Tag: kristen wiig

Where’d You Go, Bernadette


Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The consistently aggravating comedy-drama “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is adapted to the screen (along with Holly Gent and Vince Palmo—from Maria Semple’s novel of the same name) by humanistic writer-director Richard Linklater, but the final product is a soulless, meandering one-note joke in which the protagonist’s eccentricities are displayed on an unending parade as if these are enough to generate great entertainment. Cate Blanchett plays the titular character and because she is a veteran at playing a spectrum of notes, often in one scene, there are a few seconds here and there in which the movie feels somewhat tolerable. But not even a performer of her caliber could save this sinking ship, a true waste of time for viewers interested in worthy character studies.

Bernadette is supposed to be a genius architect who gave up her budding career twenty years ago after getting married to an animator (Billy Crudup), a genius himself, who now works for a branch of Microsoft. But instead of the screenplay finding ways to show us her gift in small or big ways, we are simply made to sit through an online video which summarizes her career. It is supposed to be funny—I guess—that the figureheads in the documentary are famous faces such as Laurence Fishburne, Megan Mullally, Steve Zahn, among others. But I was not at all amused by this lazy approach in building what is supposed to be a compelling character—a person who has become a menace to society (especially toward her neighbors and fellow mothers [Kristen Wiig, Zoë Chao]) precisely because her need to create has been suppressed for two decades. And whose fault is that, really?

Above is only one example of the many poor choices of establishing character. As a result, we never believe that the personalities on screen are truly drenched or dedicated in the eventual drama of a woman suddenly going missing after so many problems (one of which involves the FBI) come knocking at her door. They must simply make their way across the checkerboard in a predetermined way simply because the plot demands that they do. There is no feeling, just a death march to the finish line. Since there is a disconnect between people’s thoughts and actions, there is nothing believable about generic responses to specific conflicts. Everybody is playing pretend; our boredom evolves into frustration.

Particularly painful to sit through is in how it showcases the marriage between Bernadette and Elgin. Right from the moment we meet them, there is no chemistry between Blanchett and Crudup. And so when the connection between the characters become colder or more desperate, the difference is negligible. The Crudup character is especially maddening. There are times when the performer acts as though something amusing is occurring on screen when it is supposed to be serious. Thus, Elgin is painted as if there’s a meanness to him, that he is a husband who appears concerned about his wife to her face but is actually mocking when she isn’t looking. This should have been recognized and corrected by Linklater—he has shown in his best works that everything on screen must work together in order to sell the drama of a relationship on equal footing, especially when there are numerous plates being juggled.

The disappearing woman act occurs way too late in the picture, when viewers likely have tuned out. A lot more attention (with slow as molasses pacing) is given to warring neighbors, a psychiatrist explaining psychological concepts, and mother-daughter bonding like singing in the car then eyeing one another dramatically. The would-be humanity in the picture is so planned, so forced, so fake. I could not wait to walk away from these intolerable cardboard cutouts and forget about them. The third act is especially clichéd. Of course it involves a teary reunion. Give me a break.

Girl Most Likely


Girl Most Likely (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Dumped by her Dutch boyfriend (Brian Petsos) and fired from her job shortly thereafter, Imogene (Kristen Wiig), a failed playwright, stages a fake suicide—which snowballs into, due to her deep-seated sadness, actuality. The hospital signs her off to Zelda (Annette Bening), Imogene’s mother. The problem is, she and Imogene have not seen or spoken to each other in years. Imogene has always hated her roots and believes that New York City is where she can thrive even if the cards in her hands say otherwise.

Though the actors play their characters with conviction, “Girl Most Likely” is ultimately an unsuccessful picture because it never gets the tone just right in order to allow the colorful personalities to really come through and convince us that Imogen’s story is worth telling. Instead of taking the character under a microscope, we see her through a pair of binoculars: we get an impression of her struggle through her body language but we never get a solid grip on what makes her tick.

The material, written by Michelle Morgan, takes risks by incorporating comedy with a dramatic core but much effort is required to humanize its protagonist. In other words, Imogene is not worth rooting for. From the beginning until way past the middle section, she is highly unlikable. She thinks her every need is an emergency. She whines a lot. She considers herself better than everyone just because she lives in NYC. Meanwhile, we grow restless and wonder where the story is going.

When she does begin to loosen up—predictably after putting more than few drinks in her system—by opening up to her mother’s boarder, Lee (Darren Criss), it is the point when we finally get a taste of some sweetness in the script. There are a few missteps involving the friendship but, as a whole, it works. There is something nice about a woman in her mid- to late-thirties finding a genuine—and surprising—connection with someone in his early- to mid-twenties. It could have been sleazy, played for cheap laughs, but it never crosses that line. When the film refrains from trying to wring out laughs from the audience, it works.

But every good scene is almost always followed by an eccentricity. Most off-putting is Zelda’s boyfriend named George Bousche (Matt Dillon), a man who claims to be a CIA agent and a samurai. Each time this cartoon character is on screen, I felt like I was watching a Wes Anderson film—and that is not a compliment. Dillon is a good actor and it shows, but the character has no place in a movie like this. There is a lot of pain surrounding Imogen’s family and I wished that the writer had the courage to deal with it directly.

Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “Girl Most Likely” has the quirks but it lacks the substance. It shows that good performances can only take the material so far. It is a shame because, if the lead character and her circumstances were written better, I imagine that it could have spoken to many people who fear that they are losers or failures. It takes courage and a willingness to offend to make that type of story compelling.

Hateship Loveship


Hateship Loveship (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

After the older woman she worked for has died, Johanna (Kristen Wiig) is employed by Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) to help take care of his granddaughter. Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) does not live with her father (Guy Pearce) because he had been imprisoned and is currently struggling with drug addiction. Her mother, on the other hand, passed away due to an accident. Johanna and Sabitha do not see eye to eye, the former for her lack of social skills and the latter for feeling threatened by the new presence in the house.

Directed by Liza Johnson, the goal of “Hateship Loveship” is to tell a small but specific story about a woman who is so used to things just happening to her that we come to wonder if she has experienced how it is like to truly live. Although the screenplay by Mark Poirier attains that target occasionally, the emotional power of the film depends on how consistent it hits the mark exactly. By the end, one gets the impression that the film has good intentions but it is a misfire.

Part of the problem is Johanna teetering on bland, colorless, on paper. Wiig plays her just right—unfashionable, soft-spoken, always looking down—but the writer does not give her very much to do or say. Wiig single-handedly makes the quieter moments work—such as one involving a trip to a clothing store—because she has the talent for looking sad without being pathetic. We root for her to achieve some sort of happiness.

Still, for such a quiet person, we almost expect Johanna to offer profound insight when she does choose to speak. We know that the character is really at good cleaning, almost on an obsessive level, cooking, and is sensitive to others’ needs. We also know that she is so yearning to have romantic love that she becomes prey for a cruel joke.

There is a lack of fluidity in the storytelling. By dividing the picture into two major parts, the first half consisting of Johanna’s every day life with Sabitha and Mr. McCauley and the latter half Johanna spending time with Johanna’s father, it feels like two movies awkwardly conjoined. The final scenes have no sense of time passing by. Major events are thrown at us but they bear little impact because they are not yet earned.

Worse, there is a late subplot involving the grandfather finding a special woman. It has nothing at all to do with the larger themes of the movie so discerning viewers must wonder if such scenes had been added for the sake of having “feel-good” moments. I questioned if the writer did not have the confidence in the effectiveness of the dramatic material that he felt compelled to introduce a light distraction.

“Hateship Loveship” might have worked if it had been reread and rewritten several more times—to get rid of unnecessary details that contribute nothing to the overall arc and to focus on the protagonist’s struggles to find the love that she has longed for. At least it is refreshing to see Wiig in a dramatic role that she embodies so fully, there are moments when I forgot that she has made a career out of making people laugh.

Ghostbusters


Ghostbusters (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The problem with this remake of the 1984 “Ghostbusters” is a lack of a consistent engagement where laughs turn into gasps of horror, and vice-versa, as well as its dearth of genuine curiosity despite its main characters being scientists who aim to provide incontrovertible proof of the paranormal. One may not be blamed for thinking that the studios simply green-lit the project to make money without the intention of ever providing solid entertainment because just about every other scene plays out like a television movie.

The casting directors made good choices in employing Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones to play the paranormal investigators. Each of them has a big but specific personality that brings something special to the table even though the script is not quite up to the level of its performers’ talents.

Particularly joyful to watch is McKinnon, a real scene-stealer. Notice that even when she is not saying anything but just so happens to be in the frame as her co-stars, our eyes tend to gravitate toward her—whether it is due to the way she stands, how she contorts her face, the manner in which she controls her eyes. This is called presence and it is invaluable. Another ray of light, but in a different way, is Jones. She has the more thunderous lines but she sells them with one hundred percent effort with enthusiasm left to spare. I enjoyed how her character is written as a historian compared to her more science-minded counterparts.

Allowing the special and visual effects to take over the final third is a grave misstep. The images look too playful, silly, non-threatening. In the filmmakers’ attempt to become family-friendly, it has forgotten to take risks with its imagery. Compounded with the fact that the stunts are too jokey to the point where we can almost see the wires lifting the actors as the characters are attacked by ghosts in Times Square, what results is a frustrating lack of suspense. There is no tension in our heroines’ confrontation with the neon-animated spirits. Twenty minutes of action unfolds but we end up not caring at all. Clearly, the picture does not qualify as a thrilling action-fantasy picture.

Neither does it qualify as a strong comedy with interesting characters. While the Ghostbusters share a sense of camaraderie, there are numerous ad-libbed lines, particularly from McCarthy, that ought to have been left on the cutting room floor. They stand out like sore thumbs because they are usually out of context. In addition, some of the dialogue, especially those between Erin (Wiig) and Abby (McCarthy) which touch upon how they have grown apart over the years so their reunion—though friendly—is a bit awkward, barely commands realism. It might have been more interesting if the writers, Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, had allowed the two to engage in some sort of friction and then slowly build toward mending their friendship. Give them a reason to work together even though they do not want to be around one another. Instead, everyone must be likable from the get-go. This is a recipe for boredom.

Directed by Paul Feig, “Ghostbusters” wants to have fun, and there are amusing elements here such as Chris Hemsworth playing a handsome but hopelessly dimwitted assistant, but those involved behind the camera seem to forget that there is value in work that is rough around the edges. This is why the original was such a success and is beloved by many. This work, on the other hand, is pristine, neatly-packaged, and just about everything is too controlled and polished. It fails to embody the spirit of its inspiration. And we see right through its mask.

The Skeleton Twins


The Skeleton Twins (2014)
★ / ★★★★

“The Skeleton Twins,” written by Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman, is a bore of a movie—pointless, disingenuous, forced—because it is about two depressive individuals who have no good reason to be depressed. Spending time with them is like being stuck in a claustrophobic coffin and all we can do is one of two things: nap until the exhausting experience is over or pay attention and scream into a pillow because the main characters have the tendency for making the most idiotic decisions. No wonder they’re unhappy.

Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) are reunited after the former’s failed suicide attempt. They have not seen in each other in a decade so, naturally, it is a bit awkward at first especially given the circumstances. Maggie offers Milo a place to stay for the time being because she is afraid he might try to kill himself again. Milo, reluctant, accepts the offer eventually—partly because it is a chance for him to be near a former lover, his English teacher (Ty Burrell) when he was fifteen.

The subject of depression is not handled in a realistic or even a thoughtful way. Instead, the script and the acting lean on what we come to expect: characters looking unkempt, mumbling when talking, looking as if they have not gotten a good night’s rest in weeks. Notice that these are behaviors because the writers fail to unearth what really makes these two specific siblings tick. Sure, we see them struggle to connect with other human beings—Milo with his former instructor and Maggie with her husband (Luke Wilson)—but there is no depth in their interactions, just lines to be uttered until the next scene begins.

A convincing relationship between Milo and Maggie is not established. While we get glimpses of the past when the duo were kids, the images are most uninformative. We see them playing together but that is nothing special. Effective dramatic pictures tend to provide a relatively clear sense of its characters’ history—especially ones that have something to do with relationships in a state of stagnancy or decay.

Instead, the material rests on showcasing interiors and exteriors that look drab. The technique, I suppose, is supposed to inspire an atmosphere of gloom. However, more discerning viewers are likely to notice that the screenplay is inconsistent when it comes to giving us substance. If these characters were so interesting—thereby their story worthy of being heard by us—almost each scene would have given a new piece of information, critical and not-so-important, thus allowing us to become active participants. We learn who Milo and Maggie are together as well as apart.

Directed by Craig Johnson, “The Skeleton Twins” is a family affair with minimal flavor and verve. There is only one good scene which involves Hader and Wiig lip-synching to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Even then it’s supposed to be amusing. By the end, it is clear that the material has no dramatic gravity.

Welcome to Me


Welcome to Me (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) is a woman who has borderline personality disorder. Despite her psychiatrist’s (Tim Robbins) insistence that she go back to taking her medications, she is convinced that she is perfectly okay without them. Her newfound freedom is tested when she wins eighty-six million dollars through the lottery. Her first decision: move into a hotel to live there indefinitely and purchase her own talk show in which each episode is all about herself.

Based on the screenplay by Eliot Laurence and directed by Shira Piven, “Welcome to Me” is a light dark comedy about mental illness and a critique on modern narcissism. Although inconsistent in pacing and tone, there are bright spots where the comedy is inspired. Wiig is a talented and charming performer who not only gets away with a blank look on her face but also makes that look quite intriguing.

There is a theme about exorcising one’s past. Although Alice is not the most reliable character because she has a tendency to stretch the truth for the sake of being dramatic, we wonder which moments of each sketch of the show contain a grain of truth. The protagonist is obviously in pain and is not always able to communicate her thoughts and feelings through words. So it is up to us to try to look closer and it is up to Wiig draw us in and make it worthwhile to get to know Alice.

Yes, it is a comedy even though at first glance it may not appear like it is. For me, the comedy can be found in the astonishment of each supporting character. They simply cannot believe that this woman, who could use her money for anything else—traveling the world, buying a mansion, giving back to her community, living life to the fullest—chose to appear on television and be humiliated. But the joke, in a way, is also on them because, at the end of the day, they work for her. Money goes a long way especially when a few zeroes after a whole number can buy principle. Anybody who really cared would have gotten—or at the very least tried to get—Alice some help.

The romance between Alice and Gabe (Wes Bentley), formerly the host of the television spot the former bought out, is malnourished. It is clear that both of them are a bit weird and may have some deeply-rooted issues but the script fails to explore these characters. Their interactions almost always end up in casual sex—always a punchline or a joke, never romantic—and so the connection comes across forced or disingenuous. We never root for them to be together because there is no reason for them to get together.

Good performers like Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Marsden, and Loretta Devine are not given anything special to do. Their characters could have been given to other actors and it probably would not have made any difference to the overall quality of the picture. The scenes that they are in, however, are never boring—just not as sharp, as biting, or as exciting as they can be.

“Welcome to Me” is a comedy that needs to be more extreme—either sweeter or darker—for its subject matter to become more memorable. A state of in-between is almost always never a good thing when it comes to making people laugh or feel uncomfortable. It straddles the line between us daydreaming and questioning what the point is supposed to be.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

The employees learn that LIFE magazine has been acquired which means that many of them will be let go during the transition—to be overseen by Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), an insensitive lout who sports a bad beard. It is critical that the magazine’s final cover be representative of its title and so Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), in charge of the photo units, is thrown in a panic when he discovers that negative twenty-five is missing.

Desperate to keep his job and quenching his subconscious’ need for adventure and excitement, Walter catches a plane to Greenland in hopes of meeting the elusive Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the photojournalist whose work frequents the magazine’s cover, and asking if he even sent the negative in the first place.

Based on the short story by James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a nice movie—and that is not a compliment. “Nice” is equated with watchable but harmless, offering occasional beautiful images but none offers an immediate, visceral response. I enjoyed some scenes as they are but my brain could not help but think that with such a viewer-friendly premise, the final product ought to have been much stronger.

Stiller plays a nondescript forty-two-year-old convincingly. The performer does a smart thing: He does not play the character to be pitied. Even though Walter is a bit of a bore, we remain drawn to him somewhat—which is difficult to pull off—because Stiller does not turn off his charm completely. It is minimized to a flicker but we sense it nonetheless. I wish Stiller would play more nuanced characters like this. He can be very good at it.

I wish I can say the same about the screenplay. It is correct to inject Walter’s daydreams with exoticism, silliness, and excitement. However, when Walter’s mind is pulled back to reality, the material is not that interesting. Sure, some of the lead character’s interactions with his crush at work, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig—who manages to hit the right notes just about every time), are cute and sweet but aside from the romantic aspect, it shows little to no brightness in the other aspects of Walter’s life.

Perhaps that is the point. But I did not find that realistic. In order to be a true contrast against the more fantastic elements, realism must be sharp. In truth, ordinary lives may be boring but they are not boring all the time. Here, we get the impression that the truth represents the opposite of the latter and that is a lie. Thus, the picture lacks a defined reference point. Supposed opposite elements do not clash as strongly and so we fail to get strong reactions when they collide.

The best scene in the picture is when Walter and the photojournalist he admires finally get a chance to meet. Penn gets one scene and he plays it to perfection. At its best, it reminded me of a most wonderful feeling I had while watching Penn’s “Into the Wild” for the first time. The conversation that transpires between Walter and Sean has a poetic rhythm to it. Notice how the scene takes its time. It seems unconcerned in showing us the next magical thing that a computer can create. At its worst, it made me look at the beautiful scenery—and that is not a jab.

I liked the message that “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” based on the screenplay by Steve Conrad, has to impart. That is, great adventures can happen to all of us… but only if we are willing and present. One can visit foreign countries and explore the most exotic places but if the mind is somewhere else then there is no point. But notice that even when Walter is traveling to all sorts of places, clearly on a mission, there remains a tinge of sadness to him. Maybe Chris McCandless, during the final moments of “Into the Wild,” is right: Happiness is only real when shared.