Monday, October 10, 2011

Charm, Offensive

Grace, it was once said, is not something that can be acquired or gifted in small doses. No, as Elaine Benes once unfortunately learned, you either have grace or you do not. She did not have it. The same, it must said, goes for charm. A far more difficult prospect for Hollywood to get its head around since charm is so very important to the success of the romantic comedy genre, and yet it's a quality that so many actors lack. It's shocking that in a business so focused on people desperately clamouring for our attention that there can be so many involved who have no attention-grabbing traits whatsoever. Charm is easy to spot and the history of cinema is littered with the shattered remains of actors whom Hollywood tried to "make happen", but which audiences weren't having a bar of simply because they had all the charm of dead fish. I don't know anyone who would watch Kate Hudson Rom-Com #249 and want to be in a relationship with her. Emma Stone on the other hand? I want to be in a relationship with her (but only if she gives me Ryan Gosling's number).

Such Grace!
Now, while actors with charm can make a so-so product that much more bearable, they can't make it great. Such is the case with two recent rom-coms that deal with the same stuff you've seen dealt with dozens, hundreds, etc times before (depending on how many times you're willing to go back to this particularly sadomasochistic well). Mark Mylod's What's Your Number?, which is out this Thursday, is a rather flimsy film that manages to eke out some laughs out of its rather dire premise of a girl shuffling through all of her past romances to find "the one". This idea of "the one" is always troublesome, what with its core premise of a female protagonist not able to be happy without a man by her side, but What's Your Number ups the ante by making it shameful for a woman to have had 20 sexual partners. A far more dangerous - and, yes, offensive - idea that women (or anybody, really, but mostly women) who find themselves sexually entangled with a certain number of partners will ultimately end up alone, sobbing into their red wine glass as they Facebook stalk their exes. Hey, at least they got the red wine part right!

Anna Faris is a unique actor in Hollywood. Charm she most definitely has, but it's a curious variety of it with sharp, angular edges that perfectly compliment her range of kooky facial expressions and go for broke comic mentality. Whether having to speak dialogue like "The eyes are the nipples of the face" in The House Bunny, or long-winded monologues about lasagne and United States elected officials in Happy Face, she projects a wide-eyed (literally in her face, she has big eyes) naivete that never falters and allows sweetness to overcome the ridiculous. What's Your Number? is a far less risque film to what we're used to seeing Faris in, and I couldn't help but feel that her edges were somewhat shaved down to accommodate the masses who prefer vanilla. The film only ever really sparks up when Faris is allowed to be Faris and spurt out stuff like "What? Are you gonna rape and kill me?" with a goofy look on her face. It's those moments that somehow managed to sidestep the familiar and surprised me that made What's Your Number? less of a complete waste of time. It's certainly more entertaining than many other rom-coms that made far more money and if only for Faris' sake I wish it had done a bit better at the box office. The fact that I was completely shocked to discover the film is out here in just three days shows how little marketing the film has had all but resigning it to a fate of no consequence.

Faris' co-star and romantic foil is Chris Evans and much has been written before - by myself and others - about how this guy is a one man charm factory. He has Hollywood leading man tattooed on his face (and, er, his abdominal muscles), but must have a dud agent to have to keep appearing in second (third?) tier rom-com material such as this. I mean, the camera is obviously in love with him and the director takes great pains to ogle him as often and as proudly as possible, so why can't he find stronger material to be so objectified in? If I'm going to feel guilty for ogling him (note: I never feel guilty ogling Chris Evans) then it'd at least be nice for it to be in the context of a better movie. One particular shot of him naked with only the world's smallest bath towel too protect his modesty is all but daring cinemas to make sure they're up to date on their fire safety training. Still, a movie can't win out on charm (and nudity) alone and the work of Faris and Evans really does belong in a far better movie. I suspect this film will play much better on DVD where the long stretches of silence won't be quite so deafening and the rather cheap-looking production not as noticeable (why does Faris appear bright like an orange in one anomaly scene?) Curious indeed. Or, actually not curious at all. C+

I have far better things to say about Crazy, Stupid, Love, which was released two weeks back, but which I only just got around to seeing today. Please note that punctuation is not one of the film's better qualities. What's up with that? Never mind that though, as this film's biggest asset is the casting coup created by Glenn Ficarra and Glenn Requa. Whereas Faris and Evans were charming individually in their film, yet rarely really connecting as a team, Crazy, Stupid, Love manages a combo of actors that positively scorch. You could power a small Eastern European town on the chemistry created by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. These two near-perfect creations of human steal the entire film out from under everyone involved. Even the art director must be a little miffed that nobody - absolutely nobody - will be admiring with any great detail that decadent home that Gosling's character lives in. They will be too busy looking at those faces and wishing they were one of them (take a pick based on preferences). These two, clearly two of the finest actors of the current crop, are so good here; Gosling turning the sex appeal up to a cartoonish 11 ("it's like you're Photoshopped!") while also appearing effortless and with a sly wink, and Stone being so tartly on point with her comic timing and delivery while never forgetting to use her body to really make the performance. They're a delight. I only wish the whole film had just been them.

The sidebar storylines involving the dissolving marriage of Steve Carell and Julianne Moore as well a 13-year-old teenager and his babysitter are less satisfying. Ultimately they add to the film more than they detract, but that's more a praise of Dan Fogelman's screenplay, which makes it all come together somewhat nicely. Still, Steve Carell is doing Steve Carell and that wonderful Little Miss Sunshine performance is looking further and further away. Julianne Moore on the other hand is given so little to do, I can just be thankful she never decided to become the shrill shrew her characters constantly threatens to become. The rest of the cast are fine, if largely uninspiring, although Liza Lapira is funny in the role seemingly vacated by Judy Greer.

Even more grace.
One thing that I reacted particularly negative to was something that was prevalent in Friends with Benefits, too. This idea - let's call it the Scream effect - where pointing to and allowing audiences to laugh at the cliches of a genre somehow gives a filmmaker carte blanche to use those very cliches is a particularly tricky one to maneuver. Wes Craven's 1996 film succeeded - as have others before it, I'm sure, but Scream is the most obvious example - because even though it utilised the cliches it was mocking, they were still scary and effective and twisted in ways that were fresher. In Crazy, Stupid, Love Emma Stone's character references the rom-com cliches she's about to fall into, but it's like the filmmakers thought they could get away with using the dud mechanics of the genre without tweaking and perfecting just because they have a laugh or two of their expense. They don't resonate as fresh, and even the Dirty Dancing moment feels ripped out of Pascal Chaumeil's (here's that word again) charming French ditty, Heartbreaker. The Film: B-, Gosling & Stone: A+.


JA said...

Ugh yes I can't believe I forgot to mention Faris being TANGERINE in that gynecologist scene. WTF was up with that? I kept waiting for the punchline and it never came. It feels like there was def. a joke that got cut out, but it's SO DISTRACTING and just makes the scene SO WEIRD.

Liz N. said...

I'm so glad that someone else noticed that crazy orange hue to Faris's skin! I actually took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes, just to make sure that my vision hadn't gone wonky all of a sudden.

Jasper said...

Faris got a spray-tan before she went to Florida for that appointment with her ex. I think it was referenced in a line of dialog. Not saying it makes any sense — and it for sure seemed like the tanning scene got removed from the final cut — but I'm pretty sure it's in there. Right? Right, you guys?

Or I totally could be making things up.

Tony said...

Loved Crazy Stupid Love.

Dig the Scream reference too... soooo where's Scream 3 Scene by Scene? lol