Adam’s Rib (George Cukor, 1949). Probably the apex of the onscreen collaborations between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, largely because the storyline involving married attorneys facing off against one another in a high-profile trial allowed for the sort of warm, frightfully intelligent banter that served the duo best. For most of the film, the interplay is infectiously delightful, especially as presented by the sure lens of George Cukor, who demonstrates an unerring sense of timing, including knowing when to just lean back and let his stars cut back and forth across the frame. The screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin is sharp and spry, although it falters just a bit in the third act as it takes a turn for the melancholy that feels obligatory rather than earned. Still, to understand whey the Hepburn-Tracy team is still the gauge for onscreen chemistry, there’s no better place to start.
20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Michael Curtiz, 1932). And here’s Spence again. This was an early role for Tracy, released just two years after his feature debut in Up the River, which was also Humphrey Bogart’s first film. The drama stars Tracy as a street thug who gets imprisoned in Sing Sing, initially meeting every challenge with the same surliness that meant survival on the outside. He eventually solidifies into a man defined by a stark, somber moral code, a quality that is tested when the warden implausibly grants him temporary release to check on his injured girlfriend. Curtiz direction is plodding but also sure-footed. Tracy is already honing his atypically naturalistic style, but the main pleasure comes from watching Bette Davis, also early in her career, burn up the screen with a few scenes as the tragic, brash, conceited girlfriend.
Green Lantern (Martin Campbell, 2011). I’m tempted to argue that there are simply some superhero concepts that should stay in the comic books, but I never would have guessed that the mighty Thor had what it takes to become a commercially viable film franchise, so what do I know? So maybe the real problems with bringing Green Lantern to the screen lie within the execution. Start with a fleet of casting errors, beginning with the guy in the titular role. Given that his default mode is a sort of smarmy, glib self-satisfaction (even when playing a put-upon underling), it shouldn’t have been all that surprising that the sense of wonder that the performance requires is well beyond his capabilities, and he’s not so hot with the rapidly mounting maturity that comes with sudden responsibility, either. There are other basic misjudgements, such as making the costume a mass of swirling energy that only compounds the film’s degeneration into a CGI eyesore, a mass of digital mayhem that director Martin Campbell barely tries to hone into something coherent. The only element that’s entertaining at all is the performance of Peter Sarsgaard as a nerdy scientist who undergoes a gruesome transformation, mainly because he clearly decided to try out every oddball line delivery he could come up with.
Friends with Benefits (Will Gluck, 2011). Will Gluck’s Easy A is one of happier surprises of recent years, unmistakably messy but with charm to burn. It’s a terrific showcase for Emma Stone (she may never have a better one, in fact), but it also has wit and irresistible flavor all along the edges. Gluck’s premise for his follow-up may have been hackneyed enough that it was the second 2011 film to revolve around previously platonic friends who agree to enter into a sexual relationship with the promise of no emotional escalation, but there was hope he could work similar magic. Well, he almost does. Just as Stone delivered a devastating depth charge of charisma in Easy A, Mila Kunis holds the screen with uncommon firmness here. Her scenes with Patricia Clarkson (a carryover from Easy A, which just shows that Gluck has exemplary taste in assembling his stock company) show what Kunis can do with someone who can match her nicely. Unfortunately, her primary costar is Justin Timberlake, who remains a mediocre actor at best. If a film is going to be this predictable, it best sparkle in every other way. Friends with Benefits surely doesn’t manage that.
The Tourist (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2010). This supposedly glamorous pairing of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, both at the presumed height of their movie star potency, was such a critical and commercial bomb that’s already become a punchline representing Hollywood ignominy. It’s reputation is well deserved. This thriller about globe-trotting spies, double-crosses and mistaken identity aims for the sort of playful intrigue Alfred Hitchcock once pulled off with great aplomb, but the whole affair is inert mush. As it keeps doubling back on itself, it rapidly becomes clear that the plot has so many holes that the movie would be best projected onto a Wiffle ball. It’s astounding that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck could follow up the sublime The Lives of Others with this painful drivel.