Mon 27 Oct 2014
Lynn Shelton’s latest lags behind her other films. Plus, reviews of Force Majeure and the new-to-DVD Million Dollar Arm.
The most surprising thing about Laggies isn’t that its director, Lynn Shelton, has finally made the full-fledged leap from microbudget mumblecore indies to star-powered mainstream comedies. It’s the idea that anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to her career in the past few years would be surprised by this development. Since her 2009 breakthrough feature, Humpday, Shelton has taken advantage of every opportunity to elevate her profile within the industry, from directing episodes of popular TV shows like New Girl and Mad Men to trading her no-name ensembles for famous faces like Emily Blunt, Ellen Page and now, Keira Knightley. And who can blame her, really? Finding longevity, to say nothing of an audience, in the film business requires no small degree of compromise and Shelton has been nothing if not honest about her desire to see her work reach the largest possible viewership, while still holding onto some of the themes and ideas that drive her to tell stories. She’s not so much selling out as she is reaching out, trying to put her wares in front of moviegoers who would sooner be caught dead than visit their local art-house.
And, in many ways, Laggies feels like a classic Shelton vehicle in that it once again chronicles the seriocomic strivings of a disaffected, maturity-challenged protagonist to arrive at some kind of equilibrium. That’s the description of any number of indie comedy-drama hybrids, of course, but Shelton has a particular interest in that personality type, as well as the succor they seek from the friends and family in their immediate vicinity. Humpday, for example, turned on Mark Duplass’ desire to reassert his latent alpha male authority in the most extreme way possible, while Your Sister’s Sister found him playing a largely similar character, albeit one weighed down by grief as opposed to a crisis of masculinity. In the case of Megan, the central character in Laggies, her hang up is a refusal to grow up, preferring to drift along in the same state of quasi-independence she’s existed in since graduating high school. All major decisions are left up to those around her—her parents, her friends, her longtime boyfriend—allowing her to focus on what she really wants: to lounge about, putting the world on hold.
This leads to the second-most surprising thing about Laggies: it’s not a project that originated with Shelton. Instead, it’s the first produced screenplay by author Andrea Seigel, one that Shelton happened to spark to and agreed to make. In return, she received her largest budget to date and her most star-packed ensemble, which, in addition to Knightley, includes Sam Rockwell and Chloë Grace Moretz as the respective father/daughter unit Megan hangs out with when she temporarily flees her old life after finally being forced to make a decision about something more than what take-out joint to order from. The emotional arc that Megan plays out from there—from immaturity to maturity and back and forth again—is a predictable and not especially convincing one, although the cast gamely goes through the motions for their director, who at least keeps the proceedings moving smoothly along. Rockwell in particular alleviates some of the narrative tedium and his off-kilter presence goads Knightley into making some unpredictable performance choices as well. For better and for worse, Laggies represents the culmination of Shelton’s recent career path—it’s a solid, but undistinguished piece of commercial cinema that provides her with the wider audience she’s been seeking, even if she ultimately doesn’t have very much to say.
With Force Majeure, on the other hand, Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund perhaps has too much to say. An even more pointed (and, in some ways, comical) treatise on masculine insecurity than Humpday, the film explores the fall-out that occurs after a nuclear family of four endures a frightening experience—an avalanche—on their ski holiday, one that sends the patriarch screaming for the hills, while his wife and two children stay behind to fend for themselves. Fortunately, the crisis turns out to be fairly minor and the father returns sheepishly two minutes later when the coast is clear, but the damage has been done and is further compounded by his refusal to acknowledge his behavior in the aftermath of the incident. What Force Majeure does exceptionally well is chart the emerging fault lines in a marriage where both husband and wife have had their images of each other entirely upended. What it does less well, at least for me, is depict the way men act when they’re together. A few days into their vacation, the family is joined by the husband’s best buddy, vacationing with his new, much younger girlfriend after splitting with his wife at some point in the recent past. After being all but assaulted with this story, the second couple experiences their own rift and the two men go off to lick their wounds and act like they’ve got nothing to be ashamed about. But that relationship never feels quite as nuanced and lived-in as the one between the husband and wife, which leaves those scenes feeling more schematic—it’s a case of the director speaking for his characters instead of speaking through them. But that avalanche sequence offers two of the best minutes you’ll see in theaters this year.
Million Dollar Arm
Just as Mad Men star January Jones showed the limitations of her range when she gamely attempted to host Saturday Night Live, her former on-screen husband from that show, Jon Hamm, reveals that inspirational sports movies aren’t his bag. Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm (newly out on DVD) casts Hamm as a down-on-his-luck sports agent who gambles his future on a crazy idea: making a pilgrimage to India and returning with two crickets players that have the right stuff for a career in major league baseball. The first hour of the movie is hoary cross-cultural comedy, with the transplanted American looking on in bemused horror at the exotic surroundings he finds himself in. The second half shifts back to America, where the transplanted Indians wrestle with their own culture shock, while also attempting to adapt to an entirely different sport. Million Dollar Arm is rife with allusions to other sports movies—Jerry Maguire, The Natural and even The Bad News Bears to name just three—which is probably why it never establishes its own identity. The same goes for its star, who is as flat and bland here as he is complex and multi-faceted on Mad Men. Obviously, that show boasts better writing to begin with, but it also deploys one of Hamm’s chief talents as an actor—his ability to play against the matinee idol image his face and features suggest. (That’s also one of the reasons he excels in sketch comedy situations like SNL.) Million Dollar Arm forces him to be that matinee idol and, as a result, he couldn’t seem less like a star.
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