Saturday, April 17, 2010

Comedies, Anyone?

Hot Tub Time Machine

Godard once said the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. Steve Pink’s “Hot Tub Time Machine” certainly takes valuable swipes at the 1980’s, and the amazing thing is that for two-thirds of the film, it does transform itself into a highly enjoyable 80’s romp. It’s just that the other third, obsessed with that displeasing state of “now” humor (which equals improvised comedy full of vulgar, mean spirited put downs and gross out sight gags) high jacks some of the fun. Still, for an hour or so, “Hot Tub Time Machine” is a sharp comedy with cosmic overtones. Starring the always likable John Cusack- who established himself in 80’s comedies and seems to feel right at home as one of the four modern men who find themselves trapped back in 1986 on one eventful night that- “Hot Tub Time Machine” also develops a sweet relationship between him and music writer April, played to dizzying perfection by Lizzy Caplan. It’s this peripheral romance that gives the film its zeal. Caplan, who is a newcomer to me but has obviously been around on the small screen for years, hits the perfect mixture of 70’s hippiness and 80’s sweet girl persona. From the first time they meet on-screen at a party, Cusack and Caplan make their connection feel real and inspired. I almost wish the entire film could have been about them. But, director Pink has more important things on his mind, such as a male-on-male blowjob and hand soap designed to look like ejaculate on someone’s face. I understand today’s comedy has to reach a certain shock value (which is depressing), and “Hot Tub Time Machine” has that built in for audience acceptance. It’s just the film really soars when it tries to connect on a smaller level. That’s the kind of comedy film we could use more of today.


And speaking of independent comedy, Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” certainly qualifies as that. Yet it’s probably more ugly and unappealing than the problems I had with the big budget “Hot Tub Time Machine”. Baumbach’s films have always been a niche commodity, dealing with upper class growing pains and intelligentsia. But with this film and his previous one, “Margot At The Wedding”, Baumbach has apparently given up connecting with anyone in middle America- or really anyone outside the ledges of New England or uber-pretentious Los Angelites. Ben Stiller is Roger, a cynical and troubled man just released from a mental hospital who travels to Los Angeles to house-sit for his brother. Once there, he begins an on-again-off-again relationship with Greta Gerwig, his brother’s personal assistant. If you thought Nicole Kidman was a psychological terror on wheels, just wait until you see Stiller as Greenberg. Continually pushing everyone away at a moment’s notice and constantly complaining about the minuscule habits or ticks of other people, Baumbach has created a genuinely chaotic protagonist that alienates with full force. I felt as if maybe I should’ve donated my 9 bucks for Baumbach to visit a therapist instead of working out the problems of his upper class life with such virulent cinematic skills. It wasn’t always this way. “Kicking and Screaming”, while meandering a bit much on the sours of love, was an absorbing ensemble. Likewise, “The Squid and the Whale” gave us a young man confused and pessimistic, wrapped in a cloak of growing up awkwardness which allowed the viewer to review the awkwardness of our own teenage years. With “Greenberg”, there’s nothing but a wasteland of pretension and West Coast grunge. The one thing I did like- Stiller making a grocery list with two things on it, whiskey and ice cream sandwiches.

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