Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Comedies Bleak and Light

Six Degrees of Separation (1993): adapted by John Guare from his own play; directed by Fred Schepisi; starring Stockard Channing (Ouisa Kitteridge), Donald Sutherland (Flan Kitteridge), Will Smith ('Paul'), Ian McKellen (Geoffrey), and Anthony Michael Hall (Trent): John Guare's excellent adaptation of his own play resonates as much now as it did in when it first appeared in 1990, after the greedy 1980's of American neo-capitalism. 

It's a snarky, often bleak look at the lives of the nouveau-riche in New York, embodied in the persons of art dealer Flan Kitteridge and his wife Ouisa (even their first names seem arch). Into their world comes Will Smith as the charismatic son of Sydney Poitier. But nothing is as it seems. All the principals are good, and Smith (and, in a minor role, Anthony Michael Hall) is stunningly good. Highly recommended.

The DUFF (2015): adapted by Josh A. Cagan from the novel by Kody Keplinger; directed by Ari Sandel; starring Mae Whitman (Bianca Piper), Robbie Amell (Wesley Rush), Bella Thorne (Madison Morgan), Bianca Santos (Casey), Skyler Samuels (Jess), Nick Eversman (Toby), Ken Jeong (Mr. Arthur), and Alison Janney (Dottie Piper): Bright, occasionally moving, and often very funny high-school comedy about Bianca Piper, who discovers one day that she's seemingly the DUFF to her two popular gal-pals -- the Designated Ugly Fat Friend who makes the lives of the pretty (or handsome) easier by being approachable without being a romantic rival. 

Mae Whitman (Michael Cera's fundamentalist Christian girlfriend on Arrested Development) is excellent as Bianca, as is the amiable Robbie Amell as her jock-male frenemy Wesley. The movie ultimately goes pretty much where one expects it to, but it does so in a pleasing and generally sharply written way. There's a pointed critique of high-school cliques and stereotypes at one point that seems like a necessary rebuke to that reductive high-school chestnut The Breakfast Club. Recommended.

Juno (2007): written by Diablo Cody; directed by Jason Reitman; starring Ellen Page (Juno MacGuff), Michael Cera (Paulie Bleeker), Jennifer Garner (Vanessa Loring), Jason Bateman (Mark Loring), Alison Janney (Bren MacGuff), J.K. Simmons (Mac MacGuff), and Olivia Thirlby (Leah): Enjoyable teen-age pregnancy comedy helped put director Jason Reitman, writer Diablo Cody, and break-out star Ellen Page on the Hollywood map. 

The script and its odd turns of phrase (Diablo-Codyisms?) doesn't seem as fresh and insightful now as it did in 2007, but the performances from everyone involved remain fresh and sympathetic. The weird anti-abortion scene seems even more disturbingly neocon now, after a further decade of restrictions to abortion access in many U.S. states. Olivia Thirlby still delights as the sunny, jailiest-teacher-obsessed jailbait a high school ever saw. Recommended.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988): written by John Cleese and Charles Crichton; directed by Charles Crichton; starring John Cleese (Archie Leach), Jamie Lee Curtis (Wanda Gershowitz), Kevin Kline (Otto), Michael Palin (Ken Pile), and Patricia Hayes (Mrs. Coady): Pretty much a perfect 1980's attempt to replicate the complicated heist plots and black English humour of the famous Ealing Studios comedies released primarily between 1948 and 1955. 

Those landmark comedies included The Lavender Hill Mob, directed by A Fish Called Wanda's co-writer and director Charles Crichton and clearly an inspiration to co-writer and star John Cleese. Crichton and Cleese put forth a terrific cast giving terrific comic performances -- Jamie Lee Curtis was never funnier or more pragmatically winsome, and Kevin Kline plays so far against type as "Don't call me stupid!" hitman Otto that he seems to be reincarnating Peter Sellers. Cleese is also good (and cleverly gives himself the girl). Set-pieces that involve incompetent stutterer Michael Palin's attempts to murder a witness and Otto's torture of Palin still have the power to shock and delight. Highly recommended.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988): written by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro, and Paul Henning; directed by Frank Oz; starring Michael Caine (Lawrence Jamieson), Steve Martin (Freddy Benson), Glenne Headly (Janet Colgate), Anton Rodgers (Inspector Andre), and Ian McDiarmid (Arthur the Butler):  Released the same year as A Fish Called Wanda, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels attempts the same sort of black, English comedy without quite succeeding. Michael Caine's con man is a bit too nice, and Steve Martin never seems invested in his con man as a viable character. The only time one believes that Martin could con anybody comes when he's mugging it up as Caine's half-wit brother. There are still laughs throughout, but the movie's let down by its length (a ponderous 110 minutes that needs a trim of at least 15), the writing, and Steve Martin's frenetic, flailing, utterly unconvincing performance. Lightly recommended.

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