The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

The Guilt Trip by Anne Fletcher

As inventor Andy Brewster is about to embark on the road trip of a lifetime, a quick stop at his mom’s house turns into an unexpected cross-country voyage with her along for the ride.

Growing up as a Chinese boy in the immigrant culture of Canada, aspects of Jewish, Italian and Chinese cultures always seemed similar to me. I don’t think we are all that different after all. We are all family-oriented, express love through home-cooking, and share a deep respect for family ancestry. Subsequently, our mothers aren’t that different either; they nag and embarrass us in public and as indicated by the film’s title, they love using the guilt trip. That is primarily how I connected to the truths and comedy of The Guilt Trip.

Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogen create a charming chemistry as the mother and son. Seth Rogen is a good straight man. I don’t know thing one about Barbara Streisand, her music career or seen any of her movies, but she is the secret ingredient that makes everything work. Without the charm or the truth to the way Streisand played the role, the role would have been annoying very quickly.

The nagging and bickering can be grating for some audiences because of how real everything is presented, maybe to the point it doesn’t feel like entertainment. For me with my theory about Jewish, Italian and Chinese cultures being very similar, it was an insightful engaging experience watching that dynamic being acted out onscreen. That said, I probably would enjoy watching it with my sister laughing about our mother than watch it awkwardly alone with my mother.

I laughed throughout the entire film. What I liked most about The Guilt Trip was how honest and real it was. The truth of the situation never precedes the humor. Anne Fletcher and her editor cut the comedy gags with discipline, the gags never outstay their welcome and all move the story forward. There are even times where there aren’t laughs. That’s where the truth  pays off as it delivers some genuine heartfelt moments between the mother and son. And the heartbeat in The Guilt Trip is why I would recommend it.

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The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

When a street magician’s stunts begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act and their friendship.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, for a lack of a better comparison, is akin to a by-the-numbers Will Ferrell comedy, that it is about a cocky professional at the top of his game, who falls from grace and must learn to be humble again. Character act dumber than they would realistically seem. Unlike many Will Ferrell comedies, this film actually focuses more on character, even though they often act inconsistently to serve the comedic gags. I don’t have a big problem with this, but it’s that kind of movie.

It’s important when showing a magic trick onscreen, unless there’s something more interesting going on in the plot (i.e. The Prestige), that it includes the audience to be a part of the spectacle as well. The film does this with by presenting a few magic tricks in-camera which genuinely give the “Hey, how did he do that?” sensation. But again to serve the random comedy, some of the tricks don’t make sense. It’s the kind of thing you laugh at when you see it, but the moment you think about it again, it completely falls flat. The awe of the in-camera tricks fare better in comparison.

Steve Carell is funny in his over-the-top theatrical voice and bleached bombastic wigs and carries the film well.  Jim Carrey is a fun antagonist but I am scratching my head about his role. I wonder what drew Jim Carrey to the role as it seems he’s played similar roles before. . Carrey’s magician is reminiscent of Fire Marshall Bill from In Living Color. It seems too small of a part to really explore anything acting wise and they could have gave him something more special to do. Watching Carell and Carrey’s scenes, they all seem to be following the script and I wonder how much they were allowed to veer off from script. Steve Buscemi is a central role to the arc of the story and the film unfortunately forgets this. They could have used more of him as well.

The script was shopped around for many years before it was produced. Unfortunately, the material is a little out-of-date. Comedy does rot after all. Celebrity magicians just do not seem relevant now as they were years ago. I am semi-aware that the three lead magician characters are meant as a parody of actual real-life magicians, but I don’t know who they are specifically drawing from. So unless you are a magic fan, it feels like there’s a layer of humor that we all do not have access to.

The final resolution to Burt Wonderstone’s conflict is funny, but it is a politically incorrect cheat that also betrays the heart of the protagonist. The antagonist is also done away in a deus ex machina fashion that feels too easy. This would be acceptable for a short comedy sketch, but for a theatrical film it feels lazy. To think about it seriously, the ending actually betrays the integrity of magic and stage performance.

Do I care? Not really. If The Incredible Burt Wonderstone didn’t star Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Busemi and Alan Arkin, I probably would have turned it off. But lying down watching it on my laptop for 100 minutes was the right way to experience it. I laughed, but probably would never watch it again.  It’s not incredible, but good enough.

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon), a young gay man raised in foster homes, is introduced to flamboyant entertainment giant Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) and quickly finds himself in a romantic relationship with the legendary pianist.

Michael Douglas is well-known for playing two types of roles: the victimized man in peril or the man of immense power. Douglas’ portrayal of Liberace embodies both these aspects. He is a powerful man in love with another man but ultimately a victim to his own public image. One can argue the story is about a love triangle between the real Liberace, Scott Thorson and the public Liberace. The segment where Liberace and Scott visit a plastic surgeon played by Rob Lowe was genuinely creepy.  Douglas disappears into the role, showing the inner, outer, darker and lighter sides of Liberace. Liberace can be added along with his long list of great roles; this is Oscar worthy.

As the audience avatar, Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson guides how the audience feels about Liberace. Matt Damon is a good straight man to Douglas, his performance is overshadowed but that seems to be part of the plan. It’s fun to watch them bickering and arguing like a married couple multiple times in a hot tub.

I can see how Behind the Candelabra was considered ‘too gay’ to be a studio feature.The film actually does not have a gay agenda on it’s hands. The kissing or sex scenes were not handled in a vengeful gay protest film type fashion. No, Steven Soderbergh rises above that by  concentrating on the central love story between Scott and Liberace and finds the most interesting drama therein. We are shown the reasons why they’re in love with each other and those human reasons are relatable, gay or not. I rooted for their relationship.

This is the way to do a biopic. Often biopics are uninteresting because they can’t focus onto a theme or settle on a fixed view of its subject to create a message. Not everybody’s life story is fit to be made into a film. This particular segment of Liberace’s life was more friendly to film adaptation because it was so inherently dramatic. Credit must also be given to the writers and Steven Soderbergh, who manage to suss out the drama out of the real life facts, find a firm view that sums up Liberace as a person and extrapolates a thematic message about love. The tone is well balanced; it has both serious and funny moments but it never takes itself too seriously.

As said before in my Side Effects review, I sincerely hope Steven Soderbergh doesn’t stop making movies. This is  my favorite of his films. He’s onto something.

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Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh
Haywire by Steven Soderbergh