This wasn't a major week for movies, but at the very least it provided an adequately entertaining diversion in the form of another in a long line of good-but-not-great releases from (former?) team Apatow. I'll take comfort in that through the rest of this week, which offers up "Monsters vs. Aliens" as a likely high point. Blech.
"I Love You, Man"
*** (out of four)
2009, John Hamburg, U.S., R
Apparently, filmmaker and prolific producer Judd Apatow had nothing to do with this easygoing romp about a straight man (played by Paul Rudd) searching for a bromantic partner. His protégés and contemporaries are involved by the dozen, though, and do a decent job of emulating the kind of good-natured raunch that Apatow made famous. Rudd stars as Paul, a 30-something real estate agent who proposes to his girlfriend only to realize there's nobody in his life whom he could conceivably ask to be his best man. His ensuing search for a heterosexual life mate leads him on a series of "man-dates" (the best of which involves the obligatory gay man who gets the wrong idea about Paul's intentions), but it's through chance that he meets Sydney (Jason Segel), an eccentric investor who slowly helps Paul realize what it is to be a man. This probing of modern masculinity if often hilarious, and it rarely goes for the obvious joke. Even when the film does aim for the easy laugh- as when lightweight Paul engages in a drinking contest with some beer-pounding "buddies," with inevitable results - it sells itself well, and you can't help but at least chuckle at the good-humored joviality of the cast's antics, however standard they may be.
"Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy"
2004, Adam McKay, U.S., PG-13
It's a shame that this early effort from the Apatow group (he produced) is so uneven, because if writers McKay and Will Ferrell and their improvisational cast could have kept the funny coming at a consistent rate, this could have been one of the funniest absurdist comedies of the decade. The film follows the brazenly stupid exploits of San Diego newsman Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) and his team of equally insipid co-workers, and when it's on target, the movie inspires some big laughs. When it's off the mark, though, it's really off the mark, and often runs the risk of becoming a bit boring. Thankfully it never fully crosses that line, and the second you find yourself looking at your watch, your attention in pretty quickly jerked back to the film thanks to some new depth of idiocy to which Burgundy and his men have sunk. Ferrell shares good chemistry with pretty much all his co-stars, including Paul Rudd as a suave reporter with a penchant for exotic colognes (Sex Panther: Sixty percent of the time, it works every time), and Christina Applegate as Burgundy's love interest/professional rival. Even when the screenplay is in low-gear, it's still a hoot to watch these talented comedians play off one another.
2002, Steven Shainberg, U.S., R
She's still not quite a household name, but Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jake's sister) has at least gained some wide recognition for her role as Batman's love interest, Rachel Dawes, in "The Dark Knight." But she should have become far more famous much earlier for this fascinating nontraditional romance. The film is often dramatic, and deals with some weighty issues, including sexual compulsion, domestic abuse and even "cutting" (a form of self-mutilation that clinical depressives sometimes engage in as a way of coping with their inner pain). However, the movie is also sweet enough and (darkly) funny enough to be classified as a romantic comedy, or perhaps as an anti-romantic comedy. The characters are always engaging, especially our heroine, Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal), a 20-something wall flower who lives with her dysfunctional parents and has retreated into a solitary world of depression and self-punishment. In an effort to get out, she learns to type and gets a secretarial job at the legal office of Mr. Grey (James Spader). What ensues between them is an often touching, sometimes troubling, always enthralling examination of a specific kind of sadomasochistic sexual relationship. Some of the more provocative material may have been too disquieting - maybe even revolting - if Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson (working off a short story by Mary Gaitskill) did not strike a perfect balance between light-hearted comedy, dramatic pathos and sexual kink. They succeed brilliantly, though, thanks largely to Gyllenhaal and Spader, who make for a most likable and sympathetic odd couple.
"The Long Good Friday"
**** (Masterwork Selection)
1980, John Mackenzie, U.K., R
Cinema has given us few characters more compelling than Harold Shand (played by Bob Hoskins in a career-best performance), the British gangster at the center of "The Long Good Friday," which itself is one of the very best gangland crime films ever made. The film's plot is engaging - dizzying and labyrinthine in the way it weaves together a complex tale that, in the end, may amount to very little. But that's the beauty of the story and, more importantly, the genius of Hoskins' characterization of Shand: He's a complicated man full of vision and ambition, but in the end all his planning, all his working, all his striving for success and power leaves him in a situation in which he controls far less than he thinks he does. The story involves a gang war that erupts amidst Shand's closing of a billion-dollar business deal with an American tycoon, and it's quite serviceable as a crime yarn. But the film's real strengths lie in Hoskins' flawless portrayal of an alpha-male who slowly comes to realize his own impotence in the face of burgeoning political and economic powers far more ruthless and resourceful than he. The film's final shot may be my vote for best of all time: Shand, finally accepting his own downfall, sits in the back of a car, and the camera stays on his face for the duration of the closing credits while Franxis Monkman's unnerving score punctuates the viewer's discomfort at seeing a defeated man laid bare by forces that he is only now beginning to understand. Absolutely haunting, and probably impossible to replicate in the belated but always inevitable American remake slated for release later this year.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.