Opens Fri., March 27 at Sundance Cinemas and other theaters. Rated R. 100 Minutes.
Imagine the pitch meeting for Get Hard:
“What’s not funny about prison rape? Am I right?”
r using ‘keister’ as a verb! Hey-oooo!”
A raunchy ebony-and-ivory buddy comedy, Get Hard is essentially a long riff on the terror of becoming another man’s prison bitch. Or, even more horrifying, a white man becoming a black man’s. Except for when it’s also a riff on black stereotypes.
And honestly, who deserves to pull a train behind bars more than a rich hedge-fund manager? Before his lavish wedding to the boss’ gold-digging daughter, James (Will Ferrell) is framed for fraud and embezzlement, and has 30 days before slammer-time. He’s so terrified of becoming someone’s bitch that he hires the only black guy he knows, his building’s car-wash guy, Darnell (Kevin Hart), to teach him to survive behind bars.
“The hilarious irony: Darnell is a huge pussy! Get it?”
But sensitivity and comedy are mortal enemies. Setting aside any consideration of taste—or the concept of taste—Get Hard is marginally funny with a handful of solid laughs, and it goes limp in the final act. Along with such hilarity as Darnell telling James that if he can’t fight, he’s going to have to practice sucking dick, there are a few clever satirical moments that’ll be lost on, say, northern Idaho audiences.
If you’ve seen most any Will Ferrell movie—not to mention his naked keister—this is more of the same oblivious man-child doofus. Nearly a foot shorter, Hart’s the motor-mouthed straight man and sight gag.
With the talent behind this movie, it should be more than marginally funny. Co-writer and first-time director Etan Cohen wrote Tropic Thunder, whose racial humor was a lot less like something generated in an Oklahoma frat house. (Bringing James to a white-supremacist group to ask for protection inside the joint, Darnell tells James to go ahead and practice calling him That One Word.) Key & Peele’s Jay Martel and Ian Roberts co-phoned-in the script, from a story by Ferrell and his lifemate Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers).
If I were in that pitch meeting, I’d have piped up with, “I don’t know. Some of these jokes about sodomy feel just plain . . . forced!”
Like Sunday, Like Rain
Opens Fri., March 27 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated R. 104 minutes.
Here is a romance that can’t happen, so why make a movie about it? In her early 20s, penniless Eleanor (Leighton Meester) desperately takes a job as live-in nanny for 12-year-old Reggie (Julian Shatkin), the only, lonely child of a wealthy family on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. We ought to hate the kid, a know-it-all prodigy who practices his cello in the family mansion’s conspicuously empty pool. (His parents are mostly absent; Debra Messing plays Reggie’s self-absorbed mother in a few early scenes.) But Reggie—we can’t help thinking of Richie Rich—is no brat. He’s a coddled vegan aesthete, encyclopedia pages pouring from his mouth. He plays chess on actual chessboards and reads old history books in hardcover, never on an iPad. (This preternaturally old soul was actually born after AOL.)
Gradually, on long walks through the park and one trip upstate, these two chaste lovers will share their secrets. Reggie has little in his past, of course, but for one family tragedy; yet we can feel secure that the Ivy League and a very large trust fund will ensure his future. Eleanor meanwhile comes from a poor, fractured Poughkeepsie family, yet there’s curiously little class resentment in Like Sunday. Reggie’s constantly bribing the servants and buying Eleanor expensive restaurant meals, which she never questions. Yet scenes with her needy/grating ex, effectively played by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, make clear this isn’t a fairy tale.
After her many seasons on Gossip Girl, Meester has a comfortable grace before the camera, though the script gives her little character to lift. Only when Eleanor finally confides her dashed dreams to Reggie do we realize (of both Meester and Eleanor) that Gosh, but this girl’s actually got some talent. Yet writer/director Frank Whaley never builds upon that potential. The same listless scenes play over and over (park, restaurant, cello, etc.), with odd editing lurches between them. Eleanor is shocked to discover Reggie can’t swim; the pool is empty; yet there’s no payoff. Most of the film is set during summer vacation, so the meandering might fit the rhythms of a grown boy’s distant memories of his first crush. Not Whaley’s memories—he came from Eleanor’s blue-collar, hard-drinking upstate wasteland, as recounted in his 1999 Joe the King. Eleanor feels like a refugee from that movie, unsure of her place in this one. Brian Miller
Merchants of Doubt
Opens Fri., March 27 at Sundance and Meridian. Rated PG-13. 93 minutes.
Have you ever developed a crush on a movie villain, the kind of Dr. Evil-ish sociopath you don’t need to marry, but just want to know more about? Darth Vader, the Joker, Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates . . . sure, they’re bad boys, but with an insidious, appealing mystery about them. That’s how I feel about Tim Phillips, the vile, folksy president of the Koch brothers-sponsored Americans for Prosperity. He appears late in this slick, unsurprising doc by Robert Kenner, but he’s been making cameos in other exposes of a political system polluted by dark corporate money. Phillips was recently seen in Citizen Koch, but Merchants of Doubt is a much higher-quality indictment. Based on the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, the film lays out a convincing, follow-the-money trail from the tobacco industry’s postwar efforts to prevent (or forestall) government regulation to a profitable lobbying specialty today. Fake scientific experts and “teach the controversy” subterfuge have now infiltrated all public-policy debates where billions are at stake.
Harvard historian Oreskes, prominent in the film, helps advance the thesis that PR consultants perfected a strategy of obfuscation and delay (“There is no consensus”) during our government’s decades-long war against Big Tobacco. Though scientific evidence in the ’50s was clear that smoking caused cancer, the industry reaped billions—and inflicted even more costly damage to public health—before eventual settlements and admissions of guilt. After those payouts, a professional class of liars found eager new clients in the oil, chemical, and food industries.
Merchants of Doubt is about D.C.’s permanent lobbying establishment and those false-front organizations always espousing individual liberty and responsibility. Constrained by fact, it’s not so entertaining as Thank You for Smoking, but most of its points are well familiar. Scientists and environmentalists are defamed by shills on FOX News; phony grassroots bodies are funded by the Fortune 500; and a weird old faction of Cold War-holdout Ph.D.s—so like Dr. Strangelove himself—are willing to testify against the scientific consensus because, you know, GUBMENT REGULATION IS SOCIALISM!!! (Citizens United isn’t mentioned, but we all know its pernicious effects.)
This is a film designed to make you angry, and it succeeds as such. But rather than finally consoling us with a few heroes (e.g., former NASA climate scientist James Hansen), Merchants should’ve focused more on those mavens of spin who control the debate today. Their side is winning. They’ve successfully tapped into a tribal belief system that trumps empirical evidence. “It’s all about distraction,” says Oreskes. Why does that distraction work so well? That’s a question for Phillips and his colleagues to answer in a future documentary, after they’re rich, retired, and free from their NDAs. Brian Miller
Opens Fri., March 27 at Guild 45th. Rated R. 109 minutes.
A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper was made available through Video On Demand before it played theaters in the U.S. This might lead to conclusions about a) how dramatically the release model for Hollywood films is changing, or b) how quickly superstars can drop from the stratosphere. Neither is true. Serena is simply a one-off botch, signifying nothing about the value of VOD or its stars’ undiminished red-hotness. Shot in 2012, it’s being dumped because it’s a major bummer, despite the cast. Based on a novel by Ron Rash, it has an outdated style and subject matter—the kind of thing that might have worked in the 1930s, which is when the story is set. In fact, the setting of the thing vaguely recalls that of Come and Get It (1936), a timber-baron drama with the ill-fated Frances Farmer’s best role.
We are in the logging country of North Carolina, where an ambitious young entrepreneur, George Pemberton (Cooper), stops felling trees long enough to fall instantly in love with the mysterious Serena (Lawrence). Once installed as his wife, she shares her own savvy about the timber industry with George’s workers, a habit that doesn’t sit too well with the rough-hewn lumberjacks. Especially hostile is the foreman (David Dencik, from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), who apparently harbors more than just professional loyalty to his boss. Everything in the plot is written large and bold, as though borrowed from Greek tragedy: Death lurks in the woods, dismemberment leads to supernatural devotion, and a panther and Serena’s snake-killing hawk (what the hell?) take on near-mythological significance. Those big, stark elements might have had some power on the page, but Danish director Susanne Bier doesn’t find a consistent tone to bring this thing to a simmer.
While the Czech Republic credibly stands in for the American setting, the actors can’t carry off the same sleight-of-hand. With the film’s straight-ahead melodramatic approach, Rhys Ifans is especially stranded, stuck with a ridiculous lumberman character who occupies a place somewhere between Robert Shaw in Jaws and Boo Radley. Jennifer Lawrence has a distinctly secondary role and fails to make a Lady Macbeth out of it, while Bradley Cooper acts as though he’s in a secondary role, even though he’s got the lead. A few choppily placed sex scenes manage to dissipate all memory of the terrific chemistry the two shared in Silver Linings Playbook. A movie that does that deserves to go straight to VOD. Robert Horton
Runs Fri., March 27–Thurs., April 2 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 109 minutes.
Until the female lead is revealed to be a grossly mutating shapeshifter who devours animals in order to keep her human appearance from dissolving into gooey ick, Spring could be mistaken for a relaxed little indie about budding love. In fact, the film’s idea seems to come from a jokey proposition: What if you were watching one of those walking-and-talking indie romances in the style of Richard Linklater’s Before series, and it suddenly turned into a horror flick? Though slowed by artiness and a certain overly earnest attitude, Spring manages to catch some of the appeal of such a genre-blending experiment.
Evan (played by Lou Taylor Pucci) is a mid-20s American drifting through Italy in the wake of his parents’ death. In a small coastal town, he strikes sparks with a sultry, elusive local, Louise (Nadia Hilker), who doesn’t like to explain much about herself. And yet they do a lot of talking (see Linklater reference). Evan is living the life—thanks to a grizzled farmer (Francesco Carnelutti), he gets a job and a free place to stay, and he’s strolling around a cobblestone Italy that looks as romantic as the one in Three Coins in a Fountain. And there’s this flirty woman, who has a great apartment and two pet rabbits. Granted, it’s troubling when the rabbits abruptly vanish, but hey, there’s always a learning curve when you meet someone new. You fall in love, and you have to take on the whole person, warts and all, right? In this case, the warts are gigantic and sometimes sprout fangs.
I imagine co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have seen Cat People (1942) and Night Tide (1961) and a few other movies about men who fall in love with women who are not what they seem. Spring shares a lyrical approach with those two films, but it tries something new. Where most such tales end in horror, this one gets some humor and sweetness out of Evan’s determination to work with his new girlfriend to deal with her issues. It’s like a sincere little indie in which a lover has to overcome commitment-phobia—just slightly exaggerated here. Benson and Moorhead don’t nail all of it; some of the conversations feel stilted, and I’m not sure why we are treated to periodic shots that float above the town: a sign of a supernatural presence, or proof that the filmmakers could put their camera on a drone? Overall, though, the gene-splicing here is pretty intriguing. Robert Horton