REVIEW: The House

3 07 2017

A government official yanks away a college scholarship promised to a local girl, deeming it “an indulgence we can no longer afford,” in the same breath as he rewards wealthy townspeople with luxurious new facilities. Is this a scene in Andrew J. Cohen’s comedy “The House,” or just another day on Capitol Hill? Show audiences in 50 years, and they will likely be unable to discern any difference.

As a series of gags loosely tied together by a hair-brained concept – Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler’s would-be empty nesters opening an underground casino to pay their daughter’s college tuition, the film leaves a lot to be desired. Like most studio comedies, “The House” throws together big comedic stars, a winning logline and a few stabs at thematically and socially relevant humor. The latter works when satirizing police surveillance in the smartphone era and stumbles when attempting a few jokes about date rape.

Ferrell and Poehler tend to take movie roles written for them, or at least well-tailored to their strengths. Nothing about “The House” indicates the screenwriters penned the film with them in mind. Ferrell’s outsized physicality and Poehler’s acerbic verbal wit go sorely underutilized.

Yet, on the other hand, they’re great avatars for the kind of well-off urban angst “The House” so deftly sends up. These are people who, for the most part, have achieved prosperity but still feel let down. “We tried to play by the rules,” laments Poehler’s Kate Johansen, “and it got us nowhere.” This disappointment and dissatisfaction leads them towards criminal enterprise, fight clubs for soccer moms and insurance fraud. It’s worth considering why this premise does not collapse immediately.

Oh, and “The House” takes place in this imaginary, fairy tale world where public officials face consequences for stealing money from the public! Must be nice. B-





REVIEW: How to Be Single

10 02 2016

Far too often, Hollywood rom-coms problematize singleness. This genre portrays the lack of a romantic partner as a condition to be fixed – or even a disease to be cured. In many ways, coupling is somewhat of a biological imperative. But with lifespans getting longer and the nature of connectivity changing our expectations for others, singleness is becoming a more permanent fixture of the life course.

How to Be Single,” adapted from a novel by Liz Tuccillo (and seemingly loosely), provides many different avenues to explore just what this special period might mean. There’s the romantic monogamist type in Dakota Johnson’s Alice, the free-wheeling and fun-loving hedonist with Rebel Wilson’s Robin, and the maternally instinctual but careerist in Leslie Mann’s Meg. Each finds a path that is right for them as the film goes on, a refreshing change of pace from the “one size fits all” solution offered by far too many films.

The ride towards these conclusions gets a little turbulent, though, as the film plays into a few of the double standards or traps it wants to decry. It mostly just sticks to archetypes, which works just fine once each character finds themselves within one. Ironically, “How To Be Single” finds its biggest successes in the moments when someone’s archetype leads them to a moment of self-actualization.

The one character who does not fit this mold is Alison Brie’s Lucy, an algorithmically-obsessed serial online dater. Her connection to the core trio in the film is only tangential; the link comes from a neighborhood bar that Alice and Robin also happen to frequent. Lucy’s presence just clutters up “How To Be Single.” She feels like a shameless ploy for topical relevancy rather than a well-imagined addition to the story. Brie’s fire-tongued portrayal makes Lucy’s scenes fun, but they detract from the real core of the film. Her constant need to find herself in someone else clashes with the message offered by the rest of the film, which posits that extended time for solitary self-reflection can produce worthwhile discoveries. B-2stars





REVIEW: Sleeping With Other People

4 10 2015

Sleeping with Other PeopleThough the first two words in the title of writer/director Leslye Hedland’s “Sleeping With Other People” are a polite euphemism, that semantic choice probably represents her most cautious choice regarding sex.  Unlike so many others dealing with romance and courtship on screen, she leans in to the thorniness that most choose to sugarcoat.  She embraces the mess created by the libido’s interference with the heart.

Her two main characters, Jason Sudeikis’ Jake and Alison Brie’s Lainey, are even admitted sex addicts.  Early on in the film, the two even reunite after a collegiate one-night stand at a meeting for those struggling to rein in their urges.  “Shame” this is not, but it’s at least a more nuanced portrayal of sexuality than 2011’s pair of hookup movies, “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached.”

Yet sadly, Hedland also seems to borrow one too many plot points from said movies.  Even as she resists reducing love into sex, Jake and Lainey’s drifting back towards each other as they try to push apart feels like a page ripped right from the rom-com playbook.  There’s at least some good humor as Hedland blends in some battle of the sexes humor a la “When Harry Met Sally,” but Sudeikis and Brie lack the chemistry to sell their relationship beyond a few choice scenes.  The two always feel like they are operating on different comedic frequencies.

Despite a winning ensemble that includes fantastic actors like Adam Scott, Natasha Lyonne and Amanda Peet, “Sleeping With Other People” just never coheres its parts into a satisfying whole.  I suspect the only time I’ll ever think about this film again is when taking an overview of films that show how technology inhibits intimacy – Hedland does include one powerful split-screen shot of Jake and Lainey texting each other from their own beds.  Though they look and connect as if they were right next to each other, their phones still make them worlds apart.  B-2stars