Cassavetes, Dick, Donaldson, Frankel, Mottola

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009). Clearly Greg Mottola decided the Superbad path was the one to follow. He edges ahead a few years, focusing on college-aged youth who are all spun around by their romantic anguish and general horniness. Noticeably autobiographical in nature, the film is set in the late nineteen-eighties and features Jesse Eisenberg as a bright young man whose plans for graduate school are derailed causing him to seek summer work at the crummy amusement park in his hometown. It’s amusing enough, but also shaggy to the point of being aimless. Nothing sticks beyond the suspicion that Kristen Stewart has only developed one emotion–sullen self-pity–in her acting repertoire.

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974). Gena Rowlands delivers a masterful performance in her husband’s wrenching drama about a woman’s mental instability reaching a breaking point for her family. Cassavetes lets scenes run on, their length allowing for more revelation as characters gradually open up and conflicts play out to the point of discomfort. Crucially, the extra time brings more clarity to the ways in which Rowlands’ character is playing a role, struggling against her own instincts by trying to act as normal as can be, cheerily introducing herself to the fellow workmen her husband has invited over to a meal, the repetitive nature of her greetings leading to increased concern for those gathered around the table. Cassavetes doesn’t depict any of this as clear cut. Much of the film is about the ways in which the condition is reinforced, even exacerbated, by those around her, those who care about her the most. Peter Falk gives a excellent performance of his own as her husband, a man whose frustration and devotion bubble up with equal forcefulness.

The Bank Job (Roger Donaldson, 2008). There’s an interesting movie in here about a bank robbery in early-seventies London and the way the powers that be swooped in on the perpetrators because they wound up pulling some unseemly secrets out of the safe deposit boxes they pilfered. But the casting of Jason Statham in the leading role betrays either a disinterest in exploring the interesting elements, or at least a willingness to compromise them to the point of their near-complete evaporation in the name of getting the film made. Where the film could have benefited from an actor, it got an action hero, and the flutters of depth in the script and the stretches when Donaldson’s direction displays a sleek but gritty command can’t overcome Statham’s leaden presence. He’s supposed to be a regular guy who’s getting in over his head, but he plays his scenes with a displaced brutish self-assurance that knocks the tension completely out of the picture.

Outrage (Kirby Dick, 2009). Kirby Dick lets his indignation fly in a documentary that aims to expose the hypocrisy of closeted gay politicians who use stridently anti-homosexual stances as one of the most prominent thatches in their public beard. Dick has to traffic in an awful lot of hearsay and innuendo to make his points–sometimes the absence of decisive evidence to the contrary is enough for Dick to draw a conclusion–but he’s definitely on to something in examining the way that these political figures gladly, callously, heartlessly use bigoted policy statements as bulwarks to preserve their own power. On the basis of the talking head interviews he got, Dick may have actually been able to create something more interesting and more meaningful if he had settled for a sober-minded, even dry survey of the current state of gay issues in American politics. The urge for stunning revelation grows tiresome.

Marley & Me (David Frankel, 2008). While it’s polished up like a typical Hollywood feel-good bauble, there actually the kernel of something more interesting here. The film is packed with frantic, pooch-driven comedy, but it also depicts the way the lifespan of a family pet can carry through tremendous changes for the humans in the household. Passing across the years like a skipping stone, the film has a nice feel for the ways the consistency of a relationship with a beloved dog can give its humans something dependable to hold on to when uncertainty and sadness creep in elsewhere. That’s probably a product of the script, credited to surprisingly accomplished screenwriters Scott Frank and Don Roos, since the direction by Frankel shows the same literal-mindedness and lack of flair that marked his previous effort, The Devil Wears Prada. In the end, the film has no emotional heft, though, an especially unexpected flaw given the subject matter. Part of the problem is that Owen Wilson, while always engaging, shows no facility for digging deeper into his character. The same is true of Jennifer Aniston, but I will commend her for accurately capturing all the different ways a dog’s name can be spoken by his master.

(Posted simultaneously to Jelly-Town!”)