Lemony Snicket’s gothic-mystery children’s series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, has been a national bestseller since the series debut in 1999.
David Fincher emerged into the filmmaking out of the cesspool of music videos when MTV was at its peak. At the time, so many music video directors delivered empty, flashy fluff when they got into movies that he was a rare exception to rule who gave his promo compatriots a good name. Over the years, he’s become one of the most influential directors of his generation. The meticulous style, grit, filth, and lurid thrills he brought to movies like Se7en, The Game, and Zodiac redefined the aesthetic of the genre. While the decade defining vicious social satire he brought to Fight Club and The Social Network struck a deep cord with moviegoers. Now he’s returned with Gone Girl, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s ridiculously successful novel that comes to screens facing Twilight or Harry Potter level expectations from the book’s legion of adult fans who should probably know better. On it’s very pretty surface, the film is lurid airport reading trash. Thankfully, it’s lurid airport reading trash from a filmmaker and author who know exactly what they are doing and are not only game to subvert expectations, but also poke fun at their lovingly ludicrous thriller through a morbid streak of sneaky humor. Gone Girl is secretly a deeply dark comedy and a pretty great one.
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike (Shaun Of The Dead) star as a seemingly perfect couple who have just crossed the five year mark in their relationship. Through flashbacks (amusingly written in a pink frilly pen that only Fincher could make ominous) we see that they met cute and engaged in the type of endless flirty banter and constant spontaneous sex that only happens in fiction. However, when Fincher points his probing cameras on them at the start of the movie, they are far from happy. In fact shortly after things kick off, Affleck returns home to find his wife missing and mysterious signs of struggle. He reports her missing. Her wealthy parents fund a manhunt. It’s all very odd and cryptic, yet as the flashbacks and contemporary twists pile up it starts to become clear that Affleck just might be the prime suspect. To say anything more would be deeply unfair. As anyone would read the book will tell you and anyone who sees this movie will continue to preach, the story is a wild ride of unexpected twists and turns that simply shouldn’t be spoiled. It’s incredibly difficult to take a premise this common and find fresh surprises, so I wouldn’t dare to ruin the hows, whys, and what have yous
However, I will flat out acknowledge that must of the narrative is completely nuts and ridiculous. Thankfully, both Flynn (who adapted her own book into the screenplay) and Fincher are acutely aware of this fact and have pitched their movie to play on two levels. For much of the first half hour, things play out fairly straight with a few pitch black laughs to single what’s to come. When the biggest and wildest twist arrives, all bets are off. The film is so well made and the actors play their roles so straight that most viewers likely won’t notice they’re watching a nasty, dark comedy. That’s fine. This is a movie that Brian DePalma might have made in the 80s and Paul Verhoeven would have made in the 90s that operates as both an exquisitely crafted adult thriller and a tongue-in-cheek mockery of the form. Fincher’s sense of humor isn’t nearly as goofy or campy DePalma and Verhoeven though, so neither is his movie. Nope, Fincher’s always had a dry, cynical, harsh, satirical streak of humor in his work that fits Gone Girl perfectly. I’m certain Fincher intended to make a bleak comedy, just one so dryly pitched that people who don’t like such things will simply consider it a thriller. Even better, Flynn’s script lends it’s self not just to genre games, but also slick satire of media exploitation and gender roles, which Fincher gleefully dives into, and emerges with a movie far more rich and intelligent than it has any right to be, while still feeling just as lurid, exciting, and pulpy as it needs to be.
That’s a tough balancing act, but one that the expert filmmaker pulls off with ease. You have to be a master of a genre to play with it so freely and Fincher is exactly that. The film is beautifully shot in a way that guides and toys with the audience through all the suspenseful ups and downs, while still holding back with just enough cynical detachment for the satirical intent. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who previously teamed with Fincher on both The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) is deeply atmospheric without ever drawing attention to itself. Just like the movie, the music sneaks under your skin without you even noticing. The film is also stunt cast to perfection with Affleck cheekily mocking his own relationship with media manipulation, Rosamund Pike delivering a star-making turn I can’t describe in good conscience, and both Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris signaling the movie’s comedic intent with their mere presence (only one of those two gets the joke of their casting and it’s not a coincidence that he also got the joke in Starship Troopers).
What’s special about Gone Girl is how it operates on a few different levels without ever feeling stretched by ambition. At no time do Fincher or Flynn ever forget the brand of pulpy trash for adults they’re crafting. They deliver fully on every promise of the genre. They’ve just also sneakily made their film something that knowing viewers can appreciate for its acidic wit as much as it’s masterful manipulation. If you get the joke, Gone Girl is one of the funniest films of the year in its own nasty little way. If you don’t, it’s easily the most enjoyable thriller of the year in its own nasty little way. Either way, it’s a movie designed to set low expectations simply to surpass them and let audiences stumble out of the theater knowing they got more than they signed up for. Now that’s good genre filmmaking. More of these please Mr. Fincher and less Girl With The Dragon Tattoos.
At this point, the Seth MacFarlane comedy formula is so set in stone that you can probably decide whether or not you like his latest offering before pointing even a single eyeball at it. The guy is a joke machine. He’s smart without ever daring to make a statement through comedy, edgy without ever really making audiences uncomfortable, prolific without ever becoming a universally respected comedy institution, and successful without ever delivering a canonical classic. His work can be damn funny, and even though Family Guy has been at the center of pop comedy for a decade, his work still somehow qualifies as a guilty pleasure. So, good ol’ Seth taking on the western in A Million Ways To Die in the West is more of an inevitability than a radical departure and it plays very much like an extended episode of one of his cartoons. The genre is slowly coming back after the twin box office hits of True Grit and Django Unchained and obviously Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles made the genre a go-to comedy zone 40 years ago. Yet, while Brooks’ movie remains genuinely shocking, groundbreaking, and button pushing, Seth’s Western comedy is just a pleasantly filthy distraction. That’s what he does after all and he does it well.
The film opens with some genuinely stunning shots of Monument Valley, the place John Ford and countless other classic Western directors made iconic decades ago. For a moment it feels like MacFarlane might have a genuine affinity for the genre and desire to dabble in homage, but that goes away pretty much instantly. He’s using the Western just as a clothes line to hang jokes onto and thankfully he’s pretty good at that. The plot is standard Western fare, just structure for a punch up session by MacFarlane, his Ted writing collaborators (Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild), and presumably a vast swab of the Family Guy and American Dad writing staff. MacFarlane stars as a lowly sheep farmer who is hated by his community for being a chicken and freshly dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) for similar reasons. He starts the movie on a low purely so that he can rise up through the most basic of hero’s journey plot devices. It all hinges on Charlize Theron, a wise cracking dame who has a way with a gun and for some reason decides to teach MacFarlane how to be a hero, love himself, and fall in love with a delightful gal like herself. She also has an evil cowboy husband played by Liam Neeson, so there’s a villain built right into the A plot. Then around the edges there’s a subplot involving a virgin Giovanni Ribisi and his hooker girlfriend Sarah Silverman, a second villain in a mustache -sporting Neil Patrick Harris as Seyfried’s new beau, and numerous cameos from MacFarlane’s famous friends like Bill Maher, Ryan Reynolds, Ralph Garman, and, oddly, Ewan McGregor.
It’s all pretty stock Western stuff with some nerd love wish fulfillment tossed in for good measure. MacFarlane will never be considered an unconventional storyteller or a comedian with a message, but he sure knows how to stage an A+ diarrhea gag and you’ll get one of those and more here. The script is essentially collection of running gags. Some work, some don’t and if you don’t laugh at any specific joke you only have to wait a few seconds for the next one to arrive. Most of the jokes hinge on tossing modern sensibilities against a Western landscape and pointing out how nasty, filthy, and dirty that world is despite all the Hollywood romanticism. That’s all fine and works and the period setting limits MacFarlane’s ability to slide in 80s nostalgia humor, so only the cream of that crop of gags appear and one in particular is fantastic (it’s been given away in a couple trailers, so try to avoid them because it’s a wonderful gag involving a certain iconic 80s scientist). As a leading man, MacFarlane is perfectly pleasant as a wisecracking nerd with a heart of gold, but he’s definitely outclassed by his supporting cast of comedy ringers, all of whom play their one or two note roles to perfection.
Like all Seth MacFarlane joints, A Million Ways To Die In The West is an entertaining time waster with plenty of laughs and nothing that will tax the intellect (unless you need to think really hard to appreciate a semen-based sight gag, of course). The guy specializes in mainstream comedy and he’s good at it. Compare this flick to, say, a recent Adam Sandler movie and its clear Seth knows what he’s doing. He might not be ambitious, but at least he succeeds in shoving enough jokes down his audience’s throat to get them giggling on the regular and even tosses in liberal doses of racy humor to keep things from feeling too sedate. If you hate the candy that MacFarlane’s been peddling for a decade, then you’ll hate this. If you enjoy his humor, that’ll continue. As a director of mainstream comedy, MacFarlane’s even getting better. A Million Ways To Die In The West might not hit the same hysterical heights of Ted, but it’s probably more consistent and doesn’t fall apart as awkwardly in the third act because Seth can rely on Western conventions to pull him across the finish line. Many people might be hard on the guy, but in the world of mainstream crowd-pleasing comedy, he’s at least joking above the curb. A movie like this should be the level of funny we can expect from an average Hollywood comedy. That’s not the case though, so it plays as above average and should get enough people giggling to bring MacFarlane that next dump truck full of cash he so desperately needs to buy a second private island for the winter or something.
When Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs hit screens in 2009, it proved to be an unexpected treat that arrived with little hoopla beyond sporting one of the weirdest (and wordiest) titles of all time. However, the movie proved to be a strangely subversive comedy gem that even managed to sneak Eraserhead references into a kiddie blockbuster. We can thank co-writers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller for that given that they pulled the same trick on the underrated animated series Clone High and the unexpectedly awesome 21 Jump Street movie. Sadly, the duo didn’t return to the sequel beyond some screenplay tinkering. They’re off making the Lego movie instead, and they should be because they’ll make it great. So now, we have Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 arriving with expectations and without the key creative talent. Fortunately, it’s a wonderfully entertaining sequel that continues the franchise well. It’s more sweet and sincere than subversive and reverential, but when you’re talking about a CGI family comedy about giant sentient cheeseburgers, that’s not exactly a bad thing.
The roughest patch of the movie comes right off the bat. Unfortunately, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 does suffer from that unfortunate medical condition that plagues many Hollywood products: sequel-itis. The original film was never intended to set up a franchise, so there are some awkward patches early on as the filmmakers struggle to kick off a new story and reunite all of the characters the kiddies loved last time. Fortunately, that’s out of the way fast. Bill Hader’s manic inventor Flint is selected by his childhood hero/iconic food inventor Chester V (Will Forte doing an amusing Steve Jobs impression… only evil) to join his tech conglomerate LIVE Corp. Flint toils away fruitlessly in the big city hoping to become one of the team’s star inventors and then gets a chance to prove himself when his old invention starts running amuck in his hometown. The machine that once made food out of drops of water has started malfunctioning and turned the island into a land overrun by giant sentient food (cheeseburger spiders, crazy cucumbers, cutie pie strawberries, the whole nine yards). So Flint gathers up all of the popular characters from the last movie like gal pal reporter Sam (Anna Faris), her wacky accented cameraman Manny (Benjamin Bratt), dedicated local cop Earl (Terry Crews), weirdo Brent (Andy Samburg), and his daddy (James Caan) and together they head out to food island for more wacky adventures.
The good news is that said wacky adventures are still a lot of fun. There’s a worrying moment early on when Flint screams out “there’s a leak in my boat” and then an anthropomorphized leek starts screaming. Thankfully, the movie is not defined by bad puns, even if it’s not above them. Some of the pop culture references from the original remain like the general plot that’s ripped from The Lost World (both the original Arthur Conan Doyle novel and the Jurassic Park sequel) and the goofy Apple parody that is LIVE Corp. However, the new directors Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn lean more on eccentric character comedy and CGI adventure this time around and thankfully that approach works. The voice cast is ridiculously talented and even if it’s a stretch to cram all of the popular characters in here, every actor gets some big laughs (especially Forte who is hysterical as the villain). The character design still comes from the Lord/Miller/Clone High school, and it’s still wonderfully unique and cartoony. The living food monsters/buddies are all creatively designed and milked for all their comedy and cutesy potential. The action scenes are genuinely thrilling and take advantage of the 3D visuals. The emotional arc sparks tear trickles without feeling saccharine. And most importantly, it all wraps up quickly without ever feeling strained or boring. In short, it’s a blast of simple entertainment that will charm the pants off parents, children, and regressed children alike.
“Charming” is the word that best describes Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 and given the genre of CGI family comedy it slides into that word suits the film well. Would it have been better if Phil Lord and Chris Miller stuck around for the sequel to pack it full of their weirdo wit? Of course, but at the same time the original movie never cried out for a franchise and the sequel never could have been anything more than a charming follow up. Animation veterans Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn at least know their genre and medium well. They suck up all the possible entertainment value out of continuing the adventures of this likable gang of characters and food fantasy world, then roll the credits before outstaying their welcome. The film is no masterpiece, but it is a perfectly serviceable and goofy blast of family fun that will make the target audience giggle while scarfing down snacks. Really, what else could you possibly expect from a movie called Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2? Wanting more is just being greedy. This is as good as a movie with giant cheeseburger spiders can be and that ain’t bad.