Before this film, husband and wife team Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy had not professionally written anything together. They are successful comic actors — McCarthy, especially, after her memorable turn in Bridesmaids and The Heat, rapidly ascending the ranks of female comics who can move the needle for a studio — but other than writing a handful of Looney Tunes episodes (Falcone) and directing a single episode of a TV show (McCarthy), they had done precious little to indicate they could pull off a feature film.
Dir. Jay & Mark Duplass
If Jason Segel has one singular talent as an actor, it’s his ability to embody several different edges all at once. When he played a young, befuddled high schooler in the beloved TV series “Freaks & Geeks,” his character evolved from a perpetually stoned good-time boy into a slightly too intense, off-kilter inveterate, increasingly unable to communicate what he felt inside. Not surprisingly, he is equally adept portraying slick, no-rules rogues and shlubby outsiders. In this way, his shuffling slacker shamble would obviously pair well with the Duplass brothers’ patented blend of formless narrative and post-mumblecore insouciance, so it’s no surprise to see him fitting so well into the freewheeling ethos of their latest film.
Segal plays the titular character, who does, in fact, live in his mother’s Baton Rouge basement, getting stoned, eating snacks and desperately trying to decipher his destiny. A heartfelt acolyte of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, Jeff tries to stay open to patterns and coincidences, solving the riddles as he ambles through his life. His brother Pat (Ed Helms, sporting an evil-twin goatee), on the other hand, has issues of an entirely different nature. Impetuous and mincing, he belittles his wife, Linda (Judy Greer), and impulsively acts out of supreme selfishness — as we meet the struggling couple, he’s trying to break the news to her that he took the money they were saving for a house and bought a Porsche instead. The two boys are overseen by their bedraggled mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), who spends her day working listlessly in her office until a secret admirer makes their presence felt in her cubicle. The three members of the family spend this remarkable day each following their individual destinies until they all happen to converge together at once.
The Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, have a way of teasing out the complexity in their characters, even as they act out of a seemingly never-ending series of idiocies. Jeff, for all his stoned quasi-metaphysics, is actually just a sweet-minded and egoless fellow, convinced for all the world that the universe works from a sweetly familiar road map; Pat, confronted with the distinct possibility of his wife having an affair, finally breaks through his incessant put-downs and petulant interruptions to actually hear what people are trying to say to him; meanwhile Sharon is forced into actually believing in forces beyond her immediate understanding. As a comedy, the movie moves easily through its shaggy-dog-ness, creating a simplified world in which all things happen at once. If there’s a deeper message, as the ending of film would seem to suggest, it’s not exactly hard-earned, but, in a way, there’s something entirely fitting about that.
Dir. Shana Feste
It’s rare that a location scout makes or breaks a film, but someone really needed to explain to Shana Feste that the growing affects of global warming are not yet so pronounced that the trees in “upstate New York” would still be green and verdant in the dead of winter.
Of course, lots of films purport to be places they’re not, and many of them have similar weather inconsistencies, but this film, concerning a grief-stricken family in the aftermath of the eldest son’s fatal car accident, continually draws our attention to its garbled time-frame. It’s as if writer/director Feste simply doesn’t care if it makes sense or not in the face of her grand designs for drama.
Naturally, the grieving parents, Allen (Pierce Brosnan) and Grace (Susan Sarandon) each repress their pain in different ways: Allen, a math professor obsessed with numbers, focuses on his work and spends time with his dead son’s girlfriend, Rose (Carey Mulligan), who arrives a few months after the funeral to tell the family she’s pregnant; Grace, meanwhile, spends her time at the ICU where the driver of the vehicle that hit her son’s stationary car lies in a coma, hoping to find out from him what her son experienced in the last few moments of his life. Their younger son, Ryan (Johnny Simmons) takes drugs, and goes to group therapy meetings.
There are many other examples of Feste’s inattention to detail: Grace studies every frame of a “surveillance tape” of the accident, it’s how she learns the other driver spoke to her son before he died. But the actual place of the accident — a winding, almost single lane road deep in a forest — couldn’t possibly have a camera anywhere near the vicinity (nor is it close to any kind of intersection, despite what the other driver suggests when he finally comes to). The film also suffers from a painfully obvious structure: After Rose moves in, the family members each go their own way, have their own emotional crescendo and then come back to the fold, cleansed of their pain. Despite the fact that the film is filled with long-minute shots of the actors staring into space in several stages of looking forlorn, we get very little sense of them other than as plot repositories, shuffling along the story as we get closer to the (inevitable) baby’s birth. In the process, it more or less goes all the places you might anticipate. Other than a New York summer’s day in January, perhaps.
Dir. Paul Haggis
Let’s put it this way: If you win an Academy Award for Best Picture as a writer/director, as Haggis did for the (nevertheless suspect) Crash, you have the cache to make pretty much whatever you want as your next film. Lord knows, it might be the one chance you get to really let loose.
So, with that in mind, Elah, as a follow-up is, well, certainly earnest, if not bordering on the slightly maudlin. Performances are certainly not the issue. Tommy Lee Jones, whose face has long looked craggy and now resembles a road map of Kazikstan, has never been better as a straight-laced, old school military retiree, trying to track down his son, who has gone AWOL shortly after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Ditto, the ever-wonderful Susan Sarandon, who plays Jones’ wife, and the brilliant — yes, brilliant — Charlize Theron, as a detective determined to help Jones’ character find the truth behind his son’s disappearance.
As a writer, Haggis has a gift for nuance of character, scenes pop with unexpected revelations and insight, but you can still feel the lure of the Big Dramatic Moment tugging at him, weighing on his conscience. His brain might be in the right spot, but his heart too often convinces him to shift into maudlin-mode. Here, he makes a statement about one of the untold costs of going to war — the return of battered, embittered soldiers, whose souls and sense of morality have been eviscerated in battle. The problem is, he keeps hammering the point home so frequently and in so many ways that it begins to bleed out your appreciation for the fine character work he displays elsewhere.
By the last shot — and I won’t give it away here, but, trust me, you can see it coming a mile away — you’re left more than a little disappointed. The film still has plenty to recommend it, in fact, you might be watching Jones’ second — far more deserved — Academy Award performance of his own, but you still walk away feeling it was a lost opportunity to really make some noise.