Long Shot (2019)

In a lot of ways, the Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron two-hander Long Shot is a traditional, by the books romcom. Two socially mismatched idealists spark an unlikely romance after a chance meeting in the first act, then gradually learn to be more like each other through the ups & downs of their early months together (most romcoms bail before the real work of building a relationship starts, once that early emotional rush cools down). It’s arguable that Seth Rogen’s overgrown stoner-bro humor is a little out of place in that context, but the Apatow style of modern comedies where he cut his teeth were basically just romcoms with some lagniappe improv takes, so even that influence isn’t much of a subversion. If you find it comforting to watch two characters fall in love over a series of quippy one-liners and farcical misunderstandings, Long Shot is more than willing to deliver the formulaic romcom goods, building an amiable romance between two adorable leads with oddly believable chemistry. What’s really interesting about the film is how it manages to pull that off while discussing something most formulaic romcoms actively avoid: politics.

Charlize Theron plays a US Secretary of State who’s poised to make her first presidential bid in an upcoming election. Against the guidance of her campaign advisors, she hires Seth Rogen as her speech writer for the early stages of the campaign trail – both because she respects his leftist idealism and because she thinks he’s cute. In apolitical romcom tradition, the unlikely couple inspire each other to edge closer towards the political center from their extremist starting points. Theron relearns to stick to her guns ideologically without giving up too much in political compromise, while Rogen learns that compromise & reaching across the aisle are sometimes necessary to accomplish larger goals. It’s a relatively safe, careful approach to modern politics – an arena defined by increasingly violent extremes. As such, the movie leaves little room to make clearly stated, concrete political points without risking the fun-for-everyone charm of romcoms. Its only clear political stances are detectable in Theron’s campaign platform that centers The Environment, and in the way working in the news media spotlight is unfairly difficult for her as a woman. As far as modern political topics go, gendered scrutiny & saving the trees are about as safe as the movie could have played it, and you can feel it struggling with how political is too political for a romcom when addressing nearly every other topic.

One major way Long Shot avoids alienating half of its audience with its political stances is avoiding declaring which political parties it’s actually talking about from scene to scene. Theron’s environmentalist crusade and the feminist lens through which she views media coverage of her public persona both suggest that she’s a registered Democrat, but the movie is careful to never make that association explicit. Her role as Secretary of State is in service of a bumbling president (Bob Odenkirk) who is even more amorphous in his declared politics. Neither Democrat nor Republican (at least not explicitly) Odenkirk is a cipher for more universally acceptable jokes about how all politicians are more obsessed with celebrity than policy and how they’re all corrupt goons in lobbyists’ pockets. The only time I can recall the words “Democrat” or “Republican” being verbally acknowledged in the film is when Rogen is mocked for being horrified by the revelation that his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a member of the GOP, when he supposedly should be willing to find common political ground with his best bud. That’s a tough pill to swallow in a time when Republicans are actively trying to outlaw abortion access and in a time when, as acknowledged in the film’s opening gag, many “Conservatives” are literal Nazis hiding in plain sight. Still, it’s the only position the film can really take without risking its traditional romcom cred.

For a more daring example of how the romcom template can productively clash with modern politics, the Jenny Slate vehicle Obvious Child is commendable in the way it plays with the genre’s tropes while also frankly discussing Pro-Choice stances on reproductive rights. The closest Long Shot gets to saying something specific & potentially alienating about modern politics is in its parodies of Fox News media coverage (complete with Andy Serkis posing as a hideous prosthetics-monster version of Rupert Murdoch), which is a joke that writes itself. The difference there is that Obvious Child is a subversion of the romcom template, one that nudges the genre closer to an indie drama sensibility. By contrast, Long Shot is more of an earnest participation in the genuine thing. It is, for better or for worse, a formulaic romcom – with all the charming interpersonal relationships & tiptoeing political rhetoric that genre implies. I can say for sure that the romantic chemistry between Theron & Rogen works completely. The gamble of bringing modern politics into an inherently apolitical genre template is a little less decidedly successful, but at least makes for an interesting tension between form & content.

-Brandon Ledet

Sausage Party (2016)

EPSON MFP image

onehalfstar

campstamp

When I was an innocent little preteen nü-metal doofus in the late 90s my stepdad used to take me to the theater to see films rated above my age range by the MPAA, but made perfectly for my (im)maturity level. I’m thinking of titles like the South Park musical Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the post-apocalyptic Pam Anderson vehicle Barb Wire, and the deservedly forgotten Keanu Reeves sci-fi cheapie Johnny Mnemonic. It always felt like a special treat, an excursion to pluck the most low-hanging forbidden fruit imaginable. Were it still 1999 & I still a snot-nosed KoRn fan, I probably would’ve enjoyed our most recent journey together to Chalmette Movies to see the Seth Rogen-helmed shock comedy Sausage Party. Instead of leaving the theater transgressively delighted, however, I felt drained, spiritless, exhausted. I don’t know if that sensation speaks more to the movie’s maturity level or my own, but I will say that its moronic dedication to its own despicable worldview & self-congratulatory navel-gazing not only felt like a product of an entirely different century; it also distracted from the film’s main draw: CG animated raunch.

An obvious labor of love, Sausage Party is a Pixar-spoofing filth fest about anthropomorphic food products that somehow skates by without an NC-17 rating despite its fetishistic use of “foul” language & onscreen depictions of sexual congress. A tale as old as time, the film mostly follows one hotdog (voiced by Seth Rogen) as he embarks on a quest to get all up inside his complimentary bun (Kristen Wiig, whose thankless performance I pity the most in this production). It’s the same bros-trying-to-get-laid plot structure Rogen & his writing partner Evan Goldberg have been endlessly repeating all the way back to 2007’s Superbad, except this time with cartoon food. Buried somewhere in this gleefully stupid passion project, which features an entire grocery store full of talking foodstuff characters & the godlike shoppers who free them from the shelves, is about 20 minutes of pure schlock cinema brilliance. Whenever the film acts like a horror comedy, depicting little sentient potatoes & baby carrots being ruthlessly destroyed by gigantic human monsters they mistook for divine saviors, it can be quite funny. There’s a Cleanup in Aisle Whatever gag that spoofs the Omaha Beach invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan that rings as particularly inspired, especially in the detail of a can of spaghetti trying to re-contain its “intestines.” I’ll also vouch for the climactic hedonism that concludes the film with a nihilistic, anything-goes cocktail of sex & violence that smartly picks apart the basic stupidity of the anthropomorphic [fill in the blank]s of the various CG animated features the film is spoofing. The problem is that these flashes of brilliance are lost under an insurmountable garbage heap of cruelty-for-its-own-sake nastiness & pseudo-philosophical self-importance. Sausage Party knows how to tell an occasional good joke, but its soul is overall corrupted & inherently unlovable, so the punchline is always a short-lived pleasure.

Where Sausage Party derails its own sense of fun in delightful stupidity is in its supposedly necessary quest to construct a narrative more complex than just a nihilistic fascination with sex & violence. Its missteps in that regard are threefold:

  1. The film characterizes its individual food products based on racial & sexual stereotypes. The bagel is a Woody Allen-flavored Jewish caricature. The Twinkie is a twink. The bottle of tequila is a Hispanic scoundrel (among many other “illegal products,” including an oversexed lesbian taco voiced by a surprisingly game Selma Hayek). The hotdog buns are airhead female sex objects patiently awaiting their corresponding wieners. 40oz bottles of malt liquor & sentient boxes of grits are coded as black. The wise bottle of “Fire Water”-brand alcohol is a Native American mystic who smokes weed out of a kazoo. The lavash looks forward to an afterlife stocked with 70 bottles of extra virgin olive oil. The film is a relentless dedication to an “If everyone’s offended, nothing’s offensive” line of humor that’s no funnier the first time than it is the 1,000th and once you realize that its pursuit to racially categorize each of its many foodstuff personifications will eat up its entire runtime in the place of a worthwhile story or all-out debauchery, there’s nothing left to feel but exhaustion & despair.
  2.  Unsatisfied with its surprisingly brilliant depiction of human beings as cruel, uncaring gods who promise these talking food products passage to “The Great Beyond” (where, unknown to them, they will be mutilated & consumed), the film instead mostly follows the much less interesting threat of an anthropomorphic douche. I’ll tip my hat to the spot-on casting of comedian Nick Kroll as said douche, but much like the film’s above-referenced “have your cake & eat it too” satire of racial coding in foodstuffs marketing, his entire role should’ve been reduced to a short-form gag & not a full-length plot device. Let’s think for just a half-second what a villainous douche in a shock comedy would spend most of its time pursuing in order to create conflict. Did you picture roid rage-themed sexual assault? Apparently, Rogen & Goldberg didn’t think of it for much longer than a half second either, since they also pictured rape and thought that was funny enough to run with for the length of an entire film.
  3.  Perhaps the most damning fault of all this is that this shameless raunch fest actually thinks it has something to say. From its aggressively pedantic Richard Dawkins branch of atheism to its musings on the frivolity of the Israelian-Palestinian conflict to its juvenile depictions of a Hitler figure getting his comeuppance (a moment that apparently called for more rape humor, since there’s just never enough), Sausage Party captures exactly what’s so exhausting about being trapped in a confined space with the world’s worst subreddit’s didactic neckbeard internet philosophers or, more simply, watching an especially preachy episode of Family Guy. I swear a hotdog even mouths a “Giggity!” to seal the deal on the film’s overriding aesthetic just before the blood orgy climax. Somewhere along the way Rogen & Goldberg became mistaken that audiences wanted a self-important lecture on the meaning of life in the midst of comedic gags about hotdog ingredients cussing & fucking, particularly one with the stinger that man-boy stoners are the world’s true enlightened philosophers with all of The Answers. I can respect the film’s go-for-broke dedication to its own inane depravity, but I can’t at all get on board with its self-congratulatory stabs at know-it-all philosophy.

All three of these fatal flaws point to a major structural problem at the heart of Sausage Party‘s toxic unlikability. This should have been a short film. I’m thinking fifteen, twenty minutes tops. Any entertainment value Rogen & Goldberg pull out of anthropomorphic foodstuffs’ nihilistic sex & violence in the face of their human god consumers’ cruelty could’ve been efficiently fired off in that window, with the added bonus of allowing less room for the film’s “comedic” obsessions with race, rape, and the dirty word. Sausage Party should’ve kept to a short film format, just like how the equally exhausting Minions & Deadpool movies should’ve been instantly relegated to their current status as lazy Facebook memes instead of being developed into feature films in the first place. I’m glad I saw Sausage Party in the theater with my stepdad, not only for its occasional short film-worthy moments of depraved schlock brilliance, but also because it took me back to a special, nostalgic time in my cinematic past. The year was 1999, I was twelve, and I would’ve loved every minute of this shit stain of a movie. Unfortunately, there are just some places you can never go back to (and some you’d never want to if you knew what was waiting there).

-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

Steve Jobs (2015)

threehalfstar

If you want to learn about the recently deceased Apple CEO/visionary Steve Jobs, there’s a new documentary called Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine by Alex Gibney that should be of use to you. If you want to watch a well-written, well-acted movie about a mythological Steve Jobs  who most likely never existed, the Danny Boyle film named after him is probably more your speed. As with most scripts by Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is not really about Steve Jobs at all. Just like with his work on the David Fincher Facebook movie The Social Network, Sorkin is much more concerned with myth than he is with truth, often using the likeness of real life people as a mirror through which he reflects on his own personal shortcomings. The basic Sorkin archetype is an emotionally combatant man baby who would much rather be judged by the merits of his work than the way he interacts with the outside world. Sorkin’s subjects are often twisted to fit this mold instead of the other way around & your enjoyment of Steve Jobs may be hinged on how much you’re willing to give in to that conceit.

Basically, what I’m saying is don’t expect a straightforward biopic from this film. It has a strange, fractured structure to it, setting its three vignettes in the minutes before the 1984 product launch of the Macintosh home computer, the 1988 launch of the NEXT (“the single biggest failure in the history of personal computers”), and the 1998 launch of the iMac, posed here as Jobs’ first true taste of success after years of struggle. Just before he takes the stage to shill his wares in each instance, Jobs is interrogated by the same six people in his life. his personal & professional shortcomings put him on an Ebenezer Scrooge type of existential trial. Everyone’s a combatant in Jobs’ vicious, stubborn, megalomaniac eyes, as be believes that, “The very nature of people is something to overcome.” This dialogue-heavy three act structure allows for a darkly humorous actors’ showcase & Michael Fassbender is a force to be reckoned with in the titular role. His position as the head figure in The Steve Jobs Revenge Machine (there’s a band name for you) might just go down as one of the actor’s finest performances, even though he doesn’t at all resemble the famous public figure until the black turtle neck & jeans costume and TED Talk format of the third act.

What doesn’t work so well is when the film isn’t fully committed to the gimmick. It’s so nice to have a picture like this allow the dialogue to breathe in luxuriously long stretches, building a delicate sort of verbal venom that can’t be established in short, one-off scenes. It’s a shame, then, that Steve Jobs breaks up its vignettes with flashbacks to brief scenes of forced past drama. I found the film’s flashbacks awkward & rushed, which is a damn shame because the rest of the film is paced so nicely. That doesn’t mean these brief tangents are entirely wastes of time. Some of the film’s best one-liners come from a past argument between Jobs & seminal programmer Chris Wozniak (portrayed here by Seth Rogen), like when Wozniak asserts, “Computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws. I’m not going to build this one with yours,” or in the exchange, “Computers aren’t paintings,” “Fuck you, yes they are,” (after Jobs’ compares his own work with that of a fine artist). I don’t think the movie would’ve been improved with these exchanges left out completely; I just wished they could’ve been worked into the script without disrupting the tension of the three pre-launch timelines.

To an outsider such as myself, Apple looks & feels like a cult that I just never bought into. Boyle & Sorkin seem to have caught the same vibes, posing Steve Jobs as The Man Behind the Curtain, functioning here like Phillip Seymore Hoffman’s L Ron Hubbard stand-in in The Master. Even the infamous 1984 Macintosh Superbowl commercial that the film heavily references has the sinisterly religious feel of a Dianetics DVD. As portrayed in the film, Jobs is fully aware of this effect his products & his personality have on consumers. He strives for “end to end” control on both his computers’ “locked doors” hardware & on the way they’re presented to the public, treating his supporting players like instruments in his tool kit instead of respect-worthy collaborators. I’m not sure that the Steve Jobs presented in Steve Jobs ever actually existed, but it’s fascinating to watch him balance his cruelty for those closest to him with his love for the public as an abstract concept. Sorkin’s version of Jobs will be downright vicious to an innocent little girl in one breath, but then yearn to make computers “warm” & friendly again (after cold Hollywood villains like HAL 9000) by getting them to say “Hello” in the next. Between Sorkin & Fassbender’s work here, the myth of Steve Jobs is most certainly an arresting contrast between genius & emotional sadism. He’s a true to form Sorkin protagonist who’s better judged by his work than his persona. I’m not sure I left the film knowing any more about the real Steve Jobs than I did going in, but I’m also not sure that matters in terms of the film’s failure or success.

-Brandon Ledet