Rough Night (2017)

There’s a distinct brand of mainstream comedy that somehow gathers together every single comedic performer you’d ever want to see in a movie, but fails to deliver on the promise of their shared presence. Rough Night is an enjoyable, mildly amusing comedy that’s biggest fault is proving to be less than the sum of its parts. There’s no reason a film helmed by the writers of Broad City that features performances from people as bizarrely funny as Jillian Bell, Ilanna Glazer, Kate McKinnon, and Eric Andre should be half as tame or restrained as this movie often feels. This goes doubly so considering the film’s letting-loose plot of a bachelorette party weekend that turns deadly. There are plenty of violent, absurdist, and over-sexed impulses simmering in the background of this hard-R summertime delight, but none are pushed to the extremes you’d hope for based on the level of talent involved. The result is still amusing, but it’s difficult not to be disappointed over what could have been.

Scarlett Johanson stars as a total nerd running for political office in what seems like a mild send-up of the Clinton/Trump campaign trail (with a little Anthony Weiner thrown in for flavor). She breaks away from her election effort for a single weekend to meet up with college friends she hasn’t see all together in years for a bachelorette party in Miami. While her fiancee’s bachelor party is a hilariously lame, muted affair, her own last gasp of freedom feels like the hedonistic free-for-all we never got to see in Bridesmaids because of the incident on the plane. Cocaine, apple bongs, and gallons of top shelf cocktails fuel the small group’s debauchery while anxieties over past romances & friendship dynamics inevitably bubble to the surface like a loud & proud belch. Eventually, the party spirals out of control when the women accidentally kill a stripper & attempt to dump the body to avoid arrest, making the whole feel a little like a gender-flipped remake of Very Bad Things remake that absolutely no one asked for. It’s all fairly amusing, but also a little over-familiar and, ultimately, disposable.

It’s possible that I would’ve been able to better enjoy the minor successes of Rough Night with a more enthusiastic audience. The crowd I watched it with were quiet enough for me to clearly hear the ceiling leak in the auditorium and the Tupac biopic screening on the other side of the wall. Even with that muted reaction, I especially enjoyed its callbacks to mid-00s pop culture, including Borat Halloween costumes and a dance routine set to Kelis’s “My Neck, My Back,” which were amusing reminders that I am gradually becoming an old man. I’d also consider the film a solid victory in the noble cause Operation: Make Jillian Bell A Star. Her militant distribution of dick-themed bachelorette merch & maniacally sincere delivery of lines like, “It would mean so much to me if we could do a little cocaine together,” made Bell out to be a clear scene stealer, no easy feat considering the talent that surrounded her. Still, Rough Night could’ve reached much more memorable heights if it has just cranked the volume on the violent, dangerously horny, occasionally absurdist touches that were already hiding in the shadows. The movie’s biggest fault is that it sets up jokes & payoffs you can see coming from an hour away and waits until the last possible second to pull the trigger. If its payoffs were more immediate there’d be more room for them to also be more plentiful (more weirdness! more sex! more accidental fatalities!) and the only thing it really needed to be special is more of what it was already working with.

-Brandon Ledet

Office Christmas Party (2016)

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three star

Remember how funny that movie Office Space was? Jeez, I remember laughing so hard at all of those angsty slackers who worked for a dysfunctional corporation and committed federal crimes in their free time. What a riot. Say, I wonder what it’d be like to be at one of their holiday parties, where all the antisocial weirdos from Office Space got drunk & let loose in their soul-crushing work environment. Yeah, that’d be great.

That flimsy elevator pitch is about as fully fleshed out as the premise for this year’s seasonal raunchy comedy offering (following the footsteps of last year’s The Night Before, I suppose). Office Christmas Party even dares to bring back Jennifer Aniston to recall her most famous non-Friends role in Office Space to make sure you get the picture. I wasn’t being entirely sarcastic when I said that premise would be great, though. Sometimes, all a dumb comedy needs to function is the most bare bones premise to hang jokes & eccentric characters off of. Office Christmas Party makes no excuse for being a silly, half-baked comedy that survives on the talent of its cast rather than the strength or the immediacy of its content. The film is exactly as amusing as it needs to be to feel worthwhile as a Christmas-themed feature-length dick joke — no more, no less. Christmas season provides the itch and this movie only does the bare minimum to scratch it.

As such, it’s a movie where plot description won’t help you much in determining whether or not it’s worthwhile. Instead of playing the “cool chick” girlfriend role she filled in Office Space, Aniston is ice cold here as a business exec threatening to shut her bumbling brother’s branch of the company down if he doesn’t land The Big Contract by midnight. The idiot brother, a top of his game TJ Miller, puts all of his save-the-company eggs in one basket: wooing his contractual target through a Christmas-themed rager at the tech company’s Chicago office. The party gets out of hand; copious laws & bones are broken; a fiasco ensues while Jason Bateman, effortlessly slipping back into Michael Bluth mode, cleans up the mess in a befuddled effort of damage control. Of course, only one element of any of this matters in the slightest: the party itself. It gets wild enough to remain consistently entertaining, clashing awkward office party inhibition with pansexual, drug-fueled orgy and the film focuses solely on the minor goal of making you laugh in the midst of the chaos.

Office Christmas Party survives mostly on the strength of its ensemble cast. Rob Corddry’s office badboy collides beautifully with Kate McKinnon’s uptight HR worrywart. Jillian Bell is a striking culture clash as a kindly mid-Western pimp to The Neon Demon & Fury Road vet Abbey Lee. Miller & Bateman are consistently game to debase themselves with sexually-charged slapstick humor and the rest of the cast is rounded out by always-welcome stretch comedy mainstays Ian Roberts & Vanessa Bayer, along with a whole slew of fresh faces whose names I’m sure I’ll be learning in the coming years. Everyone seems to be having fun with the material, as slight as it is, and there’s a genuine party vibe to the film that’s infectious as an audience just happy to be in the same room as so many talented comedians who never see enough screen time (Bell & McKinnon especially).

I’m not sure Office Christmas Party is in any danger of becoming a seasonal cult classic. There are some stray memorable details in its eggnog blowjobs, 3D-printed dicks, and mini-vans drenched in parrot cum, but the film’s not necessarily interested in distinguishing itself from the crowd in the annual tradition of Yuletide gross-out comedies. Rather, it’s content to garner an occasional laugh from a violent pratfall or a well-timed fart and let well enough alone. I didn’t expect much more out of the film going in, which left enough room for me to be pleasantly surprised by an occasional touch like its liberal display of male nudity or its inclusion of Big Freedia on the soundtrack. “What if the Office Space gang threw an out-of-control Christmas party and consequence-free chaos ensued?” is apparently enough effort on a premise level to keep me happy in a low stakes dumb comedy, even if it is just enough. I feel no shame for that, but I probably should.

-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

Goosebumps (2015)

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fourhalfstar

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I say this with total sincerity, friends: the Goosebumps movie is pretty damn great. The same way films like The Monster Squad, Hocus Pocus, Witches, The Worst Witch, and (on a personal note) Killer Klowns from Outer Space have introduced youngsters to the world of horror (and horror comedy) in the past, Goosebumps is an excellent gateway to lifelong spooky movie geekdom. The Scholastic book series & 90s television show of the same name are now far enough in the past that their original pint-sized audience are old enough to have children of their own, which means that the film could’ve easily coasted on nostalgia to sell tickets & not given much thought to a longterm shelf-life. Instead, Goosebumps strives to stay true to its half-hokey, half-spooky source material, resulting in a film that’s genuinely funny from beginning to end, but still packs a sharp enough set of teeth that it might just keep a tyke or two awake at night. It’s a horror comedy for youngsters that resists the temptation of talking down to its audience the way lesser, similarly-minded films like Hotel Transylvania 2 would. The only film from the past decade that I could think to compare it to is ParaNorman, another well-balanced kids’ horror that I hold in high regard for universal enjoyability that allows for children & adults alike to bond over a love of famous monsters & spooky laughs. What could be more admirable than that?

The story at the heart of Goosebumps isn’t all that important, which is in its own way an important lesson for children to understand what to expect from their monster movies. A Regular Dude, his crush The Girl Next Door, and an annoying Third Wheel Nerd named Champ/Chump accidentally release an epidemic of horror movie creatures on the small town of Madison Delaware (which may as well have been Eerie, Indiana) when they tamper with R.L. Stine’s original Goosebumps manuscripts. The film is genuinely enjoyable before the monsters’ arrival (the first pleasant surprise), establishing a world of dumb small-town cops, single mothers trying their best, high school principals hell-bent on outlawing twerking (“If anyone is caught dancing with their butt facing their partner, they will be sent home immediately. Immediately!”), and kooky aunts with Etsy shops & relationship issues.

The only detail out of place in this well-manicured suburbia is the hermetic “Mr. Shivers”, a reclusive, nerdy creep who soon revealed to be the R.L. Stine. In a way, this detail itself is an intro to the meta horror of films like In the Mouth of Madness & Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, but it’s just a single facet of a larger crash course in horror as a genre. The film’s deep cast of spooky creatures include ghosts, aliens, zombies, werewolves, mummies, abominable snowmen, evil dogs, gigantic killer bugs, killer toy robots that would make Charles Band proud, (Wu-Tang) killer bees, and the list goes on. The only glaring absences I noticed were of vampires & Frankenstein monster types, but they honestly could’ve easily slipped by in the midst of the mayhem. The film also aims to collect classic monster movie settings as much as it does the creatures, making sure to hit up spooky graveyards, empty supermarkets, abandoned amusement parks, and The Big Dance in a sequence that recalls films like Prom Night & Carrie. It’s incredible how much ground the film manages to cover in its relatively short, remarkably tidy runtime.

Goosebumps holds an obvious reverence for its source material, a series of novels for horror-minded young’ns that the movie explains aren’t kids’ books, because “Kids’ books help you fall asleep. These books keep you up all night.” Although the film hosts some great work from lovely people like Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, and Danny Elfman (whose theremin & violin-heavy score is pitch-perfect), it’s Jack Black who stands out as the physical embodiment of that child-adult bridge. Black is a hoot as R.L. Stine, portrayed here as a dastardly nerd so intense in his reclusiveness that his imaginary creations became real (the monsters take shape from black swirls of ink when released from their manuscript prisons). I particularly like his situational one-liner “I have a deadline . . . literally,” and his indignation with being compared to Steven King. Black is also given the opportunity to cut loose in his secondary voice performance as an animatronic ventriloquist doll named Slappy (who appeared in no less than ten novels). Most outright “bad” jokes in the film are attributed to the dummy, which makes total sense logically,  but also further solidifies Black’s central role as Goosebumps‘ hokey-scary vibe personified, thanks to the fact that dolls are effortlessly creepy & just the worst.

If there are any longterm Goosebumps fanatics out there who remember the specific details of the dozens of title in the catalog, I’m sure that there pare plenty of in-jokes and winking references ready to delight you. Certain details (like a levitating poodle & an invisible prankster) went way over my head, but the titles I did remember from my schoolchild, such as The Haunted Mask & The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, were also prominently featured in the movie. There’s also a concluding credits sequence that pays loving homage to the series’ wonderful cover art. What’s more important than Goosebumps‘ fielty to R.L. Stine’s past, however, is its loving reflections of the past of horror at large.

Obviously, mileage may vary based on individual kids’ personalities & tastes, but I have no doubt there will be large swaths of young children growing up with fond memories of this film the same way my generation fondly looks back at The Monster Squad as an early horror favorite. I noticed at least five walkouts during my screening of Goosebumps (not to mention that the film is sadly struggling to earn back its budget), but there were plenty of other kids in the audience intensely invested in the goofy mayhem. Of course, I personally would’ve preferred if  Goosebumps had been anchored more by practical effects rather than its somewhat tiresome CGI (although there were some genuinely effective visual cues like a beautiful funhouse mirror sequence & a sad little box labeled “Dad’s Stuff” in the film) but the younger generation of kids in the audience are highly likely not to care about that distinction. For them, the film is more or less perfect as a primer for horror & horror comedy as a genre, CGI warts & all and, honestly, that’s all that really matters.

-Brandon Ledet