The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

I have not yet seen the latest entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise despite its soaring critical consensus, which posits the film as the greatest action epic since Fury Road. This is more a result of scheduling & MoviePass-related mishaps than it is indicative of a lack of interest, as the previous entry in the Tom Cruise series, Rogue Nation, was my favorite episode to date. Even though I’ve somehow missed out on Mission: Impossible – Fallout in its first few weeks on the big screen, it has been on my mind, something the Mila Kunis/Kate McKinnon buddy comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me was banking on as clownish mockbuster counterprogramming. Despite the Bond reference in its title, the timing of The Spy Who Dumped Me’s release is deliberately in tandem with the guaranteed Tom Cruise money-maker, possibly in hopes of offering lighter fare for audiences already in the mood for its spy thriller genre territory. This tactic is unmistakably clear in the very first sequence, where a handsome American spy (Justin Theroux) fights off an undercover contingent of international baddies in a Lithuanian open-air market, a blatant knockoff of the iconic Mission: Impossible theme music soundtracking the affair. There’s no real comedy to this mise-en-scène action set piece opening, just a violent chase through European settings that’s meant to feel like just another spy mission in a long series of international exploits that we’re joining midstream. The sequence concludes with the bang of a makeshift microwave explosive, a violent burst that propels popcorn into the frame for the title card, just to let the audience know this is an escapist summertime version of the serious stuff: a literal popcorn flick. The Spy Who Dumped Me is the light action comedy counterprogramming to Mission: Impossible’s more self-serious espionage thriller offering, and it’s totally charming for that.

As the parodic, less-than-serious version of the modern espionage thriller, The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn’t have to do much to distinguish itself from the Mission: Impossible franchise to avoid direct mockbuster territory. That hurdle it clears with ease. The more difficult task it stumbles over is distinguishing itself from the Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig team-up Spy. In both works, everyday women are inducted into international espionage missions when the action-hero men in their lives (Theroux & Jude Law, respectively) are taken out of commission. The Spy Who Dumped Me only differs from the Spy template by affording its nobody-turned-international-spy protagonist (Mil Kumis) a lifelong bestie sidekick (Kate McKinnon). After being dumped via text message by her undercover spy boyfriend (ostensibly for her own safety), Kunis finds herself in desperate need of an adventurous shake-up to spice up her milquetoast lifestyle. The more free-wheeling McKinnon encourages this new thirst for adventurism with every opportunity she can. When the spy boyfriend is taken out of action and their own safety is compromised, she pushes Kunis to turn this opportunity into a besties’ European vacation. Instead of the usual sight-seeing, selfies, and clubbing exploits of American women traversing Europe, the pair indulge in shoot-outs, car chases, and elaborate heists. They kill people. They’re almost killed. It’s all in good fun. The overall set-up & individual gags are all very similar to Feig’s Spy picture, but the emotional core is less rooted in Kunis’s need to break out of her shell (as was the case with McCarthy’s) than it is in her friendship with McKinnon. The pair push, encourage, challenge, and genuinely love each other enough for the story to distinguish itself from Spy in its central character dynamics, even if all the background detail & overriding genre structure render the two films unavoidably comparable.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is so comfortable with admitting to its Mission: Impossible parallels that it includes the line “Your mission, should you choose to accept it . . .” in an early scene of tiki bar flirtation. I assume its parallels to Spy were much less intentional, a byproduct of the film’s overall adherence to mainstream comedy tropes (including go-to modern comedy gross-outs like flaccid male nudity & extended diarrhea gags). Formulaic comedy foundations have led to plenty enjoyable pictures in the past, tough, typically dependent on the strength of the performers involved. McKinnon does most of the heavy-lifting there are as the film’s de facto clown (a role she eventually takes very literally in a climactic Cirque du Soleil sequence). Her over-the-top SNL energy keeps the mood light & affable, even in scenes where baddies & bystanders are being torn to shreds by bullets. She’s even afforded plenty of room to bring her real-life personality quirks into the role, teaching grotesque bros about feminism & loudly broadcasting her life-long love of Gillian Anderson (playing a fantasy version of Dana Scully who eventually climbed the FBI ranks to head her own espionage bureau). Even if the excitement around Mission: Impossible – Fallout hasn’t ignited an immediate thirst for more (and sillier) espionage thriller content or the memory of Spy is too vivid for you to enjoy its comedically inferior echo, Kate McKinnon alone is well worth the price of admission for The Spy Who Dumped Me. This early in her career it’s still rare to see her afforded extensive, front & center screentime, so this movie cannot be overvalued as a McKinnon showcase. The lagniappe delight in that indulgence is that she gets to participate in a sweet, endearing action comedy about female friendship, one where the action & the friendship dynamic are both surprisingly convincing & well-staged. With that comedic & emotional core, any adherence to genre formula or parallels to more substantial works are beside the point of this self-proclaimed popcorn flick’s in-the-moment entertainment value, which is rich & plentiful throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Masterminds (2016)

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threehalfstar

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It’s difficult to sell the potential enjoyment of a Jared Hess film to the disinterested, because the director’s work can be so aggressively quirky-for-its-own-sake & juvenile. Hess’s latest film, Masterminds, has been the most difficult sell of the director’s career yet, possibly in a very literal sense. His debut, Napoleon Dynamite, was a dirt cheap indie comedy that somehow stumbled into the kind of success that scores you decades-long merch sales in roadside truck stops & shopping mall novelty shops, despite being the director’s least interesting work to date. Titles like Nacho Libre, Don Verdean, and (my personal favorite) Gentlemen Broncos have mostly flown under the radar since, as have the projects of Hess’s wife & creative partner Jerusha. Not one of these examples has suffered the financial & distributive roadblocks of Masterminds, though. A harmless madcap bank heist comedy starring Zach Galifianakis & three Ghostbusters (Jones, Wiig, and McKinnon), Masterminds has struggled for at least two years to see the light of day. The film itself is very amusing to those already onboard with Hess’s lost-in-time awkwardness schtick, but also relatively unexceptional within the larger scope of his career. The fact that something so straightforward from Hess has taken this long to overcome its distribution setbacks (which included the financial collapse of Relativity Media), only to flop on its long-awaited opening weekend does not bode well for the director’s career at large. He can’t continue making these comfortable, mid-budget, non-flashy comedies and expect to survive in the current Hollywood climate, no matter how much I (and apparently very few others) happen to find them amusing. Not without bringing his content straight to VOD, at least.

I could make some sort of grand claim about how the virtue of honesty is what ties together the heart of Hess’s narratives or that his films are interesting in their application of a Wes Anderson visual craft to a gross-out Farrelly Brother aesthetic, but I’m not sure that’s what makes them work as comedies. What Hess brings to the table, besides the general quease of Sears family photo shoots, is the visual punchline. In Masterminds, the machinations of Zach Galifianakis’s hapless security guard being coerced into robbing a bank by his milquetoast seductress, Kristen Wiig, or her sleaze ball cohort, Owen Wilson, aren’t nearly as amusing as just the mere look of him. The Prince Valiant haircut, the full beard, the tight novelty t-shirts: Zach Galifianakis is the fashion version of a slapstick pratfall. Certainly, there are funny turns of phrase in the film (mostly delivered by Jason Sudeikis’s cold-as-ice contract killer) but no dialogue in the film made me laugh nearly as hard as just the distinctly awkward visual tableau Hess crafted with his vanity-free players. In many ways Kate McKinnon was perfect casting for this comedy style, as it’s the criticism she most often receives from her work in SNL. She doesn’t deliver jokes so much as that she is the joke, striking such a specifically strange, crazy-eyed image that no verbal play is needed to sell the humor. This might not be enough for some folks, but just the mere sight of her posing for wedding photos with Zach Galifianakis to an Enya song is personally all I need to guffaw.

The humor of Masterminds is, in the film’s own words, “dumber than a suitcase full of buttholes.” The “based on a real story” failed bank heist plot is amusing, but indistinct. Stray lines about a “fart transplant” or why boobs don’t bleed milk are certainly funny & Jason Sudeikis’s sociopathic assassin is hilariously out of place in this world of naïve dummies, but the film isn’t particularly memorable for any verbal or narrative touches. It’s Hess’s deft with the comedic image, whether McKinnon posing in a hideous wedding dress or Galifianakis chowing down on a goo-filled tarantula, that makes Masterminds a weird, dumb delight. It’s doubtful that Hess can continue to get away with constructing those awkward tableaus in perpetuity, given the lukewarm reception each of his films have received since his surprise hit debut (and his worst film to date, in my opinion), but for now I’m enjoying the weirdly wonderful results. Anyone else should be able to tell at a quick glance if they’re also going to be onboard, considering the visual nature of the director’s humor.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghostbusters (2016)

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fourstar

Like most people my age (I was born in 1987), my first experience with the Ghostbusters came not in the form of the 1984 comedy classic; instead, my love for all things Ghostbusting was the result of watching the animated The Real Ghostbusters as a kid. In fact, watching the cartoon adventures of Egon, Venkman, Ray, Winston, and Janine on Saturday mornings, alongside Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Garfield and Friends, is one of my earliest memories; unlike TMNT, I can actually remember particular episodes and character types from Ghostbusters (I know that the Turtles theme song delineates each turtle’s individual personality, but that blew right past me as a kid and I couldn’t tell you which one was a “party dude” right now to save my life). I didn’t see the original film until I was a little older, and even then my clearest childhood memories of the movies actually comes from Ghostbusters II, where the pink slime that fills Sigourney Weaver’s bathtub made me terrified of the tub for a few months.

I was pretty excited to hear about the remake/reboot when it was first announced last year, but wasn’t confident that it would ever really been made and even less thrilled about how well it might turn out. I still remember hearing on the radio about a fourth Indiana Jones film as far back as 1997, when Joaquin Phoenix was in talks to play Indie’s younger brother; then, eleven years later, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plopped into theatres on my birthday like the worst present of all time. I had mixed feelings about Paul Feig; he directed seven episodes of Arrested Development, sure, but one of those was “Ready, Aim, Marry Me,” which is probably the worst single episode of the original three season run. I was also not one of those people who was terribly impressed with Bridesmaids, although it might merely have been that I was in a terrible mood the first time I saw it. Still, Feig was heavily involved with Other Space, Yahoo’s sci-fi comedy that was released last year and which I enjoyed much more than anyone really has a right to (and which featured super cutie Karan Soni, who plays deliveryman Bennie in Ghostbusters, and Neil Casey, who plays villain Rowan North*). Still, when I saw a pic of the all-gal Ghostbusters squad all suited up and ready to bust last year, I was super on board. I retweeted the picture and expressed my excitement, even (and Feig favorited it!).

*According to the credits, fellow Other Space alums Milana Vayntrub and Eugene Cordero were also in the film, as Subway Rat Woman and Bass Guitarist, respectively, but I missed them, unfortunately.

There was (unfortunately, inevitably, and unfortunately inevitably) a backlash, mostly of the misogynistic variety, because of course there was. Of. Course. There. Was. Most of the criticism of the film had little to do with the fact that Ghostbusters is pretty much a perfect movie in a lot of ways (if inarguably a little dated in its kinda creepy sexual politics); after all, this is the primary objection that is usually voiced in response to remakes of any kind. “Why would you remake Total Recall/Robocop/King Kong/True Grit/The Manchurian Candidate/Poltergeist (etc.) when the original still holds up?” But that’s not why (a certain subset of) people were upset about Ghostbusters 2016 at all, even if they tried their best to couch their anti-woman bias in that language. Of course, the blanketing effect across the internet meant that people who were legitimately concerned about the potential artistic or financial failings of the film, especially after the not-very- good first trailer was released, were lumped in together with the rabid woman haters; as a result, those who were anxious that the film would simply fail ended up being on the side of the worst parts of the internet, meaning that there any real criticism was immediately swept away in a wave of meaningless manpain.

So, as someone whose childhood was very GB-influenced, how’s the new movie?

….

I loooooooved it. I loved it so much, y’all. Of course, it pales in comparison to the original, but that’s like saying that Canopus pales in comparison to Sirius: they’re still both pretty bright. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a lot of fun, and I honestly can’t wait to see it again. There’s a perfect mix between nostalgia and novelty, a slew of cameos from the original cast, and a hell of a lot of laughs throughout.

The film opens with a tour of a supposedly haunted mansion that becomes a little too real for the tour guide (Zach Woods). Meanwhile, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is preparing for her final tenure defense at Columbia when a book about the paranormal she co-wrote many years before threatens to derail her career track. She tracks down the other author, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and asks her to stop pushing sales of the book long enough for her tenure to be accepted. Yates and her engineer officemate Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) agree, as long as Gilbert assists them in investigating the mansion. Following a genuine encounter with a ghostly entity, all three women find themselves rejected from academia. Meanwhile, MTA employee and amateur historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) has a strange encounter with commuter Rowan North (Neil Casey), then follows him down to a subway tunnel where he plants a device that summons a ghost from which Patty barely escapes. The three parascientists set up shop above a restaurant in Chinatown and hire hunky dingbat Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) as their receptionist, and Patty invites them to check out the ghost in the tunnels beneath the city. From there, the Ghostbusters become a legitimate team, and the story builds until the four of them face off against an entity that threatens to destroy New York.

First, the negatives: this film lacks a lot of the New York flavor that permeated the first Ghostbusters and its sequel, although I’d argue that this was inevitable given the overall Disneyfication and general enforced conformity that New York has undergone since the Giuliani administration (Sam Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is required reading on this subject, if you can find a copy). Still, it’s impossible to ignore how much that affects the overall tone of this film in comparison to the original. Further, the original Ghostbusters is a film that has a very dry wit, and although that same temperament is here, the comedy is a little more broad (no pun intended) and varied: there’s slapstick, improvisation, and your standard jokes tied in with the more sardonic wit that characterized the eighties flicks. Here, instead, the film runs the gamut from very dry (the mansion tour guide notes that the mansion that opens the film had the best contemporary security measures at the time of construction, including a fence specifically designed to keep out Irish immigrants) to the more over-the- top (Andy Garcia, as the mayor of New York, blows his lid when Dr. Gilbert compares him to the mayor from Jaws, in one of the film’s funniest moments).

There are other negatives. The music choices in the film are terrible, frankly, outside of the revisitations of the original GB theme and its derivations. There’s an extended sequence in which the team captures a ghost at a nü-metal concert, and the music playing throughout is utter garbage, but even that sounds like the music of the angels in comparison to the closing credits theme “Good Girls” by Elle King, which stands out as possibly the shittiest pop song of the new millennium. There’s also a slight editing problem in a few sequences where it is apparent that a scene has been cut. For instance, it seems like the big psychokinetic dance sequence that plays out over the end credits might once have been part of the film proper, but that’s not terribly distracting on the whole. There also may have been a cut subplot in which Gilbert leaves the team after one of their very public outings that ends with a fake arrest, but that’s also not a problem for me (honestly, the sooner someone takes the “team member rejects the group but then comes back in the end” third act subplot out into a field and puts it out of its misery, the better). I also didn’t love the “battle sequence” toward the end of the film, but that’s more a statement about the the state of modern film structure than a complaint that’s specific to this particular movie.

As far as other things that people have had negative criticism for, I don’t really agree. I’ve heard complaints that some of the improv jokes go on a little too long, but I’m not bothered by them. I’ve also seen much hay being made about Patty’s being a blue collar worker and not a scientist like the three other (white) women in the group, but I found her to be a delight and not at all the potentially troublesome stereotype that she was presented as in a few of the trailers. There are some people out there who are intent on finding something to hate in the film, especially anything that seems “man hating,” but there’s so little of it and it’s so toothless in comparison to the generally misogynistic tone of most media that it won’t bother you unless you go looking for it (for instance, the fact that one of the ghosts takes a crotch shot is something I’ve seen a great deal of discussion about, as if hits to the groin aren’t a staple of comedies with brows both high and low).

Overall, however, the film is great. There’s a lot of great parallelism between Gilbert and Rowan, and the way that each fights or assists supernatural evil with science and technology. There’s very overt humor throughout as well as more subtle moments, and there’s a lot to enjoy whether you’re a fan of old school Ghostbusters or not. None of the characters are direct one-to- one parallels with Egon and the gang (although Holtzmann has Egon’s cartoon hair, which I love), and the story feels fresh and new while retaining echoes of the past. One of the best visual gags in the original GB is when Egon activates Ray’s “unlicensed nuclear accelerator” in the hotel elevator, and then he and Venkman subtly move away from the proton pack, as if a few extra inches would really make a difference; there’s a similar scene in this film in which two of the Ghostbusters inch away from an activated device in the alley where they test their equipment. It’s subtle, but there’s a lot of love and respect for Ghostbusters as a franchise in this film, no matter what you’ve heard. Some of the more slapsticky moments went on a little long for me, but there’s too much fun to be had to stick your head in the sand and ignore this movie just because the ‘Busters aren’t the same ones that you grew up with. And, hey, if Dave Coulier replacing Lorenzo Music as the voice of Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters or the creation of the Slimer! shorts to pad out the Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters hour didn’t destroy the Ghostbusters legacy, this certainly won’t either.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond