REVIEW: Office Christmas Party

6 12 2016

As sad as it may be, if one movie from 2016 could serve as a (non-polemical) time capsule for what it was like to live in this year, that movie might be “Office Christmas Party.” From top to bottom, the film is chock full of time-specific references to technology: iCal, Uber, 3D printing, frustrating Wi-Fi. Imagine watching this in 30 years with your kids. They are likely going to ask a lot of questions about what certain terms mean.

But beyond the minutiae, very little about “Office Christmas Party” feels specifically tied to the year. Unlike television’s “The Office,” whose episodic structure dictated it ignore the ravages of time, cinema’s unique capability to provide a snapshot of a particular cultural moment has led to some invaluable representations of corporate America. Particularly in the wake of the 2008 recession, movies from “Up in the Air” to “The Company Men” to “The Internship” serve as documentation to the hopes and anxieties of the average blue-collar worker in their time.

The premise of the film seems to provide a great launchpad into some topical territory. Jennifer Aniston’s Carol Vanstone, a Miranda Priestly impersonation spiked with a Grinch attitude, rolls into the Chicago branch of her family business to announce a 40% reduction in employees and total cancellation of Christmas bonuses. There’s an initial wave of panic, anger and frustration from the managers in the office, especially from Carol’s entitled brother, branch manager Clay (T.J. Miller). But once that subsides, there’s no 2016-specific fuel to their actions, no sense of worry that the climate is unforgiving. “Office Christmas Party” could have been written at just about any time in the last 40 years and simply spruced up with current cultural products.

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REVIEW: Trainwreck

4 08 2015

Trainwreck PosterAt roughly the midpoint of “Trainwreck,” writer Amy Schumer sets up a remarkable parallel between two scenes at the same baby shower.  The character Amy, played by Schumer herself, has to endure a brutal game of “Skeletons in the Closet” where posh young mothers spill dark secrets … that actually reveal themselves as pathetically and predictably tame.

Meanwhile, Amy’s boyfriend, Bill Hader’s Aaron Conners, recounts details of the many athletes he has helped rehabilitate in his sports medicine practice.  He rattles of name after name to the same awe-struck reaction from a crowd of unfamiliar men … until he drops the name Alex Rodriguez.  Among this set of New Yorkers, this blasphemy inspires a sudden outburst of profanity.  But then, Aaron goes back to some more agreeable athletes, and the peanut gallery resumes the standard call-and-response.

These scenes, juxtaposed as they are, communicate a central tenet of “Trainwreck.”  Both genders, when taking cultural stereotypes of gender to the extreme ends of their performance, deserve mockery for their folly.  (This also includes John Cena, who briefly appears as Amy’s bodybuilding boyfriend who talks about the gym like many women talk about the nail salon.)  Schumer’s feminist intervention into the romantic comedy genre aims to level the playing field for men and women, not by putting the latter on any kind of pedestal but through suggesting the common humanity that unites them.

Her on-screen persona in “Trainwreck” arrives at the perfect moment, a time where many female characters are either monotonically strong or practically invisible and silent.  The “approachable” Amy, as her boss (played by a bronzed Tilda Swinton) condescendingly deems her, is a romantic comedy heroine cut from the cloth of contemporary society.  The hard-drinking, truth-telling, free-wheeling character benefits from the assertiveness in romance that women gained through the sexual revolution, yet she also pushes up against the lingering constraints left unconquered by that unfinished movement.  Amy also embodies the spirit of a generation scared to death of commitment, an era when the only thing scarier than the sea of possibilities is the choice to settle on one of them.

She meets her match in Aaron, an equally plain-spoken person who falls for Amy as she profiles him for the men’s magazine S’nuff.  The big difference, though, is that he possesses self-confidence where she shields her insecurities with self-deprecation.  Aaron, notably, never becomes a human incarnation of a “Mr. Wonderful” doll.  While exceedingly nice and admirable, Amy exposes a few of the buttons he might not like people pushing.

“Trainwreck” does not place Amy in the position of damsel in distress, nor does it make her some kind of prize for winning once tamed.  Amy’s impetus to change, although partially spurred by Aaron, seems to derive from an internal desire to stop numbing herself to the world.  And even in her triumphs (including the grand finale), Schumer always makes sure her Amy still shows some amusing, endearing flaws.  She is allowed to have flawed, circular logic, and it does not mean she is crazy; it just means we embrace her all the more.

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