Blended

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Genre: Romantic Comedy 

Director: Frank Coraci

Writer: Ivan Menchell, Clare Sera

Cast: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Terry Crews, Kevin Nealon, Wendi McLendon-Cobey, Bella Thorne, Joel McHale, Abdoulaye N’Gom, Jessica Lowe, Braxton Beckham, Emma Fuhrmann, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Kyle Red Silverstein, Zak Henri, Shaquille O’Neal, Dan Patrick, Jacqueline Sandler, Jared Sandler

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: After a disastrous blind date, single parents Lauren (Drew Barrymore) and Jim (Adam Sandler) agree on only one thing: they never want to see each other again. But when they each sign up separately for a fabulous family vacation with their kids, they are all stuck sharing a suite at a luxurious African safari resort for a week.

Review: Blended would have been a far better movie if it focused on the romance between the lead actors, rather than trying to milk each scene for maximum laughs (and failing more than half the time). This is the third time Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore have been paired together in a romantic comedy, and the decade apart has not diminished the duo’s chemistry – in fact, the film works solely because of the strength of this pairing. Whilst Blended is a serviceable film at its best moments, there are a fair number of issues that plague the movie. It’s a far better film than Sandler’s recent output, but since we’re talking about movies like Grown Ups 2 and Jack and Jill, that is a really low bar to begin with.

Blended runs at close to 2 hours, running long for a romantic comedy that breaks no new ground. Much of this is due to a really extended expositionary setup, running over 40 minutes, to (over)explain how the unlikely couple and assorted offspring gets “blended” in Africa. Save for the disastrous first date (almost entirely played out in the trailer, unfortunately), this could possibly be one of the most boring lead-ups I’ve seen in any Adam Sandler movie. Things start moving along at a better pace once everyone is in Africa, but even then the narrative for the movie is very loose, with the rest of the film presented almost in vignette style. There’s a surfeit of subplots, and again nothing that hasn’t been seen before – the tomboy daughter, the son that needs a father figure in his life, the ex-husband that never really goes away… The list goes on.

Despite being filmed in Africa, there is very little actual purpose served by having the cast situated in the exotic locale. There are some scenes of the African savannah landscape and various wild animals, but the Africans are definitely given short shrift, seemingly present in the film only as serfs to the “colonial masters”. The worst offender of all is Terry Crews, who leads what seems like a sleazy African take on a Greek chorus. There’s absolutely no purpose served in all of his scenes, and they can all be removed without impacting the movie in the least. Crews is just part of the attempt to do comedy in the film, and while there are scenes that are amusing, much of it ends up falling rather flat. At least to Sandler’s credit there are zero scenes that involve farting, pooping or vomiting (ok there’s one pissing scene but it’s actually pretty tastefully done).

It’s a thankful thing that the scenes with Sandler and Barrymore do much better, and that there are a good number of these in Blended. The duo shares an easy chemistry, and the casual banter between the two are far more humourous and enjoyable than much of the forced comedy the audience is forced to endure. Barrymore may not be playing a very deep or complex character here, but Sandler is at his best when the two share the screen. It may not be the most obvious romantic pairing around, but it works. Though it’s easily the weakest of the trio of movies (the other two being 50 First Dates and The Wedding Singer), Blended remains watchable because of this, and amongst the testosterone-laden Summer action films, Blended should find a sizeable audience looking for alternatives.   

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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What’s Your Number? * * 1/2

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Director: Mark Mylod

Writers: Gabrielle Allan & Jennifer Crittenden

Cast: Anna Faris, Chris Evans

Running Length: 107 minutes

Synopsis: Anna Faris is Ally Darling, an offbeat young woman who decides, after hitting the un-magical number of 20 lovers, to re-visit all her ex-boyfriends in the hopes of finding the man of her dreams. She’s assisted in her quest by her womanizing neighbor Colin (Chris Evans).

Review: If you’ve seen the recently-released Bridesmaids, What’s Your Number? may seem a little too familiar, because the two films actually cover pretty similar ground. And of course, like most romantic comedies out there, What’s Your Number? is no different from the run of the mill, bringing nothing new to the table.

Not that it’s expected to – after all, fans of romantic comedies are already aware of the eventual outcomes of almost every film that’s in the genre, and what matters is the journey, not the destination, which usually translates to the on-screen chemistry between the two leads. This is where, unfortunately, What’s Your Number falls short – although Anna Faris and Chris Evans make a good looking couple, they do not share a strong chemistry and their pairing feels forced even at the end of the film. Their banter is great, but there’s just too little of it in the film to convince audiences of their viability as a couple.   

The film does slightly better on the comedy aspect, with a handful of standout moments that will at the very least leave a smile on your face. I have been a casual fan of Anna Faris since her breakout performance in Scary Movie, and she is a dependable actress that can deliver the comedic goods. However, the scenarios do get a little contrived at times, and the core concept of revisiting one’s ex-boyfriends to find The One just doesn’t feel that believable.

What’s Your Number succeeds on two counts – Faris’ easy likeability and Evans’ frequently bare (and very buff) body. Faris has made it her specialty to play what essentially is a dumb blonde, ready to embarrass her characters in ways that many leading ladies would balk at doing, and this “human-ness” and authenticity is what makes Faris, and by extension her characters, highly likeable and easy to root for.

Chris Evans, on the other hand, is aware that one of his most prized assets is his body, and in this R-rated comedy ensures that no audience member would miss seeing his Captain America physique by parading in various stages of undress for much of the film. And for anyone who is watching the movie to make goo goo eyes at Evans, the payoff is more than sufficient.

Whilst What’s Your Number? is nowhere near the top-tier romantic comedies, it doesn’t rank too lowly either, existing somewhere in the middle – pleasant enough to not make it feel like a waste of time, but not memorable in any significant way.    

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars)

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Friends with Benefits * * *

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Director: Will Gluck

Writers: Keith Merryman & David A. Newman and Will Gluck

Cast: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman  

Running Length: 109 minutes

Synopsis: Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) think it's going to be easy to add the simple act of sex to their friendship, despite what Hollywood romantic comedies would have them believe. They soon discover however that getting physical really does always lead to complications.

Review: I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is a necessary precursor to reviews of any romantic comedy – it’s never the plot and always the chemistry. Yes, we’ve all seen movies like Friends with Benefits a thousand times before, and the ground it treads is so well worn that there are really zero surprises to be had (in fact, just earlier this year we had the similarly-themed No Strings Attached). However, Friends with Benefits has one thing in its favour: there’s excellent chemistry between Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, which makes this a relatively enjoyable romantic comedy to sit through.

Since the storyline makes zero deviations from the norm, apart from the slightly cheekier aspect of the couple being sexual partners before true feelings develop, there’s really no point speaking about the plot. Friends with Benefits’ strength lies in its actors – sparks fly between Mila and Justin, but the supporting cast is what really pushes the film one level higher. Patricia Clarkson is perfectly cast as the bohemian, devil-may-care mother of Jamie, and Richard Jenkins is outstanding as Dylan’s father, suffering from Alzheimer’s. Even Woody Harrelson is highly memorable as the flamboyant gay sports editor of GQ magazine, whose transportation to work is more than a little unusual. And then there's the excellent snippets of a "romantic comedy" that plays out as a film within a film, with great cameos of Jason Segel and Rashida Jones.

Having directed Easy A before this, director Will Gluck seems to be developing a modus operandi – taking a familiar genre and coaxing great performances out from the cast members to differentiate the film from the run-of-the-mill – and so far it’s been quite successful. Many small scenes in Friends with Benefits take jabs at the conventions in romantic comedies, and it does seem a little “meta” that the film itself ticks off so many checkboxes in that same list, but as long as the film works as a whole, this isn’t really an issue at all. Friends with Benefits is a pleasant romp through familiar scenery that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and a good enough hour-plus diversion to warrant a trip to the cinemas.

P.S. If you’re so inclined, there’s a very short (but largely inconsequential) coda at the end of the credits that you could stay for.

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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Crazy Stupid Love * * *

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Directors: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Writer: Dan Fogelman

Cast: Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: Fortysomething, straight-laced Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) is living the dream – good job, nice house, great kids and marriage to his high school sweetheart. But when Cal learns that his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), has cheated on him and wants a divorce, his “perfect” life quickly unravels. Worse, in today’s single world, Cal, who hasn’t dated in decades, stands out as the epitome of un-smooth. Now spending his free evenings sulking alone at a local bar, the hapless Cal is taken on as wingman and protégé to handsome, thirtysomething player Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling). In an effort to help Cal get over his wife and start living his life, Jacob opens Cal’s eyes to the many options before him: flirty women, manly drinks and a sense of style that can’t be found at Supercuts or The Gap. Despite Cal’s makeover and his many new conquests, the one thing that can’t be made over is his heart, which seems to keep leading him back to where he began.  

Review: It’s very difficult to find a fresh romantic comedy these days, as this is one of the genres that have literally been done to death. This is why Crazy Stupid Love comes across as a surprise – it’s funny and touching at the same time, and whilst not all its attempts at breaking out of the confines of the romantic comedy are successful, it’s different enough to set it apart from many similar films.

Crazy Stupid Love is essentially an ensemble movie much like Love, Actually and its ilk, but the film has a smaller cast with stronger associations to each other. However, the film also suffers from character bias, with some characters getting much more screen time than the rest. This isn’t necessarily a flaw, but all the characters in Crazy Stupid Love are so interesting that the imbalance may leave some audiences craving for more. It is to the cast’s credit that almost the entire ensemble is engaging, with even the younger actors putting in a relatively good effort.

The standout is Ryan Gosling, who has proven repeatedly that he is a great actor, and in Crazy Stupid Love he brings the right mix of smarminess and vulnerability, and although he has relatively less screen time compared to Steve Carrell, Gosling’s scenes (especially those with Emma Stone) are very memorable. Julianne Moore has even less face time, but her nuanced portrayal of a middle-aged woman in a quandary about her love and married life is one of the best I’ve seen in years. There’s also great chemistry between the main leads, and in a romantic comedy this is what ultimately makes or breaks the film.

One of the other little pleasures of Crazy Stupid Love lies in its excellent soundtrack, which features an eclectic mix of music ranging from Thievery Corporation to Nina Simone. Music can add a lot of texture to a film, and this is definitely the case in Crazy Stupid Love. (A side note, Late Night Alumni’s You Can Be the One is featured in the film but not on the soundtrack album – definitely a song to check out)

Interestingly, it’s the smaller scenes in Crazy Stupid Love that work well – some truly standout sequences include a phone conversation between Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore, and another scene in which Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make drunken small talk. In contrast, the big, plot-resolving set pieces near the end of the film feel farcical and artificial, and is one of the reasons why the film doesn’t rank higher on my list of romantic comedies. However, it manages to hit a good number of right notes as a romantic comedy, and is definitely one of the better films released of late.

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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Just Go With It * * 1/2

Genre: Romantic Comedy
 
Director: Dennis Dugan

Writers: Timothy Dowling & Allan Loeb, based on the screenplay for Cactus Flower by I.A.L Diamond

Cast: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Brooklyn Decker, Nick Swardson, Bailee Madison, Griffin Gluck

Running Length: 114 minutes

Synopsis: Danny (Adam Sandler) is a successful plastic surgeon who has had his heart broken before, and thus never commits to any relationship by pretending to be a married man. However, when he begins to seriously romance a much younger schoolteacher, Palmer (Brooklyn Decker), the lie backfires on him. In order to cover up the lie, Danny seeks the help of his loyal assistant Katherine (Jennifer Aniston) to pretend to be his soon to be ex-wife. The lies begets more lies, and soon even Katherine’s two children become involved. It all culminates in a weekend vacation in Hawaii which will end up changing everyone’s lives.

 Review: Just Go With It has an extremely apt title – in order to enjoy this movie, the audience has to just go with the plot and completely suspend their disbelief at the many contrivances and overall weakness of the narrative structure. Once this is done, however, the movie is actually somewhat entertaining, although entirely predictable despite the many attempted (not entirely successfully) twist and turns. Although there are a few good performances to be had in the movie, the true stars of the show are the lead actors’ bodies – it’s simply amazing how fit and toned everyone looks, and I’m not just referring to Swimsuit Illustrated model Brooklyn Decker, who’s here obviously more for her body than thespian talent.

This is an Adam Sandler movie through and through, and is director Dennis Dugan’s sixth collaboration with Sandler, so it’s not surprising that the film treads on familiar ground. Consisting largely of lowbrow but accessible humour that’s occasionally shocking, only the harshest and jaded critics would not find something to laugh about in the movie, even if it feels rather old hat. However, if you’re not a fan of Adam Sandler’s brand of comedy, this is not going to be the movie that changes your mind.

Much as this falls into the romantic comedy genre, the romance portion is actually quite minimal barring a small number of scenes. Whilst both Sandler and Aniston are passable in their lead roles for both aspects, it’s the supporting cast that keeps the cogs of the movie turning. The standout performance would have to be that of Nick Swardson, who plays Danny’s demented cousin and then eventually poses as a German-accented sheep seller called Dolph Lungdren (don’t ask). Swardson effortlessly steals every scene that he appears in and turns out to be the highlight of the movie. Also impressive are the two children, especially Bailee Madison, who throws in a completely OTT Cockney accent into the mix, which manages to amuse far better than I thought it would.

And then there’s the extended cameo from one of the most recognizable faces in the industry (since all the early promotional material does not reference her presence in the film, I shall keep her identity a secret here) – while she seems rather ill at ease with the material, she does showcase an amazing body, particularly in a Hawaiian dance-off against Jennifer Aniston. She’s not alone in this PG-13 “body porn”, however – both Aniston and Sandler (more the former than the latter for obvious reasons) get to show off what must have been months of hard work in a number of sequences.

Just Go With It does suffer from an overlong running time, clocking in at just under 2 hours when 90 minutes should have been more than sufficient. It simply takes too long to reach its clichéd denouement, and would have really benefitted from tighter editing. It may not be the obvious choice when it comes to a date movie on or around Valentine’s Day, but given the heavier Oscar fare that’s being released during this period, a surer choice for mindless entertainment.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of four stars)

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Love and Other Drugs * * *

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Director: Edward Zwick

Writers: Charles Randolph and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt, Josh Gad, Gabriel Macht, Judy Greer

Running Length: 113 minutes

Synopsis: Set between 1996 and 1999, the movie traces the development of Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a drug sales rep in Pfizer, from his early difficulties with attaining his quotas, to the release of Viagra in the market and his meteoric rise selling the most desired pharmaceutical product of that period. At the same time, Jamie begins a relationship with Maggie (Anne Hathaway), who is suffering from early onset Parkinson’s. Maggie is volatile and brittle, and even the glib Jamie finds difficulty in breaking her defenses down to engage in a serious relationship.   

Review: Although this is officially one of the first romantic comedies to hit local screens in 2011, Love and Other Drugs is already a shoo-in to be one of the best we’ll see this year. Purveyors of this genre of movies are not demanding – likeable leads with good chemistry are all that’s needed. However, Love & Other Drugs takes it one step further, and presents audiences with a movie that’s more than a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. Unlike most romantic comedies, Love and Other Drugs comes off as being a lot more “real” than the usual boy-meets-girl shtick. The problems that Jamie and Maggie face are pretty close to real life, unlike most of the fluffy romantic complications that onscreen couples face. It still plays out some of the conventions of the genre, but at least the film gives a less superficial treatment than usual.

This is Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal’s second romantic pairing (the first being Brokeback Mountain), and they have more than enough passion and chemistry on screen to make the romance believable. It helps, of course, that they are both pretty faces (with pretty bodies to boot – which we see a fair bit of), but their acting abilities go far beyond that. Jake Gyllenhaal plays both the glib salesman and devoted partner well, but Anne Hathaway gives the more impressive, multi-dimensional performance as the damaged Maggie. Hathaway has certainly come very far since her Princess Diaries days and is now rightfully considered one of the best young actresses in Hollywood.

Some viewers may find the copious amounts of sex and flesh in the first half of the movie (and not just of the leads) objectionable, personally I found that the visual way that Edward Zwick had employed to represent the couple’s progression in their relationship was actually quite effective. What I didn’t really care for is the inclusion of Josh Gad’s character, who seemed to exist only as juvenile comic relief and really jars with the rest of the movie. Also, the main theme of Love doesn’t ever really gel with the Other Drugs theme, and I for one would have loved to see more of the workings of the pharmaceutical industry. Flaws aside, Love and Other Drugs is definitely still an enjoyable romantic film with a number of great performances, and a surprising amount of depth and poignancy that’s rarely seen in the genre.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Valentine’s Day * *

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Director:  Garry Marshall

Writer: Katherine Fugate

Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, Jessica Biel, Anne Hathaway, Jamie Foxx, Julia Roberts, Bradley Cooper, Patrick Dempsey, Jessica Alba, Eric Dane, Hector Elizondo

Running Length: 125 minutes

Synopsis: About 20 different characters populate the various stories that are told in this movie, set (of course) on Valentine’s Day and in the city of Los Angeles. The central storyline revolves around Reed Bennett (Ashton Kutcher), a florist, who has just proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba), who unfortunately has commitment issues. His best buddy Julia (Jennifer Garner) has hidden away her romantic feelings for Reed, and instead is involved with a philandering doctor, Harrison Copeland (Patrick Dempsey). Separately, TV sports news reporter Kelvin Moore (Jamie Foxx) has been tasked to do man-in-the-street segments on love for Valentine’s Day, but is a cynic and doesn’t believe in love. However, he is suddenly presented with a potential love interest in the form of Kara Monahan (Jessica Biel), who is the agent for star quarterback Sean Jackson (Eric Dane). Sean seems to be troubled by more than the fact that his football contract is ending, and decides to call a press conference to announce exactly why.

Other tales abound: two strangers on a plane (Bradley Cooper and Julia Robert) manage to make a connection during a 14-hour flight; an old, happily married couple’s (Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine) marriage suddenly doesn’t seem quite as happy to one of them when a secret is revealed; a secretary (Anne Hathaway) who is also working as an “adult phone entertainer” finds that her side job is interfering with the budding relationship she has with her boyfriend (Topher Grace); two young couples (Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift, and Carter Jenkins and Emma Roberts) contemplate the possibility of engaging in pre-marital sex before their high school graduation; and a young boy (Bryce Robinson) has to deal with his first crush in school. (Phew.)

Review: It’s a huge morass of interconnected plot lines and characters, all revolving around the theme of love. However, the one biggest failing of Valentine’s Day is how little comedy and romance there is in this supposed rom-com. Many of the storylines are not even given a decent amount of screentime, and are so perfunctory that they almost seem like a desperate attempt to up the star wattage of the movie to pull in more moviegoers. It doesn’t help that the central storyline is so boring and uninspired that the film sags every time these so-called central characters are featured.

There are a few stories that show more potential – the airplane story works because Bradley Cooper and Julia Roberts are immensely likeable in their roles and display some chemistry (which is sadly not the case in most of the other pairings), and Anne Hathaway has an absolute ball with her “adult phone entertainer” role and hams it up to the max, although the actual romantic development with this storyline is somewhat lacking. And then there’s the “surprise!” subplot that would potentially blindside some audiences – although it didn’t manage to “fool” this jaded moviegoer. Sadly, these storylines are not given enough time to fully develop, and it can get vexing when so much time is wasted on other inconsequential subplots, or worse, the insipid central plot. Valentine’s Day is a movie that would have benefitted immensely from some restraint and editing.

It’s interesting to see how Garry Marshall managed to somewhat drop the ball on this project. It’s a formula that has been done before (see Love, Actually for a far better take on the same theme), and Garry Marshall had practically made his name exclusively in this genre. Whilst Valentine’s Day is not a bad movie, too much of the film feels tired and uninteresting. The few bright spots and funny moments are unable to outweigh the flotsam and jetsam that make up the rest of the movie. The number of stars involved will probably still ensure this is a commercial success, helped somewhat by the fact that this is the only love-related movie released over this Valentine’s Day long weekend, but if you really want a romance fix this holiday period, why not try renting Love, Actually instead?

Rating: ** (out of four stars)

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