Friends with Kids – Review

Friends with Kids (2011) 

Directed by Jennifer Westfeldt. Starring: Jennifer WestfeldtAdam ScottJon HammKristen WiigMaya RudolphChris O’DowdMegan FoxEdward Burns

Making a good romantic comedy is not as easy as you might think. Comedies in general  have always been the overlooked genre when it comes to recognition or even awards: there is a certain (unfair) snobbery about them and an even greater misconception: because they talk about lighter subjects than, let’s say, the holocaust or war or cancer (just to mention the few obvious ones), we should not consider them as serious films…  Obviously calling them “rom-com” doesn’t quite helped their case either…

Isn’t it incredible that people still look at the 50s and 60s for the favourite comedies (Some like it Hot or the Apartment)? Or that we still quote those classic Woody Allen movies from the 70s? And when asked about the best rom-com (there you, I’m saying that too!) many will go back 23 years to that little jewel of a movie called When Harry Met Sally. It’s not surprising then to see writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt going back to exactly those types for her directorial debut.

Friends with Kids owes a lot the best Wood Allen (nowadays we must specify ‘best’, as there’s good Woody and dreadful Woody), both in its settings (New York, of course) and in the sharp and witty dialogue exchanges. But there are lots of echoes from When Harry Met Sally too, in fact it could almost be called “When Harry and Sally had a kid“. But while in Rob Reiner‘s classic the question was “Can a man and a woman be friends without sex getting in the way?”, in Friends with kids the question gets updated to “Can a man and a woman have a child, without getting stuck into the trappings of married life?”.

The actual premise and the excuse for the film is definitely rather out-fetched, gimmicky and to a degree it might feel a bit forced, but if you’re willing to go with it, what you’ll find beyond is an incredibly well-observed and smart piece of comedy about the painful truths of parenthood, about getting older, about responsibilities and friendship.

Westfeldt relies more on her characters and their dialogue to make us smile, or cry, or simply think, as opposed to resorting on cheap gags, or shots of cute babies (well OK, you get a couple of those too… But you get my point). This is an actors’ film, first and foremost and the cast is truly impeccable.

Adam Scott had already shown what he could do with the underrated (and rather harsh and depressing) HBO series Tell Me You Love Me: in this film he makes a potentially unlikable and tricky character, warm, sympathetic and charismatic.

However the film is also packed with other characters, which once again remind us of Harry and Sally’s types of friends: these are all people rooted into the real world, instantly recognizable to anyone struggling to find love before the clock runs out, anyone dating, anyone who’s been married for a long time, anyone who’s had kids or who’s about to have some. Like in the real world, there’s no black and white here: each relationship in the film feels true, people are not simply bad or good, they fall in and out of love, they come and go in and out of your life.

Everybody is perfect, even if they just appear in a few scenes. Jon Hamm shines, as he always does, and makes the most of his tiny role, even Edward Burns manages to be incredibly likeable and there’s even a surprisingly turn from Megan Fox, who shows she’s not just a pretty face… and body, and legs.. and… OK well, you get it.

It all comes to a head during an excruciating dinner sequence with no less than 8 people sitting around a table, which is not just beautifully directed and skilfully handled, but also it’s where the film really shows its cards and goes beyond the simple rom-com boundaries.

It’s interesting to see this film only a few weeks away from the clichè-riddled What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Both stories essentially tackle the same issues, but while WTEWURE goes for the easy Hollywood way (i.e. schmaltzy, A-list packed-cast, cheap jokes and so on), this one takes its time to work around its characters and aims at reaching a much more mature audience: it’s not just the situation that feels real but way the characters behaves in that particular situation.

Unfortunately there are some slips here and there: the excessive and unnecessary vulgarity of some of the dialogue does feel a bit forced and some jokes to do with kids seem to belong to a different kind of film (It’s “Three men and a Baby” territory, more than Annie Hall‘s)… And the ending might make some people cringe a little bit… However most of Friends with Kids is so honest and balanced that it feels wrong be harsh about it. In an age where good romantic comedies are so rare (they only come once every two years, if we are lucky!) we should treasure films like these, which at least try to be a little bit more intelligent and step away from the clichés of the genre.

7.5/10 

Check out my review of What To Expect When You’Re Expecting

Bridesmaids – Review

Bridesmaids (2011) 

Directed by Paul Feig. Starring Kristen WiigTerry CrewsJessica St. Clair 

After those terrible bridal icecold showers like “Bride War” or  Runaway Bride or even “Father of the Bride 2” you might forgive me for going into the theatre with a sense of dread… expecting the worse: a chick-flick with bride in the title is usually a synonymous for shamefully bad film and basically a recipe for disaster!

Well, I am happy report that my fears were unfounded and that I was plainly wrong! This might be the exception that confirms the rule.

Yes, it is about the usual 30-something women going through a life-crisis and yes, it is about weddings, finding the right dress, being without a boyfriend and so on, but believe me it’s not half as empty or insulting as most of the movies out there (especially “Sex in the City 2”). In fact for the most part it avoids all the usual female stereotypes as it embraces situations which could easily be played by a male ensemble. But most crucially, it manages to be both rude and over the too and yet heartfelt and cute at the same time.

Some of the set pieces don’t always work as they should and some of the laughs are a bit of a hit-and-miss (the stuff with the room-mates, for example, is very flat and unfunny and ends up being completely redundant) and considering that the film is a touch too long, they should have probably made some trims here and there.

The moment everybody will be talking about is obviously the one involving some various bodily fluids, which is indeed quite funny and lavishly gross (as we’ve come to expect from a Judd Apatow production), however  it is actually the smaller, low-key moments and even more dramatic episodes in the film that make it worthwhile: the tender scenes with the policemen, the shared unspoken history of friendship between the brides and bridesmaid, the relationship between mother and daughter, and of course the depiction of the handsome narcissist and incredibly creepy (and funny!) Jon Hamm (“I really want you to leave but I don’t know how to tell you”).

The director, Paul Weig has made his name working on TV shows like “Nurse Betty“, “The Office“, “Weeds” and even Arrested Development , all very good shows which interestingly seem to share the same mix of rude humor, touching drama, uncomfortable moments and great acting: a blend which he was able to translate onto the big screen.

The whole thing gets elevated by the very good ensemble cast led by  Kristen Wiig who brings enough sensibility to make her character likable and strangely believable, despite the absurd situations. She can be both extremely funny and very touching at the same time in the same way Felicity Huffman from Desperate Housewives is (in fact she did remind me of her a lot). Hopefully we’ll see more of her in the future.

Bridesmaids is certainly not groundbreaking, nor is a game-changer in comedy movie history, but at least it gives back some credibility and integrity to this type of films and in this never-ending season of too-many-sequels, tired franchise and un-funny sterile and unoriginal comedies (Hangover 2 just to mention the most recent one), it is quite refreshing to find one that not only makes you laugh but at the same time it makes you care for the characters on the screen (I don’t think I am asking for too much, am I?!).

7/10

 And talking about bad comedies: check out my review of  THE DILEMMA

Howl – Review

Howl (2010) 

Directed by Rob EpsteinJeffrey Friedman. Starring James FrancoMary-Louise ParkerJon HammJeff DanielsTreat WilliamsDavid StrathairnBob Balaban.

I went into “Howl” really wanting to like it. Maybe because I had heard it was a film that tried to do something different, or maybe because I’ve always liked Allen Ginsberg’s poetry or maybe even because in the last few months I have started to think James Franco is one of the most interesting new actors around.

On paper this sounded like the dream film for me. However, leaving the theatre I couldn’t help feeling a sense of disappointment for the failed attempt that it is.

In the end “Howl”  is just a bit of a mess… I can now see why it took so long to be released here in the UK (they’re probably hoping to cash in on the back of James Franco’s notoriety with 127 Hours).

The film is essentially a biopic, not of a person, but of a poem (That by itself is a pretty new concept). How did the poem came about, when it was written and the controversy it caused… And obviously the poem itself.

The directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, are mostly known for their documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet. In fact this film too was originally intended as a straight documentary. The decision for the change was due to fact that apparently there is very little material  of Ginsberg himself as a young person, during the time Howl was conceived.

This a certainly not a very conventional film: apparently every word and every scene has been drawn from existing material, whether from interviews, accounts, articles, court transcripts and so on. It follows several different strands and jump through several timelines. A real collage of different stories each with their own different style, pace and music and all put together sometimes in a seemingly random fashion: almost like a film within a film… within a film.

There are several different sides to the film.

There’s Ginsberg himself, beautifully and carismatically played by James Franco, as he’s being interviewed by a faceless reporter. This section has a sort of late 60s look in its greenish-tinted color However as he talks about his life, there are flashbacks to his life, all filmed in black and white. These are the ones who feel more superficial, even though are potentially the most interesting one and certainly the most cinematic ones. Unfortunately they’re too sporadic, too brief and the constant interruption and voice over  somehow alienates its audience and makes it really hard to emotionally engage with any of it. In the end, I can’t help feeling that this part only really scratches the surface.

The other layer in the film is the obscenity trial which in 1957  tried to ban the publication of the poem and prosecuted its publisher. This is the most straightforward part of “Howl”, filmed like a court room drama and focusing on the arguments between the prosecutor (played by David Strathairn) and the defense lawyer (Jon Hamm), though the testimonies of a series of  mainly pompous and prejudiced witnesses from Jeff Daniels to Mary Louise-Parker. It is in a way the most engaging and interesting part of the film too also it shows you how far away that 1957 now is.

Finally, there’s the poem itself: some of  which is performed by James Franco in a club to a group of people in complete awe, but most of it is depicted with semi-abstract animated pieces peppered throughout the movie.

This is the more “showy” part of the film and the most “arty” too (in the worse sense of the word) in my view.

There’s a line at some point in the film, during the trial where somebody says “Sir, you can’t explain poetry, this is why it’s poetry”. Well, the film-makers should have probably listen to their own script a little bit more carefully and follow the advice.

The moment the poem is visualized the film fails as it limits it, shrinks it and trivializes it.

In the end the James Franco is the saving grace of the “Howl”. The blend of styles and the several strands of story are just too ambitious. The film feels over-crammed with things and I can’t help thinking it would have worked a lot better if the film-makers had chosen a simpler way to tell the story, without succumbing to arty devices.

6/10

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