With this Blockbuster Total Access thing we've been doing, I've been seeing a lot of movies. We just took the two we got in the mail yesterday back to the store today and got "The Departed" and "The Prestige" in exchange (for free!). Yesterday the wifey and I watched both "The Squid and the Whale" and "Employee of the Month". One was much better than the other. I'll let you take a guess as to which one was which.
1.) "The Squid and the Whale". I'd been avoiding this one for a while, never interested enough in the premise to grab it off the shelf instead of some other movie. But when it came in the mail yesterday (as the wife put it on the queue -- even though "Black Sunday" has been at the top of the queue for quite some time, it's never come -- I'm beginning to think Blockbuster's banned it from our household), we watched it right away. The film was a pleasant surprise. Jeff Daniels plays English PhD and creative-writing professor Bernard Berkman, husband to Joan (Laura Linney) and father to Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). Bernard is a once-famous writer tapped out of the Grady Tripp mold (Michael Douglas's character in "Wonder Boys") whose rage at the slow decline of his writing career has slowly destroyed his marriage and forced his sons to take sides between the parents. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the film is based on his own life growing up with two writers, the novelist Jonathan Baumbach and the Village Voice writer, Georgia Brown. The heart of this story is Walt's freeing himself from his father's burdensome expectations and unhealthy advice, but taken altogether "The Squid and the Whale" is also a 2-hour seminar on why it's never a good idea to get divorced. Particularly if you have children. Baumbach looks at the divorce of the two parents from everyone's viewpoint, and it's wrenching and sad and painful for everyone. Though the mother (Linney) comes off best, everyone has their moments of pettiness or extreme self-absorption. In other words, it's difficult at times to feel sorry for any of them (though the youngest boy is a true innocent through all of it, despite his icky behavior). At times it feels like perhaps Baumbach is, perhaps, too frank with the facts of his adolescence during this painful time in his life, but overall it's a strong film. Everyone's good in it, but Jeff Daniels was a real stand-out to me. Partly because the role was the most fleshed-out and best written (Noah seems to have the most to say about this character), but mostly because Daniels completely inhabits the role of a guy who's so wrapped up in himself and his own feelings he can barely spare a thought for his children, and even still manages to make him sympathetic. Though just barely. Anyway, a good film.
And right after that I took in...
2.) "Employee of the Month". Not good. The trailers succeeded, I thought, in making this thing look like a good-hearted, solidly funny dumb comedy from the Adam Sandler school of filmmaking (the tolerable Sandler movies, anyway). But honest-to-God there isn't a real laugh in this entire movie. I think that the middling, amateurish script (curiously devoid of jokes considering some of the funny people involved; I would have thought that Harland Williams or Andy Dick could have written up a laugh line or two, but no such luck) is a big part of the problem, but I have to say the star of the film, Dane Cook (for whom this is his first starring role), is really the weakest link for me. His performance is so shot through with a kind of phony "aw-shucks" sincerity that you can never see past Cook's look-at-me-and-love-me performance to the story (such as it is) beyond. It's as if he was told by his management team that to be successful as a Hollywood movie star, it's not about being funny or interesting on-screen, it's about playing characters that audiences like. There's some legitimate argument to be made there, but no matter how likeable Cook tries to make his characters, the fact that he is neither funny or interesting in this film, can't help but derail his nascent career if he keeps doing stuff like this. The fact that he's got another big role in the upcoming Kevin Costner/William Hurt movie "Mr. Brooks" says to me he's got a good agent, and a studio with a close eye on Cook's comedy tour grosses. Not to pile-on, but this movie just has so very little going for it. Dax Shepherd, the weird Zach Braff clone, is game with a dumb role but with this movie and "Let's All Go To Prison" under his belt, I wonder if he isn't getting the stink of Bad Movie on him. time will tell. Jessica Simpson is in way over her head here with the role of romantic interest. Her vacuity is on full display here, but the director, to his credit, must have noticed this, and tries at every opportunity to distract the viewer from her blank-faced performance by presenting her air-conditioned breasts in revealing tops. This tactic usually works. Anyway, a bad movie. I was kind of surprised. I thought Cook was funny on SNL, I think some of his jokes (stolen or no) are funny and well-told, and thought at least some of that would come through in this movie, but man does it ever not.
And then Saturday night on AMC, I caught all of ...
3.) "Kramer vs. Kramer". AMC was showing a bunch of Best Picture Oscar-winning films (without commercial interruptions -- how great is that?), and I started into this one and never once lost interest. "Kramer" won the Best Picture Oscar for 1979 (beating "Apocalypse Now") and though I don't think it's a better film than "Apocalypse" (they seem way too different to even compare), I thought it was memorable and very well-done. The movie starts with Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) walking out on Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) and their son, little Billy (Eight-year old Justin Henry, who got himself a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance -- he was the only nominated member of the cast to lose). So Ted, who's a big time ad executive, has to juggle raising his kid and a high-stress job with very little help. The scenes where he and his son adjust to a wifeless and motherless existence are effective and moving. Predictably, Ted has a hard time handling all of these responsibilities, and soon loses the support of his boss who doesn't like that Ted isn't working his usual 80-hour weeks, and then loses his job altogether. The sequence when Ted vows to get a new job in 24 hours (and then does!) is riveting. The film serves in some respects as an indictment of the judicial system's unquestioning preference for the mother over the father in custody cases. I guess director Robert Benton should be commended for not making Streep's character more unlikeable, or obviously less fit as a mother -- that would have been ham-fisted and preachy -- she gets fairly even treatment in the film and it's that balance that keeps the movie real and engrossing. The movie succeeds, I think, in making the point that a father's role in the upbringing of a child is in many ways just as important as the mother's. The film's ending was too happy, too pat, and not terribly believable -- the honest ending for the movie was obvious but the filmmakers (and perhaps even the author of the original novel) disappointingly opted for a more audience-friendly end, but aside from that, a great movie.
AND! And I now understand another of the "Family Guy" movie references. This scene comes directly from "Kramer vs Kramer". Funny stuff.