Friday, May 18, 2018

'Book Club': Sex And The Creaky

Movie still? Or a photo shoot for Town & Country?

When I found out there was an advance screening of Book Club scheduled on Mother's Day, I immediately thought what they wanted me to think: a perfect opportunity to take mom to the movies! But then I realized I actually love my mother, and shouldn't subject her to such dreck, especially on Mother's Day. Still, I mentioned the option to her, and she jumped on it. I guess mother knows best because it turns out, Book Club isn't that bad.

It's not that great, either, but as a vehicle for four stellar actresses of a certain age, it manages to hit all the mature lady buttons you'd expect it to. And if that sentence sounds dirty, it's because you can't walk away from a viewing without a bad case of innuendo-itis; the club's selection, as the movie begins, is Fifty Shades of Grey.

That the majority of them wouldn't have already read it may seem a little unbelievable, especially since their monthly book club started during their college days in the 1970's, with Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. But I'll allow it, especially since most of them have had things other than sex on their minds for a long time. Aside, that is, from Vivian (Jane Fonda), a wealthy hotelier, and the Samantha of the group, who recognizes a profound lack of gettin' any in her friends, hence her choosing the bestseller as that month's pick.

None of the book club members is particularly excited by the choice. Not Sharon (Candace Bergen), a federal judge who hasn't had a date since she divorced her boring accountant husband (Ed Begley Jr.), 18 years prior. Not Carol (Mary Steenburgen), who has been married to her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), for decades. And definitely not Diane (Diane Keaton), who is recently widowed and dealing with two adult daughters who are convinced she's so feeble she should move to Arizona to be closer to them. But the book, or more accurately, the discussions the women have as a result of reading the book, lead to realizations for all of them, mostly centered on the men, or lack thereof, in their lives.

I have no love for the Fifty Shades series, but I've long maintained that if it somehow leads to unsatisfied women finally getting what they want in the bedroom, more power to them. What I take issue with is how the series makes an abusive and cold man seem like some kind of prize. And with that in mind, Book Club is kind of depressing. At its heart, it's a movie focused on four successful women in their later years who all seem to believe their lives would be much better if they either had a man, or could at least get more attention from the man they have.

Vivian, who has long believed in no-strings-attached sex, begins to question her lifestyle when an ex-flame (Don Johnson, father of Fifty Shades star Dakota Johnson) shows up in town. Sharon, supposedly a powerful federal judge, is still hung up on an ex-husband she never even liked, while trying to build up enough courage to finally get out there by joining a dating app.

Diane's arc is the most entertaining, mainly because it's Diane Keaton at her most Diane Keatonish, paired with a surprisingly witty Andy Garcia, as the independently wealthy (because of course) airline pilot Mitchell. He is a prize, and they have a believable chemistry; you can totally buy their meet-cute romance.

All of the women are given scenes that display both their comedic and dramatic chops, but it's the moments that feature just them, screen legends, together and talking, away from any men, that elevates the film above your basic rote, multi-storied rom-com.

You may be shocked to hear this film is NOT from Nancy Meyers, the director behind "women of a certain age" hits like It's Complicated and Something's Got to Give. With its very white cast and perfectly manicured settings (every home is worthy of a magazine spread), it certainly looks like one of her films. The presence of Diane Keaton, playing someone named Diane, surely adds to the confusion. But no, this one comes from first-time director and screenwriter Bill Holderman (with a screenplay co-written by Erin Simms). And really, that's fine. There should be more than one filmmaker in Hollywood making movies for and about older women.

And if you're wondering which of the film's stars has the best plastic surgeon, my mother has a strong opinion on the matter: It's Don Johnson.

Friday, May 11, 2018

'Life Of The Party' Isn't


"Ben, honey, I love you. But I need my space...so I can go make Spy 2."

I'm sure Melissa McCarthy loves her husband Ben Falcone very much, but the bottom line is she has to stop making movies with him. Life of the Party is the third film they've made together, with Falcone directing and co-writing (Tammy and The Boss being the others), and it just solidifies the fact that McCarthy succeeds much better when she's away from the creative influences of her husband. (Her best starring vehicles, Spy and The Heat, as well as her breakout supporting role in Bridesmaids, were all directed by Paul Feig.)

McCarthy stars as Deanna, a middle-aged mom who, immediately after dropping her daughter off at her senior year of college, is informed by her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) that he wants a divorce because he's fallen in love with a realtor named Marcie (Julie Bowen). Dropping her child off at the same school Dan forced her to drop out of when she became pregnant during their senior years sets the wheels turning in Deanna's head. She decides to take "lemonade and turn it into lemons" (as a future sorority sister tells her later) and go back to school to finish her archeology degree.

There's some obvious comedy to be had having Deanna enroll in the same school as her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon), but after some initial horror, Maddie is mainly delighted by her mother's presence. In fact, most of the students she encounters are delighted by her, (except for a couple of mean girls who would be considered too cartoonish for even the worst '80s teen movie).

So then what's funny about a middle aged woman going back to school, having a great time, making friends, and achieving a life goal? Not much! Even Deanna's frumpy mom looks are done away with pretty quickly after a makeover from her daughter. The result is a perfectly lovely looking, slightly older woman, who is able to attract the attentions of the nearest hunk and fellow chardonnay lover, frat boy Jack (Luke Benward).

There were some groans from the audience when Jack and Deanna eventually hook up (though aside from some kissing, we don't see them get physical), but I appreciate that their relationship isn't used as a tool for shaming Deanna in any way. There's no scene of Jack pretending he doesn't know her with his buddies, or showing any embarrassment over his infatuation with her. (At one point he deems her his "Sexual Dumbledore," to which she replies that no woman ever, ever, wants to be compared to a grizzled wizard.)

But again, since that relationship isn't really played for laughs, it's another aspect of the film that just...is. And since McCarthy isn't allowed to do much more aside from being perfectly lovely and pleasant, it's up to supporting players like Gillian Jacobs, as a fellow college student who recently came out of an eight year coma, and Maya Rudolph as Deanna's devoted BFF, to supply a majority of the laughs, and they aren't given nearly enough to work with.

As the movie progressed, I began to tick down in my notes the number of times I actually laughed out loud, and emerged with two ticks in that notebook--and I can't for the life of me even remember what it was that made me laugh. And when a movie includes Maya Rudolph as a high strung best friend with an aggressively flippy hairstyle and you only laugh twice? You know it's a failure as a comedy.

Friday, May 4, 2018

'Tully': Maternity Left

Motherhood, Such a Blessing!

The way director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody's Tully is being sold, with a series of perky trailers, and a poster that brings to mind Lisa Frank, you'd think it was a lighthearted comedy about the toils, troubles, and ultimate rewards of motherhood. And sure, it is about that. But it's also something much darker, and in many ways universal, going beyond the experiences of motherhood, and into the pain of losing your youth forever to the curse of irreversible adulthood.

Charlize Theron's performance as Marlo, mother of two young children with another due any day, is raw, emotional, and free of vanity. She's won an Oscar for an un-glamorous role before, in Monster, but she's even more believable here, not just because she reportedly gained close to 50 pounds for the film, but because everything about her feels authentic and lived in. When she wearily takes off a stained shirt in front of her children, only to have her daughter ask, "Mom! What's wrong with your body?!" you don't doubt for a second that motherhood can wreck even an Amazon like Theron.

Marlo is 40 and this third pregnancy was not planned, though she's quick to label it, without much enthusiasm, "a blessing" when its commented upon. She's just beginning maternity leave from her HR job, so her days are centered on shuffling her kids to school, and dealing with son Jonah's special needs and her daughter Sarah's growing insecurities. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), has a job that's too boring for even him to explain, and it often requires him to travel. He does enough around the house and with the kids to be able to say he and Marlo "share" responsibilities, though of course that's not really true. Marlo knows once that baby comes, only one of them will be waking up in the middle of the night to feed it.

Marlo's wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) offers her the gift of a "night nanny," a service he and his wife used after their third child was born. "They're like ninjas," he says, coming in at night allowing the new parents to sleep, only waking mom when it's time to feed. Marlo doesn't like the idea of someone else bonding with her child, and dismisses the offer.

But when the monotony, sleep deprivation, and pressures of caring for three children take their inevitable toll--illustrated with an expertly done montage of neverending late night feedings, diaper changing, and breast pumping, driving home the idea that hell is nothing if not the endless repetition of parenthood--she makes the call, and Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives.

Davis's Tully is both ethereal and earthy; Mary Poppins in a belly shirt, espousing little words of wisdom about motherhood ("Kiss your baby goodnight; she'll be different in the morning...we all will!"), while also complaining about romantic entanglements with her female roommate. She cleans in the night, bakes cupcakes for the kids, and shares sangria and confessions with Marlo. The relationship and the relief it brings helps Marlo break out of her growing depression; "It's like I can see colors again!" she tells her husband

Screenwriter Diablo Cody's writing has often exhausted me in the past, with her apparent need to make every single line of dialogue clever. But with Tully she's calmed down a bit, allowing the unspoken to do some of the heavy lifting, while still inserting moments of her patented acerbic wit. (In a conversation with her sister-in-law about an upcoming school talent show, Marlo asks her what her daughter's talent is. "Pilates," she replies.)

Tully slyly becomes more than just a story of mother and nanny bonding, building up to a resolution that is surprising, and I imagine some may be bothered by it. But as watched it play out, I appreciated how subtle it actually was. Miss a line and you may miss that resolution altogether, and it's a testament to the film that it would fare no less for that.