Dugan, Lubitsch, Mangold, Reitman, Taccone

One Hour with You (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932). It’s a basic necessity to mention “The Lubitsch Touch” when evaluating one of the films from the great comic director, even if it’s simply to point out the absence of his trademark deftness in the work in question. One Hour with You is considered a fairly early effort–nearly a decade before revered classics like Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner, but, in the way of the era, the director already had dozens of films under his belt by this point. The film is a pretty odd duck, a soft-stepping musical about flirtations with marital infidelity. Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald play a married couple who are very happy together, but wind up at least toying with the idea of taking lovers on the side. After all, Miss, this is France. There’s a lot of breaking of fourth wall with Chevalier genially explaining the flip-flops of his heart, as if the screen were merely a big picture window and the audience was assembled on his front lawn. It comes across as forced and awkward, less like playful experimenting and more like the uncertain fumbling of a medium that has only learned to talk five years earlier.

No Strings Attached (Ivan Reitman, 2011). There’s a good, interesting movie that can be made out of the assembled ingredients of No Strings Attached. It’s unfortunate that Ivan Reitman doesn’t seem capable of finding his way to it. The film follows a couple of people–she’s a budding doctor in her residency program, he’s an aspiring writer toiling on the crew of a TV that looks like what Glee might have been had it skewed closer to High School Musical territory–who enter into whats intended to be purely a fun, sexual relationship. They agree to avoid discussion of feelings, commitment or any of the other messy particulars of falling in love in favor of simply have a some good physical romps on a regular basis. Naturally, it’s not that simple. Portman plays the doctor, and she’s the main advocate of the no-strings relationship. There are the makings of an interesting character, but the script eventually abandons the notion that this is a valid component of her personality in favor of positioning it as a character flaw that needs solving, a necessary pivot to push it towards the requisite romantic comedy conclusion. Ashton Kutcher is surprisingly good as her paramour, relaxed without being disengaged, and doing a nice job of actually reacting to what’s going on around him instead of trying to drive the scene. Reitman has no touch for digging deeper into this, though. As good as some of his films are, they all operate on the surface, offering up sleek exteriors in place of resonant ideas. It’s seems strangely unkind to make this observation, but what this film really needed was a filmmaker with the capability to break it down and rebuild, all the while operating with a completely evident willingness to allow that happiness doesn’t always prevail. The film needed Jason Reitman.

MacGruber (Jorma Taccone, 2010). Lorne Michaels seems like a reasonable smart guy. He’s certainly been wildly successful as the creator and longtime producer of Saturday Night Live, and he’s often figured out the right people to back in other small-screen forays. So why on Earth does he continue to think taking one-joke sketches for his television institution and stretching them into feature length is a viable idea? For that matter, how does he keep tricking studios into thinking the same thing? Granted, it’s been a long time since he last tried it (I believe The Ladies Man was his last foolhardy stab), but that only makes it even more baffling that he, or anyone, thought it wise to make the leap anew with a character who’d never sustained a bit that lasted more than about 45 seconds. Basically a drastically outdated parody of MacGyver reworked into a general spoof of action movies, MacGruber has no real ideas whatsoever; filthy non sequiturs is about all it’s got. But anyone who loves jokes about guys jamming stalks of celery up their ass are going to feel doubly blessed by this movie.

Knight and Day (James Mangold, 2010). Tom Cruise shows what it looks like when a major star tries way too hard in this unbalanced comedy-action hybrid. Tweaking his own recent off-screen persona, Cruise plays a secret agent who comes across as a cheery guy who’s gone a little loony, detailing conspiracies that no one else can see. He’s the guy you want to trust even if you’re not sure if you can anymore, but he’s damn well going to win you over, even if he has to crack a smile wide enough to show you every damn tooth in his head. It’s an idea that could work if anyone built some real satiric bite into the film. Instead, it’s timid and bland. It’s also hard to shake the idea that Cruise is getting too old for this shit. They may not need to coat the lens in Vaseline just yet, but it already seems like its got a layer of flop sweat on it. Fun as it is to heap scorn on little Tommy Mapother, the real problem here is James Mangold’s direction. He’s always been a highly controlled filmmaker–usually to a fault–and the film really calls for some abandon, a sense of fun. Instead, it’s strictly by the numbers, all mechanics and no zest.

Grown Ups (Dennis Dugan, 2010). Horrible as most of his movies may be, Adam Sandler surely knows what he’s doing. Despite occasionally working with actual grown-ups (with mixed results), Sandler largely sticks with keeping his inane comedy factory churning out cinematic offal to the ongoing delight of the masses. The latest widget to come off the assembly line is so lazily made that it’s hard to believe it actually had a script. It must have been simply a rough outline about a group of friends reuniting with their families at a lake house after their old pee wee basketball coach dies. Then page after page of “Sandler and the guys riff,” perhaps written in smeared crayon. The joking insults swapped by Sandler and his cohorts (Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider comprise the rest of the comedy nightmare team) are melded with a weirdly stodgy storyline about how things would be so much better if those darn kids today would stop playing video games and go run around outside. The two sons of Sandler’s Hollywood agent character change from horrid spoiled brats to sweet kids over the course of the weekend for no other discernible reason than its going to give the audience some warm feelings to go with the dim-witted raunch of the gags.

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