitation of Greg Mottola’s “Superbad” and Paul Weitz’ “American Pie” but with characters who took idiocy to the next level. The crux of the movie’s so-called dramatic tension could have easily been solved with a teaspoon of intelligence. For instance, when Matt and his friends heard rumors that Nicole had been less than loyal, not one of them bothered to approach Nicole and ask her version of what happened. They immediately decided to take the cruel path. That is, pretend they knew nothing of the rumors, convince Matt to take Nicole on a date for their anniversary, have sex with Nicole for revenge, and broadcast it over the internet. The characters thought it was all fun and games. I was shocked that not one for them stood up against what was happening and express how mean-spirited it all was. There were also some “funny” scenes like the teenagers stealing from a store, breaking into people’s private properties, and other misdemeanors that could potentially land them in court to get sued or, worse, in jail. I tried to see that perhaps it wanted to comment on rampant youth and its relationship with YouTube culture. However, I didn’t feel as if the directors had full control of their material. Its in-your-face approach was its only technique. The filmmakers should have known that the ability to pull back was an essential weapon in order to highlight the positive feedback of certain videos uploaded on YouTube and people taking pleasure in watching other people’s suffering and humiliation. There was not one character to root for here. I wanted to root for Matt because he was the one who was pushed around. There were some scenes that almost portrayed him being forced to have sex just for the sake of losing his virginity. Why did they care anyway? It was none of their business. I thought it was sad and I couldn’t help but feel angry for him. I kept waiting for Matt to stand up to his friends. Even if he wasn’t successful in his attempt, I would have ended up liking him because it meant that he had a voice and he wasn’t afraid to use it. But he didn’t. Some people had their lives ruined by the things portrayed on this film. It was too bad the material failed to take that fact into account.


Adventureland (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

This 80’s-inspired coming-of-age comedy-drama about James Brennan, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who was forced to work on a theme park after his parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) revealed to him that they were having pecuniary issues. He also had to sacrifice his trip to Europe, a graduation present that he was obviously looking forward to. What I loved about “Adventureland” was it managed to focus the spotlight on James’ journey to maturity no matter how painful some realizations ended up being. The colorful characters from the theme park, including his romantic interest (Kristen Stewart), and the comedy felt secondary to journey. It was a nice change from typical teen comedies of today. I also really liked the music that were featured. It feels like once in a blue moon that I actually am familiar with 85-90% of the soundtrack. (Mainly because my parents are big on music of the 1980’s and I grew up listening to such.) Written and directed by Greg Mottola (“Superbad”), this film managed to paint all of its characters with a certain sadness which happened to unconsciously come out whenever they interacted with each other. Motolla actually gave his characters a chance to talk about their dreams, insecurities, and the things that were going on at home instead of just giving the audiences easy (and uninsightful) slapstick comedy. The only thing that did not quite work for me was Ryan Reynolds’ character and his relationship with James’ romantic interest. Not only did Reynolds and Stewart have too many scenes together, but the relationship somewhat felt forced. If I look back on the picture and not think about the scenes that mainly involved those two characters, pretty much everything else would have been the same. Having said that, this is still a strong movie about a college graduate who, through trials of hardwork and heartbreak in the theme park, actually learned more about himself and about life than if he had gone to Europe. And that’s a nice message for those who cannot quite leave their hometowns because of their many responsibilities or for whatever reason.