Finally, we’re faced with a weekend of hard choices at the movie theater. Fresh and new and full of promise. The long cold winter of my cineast’s discontent is over. No more dutiful catching up with all those earnest Oscar winners and also-rans. Beyond January’s formulaic chickflicks and hapless mall cops. Beyond February’s horror franchises and March’s glowing blue phalluses. Hallelujah! Movie stars Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Rudd and Jason Segel have been tag-team tearing up the small screen, relentlessly charming and ubiquitous in their Herculean efforts to lure you into your local theater to help them win their crucial opening weekends. But where to go first? Which star vehicle gets you the most entertainment mileage for your time and money?
In This Corner
Two corporate spies with major trust issues portrayed by the impossibly gorgeous, ridiculously charismatic Julia Roberts and strapping Brit Clive Owen, play a dangerous high stakes confidence game with and against worthy castmates and adversaries Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti. The movie’s chronology-fracturing structure and complex subject matter demand the viewer’s undivided attention, ultimately rewarding if occasionally confusing along the way. “Duplicity” plays like the prettier, lighter and frothier version of Tony Gilroy’s last offering, “Michael Clayton.” Gilroy makes movies for adults, about adults complete with histories and baggage and depth, and this one’s more fizzy fun than any synopsis (or any of his previous films) might suggest. They don’t make movies like this any more; honestly, they hardly ever did. Would that they had. 1963’s classic “Charade” might be its closest spiritual progenitor, sleek and stylish and smart as a whip. Avoid reading any spoilers; the twists are just terrific, and the less you know going in, the better.
In That Corner
Another entry in the new category of who-needs-a-chick-flick comes barreling into your neighborhood; consistently charming Paul Rudd and perennial puppy in hulking human form Jason Segel appeared on every talk show and print venue heralding its arrival. They’re nearly impossible to resist. Is the film worthy of all the brilliant hype? “I Love You, Man” boasts a terrific lead performance by the always adorable Paul Rudd, self effacing as usual, more awkward and screenworthy than ever. Spring has sprung, and bromance is in the air. Oh sure, men still love women, at least in theory and under state law, but a whole sub-genre of movies would argue that all you need is love. Man love. With no particular thanks to Judd Apatow and his disciples, women play central but sadly generic roles in this prolonged adolescent world of air guitar, disorderly conduct, masturbation stations and wolfed fish tacos. Flickchicks have their shoe shopping and their singing into hairbrushes while downing pints of chocolate chocolate chip Haagen Dazs; it’s a good thing too, because down deep, men prefer the company of other men anyway.
“Duplicity” demands a viewer’s fully engaged brain, something movie audiences are not often required to bring along with them to the multiplex. While the supporting cast list reads like the invitee roster of the Indie Spirit Awards, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are both certifiable movie stars, both terrific and eminently watchable movie actors, both at the top of their respective games. The dialogue spins and fizzes, by turns intoxicating and obfuscating, but consistently entertaining. The closest thing to an action sequence employs not weapons of mass destruction but the most mundane of office machines; the resulting tension matches any spy thriller chase or computer-generated alien battle.
Using fabulous foreign destinations Dubai, Rome, and London, the doublecrossing lovers, partners, and rivals crisscross the globe, staying in glamorous hotel rooms, striding through photogenic streets, waking between luxury sheets. It’s practically travel porn for those of us stuck closer to home. Julia Roberts plays it smart and coolly confident; it’s her best role in years. Ever the lady, Roberts accomplishes more with suggestion and innuendo than her contemporaries do with private anatomical tours. A pair of lacy panties twirled on her finger do more to light a screen fire than they would in their usual location.
Clive Owen makes for a slightly befuddled if game James Bond Lite; his good looks are undeniable, but there’s something endearingly goofy about him. Perhaps it’s only my warped perception, but Owen looks like James Bond as sculpted by Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park. Tony Gilroy uses all his best Bourne trilogy tricks with a less macho touch; this one’s for the ladies and the gentlemen. A caper film with bite and dash, smarts and heart, suspense and sustained laughter. We care about the flawed and funny heroes on the silver screen; we’re grateful to spend a few hours trying to keep up with them. Their lives and lies are so much more thrilling and clever and just plain interesting than our own. With the stakes and the violence and the stunts set on simmer, not boil, it makes for a perfect date night movie.
Beautiful locations. Intelligent, witty dialogue. Sexy chemistry. Satire and suspense. A complicated plot with an unpredictable outcome. Romance. Lies. Enough intrigue to keep your mind alive and humming for the slightly over two-hours running time. What more can you ask from a film?
An altogether humbler enterprise, “I Love You, Man” seeks to entertain and enlighten on a much smaller canvas. The action stays resolutely in Southern California, from Venice Beach to Montecito; the location is no accident. The nature of marriage is a matter of great political and social consequence; the setting and the historical moment enhance the film’s inclusive and humanistic message. The movie’s joys, and there are plenty to be had, reside squarely in the chemistry and appeal of Segel, Rudd and to a significantly lesser extent, Rashida Jones. I think the screenwriters might have done well to really answer the central question of the film: Why are Paul and Zooey getting married? Had her character anything specific to play but a general pleasantness coupled with a lapsed proclivity for frequent delivering a much-vaunted sexual favor, we’d actually root for their wedding. As written, Zooey’s greatest single trait is that she encourages her fiancé to find a friend and smilingly suffers the consequences. She’s game and she’s lovely. But that’s about it, the embodiment of the not-so-tender trap these bromancers struggle so mightily to avoid. The vague love object can scarcely compete.
Paul Rudd’s hapless Realtor Paul Klaven is absolutely hilarious and touching at the film’s emotional center, a bundle of inept social missteps, mumbled nonsense, and essential goodness that rings so true as to make the audience cringe in recognition. His trying-too-hard-to-please sentences trail off into abject gibberish; his attempts at casual man-banter fall false and flat, but the man loves women. He understands them, and they respond to him. He’s a girl’s guy challenged to find his inner jackass, his best man.
Segel is perhaps the most complicated character in the film; we’re never sure if he’s who he says he is. A hothouse hothead, he’s left behind by his friends who’ve moved on to jobs and family obligations he can’t fully grasp. Stuck in a prolonged adolescence with more money than any adolescent would (or should) ever have to spend, he’s built himself a gilded cage of simple pleasures designed to keep him forever young. He’s honest and open and loving too; this jackass has a heart of gold but the brain of a frat boy gone wild.
Most men in the film are jackasses of the worst kind, and the women so generic as to deserve T-shirts with labels like Married Best Friend and Desperate Single Friend. (Jon Favreau plays an irredeemable, unsavory, downright unpleasant husband of kewpie-eyed sex doll, Jaime Pressly. Their marriage is a trainwreck, and it proves the rule that watching people fight onscreen or in person is never entertaining, only awkward and uncomfortable. All the makeup sex and talked-about chemistry aside, I wanted her to leave him, not procreate with him.) Andy Samberg’s turn as Rudd’s gay brother has great promise at first but he disappears for most of the film; the movie’s laissez-faire attitude towards sexual orientation is refreshing. Bromance and i
ts undeniable allure cross the line more than once, hinting that the line isn’t as solid as other films and small-minded zealots might assume. It’s no accident that Zooey knows her groom needs his best man as much as he needs his bride; one half expects the two men to kiss and dance the first dance. Their friendship is specific and weird and intimately drawn; by contrast, we don’t ever learn what makes Zooey tick.
“I Love You, Man” explores familiar territory while venturing off the beaten path, finding strange and intriguing new areas of gender identity and sexual preference and expression. The film provides some surprises the hype might not lead you to expect. While I suspect most fans of the genre will take the film at face value and dismiss the deeper messages as mere comic invention, I’d encourage you to think about who or what makes the best man.
Deciding a Smackdown winner presents something of a challenge. For me, the choice is a clear one. The films and the promotion mingle and cross-pollinate; compare the omnipresent interviews. Paul Rudd and Jason Segel go all giddy with the endless comic possibilities of farting noises and puns and sly sarcasm while Julia Roberts and David Letterman waxed poetic on the deep and nearly inexplicable joys of parental love. I grew up when adulthood was no dirty word; the Rat Pack and Johnny Carson were the coolest. Grown-up Craig Ferguson is Carson’s natural heir while Jimmy Fallon continues Conan’s post-collegiate courtship of the inner boy. Adulthood is changing; as the Boomer Generation hits sixty, they still clamor for a coolness quotient, refusing to go gentle into that good night or even late afternoon. Still gamers, still struggling to remain musically relevant, culturally aware and hip. This is not your parents’ adulthood. Maturity is a more grudging thing in this decidedly not-brave new world. Arrested development is more than a cult television show; it’s a coveted lifestyle choice. I find the adult concerns of “Duplicity” more rewarding; the women are more complex and the world wider. I’ll take romance over bromance, worldly professionals with compromised morals and ethics over slackers and reluctant grownups. Real life doesn’t start with a cute meet and end with a wedding; only movies do that. Both films are enjoyable, but I’ll take “Duplicity.” You can catch “I Love You, Man” next weekend.