The DUFF (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
Bianca (Mae Whitman) is informed by a childhood friend, Wesley (Robbie Amell), now a jock and the most popular boy in school, that out of her group of friends, she is considered to be “The DUFF,” acronym for the designated ugly fat friend. A classic symptom: The boys approaching her and asking about Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Styler Samuels), both beautiful and talented in different ways. In order to prove that she is not a DUFF, Bianca separates herself from her two best friends to go after Toby (Nick Eversman), a classmate she has had her eye on for some time.
Based on the novel by Kody Kiplinger and screenplay by Josh A.Cagan, “The DUFF,” is supposed to empower high school students who feel like they are not beautiful on the outside, but the film is so heavy-handed with its messages that it comes across rather disingenuous or fake. It does not help that the protagonist has a proclivity toward whining and moping around when she does not get her way so it makes it difficult to root for her. Regardless, the material has a few sweet moments and clever lines of dialogue to make a tolerable final product.
The heart of the picture is the friendship between Bianca and Wesley. Although they do not look like high school students at all, Whitman and Amell do share some chemistry so their characters’ banters are convincingly fun and flirtatious. The problem with their relationship is not where it is heading but the details of their getting to know one another. Observe the scene where Bianca learns a little bit about Wesley’s home life. It feels like from a completely different movie; the sudden shift in tone made me wonder if we are supposed to like Wesley more just because of issues at home. Even if that isn’t the case, that piece of information is never again brought up for further elaboration.
That is the main problem in the film: its annoying habit of introducing strands that never come into fruition. Another example: After Bianca gets into a fight with her best friends, we rarely hear from them again until it is time to reconcile. The most successful and memorable movies for teenagers have effortless, effervescent flow: we really feel like we are walking in the shoes of the characters we are supposed to relate with. Here, I always felt like I was an observer, only occasionally relating with the protagonist.
The adults at school (Ken Jeong, Romany Malco) are written as clichés in that they are unable to relate with the young people they see every day. We never get the impression that they genuinely care about their students. It does not make any sense. Worse, the student-teacher relationship likens that of those found on television sitcoms doomed to be cancelled mid-season. Do not get me started on the so-called relationship between Bianca and her mother (Allison Janney). Human relationships are one-dimensional here.
Directed by Ari Sandel, “The DUFF” is portraying edge rather than being edgy. If one looks back to teen movie classics like John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” and Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” they dance to their own grooves. They take many risks that pay off. In this film, the writing is nothing special, often safe, simply recycling ideas from its inspirations.
Barry Munday (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Barry Munday (Patrick Wilson), despite his pudgy frame, was a womanizer. He exuded confidence which charmed some but repulsed others. When an underaged girl (Mae Whitman) lured Barry in a movie theater, her father, with a trumpet in hand, walked in on them and hit Barry in the groin. Doctors at the hospital informed him that there was nothing they could do to save his testicles so the boys were going to have to be removed. A couple of days later, to Barry’s surprise, he found out that he had impregnated a woman named Ginger (Judy Greer), the ugly duckling of a well-to-do family (Malcom McDowell, Cybill Shepherd). Based on a novel by Frank Turner Hollon, “Barry Munday” was amusing only half of the time because the director, Chris D’Arienzo, ended his scenes just when the punchline was delivered. For instance, when Barry met Ginger for the “first” time (he couldn’t remember their sexual encounter), the two shared awkwardness, which was mildly funny, but they were left with only references of the night in question. Ginger pointed at the area where they had done the deed and the specific song that played in the background but there was not one memorable joke that incited laughter. I felt as though the film could have played upon Barry’s vanity when he met Ginger. He obviously thought she was ugly so why not overtly play upon the fact that maybe he didn’t feel like she was good enough for him? Yes, the main character would have come off as mean-spirited but it would only highlight the journey he had chosen for himself. The filmmakers’ decision to not take on certain risks lowered the movie’s level of comedy and it missed potential character arcs. I enjoyed Chloë Sevigny as as Ginger’s sister, the favorite of the family. She wasn’t afraid to acknowledge her sexual needs. What I expected to see was her character being used to create a divide between Barry and Ginger. After all, there was a jealousy between the sisters. But I was glad it didn’t take that route. I believed Barry’s change toward becoming a better man because his evolution was mostly two steps forward and one step back. It took some time for him to decide to take real responsibility. However, what I didn’t find as effective was Barry suddenly wanting to know about his father who left before he was born. It offered an explanation involving why Barry turned out to be a womanizer when it didn’t need to. Most men just can’t help but want the idea of being with other women. And that’s okay. Anyone who had taken a psychology course could surmise what the film was trying to say. It implied that his father’s absenceled to his desperate assertion, through being with a lot of women, that he was a man. It was unnecessary because I felt as though Barry’s journey was already complete. He may still not be the kind of guy one would take home to meet the parents, but he was likable enough. We knew he eventually meant well.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Twentysomething Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) creepily dated an Asian high school girl (Ellen Wong) after he was dumped by a girl around his age who made it big as a rock star. Having a fiery passion with music, he and his kooky bandmates (Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, Mark Webber) decided to participate in various battle of the bands until Scott literally met the girl of his dreams (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) named Ramona. Based on the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley, there is no doubt that the adaptation to screen of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is visually creative, hyperkinetic, funny, and charming on the surface. However, I found the picture to be hollow at its core because I did not buy the romance between Scott and Ramona. This was a key problem because we were supposed to believe that Scott was willing to fight for her by defeating her seven evil ex-es (Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Keita Saitou, Shota Saito, Jason Schwartzman) as if he was in a video game. I’m not talking about how they necessarily looked: Scott with his bad haircut and puppy dog eyes and Ramona with her hair color changes every week-and-a-half. After all, we’ve all seen couples where we thought, “What the hell do they see in each other?” I’m talking about how Ramona seemed stand off-ish and almost elitist with her fickle personality of going from one person to another. And it wasn’t like she was warm with his friends either. In a nutshell, whenever the picture had scenes of them together, I could not help but get bored or roll my eyes because the emotion I was supposed to feel did not complement the images I saw on screen. A lot of people might have been easily distracted by the nostalgic images of old school video games (I miss them, too) but I was not one of them. When Ramona and Scott were in the same frame, I wanted to know more about the hilarious gay roommate (Kieran Culkin) who brought home a lot of guys and slept on the same bed as Scott, Scott’s bitter redhead ex-girlfriend (Pill), and the wannabe bass player of the band (Simmons–who was greatly underused; I hated that he was simply there to look cute when I knew he was capable of so much more). As for the battle scenes, I generally enjoyed most of them but was repelled when audio waves were used as weapons. The line between campiness and cheesiness was crossed; there were so many in-your-face images as it is and raping my ears with extremely loud dissonance and feedback was totally unnecessary. I understand that the material was based on the graphic novel and it wanted to remain true to its source (which I appreciated) but I could not help but wish that the duels strictly remained physical or even verbal à la Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (Ramona vs. Roxy Richter was exciting). I say “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” directed by Edgar Wright, is a classic case of style over substance. It was supposed to be a satire for followers of hipster music and video game addicts but unfortunately I think the ones who will end up loving this film are exactly the people it points its fingers on.