Brooks, Buzzell, Freudenthal, Matzdorff, McKay

Best Foot Forward (Edward Buzzell, 1943). Less than a decade before a certain TV series elevated Lucille Ball to the stratosphere of stardom, she was merely the “Queen of the Bs,” which makes it a little odd to see her playing herself in this film about a cadet at a military academy who convinces the redhead to come be his date for a big dance. She’s also far removed from the ditzy whirligig persona that she’d soon be known for, playing scenes instead as the smartest person in the room with a disdainful, withering comment for everyone and everything she encounters. Novelty aside, the film is a rather clumsy affair, mixing strained farce with out-of-nowhere musical numbers and squeaky clean teen romance. It has little apparent ambition beyond being diversionary entertainment, and it doesn’t even really pull that off.

Feed the Fish (Michael Matzdorff, 2009). The feature directorial debut from Matzdorff is the sort of mild, genial independent comedy that seems to have no home in the current clearly-rendered atlas of film distribution. It’s not slick and noisy enough to nab a screen in the local multiplex or edgy enough to garner showings in the art house. It’s sweet enough and fairly unassuming, probably far more ingratiating to anyone who can relate to it’s depiction of a small town Wisconsin winter. Matzdorff is from Green Bay, and the film emanates a keen understanding of and appreciation for the peculiarities of his home state. There’s not much else to the film, though. The story of a miserable children’s book writer who finds himself in the unfamiliar provincial setting, including a tender romance with a local, is as predictable as can be. One of these days, someone should make a movie about a big city resident who is adamantly not transformed positively by small town charms.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Thor Freudenthal, 2010). An adaptation of the sensationally popular book series by Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid rarely demonstrates the sort of verve or imagination that presumably contributed to the success of the original work. The travails of young Greg Heffley–who comes across as more bratty and selfish in this rendering than wimpy–as he enters middle school, the film is a perfunctory glide through social indignities and mild familial strife. Its literary pedigree aside, this seems only marginally different from any number of frenetic assemblages of incident that passed for live action kiddie entertainment back when I was charged with reviewing everything that came through the small college town where I lived. In other words, it’s completely forgettable. I will add this, though: I think it’s an indication of my enduring appreciation of Matt Reeves’ Let Me In that I’m currently helpless with delight any time Chloe Moretz shows up, as she does her as a tough, smart, helpful 7th grader.

How Do You Know (James L. Brooks, 2010). James L. Brooks doesn’t work quickly, and his tendency for second-guessing and the anxiety that naturally accompanies it increasingly shows up in his work. His previous feature, Spanglish, was essentially undone by Brooks having no real sense of what he wanted it to be, and his long-gestating follow-up has a similar sort of tentativeness about it. It also represents a sort of retreat since its plot–a love triangle involving a complicated woman, a friendly but dim guy and a neurotic potential suitor–has distinct echoes of Broadcast News, the last complete success Brooks had as a filmmaker (no, I’m not forgetting about As Good As It Gets). Despite these expressions of disgruntlement, the film is fairly successful, certainly better than it’s reputation as one of last year’s most damaging bombs would indicate. Brooks still has an evident talent for sharp, artful dialogue, and he gets nice performances out his principal actors, especially Reese Witherspoon, who is at her best here. She plays a washed-up softball star just beginning to set a new path without the well-established patterns of her training and competition schedules. The character is prickly, shrewd, instinctive and wonderfully complicated, and Witherspoon responds with more nuanced work than I’ve seen from her before. The film may seem like little more than passable entertainment, especially when measured again the peaks of Brooks’ work, but it’s also nicely ingratiating.

The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010). The extensive (and generally admirable) background Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have in sketch comedy, especially Saturday Night Live style sketch comedy, is in full evidence in The Other Guys, and it’s to the film’s detriment. There’s every indication that McKay and his cohorts are well-versed in the tactic of returning to a funny premise until it’s entirely worn out. That’s bad enough in a bit meant to last five or six minutes. Spread to feature-length, it’s brutal. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play a couple middle-of-the-road cops who wind up pursuing justice in a dully complicated scheme involving Wall Street chicanery. McKay is going for the same spirited mix of action and comedy that’s been pursued by filmmakers at least since Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs., but he has no knack for the action sequences and often seems flatly disinterested in the comedy. In fact, the only portion of the film that really works is the biting breakdown of corrupt capitalism that accompanies the closing credits.

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