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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 23, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Ant-Man, Minions, Trainwreck

Yes, Ant-Man is another comic-book movie. Yes, the premise is deeply dumb. Yet as soon as I saw the promos, I had some hope that it might be a good movie.

First, it has Paul Rudd. That's always a good start. But Rudd can't do it alone. You have to have writers who can create the kind of understated deadpan comedy dialogue that Rudd is brilliant at -- and other "comic" actors can't do anything with.

You can't cast Rudd in a part written for Jim Carrey. Only some of the lines written for Steve Carell would work for Rudd. And if a script is perfect for Rudd, it's possible Carell could bring it off, but Carrey would be hopeless.

Since most professional writers are terrible at writing witty dialogue, actors are usually left to fend for themselves, and Paul Rudd has often been the victim of writers with a tin ear for how smart introverts talk. Which is odd, because writers tend to be introverts and at least a little bit verbally talented.

Since I didn't memorize the movie, I can't quote any examples. Let's just say that many of the best moments in Ant-Man are subtle humor.

And the audience laughed out loud at those moments.

That's right. A selection of Americans who attend comic-book movies actually understood and appreciated subtle wit. This is something that studio executives rarely believe. They always assume that the audience is even stupider than they are -- and since most executives are illiterate and humorless, this explains why so few truly clever scripts make it to the screen without being "fixed" by bad rewriters.

Then again, most movies don't have actors like Paul Rudd who can make understated humor work well enough for anybody to understand it.

What's the story? A mad scientist (in this case angry mad, not crazy mad) has invented a suit-and-helmet that can shrink a person down to a size where he can ride on the back of a fly. He also has a way to broadcast his thoughts to ants and other insects, and get them to obey him.

Apparently he had these things brought to fully usable form a couple of decades before, and his wife died [trivial spoiler alert] because she could only get into a nuclear missile to disable it by going extra small, which is a process that can't be stopped. So she keeps shrinking infinitely and never comes back.

For reasons that make no sense whatsoever, the mad scientist (Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas) never told his smart hot daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) how her mother died. So in their partial estrangement, Hope, as a member of the board of directors, actually voted to fire her father as head of his own company.

Now Hope works very closely with Darren Cross, a former protégé of Pym's who is finally on the verge of duplicating Pym's shrinking technology to create a devastating supersuit called "yellowjacket." Cross is going to sell this tech to some Very Bad Arms Dealers, and Must Be Stopped.

Which is where Paul Rudd's character, Scott Lang, gets involved. He's a high-tech-savvy crook who has been serving time for a Robin-Hood-like escapade in which he cat-burgled his way into a corporation's nerve center and returned a bunch of money to ordinary people they had cheated.

Now his ex-wife is trying to keep him from seeing his young daughter, who idolizes him; and her boyfriend is a cop who is grimly determined to get Lang out of their lives forever.

Meanwhile, Lang's old cellmate is trying to get him back into the high-tech cat-burgling business. (Cat burglars don't break into houses to steal cats. They sneak into buildings from roofs and upper-story windows, moving with catlike stealth. Nobody can steal a cat, since all cats own themselves. Also, it's hard to find an aftermarket for hot cats.)

That's enough plot. Let's just say that the story is clear, and it makes enough sense that we come to care whether Lang gets back into his daughter's life, and whether the bad guys are stopped in time.

Some really funny stuff happens, not just with Rudd but also with his partners in crime, played by character actors who always play bad guys but this time have a chance to show what excellent comic actors they are.

And the cop boyfriend isn't made a mindless villain. Instead, he's a decent guy who really does care about the welfare of his girlfriend and her daughter.

Everybody gives a good performance. It's Michael Douglas's best work in decades. Evangeline Lilly keeps getting better every time I see her. And Corey Stoll almost steals the movie in his star-level performance as bad guy Darren Cross.

Now that I've said all these good things about the movie -- and believe me, they make the movie worth watching -- I couldn't keep my self-respect as a science-fiction writer if I didn't point out how very, very dumb the fake science is in this movie.

The premise is that Pym's tech causes atoms to move closer together, so that things get much smaller -- and also more dense. At one point, they explain that this is why when he's tiny Ant-man can still pack a bullet-like punch.

But the corollary to this must be that if something small is made very large, it would become less dense. More marshmallow-like. So when you see a few things turn extra-large in the movie, but they still have the weight and mass to break through walls and crush things, you just have to pretend that you don't have a brain and keep watching.

The visualization of what it's like to go quantum-small is actually a lot better than the psychedelic mindscapes at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it's still utterly absurd that making atoms get closer together could allow an organism to become smaller than atoms while still maintaining coherency and function.

But that's OK. You just click your heels together and say "There's no place like home" and you can get out of any problem. I know -- I've used the method several times when wearing a superhero suit, and it never fails.

More nonsense science: If Ant-man still has all the mass of a full-size human being, there isn't a flying insect in the world that could carry him, because he would get on their back with all the force of a person stepping on that insect. Meaning his whole body would punch right through the insect, killing it.

Another huge disappointment to me is that we keep bumping into the rest of the Marvel universe. They just couldn't allow Ant-man to stand alone. He has to fight his way past a minor-level Avenger. They talk about the Avengers, which means that somehow Thor and the Hulk exist in this universe. Tony Stark's father is involved in getting Pym fired from his own company.

And by the end, you realize that poor Paul Rudd is probably under contract to play Ant-Man in the next Avengers movie, thereby depriving us of a good Paul Rudd movie, but also probably giving him a better-than-average paycheck, so ... good for him.

Never mind how hideous the sequel will probably be (remember the embarrassment called Iron Man II?). This movie is a lot of fun. Way more fun than the Avengers: Age of Ultron extravaganza that caused our eyes to glaze over last spring.

It's kind of sad that most of Hollywood's money now goes into making comic-book and other franchise movies, in which it's only a happy accident when a script is worth filming. But with the death of the once-huge DVD market (people are streaming and downloading now), the huge aftermarket is gone, and those $200 million budgets are being replaced by $30 million budgets for a different kind of film.

You know, the kind with a script. And sometimes a film that never needs a green screen.

Ten years ago, everybody in Hollywood knew that the $30 million film was dead. It was $100 million-plus or indies under $10 million. Nothing in between.

Now in-between is coming back. Most of those will, of course, be schlock comedies like the Hangover franchise and Bridesmaids, but a few good movies will probably sneak through. Can't wait.

*

Speaking of good movies sneaking through, I'm sad to say that Minions isn't one of them.

It's not a horrible movie. The minions are really cute. And the ubiquitous placement of minion memes all over the Internet has clearly demonstrated their enduring appeal.

Here's why the movie is so boring: The writer, Brian Lynch, forgot the whole point of what the minions are supposed to be.

The premise of the minions is that they are Inspector Clouseau, well-meaning incompetents who are desperate to help, but end up wrecking everything while coming out completely unscathed themselves.

Lynch did a good job of creating truly delightful dialogue for the minions -- there are enough Spanish and Italian words in the mix for real comprehension to seem just out of reach whenever the minions talk.

And the animators are terrific -- so many great sight gags.

The opening of the movie demonstrates the premise, with minions seeking to serve the most powerful being they can find and inadvertently killing it.

But then we come to modern times, and the script completely loses its way. We're told that the character of Scarlet Overkill is the most powerful criminal in the world -- but never, not for an instant, do we see her behave in a way that would justify that reputation.

And what is the maguffin, the thing she's out to steal? The crown of the Queen of England. And then the movie assumes that if you have the crown and put it on, everybody treats you as the legitimate king or queen. Since this doesn't even work for the real queen of England today, it's obviously stupid.

So the whole thing feels trivial and pointless. The "master" criminal is obviously stupid, but worse, so is everybody in the movie.

"Oh, but it's a comedy!" Yeah, but comedies have to give us a place to stand and something to care about. There has to be some island of reality where we can get our bearings.

In fact, a good writing teacher (they exist, really) once told me that a comedy can have a silly main character, a silly objective, or silly obstacles, but only one of these or, in a farce, two. A minions movie was going to have a silly main character (the minions) no matter what, so we needed to have something and someone semi-plausible for them to work for.

The original Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau movies did that. Clouseau was bumbling his way through a world of regular people, and the crimes were reasonably plausible.

But Minions loses track of its core: Partway through the film, the minions stop trying to help the most powerful person. They resume that idea near the end, but most of the action has ignored that rule, making it impossible to care.

The minions themselves are so cute that you keep watching the way you keep munching on popcorn long after you aren't hungry anymore. You won't hate yourself for watching the whole thing.

But as you leave the theater, you'll almost certainly feel a vague disappointment that with the wonderful minions to work with, this was the movie they came up with.

*

There are actors that I really dislike watching on the screen. For many years, Meryl Streep led that list, because I never saw a moment of honest performance from her. As Katharine Hepburn summed it up, when Streep acted, "you can see the gears turning."

In recent years, however, she has become more natural, less calculated. Or I've gotten used to her. Or my standards have slipped.

I don't go to Will Ferrell movies, because Will Ferrell is in them. I have never, for a single moment, found him either funny or believable in any performance. His presence in every sketch made me stop watching Saturday Night Live.

Apparently a vast number of Americans can't get enough of him. Sometimes when I'm late-night flipping, every channel on Time Warner Cable has his face on it and I wonder if I died and went to hell.

But actors on my do-not-watch list have occasionally surprised me. For example, I thought there were Lego figures that had more expression than Andie MacDowell. I didn't understand who was casting her, and why. And Bill Murray fell short of being as loathsome as Will Ferrell only because he didn't seem to care whether we liked him or not.

In other words, Murray was Will Ferrell diluted by Dean Martin.

Yet one of my favorite movies of all time is Groundhog Day, which absolutely depends on the audience caring whether Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell end up together. When two inert gases are put in the same tube, nothing is supposed to happen. But Harold Ramis as writer-director worked some kind of magic with Pembroke Herring in the editing room, and Groundhog Day became wonderful.

Lazy critics are supposed to say that Trainwreck has a self-reviewing title. The trouble is that it wouldn't be true. Trainwreck is actually a wonderful romantic comedy -- if you can overlook a plethora of f-words and sexual situations and discussions that will embarrass you if you watch this movie with either your parents or your adult children.

Please remember I said that, because I don't want anybody yelling at me because I recommended such an offensive movie. I'm telling you now. It's offensive.

But, unlike most comedies since Something About Mary, the "offensive" bits are not inserted for cheap laughs or shock value. They are simply part of the character of "Amy," played by Amy Schumer. She is the "trainwreck" of the title, and all the offensive things are there because they're part of her life.

With an alcoholic philandering father, she and her sister grew up very differently. Kim, played by Brie Larson, whom I last saw in ... um, never ... is luminous. She has married a dweebish unhunk of a man, Tom, played with humor and honesty by Mike Birbiglia. He has a lisping son named Allister (the wonderful Evan Brinkman), who is quite willing to be Amy's friend.

But Amy has no idea how to treat a child decently. She's much more comfortable with her dying father (Colin Quinn), who is still a complete jerk. Amy is pretty much living the same life he lived.

She's the female version of the ladies' man who can't commit. Sleepovers are out of the question. No second dates. Completely selfish in bed and in every other location.

She's a writer working for the staff of a magazine whose boss (Tilda Swinton) is funnier and more terrible than Streep's character in The Devil Wears Prada. But she's the boss that Amy deserves, or thinks she deserves.

Another staff member pitches the idea of doing a story on a surgeon who works with top professional athletes, and the editor gives the assignment to Amy, specifically because she explains how much she hates sports.

The movie is about Amy and the doctor, Aaron, played gloriously by Bill Hader. He's refreshingly naive. And we immediately like him and Amy together, because neither one has the faintest idea of who the other one is.

Aaron hangs out with LeBron James, played by LeBron James. In fact, that's one of the coolest things about this movie: the celebrities who make idiots of themselves. Matthew Broderick and Chris Evert and Marv Albert play parodies of themselves that are so offensive that they only work because they themselves are saying the words.

There are two reasons why I compare this movie to Groundhog Day. Not because it's going to be a classic you watch every year -- I doubt that -- but because it's a movie about growing up. Not because you fall in love, but because you actually see yourself and want to be someone else. That works so well I got tears in my eyes often enough to be embarrassing.

(I wasn't the only one; the group sitting near me had a couple of members who admitted to crying.)

The other reason I compare it to Groundhog Day is because it not only stars Amy Schumer, it was also written by Amy Schumer. So it's one person's vision, the way Groundhog Day was Harold Ramis's vision.

I gave her Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer several tries, and never found a moment that was amusing, interesting, or, in fact, bearable. I found Schumer herself to be charisma-free, and the writing charmless. When I saw her on a "roast" program -- where nobody else knew who she was, either -- I found her contribution to be mean and humorless.

How can I put this plainly? She was not offensive the way Quentin Tarantino and Lena Dunham are -- those two are so filled with un-earned self-admiration that I can't stand to watch them on a talk show. Nor was she as awful as Will Ferrell, because it never looked like she was even trying to be amusing. She was just, well, sad.

Until the night before the opening of Trainwreck, when she came on Late Night with Seth Meyers. I was too tired to switch away. Wisely, they opened with a clip from Trainwreck and, to my surprise, it was amusing. Moreover, it felt truthful -- all about the annoyances of having a clingy bedmate. So I kept watching, and ...

And Amy Schumer was likeable and funny. This was probably because she was conversing with Seth Meyers, who is, apparently, an actual friend of hers. But for the first time I caught a glimpse of Amy Schumer being someone who might be worth investing an hour in.

So on Friday night, I went to an early showing of Ant-Man, the movie I actually expected to like. Then I had dinner at Burger Warfare and walked back to the Red Cinemas in time to catch an 8:40 showing of Trainwreck.

By the way, Red Cinemas' concept of having several restaurants and a theater multiplex all in a row is a great one. I had a perfect parking place -- on the curb right where the ticket office is -- and so I left the car there and walked to and from a good quick dinner.

(You can't even do that at the Regal at Friendly Center, because the decent food places are all like three or four times farther away.)

Anyway, I got there in time for the previews -- the exact same ones shown before Ant-Man, which struck me as odd because the audiences are so different. (One of the strangers sitting nearby commented on how some of the previews were for movies so serious -- a documentary on a guy framed for murder and that movie about the Army dog who comes to live with his handler's brother -- that it almost killed the idea of a comedy for him.)

The opening of Trainwreck, with two young girls in their driveway listening to their father (Colin Quinn) do an absolutely brilliant monologue on why monogamy is impossible, absolutely set the mood. And then, to my delight, this movie was not trying to be Bridesmaids, which is like the poster child for trying way too hard. Instead, the writing ... was ... good.

I don't just mean that it was funny. There was plenty of humor in it, but all of it -- all of it -- arose out of character and situation so you never thought that anything was in the movie just for the sake of the gag.

I include the projectile vomiting during knee surgery. Earned laugh. Honest spew.

The scene where the surgeon hasn't slept the night before the surgery, and the patient, who is already getting the forget-everything drug dripped into his i.v., realizes that he's got to cancel this surgery now or he'll never walk again -- it's hilarious, but at no moment is anybody "playing for laughs." They maintain the reality.

I might be tempted to give director Judd Apatow the credit for this, and he certainly didn't wreck it, but Amy Schumer has sole writing credit on this, and let's face it, when you look at Judd Apatow's filmography, I can't find a single film that I actually cared about.

No, this is Amy Schumer's baby from beginning to end. She wrote most of the lines. She created all the characters and relationships. And here's an absolute fact about writing: It's hard to make a character grow up in a script if you haven't grown up yourself.

Not only that, but also Schumer knows how to write generously. Think for a moment of the way Streisand directed Prince of Tides. During Nick Nolte's big dramatic "reveal" scene, the camera is on Streisand. Yep -- Nolte could have literally phoned in his part and the camera wouldn't have noticed.

Schumer could have written the relationship with Dr. Aaron so that Bill Hader barely existed. Think of the way Whitney Houston was the only character who actually existed in The Preacher's Wife -- that's how it's usually done when one of the actors has total control over the script.

Or Bill Hader's character could have been the inevitable loser, the way John Goodman's character always lost to Roseanne's in Roseanne -- because she had script control.

But no. Bill Hader is given a chance to play a wonderful character perfectly. He gets tons of screen time when Schumer isn't even there. His scenes with LeBron James are especially brilliant. Their game of one-on-one basketball is worth the price of admission. (Except that it got shown on the talk show circuit, so we already saw it for free.)

By the end of this movie, I really cared about the character "Amy" -- and her sister, her sister's family, and, above all, her relationship with Dr. Aaron. I know that the rough language and sexual situations will stop some people from seeing this movie, and I can't even disagree with you. But not one of those rough elements is wrong for this movie. I can't imagine how it could have been made without them.

There's a bonus jewel hidden inside Trainwreck -- a black-and-white indie film that we see three snippets from. The film, entitled Dogwalker, has only two characters, played by Marisa Tomei and Daniel Radcliffe.

Yeah, you heard me right. And these aren't cameos like Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis at the end of The Player. They're acting their hearts out in a script that is deeply stupid -- but in precisely the way that real bad indie films are stupid. That is, Dogwalker doesn't know it's a stupid movie, and Tomei and Radcliffe play it as if they didn't know it was stupid.

Which is exactly right. It's hard to think of a thing in this movie that isn't exactly right -- for the moving, funny, truthful story that Amy Schumer wanted to tell. Don't see it. It might make you think Amy Schumer is wise and talented and good.

*

It's my new favorite people-being-dumb-in-public story right now. At a popular New York play, Hand to God (in which the main character has long conversations in his home with the sock puppet he wears on his hand), a member of the audience actually came onstage and tried to plug his phone into an outlet on the wall of the stage set.

Of course, it was only a dummy outlet -- it had no electricity connected to it -- but the astonishing thing was that an audience member was so completely unaware of theatre etiquette that he thought that he could go on the stage at all.

The stage manager spoke over the theater's public address system and said, "Please do not get on the stage. We do not come into your home and sit on your furniture, and it is, of course, a non-working outlet. If you come on the stage again, the police will be called."

And the rest of the audience heckled the idiot when a crew member returned his phone to him.

Theater behavior has to be learned -- which usually means it has to be taught. Why do you think theater chains spend so much money coming up with more-or-less entertaining ways of telling you to turn off your phones and not text during the movie?

It's even more important in live theatre. We've heard plenty of horror stories about people who answered the phone during a play, and right there at their seat carried on a conversation. Actors have been known to stop the play and wait for ushers to remove the offender.

As Steven Boyer, the lead actor in the play, said, "People should just know that we can see them. The audience may be judging the actors onstage; we're judging the audience just as much. And when your face lights up with a blue light and you're texting, and you think you're not disturbing anyone, you're disturbing the people onstage."

I read about this in (and got all my quotes from) The Hollywood Reporter, which includes a video of a portion of the event. Of course, the existence of that video indicates that other people had active smartphones at that point, too.


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