Honorable Mentions: Funny People, Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince, Precious, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Two Lovers, Up in the Air
Up in the Air is a bitingly funny, astute observation of contemporary America with a calculated sting in its tail. George Clooney stars as Ryan, a corporate downsizer who travels across America being hired by companies that are too timid to lay off their own employees. His solitary existence that blissfully capitalizes on other people’s misfortune is challenged when a precocious new employee (Anna Kendrick) at his company suggests a video conferencing feature that threatens to put an end to Ryan’s jet setting.
Clooney gives one of his most vulnerable performances and yet there’s no mawkish Oscar moment to be found. There’s a prime set-up for one when he visits with his brother-in-law-to-be on the wedding day but the movie resists the urge to swell into a grandstanding burst of emotions and stays true to the character’s instincts and intentions. Instead, Clooney’s performance hinges on quiet shots where a sublimated expression says everything.
The film does not shy away from the painful reflection of America’s current reality. In perhaps the film’s strongest moment, Ryan’s boss (played with impeccable familiarity by Jason Bateman) surveys the nationwide layoffs and states with opportunistic relish, “This is our moment.” In order to confront the issue head on, writer/director Jason Reitman reportedly recorded interviews with real people who had been laid off recently. Snippets of these interviews are spliced into sequences featuring performances by the likes of Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons. It’s a brilliant idea but I wonder if these “reality bites” are integrated too seamlessly into the film proper. Reitman does not use the familiar signals of reality (zooms, grainy footage, wobbly framing, offscreen interview questions, stammering) and I wonder, if I hadn’t read the article in The New York Times about the interviews, would I have been able to distinguish them from the performances? Maybe this actually speaks to the veracity of these interviews; Reitman clearly didn’t feel he had to convince anyone they were real through aesthetics and felt confident enough to insert them without ceremony.
The film’s other master stroke of zeitgeist awareness is its commentary on technology and the decline of human interaction – not for nothing are the human components of the video conferencing initiative briefly referred to as terminators.
This is the third film directed by Jason Reitman and once again, he does a remarkable job of not letting his identity overwhelm the film’s temperament. He has all the potential to become a prominent auteur figure – a legendary Hollywood father (think Sophia Coppola), a publicized promotional tour that includes social media (Quentin Tarrentino) and a vocalized political stance (not quite Michael Moore level). At just 32 years old he’s already received a Writer’s Guild nomination and an Oscar nomination for Best Director and is poised to at the very least rack up a Best Picture nomination for producing Up in the Air. But despite these laurels, he’s had the wisdom to let another collaborator’s persona overshadow all three of his films: Clooney here, Aaron Eckhart’s performance in Thank You for Smoking and Diablo Cody’s screenplay in Juno.
This is not to say his films aren’t distinct or full of stylistic flourishes (i.e. Up in the Air’s overhead location shots or the fast cuts in the beginning) but there’s never a single element that makes me think, “Ah, that’s such a Reitman quality!” Prior to seeing Up in the Air, a friend said they were looking forward to the movie because “they liked that Reitman fellow” and I agreed without hesitation. Afterwards I found myself wondering, wait, do I like Jason Reitman? I thought Thank You for Smoking was alright and I disliked Juno with great intensity, what constitutes my appreciation for him as a director? Well, he did direct one of my favorite episodes of The Office (Local Ad) but that’s not it. It’s his chameleon-like ability to make three very distinct films with an almost workmanlike sensibility. I couldn’t stomach the hyperactive self-aware dialogue in Juno but I’m not inclined to blame Reitman for that. In fact, I’m likely to credit him with the fleeting moments in which I almost started to like that movie.
But with Up in the Air, he has made his most consistent – and therefore, best – movie. It’s the one that convinces me he has a long and celebrated Hollywood career ahead of him and gives me the answer to my internal uncertainty… yes, I do like that Reitman fellow.
In the tradition of Raising Arizona comes Skiptracers, a low-budget, Southern fried comedy about a family of bail bondsmen – who also coach the local peewee football team in their hometown of Yellow Hammer, Alabama. Overseen by their surly, drunken patriarch, brothers JD (Porter Harris) and Tucker (Dustin Kerns) are fugitive recovery agents, but their minds are on other things. JD, the slightly more sensible of the two has dreams of flying fighter pilots while Tucker, the dashing one, is more interested in philandering around town.
Tired of scraping by on the company’s meager income, JD decides to take a gamble on a high-profile parolee named Rusty (Andy Stuckey, who also wrote and produced the film). Rusty, a livewire in the truest sense, quickly becomes more than they can handle and the brothers find themselves embroiled in a feud with the town’s rival bondsmen company.
Characters from the South frequently serve the purpose of easy jokes in the movies (think anything by Sacha Baron Cohen) but Skiptracers joins the group of emerging filmmakers who better care for their brothers from the South. Like David Gordon Green and Phil Morrison, director Harris Mendheim is happy to present his characters as eccentrics but they’re never repulsive or despicable (unlike the Staten Island inhabitants depicted in Big Fan for example). Some of the minor characters, while memorable, are occasionally overdrawn but Porter Harris gives a well grounded performance and Andy Stuckey has an admirable energy that makes a challenging character hard to resist.
Even if it may have trouble connecting with audiences on the coast, Skiptracers will likely be well received in the South and mid-West, where audiences will enjoy the familiarity of its milieu and its tender touch.
Skiptracers opens at New York’s Village East Cinemas this Friday, September 11th. In a savvy move of cross-promotion, opening night attendees can get a free Colt 45 from the nearby bar, Finnerty’s.
This morning I went to see Up which was by all accounts a fantastic film, the highlight being the four-minute montage devoid of dialogue that perfectly visualized love in its purest form. But before the film started I was distracted by a nagging observation made about the previews that ran before the film: the large number of gross-out gags – jokes designed to make the audience recoil in disgust while simultaneously laughing.
I’ve long been fascinated by gross-out comedies and have devoted much thought to the theoretical ramifications of it as a comedic movement but until this morning I’d never considered their presence in family entertainment. Now that I think about it, booger or cooties jokes seem commonplace and in the ‘90s Nickelodeon virtually planned its entire programming around gooey substances. But I was struck by the usage and the content of the jokes I saw this morning and wonder if the gross-out gags featured in family films have escalated and become more graphic?
The three trailers in question were Imagine That, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and G-Force. All three trailers use a gross-out gag prominently as a punctuating joke. In the case of Imagine That, it’s the opening scene:
At the 0:11 mark we see a close-up shot of clumpy, spoiled milk being poured onto a bowl of cereal. The gag is created not just from the viscosity of the liquid but from the prospect that Eddie Murphy’s poor daughter might actually end up eating it. On the scale of gross-out humor this is fairly tame but it still produced an audible disgust from the sold out audience and it is significant as is chosen as the film’s introductory gag.
Next up is Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs which concludes its trailer with two gross-out gags, one visual and one verbal.
The first occurs right before the title card (1:53) and involves a sap-doused nut being violently ripped from Scrat’s furry chest, resulting in a pink underbelly and a pained yelp. 40-Year-Old Virgin anyone? (To be fair, that film went further and fully solidified the gag as gross-out by showing extreme close-ups on the removed hair and the bristling gashes on Steve Carell’s chest.) The Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs’ trailer then concludes with Sid mistakenly milking a male ram, the error of his ways being emphasized by an amplified sound effect and close-up on the ram’s eyes (2:16). While the gross-out infraction is kept off-screen, the audio track and accompanying facial expression indicates that Sid has inappropriately manhandled the ram’s reproductive organs.
Finally, there’s G-Force which uses a gross-out gag to punctuate the trailer’s moment of maximum excitement – the hamsters soaring through the air in a protective ball – with a fart joke (2:14):
This was the specific gag that got me thinking about the propensity of gross-out humor in these trailers. It was the simplicity of its insertion, how unmotivated and unnecessary it was (the trailer also ends with a “poop in his hand” line of dialogue – 2:29). The film is rated PG for “Some mild action and rude humor.” Have family films always thrived on rude humor? To the point that it serves an essential function in their marketing? Or is this a more recent trend spurred by the success of There’s Something About Mary and American Pie?
Perhaps rude humor has always been present and I just haven’t focused on it. Surely, Beethoven contained a wealth of dog slobber jokes? I love a good gross-out joke and when they’re properly executed they can be wonderfully unifying acts, leveraging the lowest common denominator appeal into a class-defying unity of mirth. But when used improperly they’re resolutely low-brow – and the three trailers under scrutiny are certainly low-brow. For the record, Up, an exemplar of the high-brow family film, contains two minor gross-out gags involving animal saliva and the lead character’s walking implement. Neither gag features in Up’s marketing and both are executed in a simple, non-glorified manner. There’s a clear distinction between these gags and the ones profiled in the above trailers. But has there always been a need for this distinction within the genre of the family film?