Tag: jason bateman

Game Night

Game Night (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

As the superficially amusing pseudo dark comedy “Game Night” unfolds, one learns quickly of its tricks and wacky rhythms. Soon enough the material begins to suffer from a case of diminishing returns. A cheeky line here and a cameo there simply aren’t enough to keep the plot consistently interesting which becomes rather convoluted especially for a mainstream comedy. Particularly disappointing is its handful of detours toward the action-comedy route. And, indeed, as expected from generic comedies that run out of ideas toward the end, the final act involves hero and villain scrambling for the gun. Actual game nights with friends prove to be more fun (and more unpredictable).

It is most unfortunate that the picture does not live up to its full potential because the cast share solid chemistry. Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman play a convincing married couple, Annie and Max, whose lives revolve around competition and, more importantly, winning. But the game of life tends to throw curveballs and we learn that they are having trouble conceiving a child. While this is a good template from which to take off from, I grew annoyed by the screenplay’s lack of intelligence, grace, and imagination whenever real emotions inch toward the forefront. Having trouble getting pregnant is utilized as the one and only tool to procure pity from the audience and we see right through it. Despite Adams’ and Bateman’s comic chops, their talent fails to elevate thin dramatic material.

The supporting cast are strong, from Kyle Chandler as the successful elder brother whom Max envies to Jesse Plemons as the incredibly creepy, single expression neighbor who no longer gets invited to game night—even though he makes it clear that he is desperate to become a part of the group again. But it is Billy Magnussen who steals the show as the dumb blonde. It is so difficult to make play an imbecile in a smart way. As Magnussen shows here, it can be done via excellent comic timing with precise facial expressions coupled with manic energy. To top it off, the performer has found a way for us to like him, kind of like a pet, even though the character does not get a glimmer of a backstory.

But the overarching game itself is not intriguing, specifically the kidnapping/“kidnapping” plot point. We are pushed through the familiar offering of supposedly being unable to tell between reality and role play, but those who have seen more than several handfuls of the most generic suspense-thrillers are likely capable of seeing through the charade. Considering that this device is utilized as the picture’s main weapon to entertain, I found large portions of the film to be a drag, uninspired, at times all over the place tonally. The very best dark comedies do not take prisoners. In this film, we get an impression that not one character is in any real danger.

At its best, however, the film evinces joyous creativity. For example, it is able to take a retro game like Pac-Man and somehow make it relevant as a chase scene that is key to the main story. Notice how this sequence is shot in a claustrophobic way—exactly like the game it is inspired by. Had screenwriter Mark Perez been able to tap into more video games, board games, and tabletop games and then written them into the plot in such a manner that makes perfect sense, “Game Night,” directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, could have been a different beast entirely.

Bad Words

Bad Words (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is determined to participate on The Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, a competition for kids, despite already being forty years of age. A silly loophole in the rulebook is a loophole nonetheless and so the people in charge have no choice but to allow him to compete in spite of very angry parents.

Written by Andrew Dodge and directed by Jason Bateman, “Bad Words” is neither as edgy as it premises itself to be nor is it raucously funny that it becomes easy to overlook its shortcomings. Its screenplay is underwritten, its characters are underdeveloped, and its sense of humor is so one-note that it becomes tedious to sit through eventually.

No writer should ever assume that just because his or her main character curses like sailor in front of children does not mean that the subject is inherently funny. Here, while Guy is supposed to be a first-class jerk, he is not interesting enough to warrant our sympathy—which makes the final ten to fifteen minutes especially cheesy and embarrassing. One of the biggest clichés—one of which the film never recovers from—is a jerk on the outside turning out to be not so bad when it comes down to the wire.

Because Guy’s motivation to compete goes unmentioned for so long—and unexplored throughout—we end up not caring so much. Instead, the minutes are padded with fillers such as montages of Guy and a ten-year-old competitor, Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), hanging out or Guy and a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) supposedly not liking each other but almost always ending up in bed. None of these scenes make us want to know Guy on a deeper level despite him being unlikable.

There are only a few very funny scenes. During the early rounds of the spelling bee, Guy is shown sabotaging the kids who end up sitting to his left. The mind games he executes are so cruel but I found myself laughing. Why couldn’t the rest of the picture function on a consistent darkly comic level? Why must the writer feel as though he needed to soften the blows when the story is clearly at its peak, when its sense of humor is rough around the edges? The movie wanting to be liked is the antithesis of the protagonist’s attitude to everyone around him. Is it supposed to be ironic?

Actors like Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall are given nothing worthy to work with. It is always distracting when one can tell that the performer is trying the best she can to elevate the material and yet still being unsuccessful at it. Janney and Hall are so good at what they do. Why not give them material that is challenging for them and fruitful for us?

“Bad Words” is a fake black comedy—or one that completely fails as one. Movies like Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” Todd Solondz’ “Happiness,” and even Marcos Siega’s “Pretty Persuasion” shine because they need not compromise their characters’ motivations. They are written to see things through without the need to be liked. We may or may not like them as people but it cannot be denied that we are fascinated with them as specimens. Black comedies, like the best dramas, are about a specific human condition.


Zootopia (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is depressing that too many animated films rely on vibrant colors and sugary cuteness to reel in and entertain children. But “Zootopia,” directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, with Jared Bush as co-director, subverts this pessimistic approach to genuinely entertain and educate young eyes and minds. It reminds everybody that we should expect and deserve more from the genre. It is most unexpected that the material touches upon subjects such as police profiling, racism (speci-sm?), and workplace discrimination. It reflects what we see in our world today.

Being a carrot farmer is considered to be a noble profession by Judy’s parents (voiced by Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake), but their highly enthusiastic daughter (Ginnifer Goodwin), one of two hundred in their rabbit family, has always dreamed of becoming a cop in Zootopia, the nearest metropolitan teeming with excitement and diversity.

Although she is discouraged by just about everyone not to try to reach so highly that she sets herself for disappointment, Judy, with hard work and determination, eventually earns her badge, graduates as valedictorian from the academy, and gets assigned to work in the city she loves. Yet despite her excellent qualifications and gusto as well as the department’s need of more officers to investigate a case involving twelve missing mammals, her superior (Idris Elba) assigns her to parking duty.

The filmmakers are able to create and establish a universe that is filled with possibilities. About twenty minutes into the picture, notice the way it takes its time to introduce the city to its main character, as well as audiences, as pavonine colors, flavorful textures, and numerous faces and bodies invade the screen to the point where we want to pause at each shot and appreciate both the foreground and background. Such a trait is very important because it inspires the viewer to revisit this world and capture beautiful images and jokes one might have missed the first go-round.

Seemingly effortless synergy is felt among voice work, personality of character through movement, and script. Let us take the fox character, Nick Wilde, our heroine’s unlikely ally, as an example. Jason Bateman provides the voice and he approaches the job with such vitality, often touching upon two or three emotions in just about every scene. (With sarcasm as a template.) During silent moments, notice way the character moves. Although Nick is an animated animal at first glance, he is given very human traits such as the way he walks down the street, how he lets out a sigh of frustration or disappointment, the manner in which recognition or an idea makes its way into his eyes.

The script is soaked with sharp wit, great timing, and intelligence. The scene in the DMV where the workers are all sloths is not only a brilliant joke because of the punchline but through the way it unfolds. Credit must be given to the writers, Jared Bush and Phil Johnston who helmed the screenplay, for finding inspiration from the animal kingdom and creating funny bits around our expectations—and at times what we do not expect at all. Irony is one of the picture’s greatest weapons.

“Zootopia” is a marvelous animated film. It offers bright and amusing action, well-placed puns, some tense chase sequences, and an actual investigation with hilarious references to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” and Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” Wonderful lessons about diversity and celebrating differences are not hackneyed. In fact, the approach is exactly right for the story and plot being told.

Identity Thief

Identity Thief (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) receives a call from a woman (Melissa McCarthy) who claims to be from fraud detection. Offering free services to protect his identity, Sandy gives the caller his full name, date of birth, and social security number. Before the guy knows it, his credit card is maxed out and there is a warrant for his arrest. Meanwhile, Diana has a ball shopping for clothes, buying a car, and getting her hair done. The authorities are aware that Sandy’s identity has been stolen, but they are unable to arrest the perpetrator given that she lives across the country. Sandy has a plan: in a span of a week, somehow he will persuade Diana to come with him to Colorado and trick her into confessing her crimes while the cops eavesdrop.

It is a shame that “Identity Thief,” based on the screenplay by Craig Mazin and directed by Seth Gordon, is made all the more complicated by introducing gangsters (T.I., Genesis Rodriguez) and a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick) into the mix when it should have been clean and to the point: two people who cannot stand each other driving across America and learning a little bit about each other. By introducing unnecessary action sequences, what is communicated is the writer’s lack of confidence to his material. Or perhaps it is the writer’s intention to make the script more appealing to the audience. Whichever the case, it holds back a movie that should have been better than the final product.

Prior to the introduction of the threat of violence, the comedy is consistently entertaining. I enjoyed watching Sandy being so blissfully oblivious of the fact that someone has been using his name and causing all sorts of trouble in Florida. Sandy going on shopping sprees, carrying least five bags in one hand, are equally funny. Bateman and McCarthy have something in common: they can stand in one spot doing nothing and I want to laugh.

Casting two leads who possess effortless charm is smart. One plays a pushover and the other plays a parasite. Their comedic styles are opposite. Bateman downplays the humor in his character: Sandy’s personality is sarcastic but he is almost shy about it, concerned about stepping on someone’s toes. McCarthy, on the other hand, makes a fiesta out of everything, from physical gags to obnoxious lines: Diana is big and colorful but, like so many people who are constantly in-your-face, maybe it is a way of hiding something that is painful. I had fun with their chemistry.

The people on the hunt for Diana and Sandy are played straight, almost boring. When the picture cuts to them, I wanted to get up and get a glass of water. They are written so flavorless, so devoid of humor that they could have been taken from any action picture. You know, the henchmen who would probably have been shot by the hero within the first five minutes. Wouldn’t it have been great, for instance, if the pair of gangsters were allowed to be as funny as the protagonists? That way, when the camera is on them, the story will not feel like it drags. T.I. and Rodriguez are not to blame. Rather, they are not given a script they can work with and creative direction to really make their characters pop.

And how about those car chases? They are poorly choreographed. I can watch children playing with their toy cars and observe more creativity. Are the car crashes supposed to be exciting? Funny? No, I think they are simply there to eat time.

I liked “Identity Thief,” but only the parts where Bateman and McCarthy are in it: their characters just talking, hitting each other with guitars, and pulling each other’s hair. What the screenplay fails to understand is that the best comedies, especially those that involve a road trip, are simple. Instead, we are presented a bloated, tired thing.


Mansome (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

“Mansome,” directed by Morgan Spurlock, asks what it means to be “masculine” in a modern society where an increasing number of men opt to take care of themselves, from eating better and spending some time pumping iron in the gym to eliminating unwanted body hair from areas such as back and arms, on casual and obsessive levels. While the documentary manages to ask a handful of interesting questions in terms of the attention men spend on themselves to feel good and appear attractive to others, it doesn’t seem to have enough focus and control to communicate clearly the messages in wants to convey.

The director makes the right choice in first turning the camera on himself, specifically, the mustache that almost comes hand-in-hand with his reputation of creating fun and entertaining methods of gathering and presenting information as a documentarian. It is arguably one of the best segments of the film because we come to learn what the mustache means to him as someone who’s maintained it for eight years.

His masterstroke is that he allows us to judge him, his bare face, by shaving his signature horseshoe mustache. This proves to be an effective method because prior to sporting a clean-shaven face, he talks about how the mustache has become a part of his identity. I had serious doubts; I might have even scoffed at such a dramatic claim. After the shave, however, I felt as though his admission had a grain of truth in it. Looking at him without hair on his face made me feel like I was looking at a second-rate Spurlock, almost an impostor.

Other subjects are interviewed like Jack Passion who has a beard so lengthy that it reaches his torso, Brook Frank who invented Fresh Balls, a product designed to keep the groin area dry, and a pair of toupee artists. While they are very interesting people because of what they do, their roles in connection to picture’s thesis aren’t always clear. They are allowed to speak for copious amount of time but the issues they talk about are at times irrelevant. For instance, how does Frank’s business directly relate to the conscious or subconscious insecurities that men have about their perceived level of masculinity?

Jason Bateman and Will Arnett getting pedicures and a massage is hilarious even in the absence of their witty exchanges, but what the documentary could have used more is authenticity. This could have been achieved by pulling random people off the streets and asking them what they think it means to be a man, to be masculine, as well as what they think of men who spend a lot of money to achieve their fantasies of a being very well-groomed man. The movie also talks about how men’s magazines are beginning to appeal to men’s insecurities as women’s magazines are doing to women for decades. If so, why not show us a few lines from these magazines and clearly establish parallels from its claims?

“Mansome” is disappointing because its laid back approach often prevents it from digging deeply enough into the culture and mindset of its subjects. In the end, it made me wish it had been entirely about Bateman and Arnett’s day at the spa.

The Switch

The Switch (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) decided she was going to have a kid even though she had not yet found the man of her dreams. She told Wally (Jason Bateman), her best friend, her plans but he thought it was crazy idea. She went with it anyway and found a guy named Roland (Patrick Wilson) who was willing to donate his sperm for money. During Kassie’s artificial insemination party, drunk Wally accidentally spilled Roland’s sperm down the sink. His intoxicated mind thought he could get away with it by replacing the lost sample with his own. The next day, he didn’t remember a thing. “The Switch,” based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story called “Baster,” was a bit of a surprise because it had a surprising amount of humanity. It could easily have been about the gags–like sperm and the hardship of being pregnant and giving birth–but it made a smart decision to pay attention to the characters’ motivations. Even though some of the lines delivered felt disingenuous, especially when the characters felt like they needed to deliver a speech in order to get their point across, I enjoyed it because I extracted bits of meaning, accidental as they may be, in their attempt. Aniston and Bateman had an awkward chemistry that worked. I thought that specific type of chemistry was vital because their characters conceived a child named Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) who was adorable, equipped with sad eyes, pouty lips, and eccentricities like collecting picture frames and putting strangers’ photos in them. The movie did a good job highlighting the similarities between Wally and Sebastian, but I wish it had spent more time exploring the bond between the mother and son. I wanted to see their similarities, too. After all, it was Kassie’s idea to bring a child to the world. Her trepidation of her dwindling biological clock was not a good enough reason for me to like her. With her specific circumstance, what made her a good mother? She was good with her son when he had to go to bed, but the feminist message embedded in making the decision to raise a child without a man was somewhat lost. Nevertheless, the emotional payoff toward the end was effective because we knew that Sebastian had learned, without being too obvious, to depend on his father and vice-versa. I also wished Jeff Goldblum and Juliette Lewis, Wally and Kassie’s best friends, respectively, had more scenes. They delivered a different sense of humor, Goldblum with his dry and deadpan delivery and Lewis with her baffled expressions and snide remarks, which was a nice balance to more pedestrian comical situations. Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, “The Switch” was a bona fide comedy that lacked complexity but it wasn’t one-dimensional. It was enjoyable because our expectations were met and sometimes that’s more than enough.


Paul (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost), British comic book fans, on their way to explore the legendary Area 51 came across an alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), on the run from government officials who wanted to exploit his extraterrestrial abilities. Written by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, “Paul” was a quick-witted buddy road trip comedy equipped with a plethora of references to various sci-fi pop culture, obscure and mainstream. The film opened at the San Diego Comic Con. While it did make fun of fans dressing up as their favorite movie and comic book characters, it was never mean-spirited in its approach. In fact, it was a rather good start. Its bona fide sense of humor, situational or otherwise, was exactly why we wanted to follow Graeme and Clive in their epic, awkward, exciting adventure. As usual, Pegg and Frost had wonderful chemistry. The way they delivered their lines and the way they moved around each other convinced me that their characters were true BFFs. I looked at the CGI Paul with grand curiosity. Initially, I found him to be rather stoic. But the longer I stared at him, the more easily I could identify his subtle facial expressions; I almost wanted him to be my pet. He was funny and rather harmless. More importantly, the writing took advantage of the strange creature on screen. We learned specifics in terms of his abilities. For instance, while he had the power to become invisible by whim, he could only do it if he held his breath. Gifts with limitations are interesting. The government agent in charge of capturing Paul was called Agent Zoil (As in Lorenzo Zoil–get it?), gleefully played by Jason Bateman. Bateman being serious in a picture like this was like watching a giraffe attempting to do somersaults. It just didn’t ring together. However, it worked. His attempt to suppress his little ticks was what made the role funnier than it should have been. Also, there was a balance. We saw glimpses of how dangerous he could be. As he aimed his gun toward a moving target, I found myself holding my breath. I took the intensity in his eyes quite seriously and I didn’t expect to. His fellow agents (Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio), ambitious but incompetent and rash, highlighted the man in black’s intractable goal of getting to Paul first. One of the qualities I admired most about the film was it didn’t overwhelm us with cryptic allusions. There were obvious camera angles which served to highlight an important science fiction actor walking in on a frame. I didn’t get some of the references but I wasn’t bothered by them. Either I felt like I was still in on the joke or I was too preoccupied wondering what would happen next. “Paul” was sweet but never sentimental, funny but never obnoxious. I did wish, however, that we could have seen more of the alien hotspots that Graeme and Clive visited. After all, they were supposed to be on an epic road trip. And I would have been floored if Special Agents Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” made brief appearances. Still, the picture did do without.