It's January. Man, is it ever January.
Movies are a year-round business but, like everything else now, the volume's been turned up and there's far more product than can possibly be healthy. And if they were a literal diet, January would be the equivalent of living for a month on bad frozen pizza and hot dogs. Your best bet for something good and nutritious lies with the continuing rollout of 2010 Oscar films or, maybe, just going to see Black Swan again.
Not that The Green Hornet is a complete waste of time, but that probably depends on how much time you actually have in the first place.
A 21st-century update of a character that got his start on a 1930s radio serial, The Green Hornet finds an unlikely Seth Rogen in the role of Britt Reid, the hard-partying son of Los Angeles newspaper tycoon, James Reid (Tom Wilkinson). The elder Reid has never shown Britt any real encouragement and, as a result, the younger is now a mess of delusional, egomaniacal and cappuccino-swilling arrested development.
In the meantime, arch criminal Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) is asserting control of the criminal underworld by ostensibly trying to figure out why nobody is afraid of him (he decides he needs to change his name to Bloodnofsky) while taking out the competition with a double-barreled hand cannon of his own design. That's literally all there is to him.
Meanwhile, responsibility is thrust upon Britt after his father dies from a bee sting, and he's forced to assume control of the Daily Sentinel. Britt balks and fires his father's housekeeping staff until he realizes that one of them, Kato (Jay Chou) was behind his beloved cappuccinos. Turns out, making coffee is the least of Kato's talents since he can build just about anything -- and his skill as a martial artist is without peer. He's a "human Swiss Army knife".
After an encounter with random street criminals, the pair to go into the masked vigilante business while Britt takes the reins at the paper and steers coverage toward a new villain, The Green Hornet. Britt and Kato decide their angle will be to pose as criminals and use the paper's influence to get to the top of the criminal hierarchy and bring it down from the inside, armed with basically Kato, a new secretary/criminologist, Lenore (Cameron Diaz), and the sweet, weapon-festooned cars, dubbed Black Beauty, that Kato designs and builds. Their strategy is surprisingly successful, putting the burgeoning friends in the cross hairs of both Chudnofsky and the cops.
It's not really terrible, despite being misconceived on more levels than not. And there are some moments of fun to be had. But The Green Hornet feels like a movie that's moved through to many creative hands (and it has), landing with Michel Gondry, who isn't really the right directorial fit, and who gives the film a sort of meandering quality despite its being punctuated with plenty of action set pieces. Though it looks good, and has some nice production design, Gondry doesn't employ much of his usual visual ingenuity -- forays into Kato-Vision aside.
But, what hurts The Green Hornet most is its unevenness as a comedy and an action movie, recalling a Mystery Men vibe of misfired good intentions. Penned by Rogen and long-time writing partner Evan Goldberg (Superbad), the script paints Reid alternately as a sympathetic man-child and a raging asshole with delusions of grandeur. It's nearly impossible to like him, particularly since Kato is the guy who does most of the work and is the brains of the outfit. The film burns most of its runtime just getting you to a place where you warm to Reid, while the comedy falters because Rogen and Goldberg do their best writing work when not handcuffed by a PG-13 rating.
Worse, Rogen plays Reid with almost no nuance (his character from Observe and Report had the same emotional issues but Rogen really breathed life into them) and I never really bought him in the role, even though he sort of holds his own in the action sequences. His rapport with Jay Chou is good enough to keep the movie afloat despite the fact Kato seems to gain next to nothing from the relationship -- and for all I know this is a sly comment on the '60s TV series, but if it is, it still grates. It's really Chou who owns the film, both in the narrative and in his performance, often exhibiting a nicely understated comic timing while dealing out the flying fists with the skill of the best Hong Kong film stars.
The bigger disappointment is Waltz, who is wasted as Chudnofsky. The way he chewed every scene he was in during Inglourious Basterds was a fond memory as he portrays the villain here as an annoyed lounge lizard, who's constantly questioning why he isn't more threatening. Waltz is a formidable actor, but he's shackled here in a role that needed a dose of well-honed insanity. Or even a pulse.
The Green Hornet is not devoid of laughs, and some of the action was fun. The film seemed to find its footing a bit more firmly in the last act and, despite its many missteps, it's really too good-natured and aptly made to truly hate. But for all the effort expended, and all those cooks in the kitchen, it feels a little like pulling a fallen cake out of the oven.
The worst cinematic sin is that of boredom; followed closely by making Kevin James the most engaging character in a movie. In The Dilemma, director Ron Howard, whose history of largely milquetoast films caused me to stop watching them a few years ago, commits both sins.
That made it easy to forget that Howard used to be a decent comedy director -- who doesn't like Splash? -- and that perhaps a vacation from adapting Dan Brown's turgid tales might invigorate some long dormant part of his comedic talent. He did help make Arrested Development happen, after all.
Cruelly, this is another January picture.
Vince Vaughn, reminding us how long ago Swingers was, plays Ronny Valentine, a former gambling addict and part owner of a Chicago-based automotive start-up with his best friend from college, Nick Brennan (Kevin James). They aim to create an electric engine for Chrysler that emulates the brawn of the classic muscle cars with none of the gasoline. Nick and his wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder) have set up Ronny with his current girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly) and he is on the verge of proposing to his stunning, mid-life, significant other.
But in the midst of his plans for riches in the Detroit major leagues and marital bliss with Beth, Ronny discovers that Geneva, whom he's been friends with since college as well, is having an affair with a tattoo-covered musician named Zip (Channing Tatum) and struggles with breaking the news to Nick, attempting to get Geneva to do so herself. When she turns the tables on Ronny, blackmailing him to assure his silence, Ronny embarks on a mission get evidence of Geneva's marital transgressions, invariably leading to a series of (humorous?) misunderstandings that strain the bonds of trust with both his girl and his best friend, and putting his bright future with both in jeopardy.
And what I'm sure was intended to be an edgy, black-comedy is diluted by Ron Howard's tendency for uninflected blandness. If he were a band, his music would make Air Supply sound like Cannibal Corpse. The Dilemma lacks any real narrative punch, and though it's ostensibly a dark "dramedy," Howard's tepid direction renders the film too inert for it to have depth as a character drama and too muted for the farcical comedic elements to punctuate the conflict with sharp humor. The film just trundles along, dragging its 112-minute run time out to the point that my only dilemma was staying awake.
The script, by Allan Loeb (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), might have been better realized in different hands, as it feels like it was going for a more adult tone that is somewhat sidelined by the casting of Vaughn and James. Ultimately, Howard dictates the tone, which is to say there really isn't much of one.
The cast does their best, though, and Vaughn and James do have a good chemistry, which keeps the movie from being an utter slog. Vaughn does invest himself in the role, and his smart-ass affability still has enough force to entertain. But the aura of cool that put him on the map with Swingers and Made has had its luster dimmed by a series of bad rom-coms and Christmas movies--and now The Dilemma.
Kevin James is unexpectedly effective as Nick Brennan, going against type as the responsible, serious-minded one of the pair. He actually delivers a performance that doesn't involve playing to his doughy, everyman looks, and instead imbues Nick with real quirks and emotions. I never thought he'd be my favorite part of any film but James is The Dilemma's sole surprise.
Ryder and Connelly do fine supporting work, though Ryder has a fairly thankless role. Connelly fares better character-wise, though it would seem she probably showed up to reunite with Howard as much as for anything that her character is really given to do, which amounts to harboring suspicions for most of the story.
At its core, The Dilemma has an interesting premise -- does friendship compel one to intervene in the private affairs of those closest to you, and if it does, is that really the right choice? -- but it doesn't seem to know what it wants to do with it. In its indecisiveness, and ungrounded tone, The Dilemma only winds up squandering whatever gravity it might have once possibly exerted. Bring a blanket.
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