Movie Reviews by Paul Preston and Steven Lewis
Reviews in alphabetical order
BRUCE ALMIGHTY – **
It would be difficult to find someone who is more in awe of Jim Carrey’s talents than I am. If you want to criticize him by saying he mugs and overacts, go ahead – you’re right. But he has elevated mugging to such an art form, and within that over-the-top area he applies such a precision and a finely-honed control that he makes it a thing of beauty. Anyone is free not to like him or his movies (and I understand you), but you must – MUST! – acknowledge his prodigious talent. (A good analogy might run thus: I don’t particularly care for musicals, or for Gene Kelley in general, yet it simply wouldn’t do to deny what an incredible and inventive performer he is.)
As such, I’ve enjoyed all of Carrey’s comedies on some level; even when the story or premise is lame, he is never less than riveting and hilarious to watch. So it surprised me somewhat when, very early in Bruce Almighty, I caught myself thinking two distinct thoughts: 1) Someone else should be playing this role and 2) Jim seems really DESPERATE up there.
To tackle the second point first: Carrey desperate. ‘How can you tell?’ a Jim detractor might scoff. After all, he always runs roughshod over everything in sight, and works desperately to be the life of the party. True, but up until now he has always played (in his comedies, anyhow) characters that were so over the top, and in movies that were pitched at such a heightened level anyway, that his wildness was not only at home in the material, but completely appropriate. In Bruce, he finally takes on what is essentially an `ordinary guy.’ And you know what? Jim just can’t do ordinary.
He wants to flail, he wants to scream, he wants to bounce off the walls! And as Ace Ventura, or the Mask, or even his so-slimy-he’s-sublime lawyer in Liar Liar, we want him to as well. But in this movie, his rubber-faced antics were not endemic to the character, but rather seemed grafted on, in order to give the audience their `silly Jim Carrey’ fix. Hence, the seeming desperation: every opportunity was taken to insert familiar schtick, whether appropriate or not (and it usually wasn’t), causing it to look – for the first time – like the performer was actually doing his best IMPERSONATION of Jim Carrey, rather than having it all flow naturally from the situations and the character.
And herein we come up against the (current) limitations of Jim Carrey as a performer. He does not play well with others. In no movie I have ever seen of his does he do even an adequate job of being an ensemble player. The other actors exist for him simply as props, not as people to play off of or draw inspiration from (yes, even in his so-called `dramatic’ films – which is why none of them were any good, save for The Truman Show, which had masterful directing and an indestructible premise going for it). That being the case, he cannot simply settle back into a character and take part in the ebb and flow of a scene – he perpetually feels a need to `make something happen’ and so strains, even against the grain, to be big, brassy and memorable. And as I’ve said – this is no crime when applied to the type of human cartoons he has heretofore played. But when it’s done in the service of someone who’s supposed to come across (at least nominally) as a real person, it feels fraudulent in the worst kind of way.
I would have enjoyed this movie more (for, it does have a good premise and some clever bits) had the lead character been played by someone like Ben Stiller or Matthew Perry (on the young side) or, say, Tim Allen or Bill Murray (on the older side) – someone who can balance humorous riffs against a capacity for both subtlety and self-deprecation. (Actually, it would have been most perfect for the ‘80s version of Tom Hanks, who was capable of infusing yuppie smarm into a character, yet mixing in just enough of an essential sweetness to keep him sympathetic. And, of course, hilarious. Will we ever see that Tom again?)
Morgan Freeman as God, though, is a hoot. Yeah, I could really get behind a Heaven that had HIM in charge! In the scenes with he and Carrey, he just wipes the floor with ol’ Jim; it’s like he’s giving an object lesson to the young whippersnapper in how you get laughs while remaining composed, and not relinquishing your essential humanity (or, in this case, divinity).
I don’t know, man. If I were giving career advice to Jim Carrey, I’d tell him to either play to his strengths by sticking with the loony, larger-than-life roles – or, if he really wants to stretch and be serious (even if it be `serious comedy’ such as this), then he needs to settle down and learn how to truly interact with other people. Far be it from me to clip his wings – I love him in the stratosphere – but if he’s determined to expand his repertoire, then he needs to develop a new set of skills. Enough awkward hybrids like Bruce Almighty, and he’ll be yesterday’s news.
THE RECRUIT (***)
Welcome, Colin Ferrell. I always question a big star’s “arrival” as to whether it’s worthy or not. Gwyneth Paltrow was on the cover of every glamour mag in the world while in the midst of a 10 crap film run. Finally, her hype was justified with “Shakespeare in Love”. When Gretchen Mol was in “Rounders”, she was splashed all over the place. Yet, I’m still waiting for her to really impress. Colin Ferrell couldn’t be a hotter topic right now, but the good news is that his performance is worth the hype. He’s a solid leading man with a good look, sense of humor and brimming with confidence. Teamed with a non-constantly-screaming Al Pacino (that’s certainly the better of the two Pacino’s currently getting cast in films). The plot is a bit too cool for its own good, so constantly reminding you that “nothing is what it seems” that you don’t extend your belief for shit half way through the movie. That doesn’t mean the script is lame. There are smart spy twists all over, and it remains a fairly plausible adventure throughout. It’s just a shame that it’s hell bent on reminding you to be skeptical. Technically, “The Recruit” is slick and fun, with high-tech gadgetry, shiny, metallic production design, and hip dialogue. I found it exciting and well-paced. I hope future Colin Ferrell projects don’t suck.
SHANGHAI KNIGHTS (**1/2)
The charm in this Owen Wilson/Jackie Chan sequel doesn’t come as easily as it did in “Shanghai Noon”. In “Knights”, Wilson and Chan travel to England to avenge the death of Jackie’s father and retrieve one of China’s precious jewels. More culture-clash jokes abound, but many of Wilson’s lines fall flat, and there are many references to our heroes bumping into famous people and events that seem forced. It seems as if the writer and director were nervous in the face of recapturing the magic of the original film. That being said, I would certainly go to “Shanghai Dusk” or “Shanghai Times” or whatever movie they put out next, ‘cause I did enjoy watching these two and their crazy adventures. As with every Jackie Chan movie, the bad plotting is saved by incredible fight scenes. Jackie floats through four or five major brawls that are as inventive as ever, with Jackie making weaponry out of umbrellas, and ladder and a revolving door. But even the umbrella fight is accompanied by Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” as if we wouldn’t see that it resembled Kelly’s famous dance on our own. Again, I think the filmmakers were more nervous than they needed to be. More confidence seemed to be behind the first film. To sum up, it’s enjoyable, but like most sequels, suffers inevitable comparison to the first, and hits below the sweet spot just a touch.