Focus (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2015). There are a whole lot of film folks trying to pivot their careers with this strangely aspirational con job drama. Star Will Smith is clearly trying to put After Earth completely behind him by staking a claim on the territory of smart movies for adults that George Clooney has made his whole grain bread and artisan butter. At the same time, filmmaking partners Ficarra and Requa endeavor to demonstrate they can do more than comedies with a slightly twisty edge. Everyone fails in their attempt to stretch. The film is notably tepid, even as it’s trying to push the notion that the large scale cons it features are as dangerous as the mayhem that turns up in the average action movie. Compounding the problem, the schemes are those only-in-the-movies nonsense jobs that would require so much time, money, and effort that they wouldn’t be worth the considerable risk. The film also represents Margot Robbie’s first significant gig since her breakout in Wolf of Wall Street, and it simultaneously suggests she has a crackle to her acting that promises a long career and a likely batch of eye candy parts that are going to squander her talent.
This is Where I Leave You (Shawn Levy, 2014). Jonathan Tropper adapted his own 2009 novel, tracing the emotional agonies of a family sitting shiva after the patriarch’s death. Maybe it works dandy on the page, but the movie has the unpleasant stiffness of a wet dishrag that’s long since dried into a crusty husk. Levy, who’s previously presided over lame comedies and high concept clutter, directs like its a chintzy network drama trying desperately to look and feel like an acclaimed cable series. It certainly bears only a passing resemblance to cinema. A lot of good actors with limited range (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Adam Driver all qualify) doggy paddle through the placid currents of the story.
Neighbors (Nicholas Stoller, 2014). Officially, Judd Apatow doesn’t have a thing to do with Neighbors, but his long shadow fills its corners, and not just because of the presence of Seth Rogen, the Freaks and Geeks cast member least likely to have a long, varied career and yet here he is. The story of a young couple, new parent pining for their own reckless days gone by, who feud with the raucous frat house next door, the film is deliberately lewd, fitfully funny, and so structurally loose that it practically sways. That puts it squarely in the comic nation of Apatow. The sloppiness of the storytelling rankles a little less here than with some other recent comedies, if only because it’s a suitable match for the cross-generational battle it depicts. It’s not a great film, but it’s just funny enough.
The Gambler (Rupert Wyatt, 2014). This remake of a 1974 film (written by James Toback and director by Karel Reisz) tries for a slicked up twenty-first century version of nineteen-seventies gritty cool. Instead, it comes across as aimless and self-involved. Mark Wahlberg plays a college professor with a heavy duty gambling problem, the latter leading to a group of debts that are swirling into a perfect storm of pending doom. He embarks on a complicated scheme to free himself of the burden on his wallet and soul, most of it barely making a lick of sense. Brie Larson is trapped in a thankless role as the genius writing student who Wahlberg’s character inappropriately fawns over, and Jessica Lange glowers as the domineering, wealthy mother whose tired of bailing out her son. Only John Goodman elevates the material, as a pragmatic loan shark whose outlay of cash is central to the kinetic bank shot of escape. When I recently told a colleague that the college lectures scenes in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces still represented my pick as the most ludicrous depiction of higher education ever devoted to film, he told me I might reconsider after seeing The Gambler. He was right.
Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014). Monsters, the feature directing debut of Edwards, was practically a stealth audition for a Godzilla remake, merging a pointed commentary on modern travails with the deeply unsettling prospect of gigantic beasties strolling through the neighborhood. Where the earlier film was restrained very nearly to the point of collapsing its moment, Godzilla is boring as watching scales grow. Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein admirably want to make the film as much as the people on the ground as the enraged titans obscuring the skyline, but they’ve crafted a group of characters so unengaging that I was starting to long to seem them trampled underfoot.