Tag: paul weitz

Grandma


Grandma (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Grandma,” a solid day-in-the-life comedy but not a particularly memorable one, is a barometer for Lily Tomlin’s powerful but seemingly effortless presence. One looks in those eyes and that face for mere seconds and one cannot help but to imagine her character’s history, to ask what she’s all about, what she stands for.

Tomlin plays a lesbian poet named Elle whose granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), knocks on her door and asks for six hundred and thirty dollars to pay for an abortion. Sage has an appointment at the clinic that very afternoon. Although Elle would like to help, she, too, is strapped for cash given that she had just paid off her debts and destroyed her credit cards. But the feisty grandmother has an idea: To visit some old friends—some she has not seen in years—and borrow some money.

Although the picture offers a relatively simple premise, it navigates through an archipelago of emotions. Each visit is, at the very least, superficially interesting, often with a wonderful ear for dialogue. Tomlin has a talent for showing a different side to her character with each confrontation. Thus, we consistently learn something new about Elle. The past is often alluded to and one cannot help to imagine her younger, possibly more reckless, self. Clearly, Elle is a woman worth knowing. Love her or hate her, the viewer will not walk away having no opinion of her. Such is a mark of a well-written protagonist.

Perhaps the most memorable visit involves a man in his sixties or seventies, played by Sam Elliot. There is great tension during his scenes because Elliot is able to match Tomlin’s presence. Both, physically, are like grandparents you’d love to hug and hang out with, but the moment Elle and Karl talk about their shared history, there is clearly pain there. I relished the stark contrast between Elliot’s relatively calm exterior but every intonation in his voice communicates something else entirely just underneath.

The comedy does not come across as forced. One of the reasons is because writer-director Paul Weitz trusts his leading performer’s instincts, coupled with Tomlin’s intelligence and knack for playing against what may sound script-like and making it rather flawed or human. She is not afraid to make fun of her character—and herself. As a result, a line or two that might have sounded silly or trite in lesser hands sounds and feels natural here. Elle being a self-deprecating woman works for the material.

The picture might have been stronger if Sage were written and played more interestingly. Although we see a few sides of her personality, by the time the film ends, we still feel as though we don’t know her well enough. Garner plays the character with a level of laissez-faire attitude—appropriate at times because she is a rebellious teenager, after all—but a bit more presence and enthusiasm might have taken the character on another level. Still, “Grandma” engages throughout because the writing is often crisp and Tomlin is more than up to the task of commanding the screen.

Admission


Admission (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Portia (Tina Fey) is an admissions officer in Princeton University. After having been invited by a high school teacher, John (Paul Rudd), to stop by and give some information about the university, possibly inspiring those who wish to apply during her talk, she is told by John that he has found her biological son, the child she gave up for adoption when she was an undergraduate in Dartmouth. His name is Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) and he happens to be interested in attending Princeton.

Here is a film that should have been approached with satirical edge. Instead, “Admission,” based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz and adopted to the screen by Karen Croner, ends up as a would-be comedy-drama with scenes that move so slowly and almost devoid of humor. Its many subplots are not entertaining. They merely serve as padding for what should have been the focus of the picture: how it is like to be an admission officer in one of the most respected universities in America, an institution that receives over twenty-thousand applications annually and only accepts just about a thousand and two hundred.

Like a high school student that spreads himself too thin, the picture’s strategy involves giving us too many characters at once, introducing them and their problems superficially, and hoping that somehow parading them around will pass as character development. In one scene, Portia is having issues with her mother (Lily Tomlin) not putting in enough effort so they can both have a so-called healthier mother-daughter relationship. The next scene is about something else completely, with Portia competing against her co-worker (Gloria Reuben) for a promotion because the dean of admissions (Wallace Shawn) has announced his retirement. It is like cotton candy: it looks like a lot to bite into on the outside but when you get into it, there is not much there.

The attempt at romantic comedy is lifeless. Sure, Fey and Rudd are charming as usual. The sort-of date between Portia and John has a sweetness to it, but the performers are not given much to work with. Words are uttered but they are inconsequential. The date is tolerable only because of the awkward smiles and the twinkle in the eyes of the actors. At least they are getting paid to endure bad material. What about us?

In addition, the drama is not convincing. Would it have been too much for the writers to treat some of its characters seriously when something real is supposed to be on the line? I am tired of movies that portray intellectuals as emotionally crippled alien beings. Michael Sheen is completely wasted as Mark, Portia’s boyfriend of ten years. We spend one scene in their apartment and we can tell immediately that it is not going to work out. There has to be a reason why they have been together for a decade. It is as if the screenplay does not even bother to construct believable interior lives for its characters.

The best scenes pack wit and excitement but are short-lived. I enjoyed simple moments like Portia reading, in voiceover, college admission essays. It made me feel like it was only yesterday since I wrote one. I knew I was a good writer but I was so nervous; I remember sending my essay and not feeling very confident about it. The words being read are fun to listen to because the essays have character in them. I would have liked to have heard more. In addition, there are a few silly scenes like Portia grabbing someone’s else’s baby in an attempt to “help.” I laughed but there are not enough of them.

A potentially great scene involves the officers and the dean of admission assessing and voting as to which applicants deserve to receive an acceptance letter. However, the screenplay and direction seem timid to allow a scene to run longer than they should. As a result, the picture fails to engage us completely. After presenting numbers like grade point average, SAT scores, and the like, there is not enough silence to let the audience think about whether the applicant should get in based on those only. Instead, it rushes through the numbers, extracurricular activities, and other recognitions. In the end, it is all a jumble.

The problem with “Admission,” directed by Paul Weitz, is it does not care about the process. It has about five to six subplots but it does get into the nitty-gritty of what it is really like to be a woman who hopes to advance her career, a newly single person meeting a potential mate, a daughter who feels rejected by her own mother, and someone who thinks she is ready to be a parent. Since the process and details fall on the wayside, the film ends up being merely a trifle.

Little Fockers


Little Fockers (2010)
★ / ★★★★

It seemed like Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) had finally found a way to get along after years of power struggle which often involved physical pain. Much to Greg’s surprise, Jack wanted him to be the “Godfocker” or the head of family. But when Jack began to feel a gnawing suspicion that Greg was having an affair with a beautiful pharmaceutical representative (Jessica Alba), Jack and Greg’s temporary ceasefire was shaken. Directed by Paul Weitz, “Little Fockers” was lifeless, tedious, and humiliating. There was no good reason for these characters to be on screen again because not only was there no story, there was no chemistry among the characters. We learned nothing new about them and they weren’t very funny because all of the jokes were either uninspired or recycled from other lame-brained comedies. The “I’m watching you” joke may have been amusing more than a decade ago but after hearing the same joke over and over again, it wasn’t even chuckle-worthy. The slapstick scenes served no purpose other than to disgust and Alba’s character doing physical stunts felt utterly desperate. The only two characters I found somewhat amusing were Roz (Barbara Streisand), Jack’s mom, and Prudence (Laura Dern), the recruiter for the elementary school Jack and Greg were interested in for the twins. Roz’ jokes about sex and aging were transparent but least they served a nice break from the two warring fathers. Prudence, on the other hand, was amusing because she found herself in disbelief when dealing with the Fockers. Having experience in working with obnoxious kids and dealing with, to put it lightly, difficult parents her fake smile was all too familiar. I enjoyed Dern’s performance, even though she wasn’t given very much to do, because she made Prudence relatable and less of a caricature. Unfortunately, the picture had to return its focus to Jack and Greg attempting to make each other’s lives miserable. It was almost masochistic. Toward the end, I thought its sweetness was completely false because the evolution in Jack and Greg’s relationship was absent. It was insulting that the filmmakers actually believed that we would buy the charade. The scene right before they were nice and gooey, Jack and Greg were so mean-spirited toward each other, I wondered if they genuinely regarded each other as family. Greg perfectly knew that Jack had a serious heart condition yet he wasn’t attuned enough not to throw a punch. With a sharper script equipped with enough character development and jokes that were actually funny and subversive, perhaps “Little Fockers” could have passed as a remotely mediocre comedy. Instead, this movie personified what the bottom of a barrel looks and sounds like: dark, depressing, and desperate.

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.