Dirty Grandpa (2016)

It’s so rare for Robert De Niro to put in a watchable performance nowadays that it’s tempting to overpraise his smaller roles in movies where he’s not even the main attraction, just because he put forth a notable effort. Bit parts in films like Stardust & Silver Linings Playbook keep the He’s Still Got It dream alive while most top bill De Niro performances urge us to abandon all hope, to accept that whatever talent or drive the actor held onto as a young man is long dead. Dirty Grandpa might be a game-changer in that respect (and in that one aspect only). Dirty Grandpa is a broad, crass comedy about overgrown man-children that makes no real attempt to distinguish itself from every other broad, crass comedy about overgrown man-children that have filled out theater marquees since the rise of the Judd Apatow era. Robert De Niro’s performance within that framework as the titular grimy geezer is worthy of distinguishing praise, however. Once you get past the fact that his role is a series of grotesque sexual come-ons, irreverent gross-outs, expletive-filled karaoke performances, and feverish torrents of masturbation, it becomes apparent that it might be the actor’s bravest, most fully committed work in decades. It’s almost Freddy Got Fingered levels of audience-trolling absurdity that he decided to apply that latent sense of passionate craft to such an aggressively inane, grotesque line of humor.

Zac Efron is a buttoned up lawyer on the verge of marrying an uptight woman he very obviously has no feelings for. Robert De Niro is his ex-military grandfather and a recent widower. At first he comes off as a kind of racist, homophobic asshole, but really no better or worse than any other old white man his age. As the film develops, he reveals that his outward crassness is a deliberate ploy to shake his too-refined grandson out of making the romantic mistake of a lifetime in marrying a woman he doesn’t love. It’s a typical bro comedy plot, playing almost like a The Hangover spin-off (especially in its demonization of a shrewish fiancée whose only enjoyment in life is in ruining boys-will-be-boys type fun). Dirty Grandpa manages to make the effort worthwhile, though. Centering its conflicts around the grandpa’s immediate quest to fuck a young college student (that’s right; this grandpa fucks) the day after his wife’s funeral, the movie seems entirely self-aware about the frivolity of the story it’s telling. Its climactic heart to heart has nothing to do with teaching the grandson a life lesson, but instead includes the line, “The greatest gift a guy can give his grandpa is unprotected sex with a college girl before he dies.” The road trip mishaps on the journey to organize that gift at a Daytona Beach Spring Break celebration also cut down on the movie’s ultra-macho posturing, especially once the brocation is interrupted by the likes of a crazed drug dealer (Jason Mantzoukas), a sarcastic gay man (UnReal‘s Jeffery Bowyer-Chapman), and a no-fucks-given anarchic monster (Aubrey Plaza).

I was initially very weary of the bro humor Dirty Grandpa gleefully rolled around in like a pig in shit. Verbal references to “retards,” “buttfuckers,” and prison rape cool the comedy a great deal in the initial goings, but it’s easy to warm up to the film once you realize De Niro’s elderly gremlin is supposed to be an unlikable monster. I wound up admiring how gross Dirty Grandpa‘s gross-out humor dared to be and by the time the ancient bastard was rapping along to Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day” at a karaoke club I was fully on board with the cheap thrills this movie and this actor were willing to debase themselves to provide. Maybe De Niro is on some level too much of a talent to be employed for a gag where his adult grandson walks in on him fully nude & furiously masturbating (or “doing a #3,” in the movie’s parlance), but that kind of decision-making is more up to the actor & his agent than it is to me as an audience. I’m just happy to see the old man dive head first into non-vanilla, memorable material. Watching him take on a monstrous role as a wrinkled hellraiser with an unrelenting boner in a comedy whose title I consistently confuse with the throwaway Johnny Knoxville trifle Bad Grandpa might not have been my first choice in where I’d want to see his late-career trajectory go, but I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t a pleasure to behold. A dirty, shameful pleasure.

-Brandon Ledet

Sleeping With Other People (2015)

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fourstar

“Are we in love with each other? What are we going to do about it?”

Sometimes the universe will provide you with the perfect contrast-and-compare examples to show you how a movie formula is done right & how it’s miserably flubbed. Consider the difference between Ryan Coogler’s inspired Rocky sequel Creed & last year’s other boxing world drama, Southpaw. Both films use the structure & tropes of the tried & true boxing picture to tell their respective stories, but Creed was so much more distinct & powerful in comparison that it’s easy to forget that the punishingly mediocre Southpaw was even released that same year. A more recent & much less macho example of that dichotomy would be the pairing of How to Be Single & Sleeping With Other People. How to Be Single is one of the least enjoyable films I’ve seen so far this year (it’s no Gods of Egypt, but it’s not far off) and yet it shares a lot of DNA with the low-key charmer Sleeping With Other People, a brilliant utilization of the traditional romcom format that feels entirely modern without ever working like an arms-length subversion. Sleeping With Other People is a feat in genuine emotion & sincerity in a genre that can often lack both, but it’s also remarkably similar to a recent film that gets it all so very wrong. There’s a lesson to be learned in the difference between how those two titles play onscreen & it’s almost certainly a question of craft.

A will-they-won’t-they romcom with an unfathomably stacked cast of talented actors (Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Jason Mantzoukas, and Natasha Lyonne to name a few), Sleeping With Other People is a story of the star-crossed & emotionally damaged. Two recovering sex/love addicts form a sexless, but deeply romantic bond while carrying on affairs with people they care far less about (hence the title). A lesser film would use this scenario to slyly poke fun at or sarcastically subvert the tropes of the romcom genre it operates in, but the brilliance of Sleeping With Other People is the way it feels sexy, smart, adult and, above all, honest all while operating within its genre boundaries. It commits. The film may admittedly be a little more vulgar than what we’re used to from the genre, though. It’s not likely that you’ll ever hear lines like “In your specific case I think you should fuck that sex addict,” or watch a woman learn how to masturbate as demonstrated on an empty juice bottle in My Big Fat Greek Funeral or Garry Marshall’s Veteran’s Day Eve. However, Sleeping With Other People is still instantly recognizable as a by-the-books romcom that delights in the way it plays by the rules. From its onscreen text message exchanges to its falling-in-love montages to the basic confines of its “We’re not a couple, but we act like one” plot, this is a true blue romcom with little to no pretension of being anything else. It just also happens to be well made, uproariously funny, and brutally truthful, a credit to both its writer/director Leslye Headland (who also helmed the underappreciated dark comedy Bachelorette in 2012) & its two stunningly-talented, sincere leads.

There’s recently been a sort of rejuvenation of the romcom format both on the big screen (Wetlands, Obvious Child) & on television (Love, Master of None) that’s encouraging for a genre that for a while seemed like it was on its last legs. How to Be Single felt like a growing pains process for bringing the low stakes romantic comedy into the modern era, never fully committing to letting go of its old-fashioned values despite what the title suggests. Sleeping With Other People, a film that shares two actors & a sex-addicted chauvinist protagonist with that lesser work, is much more adept at balancing a modern sensibility with that same timeless comedic structure. It’s likely there will be plenty of romcom junkies who enjoy How to Be Single well enough, but Sleeping With Other People has much more universal appeal to it. It’s a great movie first & a romcom second. I’d love to know if anyone else senses even the slightest correlation between the two (there’s always a chance I’m dead wrong about these kinds of arbitrary connections), but for me their differences & similarities are as clear as day. It’s also just as clear to me which one will stand the test of time.

-Brandon Ledet

Adult Beginners (2015)

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three star

Not every film is greater than the sum of its parts. Case in point: the cast for last year’s indie dramedy Adult Beginners is just oozing with talent, but the film itself if a little mushy & muddled in a way that can’t help but underwhelm. A Duplass Bros production starring Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Jane Krakowski, Jason Mantzoukas, and Bobby Cannavale sounds like a perfect formula for a lowkey drama with real emotional & comedic staying power, but Adult Beginners struggles to be much more than light entertainment with a promising premise & a failure to launch. The film is serviceably entertaining as decent Sunday afternoon romcom viewing fare, but I expected a little more out of it considering the level of talent involved. It’s an enjoyable film, but not a particularly efficient or memorable one.

Nick Kroll begins Adult Beginners as a cocaine-addicted sexual deviant with an endless appetite for greedy monetary gains, displays of power, and notoriety among his sycophant peers. In other words he’s a run of the mill NYC business man (in movie speak, at least). When his empire inevitably crumbles & he becomes a business world pariah, he has to move back home under the roof of his somewhat estranged sister (Byrne) & her increasingly emotionally distant husband (Cannavale). In order to pull his weight & learn humility, Kroll’s heartless business prick must care for the stressed couple’s hyperactive child Teddy,. He treats Teddy like a monstrous terror, but the truth is the kid is just a perfectly normal toddler. Not much changes once this comedic set up is established. The family learns to adjust & become comfortable with its unexpected shift in household dynamic & Kroll’s broken protagonist learns to become comfortable acting like a decent, empathetic human being. Throw in a third act crisis to shake things up a bit & a rapid resolution to that last minute monkey wrench and you have your basic outline of a typical romcom-style dramedy with an exceedingly charming cast.

Part of the reason why Adult Beginners is so frustrating is that it could’ve been so much more than that kind of charming, but ambitionless middle ground. I smelled trouble as soon as the opening scroll announced a “Story By” credit for three different writers (Kroll among them). At Adult Beginners‘s worst moments it feels like it was compiled from a Frankenscript of several half-cooked stories that didn’t quite come together as a cohesive whole. Byrne’s stressed out mother has troubling alcohol addiction & workplace politics issues that threaten to complicate her livelihood & her pregnancy, but never amount to any clear kind of narrative conflict. Kroll’s business douche protagonist never really shows any personal growth or epiphany within the film other than growing increasingly comfortably with his role as a “manny” (man nanny). Cannavale’s gloomy husband admits his mistake in growing distant, but the couple’s reconciliation is never on public display. Worse yet, the film’s central/titular metaphor about an “adult beginners” swimming class is lazily introduced & referenced only briefly, never materializing into anything too significant or incisive. It’s tempting to think of these half-cooked ideas as intentionally understated narrative & character beats, but the film never really earns enough confidence to warrant that kind of patience & understanding. It’s a messy movie that only remains endearing through the sheer will of its talented cast. It’s not something I’d recommend as a greatly orchestrated, highly impactful small scale drama, but it’ll do as light viewing when you’re in need of this kind of cinematic comfort food. The letdown is that there are germs of two or three much better movies lurking just right under the surface of that mediocrity.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Be Single (2016)

twostar

When Bridesmaids was released to enthusiastic commercial success in 2011 there was an exciting feeling in the air that maybe, just maybe, there was going to be a significant, feminine answer to the decades-long boys’ club of raunchy sex comedies. Now that the honeymoon’s over, so to speak, Bridesmaids & its ilk doesn’t quite feel as revolutionary as they first seemed. For instance, there’s a sequence in Bridesmaids where the titular gaggle of women are on their way to Hangover-style sexual misbehavior in Las Vegas only to have their flight cancelled at the last possible second, effectively nipping their mischief in the bud. Half a decade later, female raunch comedies are still acting a lot more tame & subdued than their masculine peers. Take, for instance, last year’s Trainwreck. The Amy Schumer vehicle pretended to be a raunchy, no-holds-barred sex farce about a total mess of an overgrown child who can out-drink, out-fuck, and out-drug any of her juvenile man-boy counterparts without missing a beat. That setup somehow ended up being a Trojan Horse for some unfortunate moralizing about how she should probably stop smoking weed & get married ASAP to redeem herself as a worthwhile character. Joke-wise the film was satisfying, but its narrative arc was kind of a disappointment.

How to Be Single doesn’t even pretend to Trojan Horse its lame-ass, monogamy-promoting moralizing the way Trainwreck does. In fact, it does the total opposite. The film presents itself as a celebration of life outside of monogamous relationships, but spends its entire runtime focusing on women seeking & finding fulfillment through marriage & childbearing only to double back in its concluding few minutes to declare that, you know what, being alone is actually pretty okay . . . for a while. How to Be Single‘s title is a total misnomer. A more truthful moniker could’ve been How to Yearn for a Man Without Appearing Too Desperate or How to Cope with a Shameful, Childless Life Through Socially Acceptable Alcoholism. At nearly every turn where the film could subvert societal pressure to “grow up” & settle down, it instead reinforces the idea that life outside of romantic bonds is narcissistic & self-destructive. It even repurposes the Amy Schumer brand of a party animal “trainwreck” by reducing her to a sidekick role (portrayed by Rebel Wilson, in case you couldn’t tell from the ads) & an eternal punchline meant to warn you about the exact wrong way to live  your life alone in The Big City. At the film’s conclusion one main character is engaged, one is new to motherhood & in a serious relationship, one is a lovelorn clown, and one is happily enjoying a life without a romantic partner . . . as a refreshing break between her long line of longterm, life-defining relationships.

Besides being on shaky, stuck-in-the-past moral ground, How to Be Single also suffers from some glaring technical problems as well. The whole film has the look of a television ad for cheap vodka, giving off the distinct over-sleek vibe that if Zima were still a thing people could buy, these are the people who would be drinking Zima. The film is at first posed as a survival guide on how to enjoy casual sex in (a suspiciously whitewashed) NYC, but much like Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, that structure is a flimsy launching pad at best & the film mostly operates within a typical romcom plot structure. As soon as the protagonist (played by Dakota Johnson) experiments with casual sex for the first time, she immediately regrets her decision & doubles back to land herself in the most easily accessible relationship available. The movie makes an interesting structural choice once she gets what she wants  & lands herself in said relationship, skipping its three month duration until he’s she’s single again & declaring “This story isn’t about relationships. It’s about all of those times in-between.” The truth is, though, that the movie is about relationships. It’s just about pining for them from the outside looking in. Throw in a meandering, unfocused runtime that’s at least 20min overlong & you have  self-conflicted, too-well-behaved mess of a bland comedy that feels like a television ad for a product its endorsers can’t even pretend to believe in.

The biggest tragedy about How to Be Single falling short is the staggering amount of talent it wastes along the way. Comedic actors Leslie Mann, Alison Brie, Jason Mantzoukas, Anders Holm, Rebel Wilson, Colin Jost, and Obvious Child/Carol‘s Jake Lacy all belong in a much better-realized comedy. I’ll even stand up for Dakota Johnson, who gets a lot of flak for the total shitshow 50 Shades of Grey, as being perfectly lovely in a role that asks her to be pathetic & vulnerable to the point that it’s a major turn-off. Her petty jealousies & lack of basic life skills (like, no exaggeration, dressing herself) are not as charming as the film believes them to be, but that’s more of a problem on the writing end than it is of Johnson’s at-the-very-least serviceable performance. She may occupy a kind of strained Zooey Deschanel quirkiness that isn’t usually my thing, but she pulls it off reasonably well. Rebel Wilson, by comparison, gets most of the better one-liners in, like when she encourages her regretting-the-single-life friend to “Go past ‘Go’, collect 200 dicks” before she seeks another relationship, but, again, she’s mostly played as a joke & any of her subversive potential is severely undercut. In a perfect world a cast this stacked would’ve been put to better, less-regressive use, but How to Be Single has no interest in pushing any boundaries & its marketing unfortunately spoiled most of its better gags in its omni-present, repetitious ad campaign.

The truth is that I’m far outside How to Be Single‘s target audience. It certainly doesn’t help that I saw the film in a laughless, mid-afternoon crowd of three stone-silent men (myself included). Still, the film felt like a long line of missed opportunities & a half-cooked screenplay that never fully commits to its basic premise that being single & childless is a perfectly okay way to live (until it’s way too late in the runtime to believably change its mind). This isn’t necessarily the film’s fault, but it’s also a little dispiriting that How to Be Single feels like yet another example of female-led sex comedies that deliver a much tamer, better-behaved product than promised. If this is supposed to be feminine counter-programming for bro-minded, male-driven raunch its idea of genre subversion is milquetoast at best. There have been a few comedies along this line that actually misbehave in a satisfying way: Broad City, Appropriate Behavior, Bachelorette, and The To Do List all immediately come to mind. However, many recent, high-profile, female-lead sex comedies are a lot more sexually & politically regressive than they’d need to be to actually make waves. How to Be Single declares that it supports single women who are “living longer, marrying later, and not leaving the party until [they’re] really, truly done.” What’s disappointing is the way the movie suggests that the party does have to end, that living single is a temporary respite, that marriage & motherhood are an inevitability, that there is a “later”. I’m not single & I’m not a woman, but I still found that idea regressive & patronizing, not to mention a total cop-out to what could’ve been a refreshing premise in a couple sharper, more-pointed drafts.

-Brandon Ledet

The Night Before (2015)

fourstar

I should preface this review with the confession that Scrooged is my favorite Christmas movie. Bill Murray worship not withstanding, I feel like Scrooged is typically considered a minor, non-traditional Christmas comedy at best, not a typical go-to for the genre. I’m saying this because I greatly enjoyed The Night Before, but it’s hard to tell if its irreverent, drug-fuelled take on Christmas tradition will win over any longterm audiences, since it very much mimics the alcohol-soaked magic & pessimism of Scrooged. The Night Before not only mimics Scrooged‘s cynical, modern-world take on A Christmas Carol, but expands its adaptation scope to include touches of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, and (duh) “The Night Before Christmas”. Its excessive aping of former Christmas tales approaches allusions the same way its characters ingest “every single drug in the whole world.” Scrooged was a cynical, surreal adaptation of a Christmas classic told through the lens of alcoholism & Reaganomics. The Night Before is a similar beast, but it’s much less picky about its controlled substances or its source material & its lens is obviously more of a social media-era millennial brand.

You might expect that a raunchy comedy featuring long stretches of a Jewish man sweating his way through an aggressive cocktail of cocaine & psilocybin mushrooms would have little care at all for Christmas tradition, but The Night Before is far from the tradition-breaking excess of this year’s Everly or Tangerine. At its heart, the film is a simple story about three friends learning how to reconcile the changes that come with growing up & what it means to be a family. The three buds in question are living out a chaotic holiday ritual in which they fuck, drug, and vandalize their way through Christmas Eve while most people are sleeping or preparing for the big day ahead. Fearing that they might be becoming “those kids who won’t stop trick or treating” they decide to have one last drug-fueled blast to put the tradition to rest. And because they’re adults with adult issues looming over them, this hallucinatory catharsis of an evening brings to the surface crippling anxieties about their families, their careers, and the difference between being a good friend & being an enabler.

I wasn’t entirely stoked about director Jonathan Levine’s other Seth Rogen/Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s buddy comedy 50/50, but I did respect it for aiming for a more melancholy, real-talk vibe than most of Rogen’s comedy vehicles. The Night Before is a pretty great compromise between 50/50‘s grim tone & Rogen’s more over-the-top Judd Apatow-style ensemble comedies. Much like a lot of comedies in Rogen’s past, The Night Before survives a lot on the strength of its extensive cast of great comedians: Tracy Morgan, Ilana Glazer, Jason Mantzoukas, Mindy Kaling, Lizzy Caplain, Nathan Fielder, and Jillian Bell, who is so much of a perfect romantic match for Seth Rogen that I’d love to see them repeat their chemistry for at least one more feature. There are a few celebrity cameos to boot, which I’ll try my best not to spoil here, except to say that the mystic weed dealer character made me quite giddy. What makes all this work as something more than just an empty comedic exercise is Jonathan Levine’s touch with the tender & the melancholy. The Night Before has some grotesquely cynical moments for sure, mostly in its obnoxious ad placement for Sony & Red Bull, but for the most part it does a great job of balancing its lavish fantasy-fulfillment partying with subdued moments of emotional fragility. The tough-as-nails front the three leads put on is a deception at best, as is the film’s own supposed hedonism. It’s truthfully an old softy at heart, a traditional Christmastime sap-fest concerned with the (literal) magic of the season & the importance of familial bonds. It just happens to be one that features a supernatural weed dealer & vigorous bathroom sex.

-Brandon Ledet