by Steve Habrat
The last time audiences spent time with director Alexander Payne, it was in 2011’s The Descendants, the heart-wrenching, Hawaii-set dramedy about a family facing the sudden and devastating loss of a family member. With The Descendants, Payne bluntly pointed out that even those who live in a constant sunny paradise and sport floral print shirts are not immune to the harsh blows that life can unexpectedly dish out. Two years later, Payne returns with Nebraska, another frank dramedy with a heavy lean on location. Shot in nostalgic black and white and set in the small, boarded-up Americana towns of the Midwest, Nebraska is a simplistic road movie about an elderly father and his patient son on their way to collect a million dollars that may or may not be real. Along their journey they drop into the father’s hometown, a bare strip of farm country that is aging right along with the born-and-raised citizens that still make up its population. With veteran actor Bruce Dern at the helm and comedian Will Forte riding shotgun, this soft-spoken little movie is unexpectedly hilarious and overwhelming sweet. It’s a snapshot of a meat-and-potatoes family brought together through one man’s senile belief and staunch determination. It’s also about digging up the past, taking a leisurely stroll down memory lane and fondly looking back at year’s past.
Nebraska introduces us to Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern), an elderly man who receives a letter in the mail stating that he has won a million dollars. Bound and determined to collect his winnings, Woody begins walking from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. After being stopped on the side of the road by a police officer, Woody’s son, David (played by Will Forte), picks him up from the police station where he discovers that the million dollars that Woody believes he has won is actually just a scam to sell magazines. After David realizes that Woody isn’t going to give up trying to collect his prize money, David decides to drive him to the sweepstakes center in Lincoln so that he will understand that it is all a scam. This plan outrages David’s mother, Kate (played by June Squibb), and his brother, Ross (played by Bob Odenkirk), who strongly believe that David shouldn’t encourage his father’s hopes. Ignoring the protests, the two set out on a road trip that leads them back to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. Upon their arrival, David and Woody begin reconnecting with old friends and family members, but after word gets out about Woody’s sudden new fortune, they all quickly have their hands out for money.
For a good chunk of Nebraska, the story lingers around the peeling buildings and desolate stretches of Hawthorne, a place that appears to be slowly fading from the map. It’s a town that seen some excitement back in the good old days, but now, the memories that haunt the abandoned farmhouses and boarded-up businesses are all that are left. Our characters chat about distant friendships that faded, family members that have passed on, or old American cars that have been hauled off to the junkyard, the chatter stopping when talk shifts into the present. Now the wrinkly inhabitants flock to the local buffet where the main form of entertainment is bad karaoke sung out in flat tones. The big news for the day is Woody’s return and the rumored million dollars that he has won, no one really knowing for sure if it’s true. Still, that doesn’t stop the citizens from beaming, gossiping, and proclaiming that it’s the biggest thing to happen to Hawthorne in quite some time. Even the Hawthorne newspaper jumps at the chance of doing a piece on old Woody. When David tries to explain that his father hasn’t really won anything to one eager newspaper employee, they simply shrug their shoulders and say that they’ll just do a piece on the prodigal son’s triumphant return. This grasp on the past that the citizens of Hawthorne hold so dear is complimented by the black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael, who provides haunting shots of rusted out Americana, photographed with misty eyed nostalgia and twinkling memories known only to the character’s themselves.
And then we have veteran actor Bruce Dern, who gives an irritable and touching performance as prizewinner Woody Grant. With his shock of mad scientist hair and his drunken shuffle, Woody is a man on a mission, pausing only to have a few bottles of beer here and there. It’s clear that he is starting to slip mentally, although it’s implied that he has been a simple and gullible man his entire life. His delight over the winnings is truly lovable, even if we the audience know that there is no million dollar prize waiting for him in Lincoln. It also grows extremely difficult to watch old friends and family members try to milk money out of the poor man. It’s even worse because he has absolutely no idea they are trying to do it. While he is definitely overshadowed by Dern, former SNL comedian Will Forte does a fantastic job as David, Woody’s sweet and easy-going son who decides to let his father have his moment in the sun. June Squibb will have you doubled over in laughter as Kate, Woody’s gabbing wife who never misses an opportunity to rip him up one side and down the other. Always a woman to speak her mind, Squibb is a feisty blast, especially when she is visiting the graves of several friends and family members at a Hawthorne graveyard. Bob Odenkirk takes a minor role as Ross, David’s older brother who is fed up with Woody’s behavior and believes that they should be considering a home. Also on hand is Stacy Keach, another veteran actor who turns up as Ed Pegram, Woody’s old buddy who may not be as friendly as he first appears.
While Nebraska certainly has its fair share of leisurely moments, Payne turns up the hilarity level to high when he wants to. In the early scenes, the glimpses of Woody marching by the side of the road towards Lincoln will nab a chuckle and the constant verbal beatings that Woody is subjected to from Kate will have you doubled over. When the Grant’s make it to Hawthorne, the comedy really kicks into high gear as David mingles with his deadbeat cousins, Bart and Cole, and the rest of the family tries to awkwardly reconnect. In between the hearty laughs, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson delicately fill us in on Woody’s past. We learn he was a man of few words and that he had an ugly experience in the Korean War, but we learn that he would do everything he could for those he cared about, making him all the more lovable. Overall, Nebraska is a sparse and atmospheric story told with timeless care and comedic warmth. It puts up a defense with a dry sense of humor, but Payne isn’t afraid to reveal a vulnerable side, especially at the bittersweet climax. Though it may be shot in black and white, the film is given plenty of color from its quirky cast of characters, especially Dern’s career high turn as Woody. Nebraska is one of the finest films that 2013 has to offer.
The Watch (2012)
by Steve Habrat
What do you get when you put Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill in the same movie? Apparently, an extremely mediocre product with a flabby screenplay and a small handful of memorable chuckles. The Watch is the newest comedy misfire in a summer that has been loaded with comedy misfires that really hurt (The Dictator, That’s My Boy). In a way it is pitiful because The Watch stumbled right out of the gate and it has never really been able to right itself. The film has been unfairly overshadowed by the real-life murder of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator. The studio countered with scrubbing away “Neighborhood” from the title and they crossed their fingers that the film would still be a big late summer draw. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to realize that their science-fiction/horror/comedy hybrid wasn’t really all that funny or freaky. The Watch really tanks when it asks Vaughn and Stiller to deliver most of the funnies through improvised sequences that are supposed to act as the glue holding the shoddy alien invasion plot together. In all actuality, it is slightly embarrassing for Vaughn and Stiller, who are both talented guys if they are handed the right material. They are just lucky that Hill steps up and does most of the heavy lifting.
The Watch takes us to the small Ohio (!) town of Glenview, a peaceful community that Evan Trautwig (Played by Stiller) calls home. The busybody Evan works as the manager of the local Costco but his public service doesn’t stop there. In his free time, Evan creates a number of neighborhood clubs ranging from the jogging club to the Spanish club. After one of his Costco security guards is gruesomely murdered and skinned one night, Evan decides that he is going to make sure that the killer is brought to justice. Evan forms the Neighborhood Watch with the hope of attracting a slew of gung-ho recruits eager to wrangle this menace. Evan ends up with the mouthy construction worker Bob (Played by Vaughn), the mentally unstable wannabe cop Franklin (Played by Hill), and the recent divorcee Jamarcus (Played by Richard Ayoade). What begins as a distraction from their boring day-to-day lives takes a bizarre turn when the group stumbles upon a strange metallic orb lying on the side of the road. In addition the orb, a number of locals are turning up dead in the most gruesome ways imaginable. As the group’s investigation deepens, they stumble upon an alien invasion that threatens to wipe out the planet.
A good majority of The Watch finds our four concerned citizens plunked down in Bob’s glorified man-cave while they sip beers and gripe about their daily problems. This would all be fine with me expect that these four funny-guys can’t seem to gel. Stiller is all jittery pleas for the group to stay focused while overseeing the club with an iron fist. Stiller’s jitters sometimes seem like they are not simply a character tick but maybe nerves over having to improvise every joke he delivers. Vaughn is the polar opposite of Stiller but not in a good way. He is meant to be the party animal who finds comfort in the company of his bros. Most of his motor mouth improvising will have you wishing he would stick a cork in it for a while and let Ayoade and Hill have the floor. The British Ayoade is a promising talent but he rarely gets a chance to show you what he is made of. While Ayoade tries to brighten things up, Hill takes things from ho-hum to hilarious when he finds his whacked out groove. He gets all the films best lines with his dry delivery. Halfway through the film, Hill gets a moment at a teen party that had my group of friends and I in stitches. Sadly, the sequence doesn’t last long enough so savor it while it lasts.
The best parts of The Watch come from the more emotionally charged moments in the script. Jared Stern, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg serve as the screenwriters here so it is no surprise that the intimate buddy moments are splendidly written. A small scene between Bob and Evan in the middle of the film is a standout, one that narrowly saves the entire film. The scene finds the two just sitting on a park bench having a few beers and talking about all their problems a home. The scene really hits the mark when Evan confesses a piercing secret that really makes you feel for the guy and understand his intensity a bit more. Bob, on the other hand, is a terrified and confused parent who just wants what is right for his teenage daughter, a nice touch to an incredibly annoying character. Meanwhile Ayoade’s, Jamarcus and Hill’s Franklin are both left underdeveloped, surprising considering they are much more interesting than the characters that Stiller and Vaughn are stuck with. The script is eager to give away secrets about Jamarcus so when we finally arrive at the big twist near the end of the film, it falls short because we saw it coming about forty-five minutes ago. We never really do learn much about Franklin, only what he chooses to reveal in early scenes, which is that he is a deranged failure who shacks up with his mom. I was left wanting more from his character.
The rest of the background players of The Watch all quickly evaporate from your memory when the credits roll, which doesn’t really work in the film’s favor. Will Forte shows up as a bug-eyed cop who is dumber than dirt. Rosemarie DeWitt is present as Evan’s wife Abby, who is mostly there to look sexy and try to seduce him. Billy Crudup pops in as Evan’s creepy new neighbor who may be up to no good in his eerily lit basement. The last act of the film falls victim to tons of lousy CGI aliens, distracting explosions, and chaotic gunfights that are meant to riff on action movie clichés. It appears that the filmmakers suddenly remembered that they had to tie up the alien invasion plot so they just blew a bunch of stuff up and called it a day. The rest of the film resorts to clunky jokes about penises, orgies, and fellatio, all of which are complimented by classic hip-hop songs, which do nothing to make the film funnier. I will admit that I did chuckle more than a few times throughout The Watch but I only laughed hard two or three times. I should have laughed hard a hell of a lot more than that, especially with this cast of clowns at the wheel. The Watch ends up being another colossal letdown in the comedy department.
That’s My Boy (2012)
by Steve Habrat
It hasn’t even been a year since comedian Adam Sandler unleashed the rotten Jack and Jill on audiences everywhere and now he’s back with That’s My Boy, an abrasive R-rated nightmare that doesn’t posses one ounce of shame. Reckless, irresponsible, and just plain wrong, That’s My Boy is another miss in a seemingly endless string of duds from the funnyman who has only come up with a small handful of decent comedies throughout his inexplicably long career. This time, Sandler seems hell-bent on destroying the career of Andy Samberg, fellow SNL alum who seems to grow more and more ashamed of himself with each passing frame of That’s My Boy. Filling the film with the usual Happy Madison suspects, Sandler crashes in with another slurring goofball character with a speech impediment, hooting and hollering over bodily fluids, warped back tattoos, and Vanilla Ice, all while telling a story that is painfully predictable. And then Sandler springs incest on us and things go from gross to downright nauseating.
That’s My Boy begins in 1984, with seventh grader Donny Berger hooking up with one of the hottest teachers in his grade school, Mary McGarricle (Played by Eva Amurri Martino). The student/teacher affair is eventually discovered and Mary ends up pregnant and facing thirty years in prison for the affair. The young Donny is stuck with raising the baby but he also becomes an overnight celebrity because of the affair. He ends up with tons of money and neglects his child who disappears when he turns eighteen. The film then skips to present day, with the adult Donny (Played by Adam Sandler) now a broke and washed up drunk who passes time in a rundown strip club trying to relive his glory days. Donny soon discovers that he owes $43,000 to the IRS and if he doesn’t pay up quick, he is looking at three years of jail time. Desperate to stay out of jail, Donny attempts to reconnect with his son, Todd (Played by Andy Samberg), on the eve of his wedding. Donny begins trying to lure Todd into unknowingly making an appearance on a reality television special that promises Donny a check of $50,000. As Donny and Todd reconnect, Donny begins to realize what a screw-up he was as a parent.
If you can believe it, That’s My Boy runs almost two whole hours and in those two hours, the film makes one joke about bodily fluids after another. There is a seamen joke here, a urine joke there, and feces thrown in for the hell of it. It also gets stuck on the joke that Donny just can’t leave the 80s behind, driving around still fumbling with cassette tapes in a beater car with a Rush decal stamped on the hood. What screenwriter David Caspe seems to not understand is that many of these raunchy R-rated comedies are successful and resonate with so many because they have an equal amount of heart behind all the crass behavior. This heart balances out all the penis and vagina jokes that these comedies like to harp on. That’s My Boy doesn’t have that balance, which causes the film to be extremely off-putting and mean spirited. This almost seems like an excuse for Sandler to dance around and humiliate Samberg, all while making half-hearted remarks about how good of a person he truly is.
When Sandler isn’t making Samberg blush, he is busy playing Donny like a mash-up of Billy Madison, Nicky from Little Nicky, and Bobby Boucher from The Waterboy. There is nothing that is wholly original or new about his latest stammering man-child, further proving that Sandler has absolutely no range as an actor. Samberg is handed the twisted role of a man nursing childhood wounds, still haunted by humiliation he suffered at the hands of his loudmouth father. He fears taking his shirt off in public due to an embarrassing tattoo of New Kids on the Block that covers his entire back. He also suffers from diabetes, can’t ride a bicycle, and lives in fear that he may have to throw or catch a baseball. He even had to change his name from Han Solo Berger to Todd Peterson and lie to his fiancé Jamie’s (Played by Leighton Meester) parents, telling them that his parents are long dead. Near the beginning, Samberg tries hard but as the film drags on, he seems to throw in the towel, as he realizes he is powerless to prevent this train wreck.
That’s My Boy is loaded with familiar Happy Madison faces, all who are absolutely talentless and not funny in the slightest. I’m still trying to figure out why Susan Sarandon and James Caan decided to show up to this horror show. The studio must have promised them a big paycheck because there is honestly no other reason why they should be here. Meester is given very little to do outside of act like a prissy pain in the ass and boss the twitchy Samberg around. Nick Swardson gets to come hang out and play a cross-eyed redneck creep who likes to hang around the strip club that Sandler’s character frequents. Peter Dante pops up briefly as a stoner who is eerily similar to the one that he played in the mediocre Grandma’s Boy. Will Forte gets to play things ultra geeky as Todd’s best man Phil, who throws what could be the lamest bachelor party on the planet. Milo Ventimiglia gets one of the better roles as Jamie’s Marine brother Chad who is overly intense and enjoys tormenting Todd every chance he gets. Also on the guest list is Vanilla Ice, who shows up as an even more washed-up version of himself, but at least he has the good sense to wink at the audience
Overall, no matter what I say, people are still going to flock to That’s My Boy and rave about how hilarious it is. Personally, I didn’t find it the slightest bit funny and found it downright sordid. Many may be quick to say I’m being uptight but as someone who enjoys a raunchy comedy as much as the next guy, I have to say I found this one empty, stupid, and redundant. Sandler and his crew hurl one shock at us after another and frankly, some of them seem desperate and recycled (old people talking dirty, overweight strippers bearing more than we need to see, full frontal male nudity). Near the end, Sandler puts a rotten cherry on top of this unholy shit sundae by diving headfirst into incest, making things even more appalling than they already are. Rather than pushing the raunchy R-rated comedy forward a few feet and making something worthwhile, That’s My Boy takes the subgenre back several feet and then sends it right down the toilet. I think it’s time that Sandler stepped away from the comedy genre before he does anymore damage.