STEP BROTHERS * *
Cert 15 98 mins
The Judd Apatow express may not have derailed, but it’s certainly detoured into the sidings for this crude, often painfully unfunny one-joke comedy that takes the well worn set -up of men who won’t let go of their inner child to its logical literal conclusion.
When their respective divorced/widowed parents, Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) and Robert (Richard Jenkins) impulsively get wed after falling in lust at a medical conference, it makes Brennan (Will Ferrell) and Dale (John C Reilly) reluctant fortyish stepbrothers. Neither have a job (Dale’s never had one), they’re seemingly both virgins, and both still live at home. And they both act like spoiled emotionally stunted six-year-olds. Albeit, since this is Apatow World (as written by the two stars and director Adam McKay), particularly foul-mouthed six-year-olds.
Since they hate sharing parents, house and bedroom, naturally they’re at each other’s throats from the start, calling names, fighting, and, generally being mutually obnoxious like any pair of self-centred tantrum-prone brats.
In one extreme instance of tastelessness, Brennan rubs his scrotum across Dale’s precious drum kit. Now, there’s an image to traumatise anyone.
However, the arrival of Brennan’s overachieving, insufferable younger brother Derek (Adam Scott) soon gives them something in common. They both hate him more than they hate each other.
Told to shape-up, ship out, find a job and get therapy, suffice to say the duo prove pretty much inept at everything, their effort to launch a company and make a rap video ending up in wrecking both Robert’s prize boat and the marriage.
Which means, they now have to embrace adult responsibility and prove themselves capable of achievement, so they can get mom and dad back together. And hey, guess, what, Robert ends up saying how much he misses them being their old adolescent selves. Movie mixed messages, or what?
Although the biggest laugh is George W Bush’s mangled quote at the start, to be generous, there are some amusing moments, notably as the two discover they both like the same things.
But for the most this is just stupidity for the sake of it with Ferrell and Reilly doing their best to out ad-lib each other with a self-indulgence McKay really should have reined in.
At least they’re at home on such infantile comedic ground, whereas you just feel embarrassed to watch Steenburgen and Jenkins have to play down to the same dumb levels while, as Derek’s wife who gets the hots for Dale and deflowers him on the gents’ toilets, Kathryn Hahn bears the full brunt of the screenplay’s male fantasy misogynistic contempt. And, is it just me, but is an end credits scene of two grown men beating up the young boys and girls who bullied them really funny or something even Michael Winner might find a bit dodgy?
THE WACKNESS * * *
Cert 15 99 mins
Having applied an art house sheen to the shop worn teen horror with All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, now writer-director Jonathan Levine brings a fresh angle to the equally well mined coming-of-age genre.
Quirky but never self-consciously so, he’s also elicited a tremendous performance from Ben Kingsley that must rank among the best of his career, burying himself within the character’s skin as effectively as he did in Sexy Beast.
The film is set during the long hot New York summer of 1994, a time when Kobain had just died, white boys were discovering Tupac and Mayor Guiliani was cracking down on drugs. Both of which have become staple ingredients in the life of Jewish teenager Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) who’s just finished high school and sells dope out of an ice cream cart to raise money for college.
He has a few other things on his mind too. Most notably the fact that his father (David Wohl) has screwed up big time and now the family’s facing bankruptcy, causing inevitable domestic tensions with his mom (Talia Balsam) and threatening to wreck the marriage.
On top of which, Luke’s got a bad case of depression and is desperate to get laid and lose his virginity before college. Not easy when you have no confidence with girls.
Naturally, he’s seeing a shrink. More unusually, he’s paying the eccentric Dr. Squires (Kingsley) with dope.
Along with similar sex and drug hang ups, Squires has his disillusionment and identity crisis problems too. Getting older has made him cling harder to the child within, compounded by the fact his marriage to his trophy wife (Famke Janssen) is falling apart and his stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) treats him with contempt. No wonder he gulps down the sort of medication he refuses to prescribe Luke.
Squires and Luke make an odd couple so, in typical film logic, they’ll obviously become friends, hang out together and have bittersweet misadventures as they learn their respective life lessons.
Matters are a touch complicated, however, by the fact Luke’s having a secret affair with the sexually experienced Stephanie. Naturally, when Squires finds out, he looks to warn Luke off. Not so much as a concerned parent, but more aware that she’ll use him up, spit him out and break his heart.
What unfolds is a series of rites of passage that involve the mismatched buddies wandering the streets of Manhattan, selling dope to such oddballs as the Central Park hippie (Mary Kate Olsen) and neurotic former rock star (Jane Adams), both of whom loom large in Squires’ emotional maturation, and generally throwing each other lifelines to get them through their darkness, make them better people and face life’s curves with tenacity and hope.
It’s a little padded in places and never quite seems to know when to end, but its low key dark humour is sharp and it strikes affectingly poignant notes that make you genuinely care for what, on the surface, are not especially likeable characters.
Sporting a wounded puppy expression and a bruised soul, Peck makes Luke an appealingly sympathetic figure while Kingsley, almost unrecognisable in an unruly wig of flowing locks, energetically captures the heart and truth of his character’s fears and foibles without ever resorting to scenery-chewing overstatement. “You never see the dopeness. You only see the wackness,” Stephanie tells Luke. You’re recommended to at least partly follow suit.
THE STRANGERS * * *
Cert 15 85 mins
Like Funny Games without the social commentary, first time writer-director Bryan Bertino delivers a minimalist high tension home invasion thriller that, for the most part, favours suspense, psychological terror and focused performances over blood letting and a lot of screams.
Arriving at his parents’ isolated woodland summer home after attending a friend’s wedding, it quickly becomes clear that James’ (Scott Speedman) marriage proposal and romantic weekend plans haven’t gone as hoped with girlfriend Kristen (Liv Tyler) not yet ready to take the plunge.
The atmosphere between them is tense, but relationship issues soon become the least of their problems.
Just turned 4am, a girl comes to the door asking ‘is Tamara there?’
Informed she’s at the wrong house, she disappears. However, while James is out getting cigarettes, there’s another knock at the door and the same question.
Alone in the house, Kirsten is understandably jumpy. Especially when her cell phone disappears from the charger and the smoke alarm cover somehow finds its way from the floor to a chair. What we see, and she doesn’t, is a figure wearing a flour-sack like mask.
By the time James returns, nerves are being shredded and it’s not long before there’s a gun, a dead body and three masked figures (one male, two female) slipping in and out of the house, stalking the garden, wrecking the car and generally scaring the living daylights out of everyone.
The opening credits cite American violent crime statistics and claim the film’s inspired by true events.
Possibly so. But, while there may be echoes of the Manson killings, there’s no specific incident behind the narrative and, like forthcoming Brit horror Eden Lake, a more likely source of inspiration would seem to be French horror, Them.
However, while it does subscribe to the usual practice of people doing stupid things (opening the door at 4am without knowing who’s there, not calling out someone’s name when you’re looking for them in a darkened house, etc), Bertino knows how to crank up the fear through controlled anticipation, edgy hand-held camera and effective use of sound rather than cheap shock tactics.
Cleverly, he not only doesn’t offer any back story to the three strangers, but in never even showing their unmasked faces he makes the banality of the horror even more intense. Nor does he go in for taunting.
Once the terror begins, the perpetrators speak only one line of dialogue. “Why are you doing this to us?” asks Kristen. “Because you were home”, is the only reply. It may be the most blood-chilling line you’ll hear all year.