Thursday, April 27, 2006

Lucky Number Slevin: Hedge Your Bets

Lucky Number Slevin marks the reunion between Wicker Park collaborators Josh Hartnett and director Paul McGuigan. Their first effort was a mildly diverting, watered-down remake of a French psychological thriller, L’Appartement. Their second work together is a considerable step-up in prestige.The first element of notice is the massive upgrade in star talent. Gone is Matthew Lillard, replaced by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Lucy Liu, Stanley Tucci and Bruce Willis. The production scale is higher, the violence is more gruesome and the plot is more intricately woven. Unfortunately all these enrichments in talent and resources do not correlate to an increase in quality.

The film’s complex plotting revolves around a case of mistaken identity within the enacting of a Kansas City Shuffle. Bruce Willis plays Mr. Goodkat, a widely-revered contract killer who explains early on that a Kansas City Shuffle refers to a coup in which you make them look left while they should be looking right. So immediately we know the film is going to have a surprise ending. Given the opening credits in which the identity of a killer is carefully disguised, it’s not difficult to guess at what that’s going to be. Josh Hartnett plays Slevin Kelevra, the misidentified man stuck in the midst of a major crime war. Through Goodkat’s careful administration, he finds himself at the mercy of both The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley). The two are in charge of New York City’s most intimidating crime syndicates. There was a time that they worked together but now they inhabit dueling perches in their offices; neither one ever leaving their building for fear of the other’s wrath.

There is also Lucy Liu as Lindsey, the next door neighbor to Nick Fisher, the man Slevin has been mistaken for. Her main purposes in the movie are to be attracted to Slevin and to recap events in a rapid-fire delivery for comedic effect – granted she is good at both. The always entertaining Stanley Tucci is also on hand as a detective trying to monitor the actions between the gangsters. He is solid as usual but his character is the same prickly, self-involved narcissist that he so often plays. Bruce Willis suffers from a similar fate, as he is resting on the soft-spoken, steely-eyed presence he perfected in the 90s. After a string of interesting roles, this is his blandest role in years. Josh Hartnett is serviceable in the lead role but orchestrates his own downfall through his pitch-perfect performance in the romantic scenes with Lucy Liu as opposed to his inconsistency as the sarcastic wise-ass when interacting with the gangsters. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley give performances worthy of their esteemed reputations – there is an absolutely sublime scene where the two talk face-to-face and are given the opportunity to flesh out their characters more than anyone else in the film.

To say that McGuigan directs with visual flair would be to complement his distracting over direction. While there is one scene that is inventive and expedient in the way it constructs a three-way conversation that manipulates past and present, most of the style is just distracting. The filmmakers feel so proud of their clearly CGI-enhanced-shot panning from The Boss’ window to The Rabbi’s window that they not only plaster it in every trailer and TV spot, they have the audacity to play it twice in the movie. There is also a maddening scene in which the camera continually moves back and forth behind a wall during a conversation between Lindsey and Slevin. McGuigan does manage to incorporate two nice visual motifs: numbers and Slevin getting punched, the latter being more the most satisfying of the two.

For those who are fans of the genre, there is a lot to enjoy in its adherence to the post-Pulp Fiction crime film. There is the obligatory monologue about a comic book character (delivered by poor Morgan Freeman), a Hitchcock reference, excessively bloody kill shots, stylish camera work and even a peppy song over the end credits. However, non-fans will tire from the unlikable characters and the script’s desires to continually reverse the viewers’ expectations at the expense of character consistency. Most offensive is the way the film takes pride in being unpleasant and sadistic, only to cop out with a sappy conclusion at an airport, almost identical to the ending that plagued Wicker Park.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Benchwarmers: Bring on the B-Team

There was a time during the mid to late 90s when motion picture comedies were dominated by SNL alumni. It seemed as if every box office success either starred Adam Sandler or someone closely related to him. After a couple of hits, these films became readily identifiable by the helpful Happy Madison production company logo being branded onto these seemingly identical movies about goofy stunted adolescents who often suffer from uncontrollable rage and limited intelligence. They repeatedly find themselves in gimmicky plots that always manage to culminate in their coupling with a tall, skinny, blond woman with mediocre acting skills. To further decreasen distinctiveness, the titles were conveniently named after their lead character (Happy Gilmore) or their lead character's gimmick (The Animal) or even both (Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo).

As time has passed, their success has weakened. The ringleader, Adam Sandler, has managed to survive with box office smashes like 50 First Dates and The Longest Yard while garnering respect by acting in projects that still resemble his traditioal fare but are given prestige due to their director's established talents as is the case with Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish. Aside from Sandler, the rest of the troupe have sunk into mediocrity with embarrassing vanity projects. The Benchwarmers marks the materialization of this degradation for Rob Schneider and David Spade.

Now that the comedy scene is dominated by what has come to be referred to as the "frat pack" (Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, etc.), the Happy Madison troupe has run into trouble headlining films on their own. While a Schneider or Spade vehicle can no longer be relied on to make more than $30 million theatrically (not the end of the world since their films generally carry $15-20 million production budgets and some such as Joe Dirt make a killing on DVD), maybe if they pool their talents then can eek something up to the $50 million mark. And so, The Benchwarmers, a film about three geeky adults who are given the chance to play against the best (and meanest) little league teams to promote tolerance ad affection for the less talented kids in the baseball world, the film becomes a metaphor for the three lead actors' careers. Late in the film, a member of the bully team remarks "they're congratulating him for striking out! The coach isn't yelling or anything!" We assume the director isn't doing much yelling at the actors either, instead letting these three has-beens and second rate movie stars show the bankable stars that the losers can still have a little fun too.

David Spade has shown himself to be humble and resigned about his celebrity status as of late: going on record that the only reason he is still getting work in movies is because of Adam Sandler's wealth and generosity. Schneider has been less admirable, garnering a reputation as a pompous egomaniac but in spite of this he still plays the nice, sensible guy with irresistibly hammy relish. Admittedly the ignominy of has-been is a little harsh on Napoleon Dynamite star, Jon Heder, but his decision to join this crew by-passes his star descent and goes straight to the bargain bin. Problematically, Heder is attached to co-star with Will Ferrell in the figure skating comedy, Blades of Glory. But will this mark Heder's trope ascension or Ferrell's demotion?

As for The Benchwarmers as a movie, there isn't much to say. There are a few laughs here and there but never anything consistent. Jon Lovitz is at the top of his game as always and Schneider, Spade and Heder add at least one or two bright moments each but most scenes are undercut by unjustified vomiting or midget exploitation. The soundtrack mimics the hodgepodge approach to comedy by bombarding us with eclectic pop music with complete disregard for context or synthesizing with the visuals. Recycled opening chords of Dire Straits songs or instrumental refrains from a New Found Glory hit take the place of a musical score. It's as if the record company shoved a bunch of songs on the music supervisor's desk, who preceeded to throw them all in and assume one or two would stick. In their defense, the occasional song works. However one of the successes is the indestructible "Jerk it Out" by The Caesars which has made its way from Ipod commercial to Yours Mine & Ours to The Pink Panther trailers, so no points for originality there. Overall it's pretty poor craftsmanship but mercifully the cast and crew acknowledge this throughout, most beautifully articulated in the final end credit outtake where Jon Lovitz asks "Has this been a big waste of time?" to which Schneider replies, "Yeah pretty much."