The Three Stooges (Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly, 2012). Strangely, this attempt to update the Three Stooges for a modern audience is the most disciplined Farrelly brothers film in years. That doesn’t mean it’s good per se, but the screenplay does have a tightness and care that’s been largely missing from the siblings’ work for at least ten years or so. There’s some genuinely inspired staging to the hyper-violent comic set pieces featuring the trio of orphaned doofuses clumsily beating the hell out of each other which carries over the broader narrative. Not much of it is especially funny or even all that interesting, but it holds together. Similar faint praise can be spread around to the three actors playing the Stooges, especially Chris Diamantopoulos who manages to evoke Moe without just offering an impression.
Real Steel (Shawn Levy, 2011). An unlikely family-friendly hit that’s neither as ludicrous or shameless as a movie about giant boxing robots should be, Real Steel has a shocking dearth of energy. Part of that is attributable to the entirely by-the-numbers screenplay (based on a Richard Matheson short story, but don’t hold that against his legacy), but Shawn Levy’s lackluster direction merits yawns as well. Hugh Jackman gives his best star power glower as the washed up fighter who bonds with his estranged young son while simultaneously managing some unlikely machinery to championship levels. No matter how game he is, though, the film is ultimately too empty. He can only do so much emoting in a void.
Wanderlust (David Wain, 2012). Director David Wain’s follow up to the surprisingly amusing and enjoyable Role Models is another high concept comedy that depends in part of mocking an insular subculture. In this case, a stressed out married couple (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) wind up trying out life in an off-the-grid commune after they bomb out in the big city. There’s some standard fish out of water shenanigans along with satiric mockery of the freewheeling hippie ethic, but the whole thing is finally too shaggy, full of iffy character development and digressions for the sake of chasing comedy that completely undo the whole endeavor. The best idea in the whole film is the casting of Alan Alda as the aging founder of the commune who struggles with a blazed out memory, but, like everyone else, he’s essentially given a single joke to play. Even his genial presence gets old.
The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stoller, 2012). Jason Segel’s collaboration with writer-director Nicholas Stoller that began with Forgetting Sarah Marshall takes a turn towards greater depth. Even if it doesn’t wholly work, it’s intriguing to watch them try to stretch their capabilities. Segel plays a man whose plans to marry his girlfriend (Emily Blunt, who really did have a nice 2012) are thwarted by the the false starts of a twentysomething life. There’s a clear interest in exploring the complexities of holding together a relationship while two people are on slightly different tracks, especially as necessary compromises start to wear them down, but too much of the script relies on the laziest conventions of modern romantic comedy storytelling.
East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955). East of Eden was released just about eight months after On the Waterfront. Though it traffics in some of the same method acting muscularity, in many ways it couldn’t be a more different movie: expansive where Waterfront is tightly contained, florid where its predecessor is lean. Adapted liberally from John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, the film casts James Dean, in his first major screen role, as a conflicted young man whose fruitless efforts to win the favor of his father (a very fine Raymond Massey) leads to impulsive, often self-destructive actions. Of course Dean has charisma to burn, but he hadn’t really figured out how to properly harness it into an artful performance yet. Kazan sometimes seems to be trying too hard to use the wide Cinemascope screen, favoring canted camera angles that eventually lose their impact, except for one especially disconcerting scene where the camera rocks in conflict with the pendulum path of a swing. Despite those reservations, there’s clear heat in the film, probably a result of a wide array of deeply passionate and committed creators coming together, however imperfectly.