POSTED ON DECEMBER 19, 2012:
Not Trimming the Fat
And an open letter to Judd Apatow
Peter Jackson broke huge ground when he adapted J.R.R. Tolkien's long thought unadaptable, epic fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings -- crafting an ever more sprawling trio of films (though at least their runtimes made sense when considering the length and complexity of the books).
So when it was announced that he would be returning to the world of Middle Earth to adapt Tolkien's prequel novel, The Hobbit, it didn't come as much of a shock. Those films branded Jackson as similarly as Star Wars branded George Lucas and the 36 endings in Return of the King seemed to indicate a reluctance to leave. It was always a good bet (after his middling remake of King Kong and an awful adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones that would have destroyed lesser careers) that the bearded Kiwi would feel compelled to return to Hobbiton.
Happy Birthday. Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 explores the marital dynamics of middle-aged white people coming to grips with their own mortality.
And typical to the near-hubris of his last works, Jackson has taken a 310-page long children's book and made it into three nearly 3-hour long epics, the next two of which will come out in the winter of 2013 and summer of 2014. When the guy goes back to the well, he brings a lot of buckets.
This makes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey less of a film and more of an episode to a story whose resolution is still a year and a half away. It almost makes me want to skip the next installment and just see them all at once. That thought never would have entered my mind during the original trilogy's run -- a reflection of my level of enthusiasm for the bloat this new set of films already suffers from.
But don't fear. It's not as though An Unexpected Journey isn't occasionally fun or warm -- that there isn't a comfort food sense of satisfaction at times. But Jackson is taking a kitchen sink approach to what was a relatively lean narrative, one that dilutes any real sense of immediacy.
Set 60 years before the events of Rings, Bilbo Baggins (excellently played as his younger self by Martin Freeman) is quite comfortable living the quiet life at Bag End in the idyllic Shire.
Gandalf (Ian McKellan) shows up with a plan to conscript the contented hobbit on a mission with a group of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) who seek to take back their erstwhile home city, Erebor, which was conquered by the evil dragon, Smaug. The boisterous band needs a burglar to sneak into a secret entrance and open the gates so that they might retake their home and seize the vast treasures under the mountain, among them the Arkenstone, the birthright of Oakenshield and heirloom of his father's clan. Bilbo is a natural fit for job, though that's not in evidence during the ensuing adventure. But he shies away from the task -- at first.
Led by Gandalf, the troupe (honestly, too many dwarves to keep track of; only Thorin and Dwalin (Graham McTavish) really stick out as characters, the rest being an odd, physically varied group of bulbous headed and braided lumps of latex) encounter mountain trolls, goblins, and are pursued by a vengeful orc, Azog (Manu Bennett), as they search for the secret on their map that will reveal the hidden door into The Lonely Mountain -- while the stirrings of a certain One-Eyed Dark Lord begin to make Gandalf wary.
At its best, An Unexpected Journey makes the return seem worthwhile. The Riddles in the Dark sequence -- which reveals how Bilbo got his hands on the Ring -- showcases Jackson's strengths with this material, writ large by Andy Serkis and his excellently realized Gollum. The tense yet fun interplay between Serkis and Freeman pulls us back into the best moments of the original series -- Gollum's split personality is as charming as it is unhinged -- and kicks off the film's second half, which puts a premium on pixel-laden action.
But it takes over an hour to get there after a rudderless first half that feels oddly disjointed from the world -- the topography not seeming to match up to a clear sense of where they are or how long it took them to get there (something established so well and executed much better in The Fellowship of the Ring). It isn't until they reach Rivendell and then the Misty Mountains that the familiarity of where you are in Middle Earth seems to come into play, along with any palpable sense of danger, pacing, or focus.
Narrative bloat and sometimes florid language don't really hinder An Unexpected Journey as much as they should -- I noticed a built-in level of patience for this that I wouldn't have otherwise had. It's the feeling that this film will lead to bigger and better things that goes a long way to keeping the audience's good will; that and the performances from Freeman, McKellan, and Armitrage, which cement some of the lackadaisical moments with a gravity the overall film struggles to achieve.
But the fun bits are worthy. Be it the Goblin City, the Riddles in the Dark sequence, or the epic "finale" that does its best to recreate the emotional highs of the end of Fellowship. The special effects are as simultaneously dodgy and great as they were in the originals -- and Gollum looks amazing. Conversely, those bloated moments that go too far in realizing the opening chapters at Bag End still get the fanboy in me smiling at them, up there on the screen -- goofy as they may be. References to Ungoliant, Angmar, and the Necromancer are aimed straight at Tolkien geeks. That's part of the film's problem, as it clumsily connects itself with the other trilogy and that segment of its audience who actually read.
But it's not bad. Comparisons to The Phantom Menace are unfair. Sylvester McCoy's Radagast -- a wizard of Gandalf's order -- is silly, but he's no Jar Jar, and Jackson is a better director than Lucas. It's really amazing that the high expectations don't similarly crush An Unexpected Journey like that other prequel, but maybe that sense of anticipation wasn't really there to begin with.
This Is 40
To: Judd Apatow
From: Joe O'Shansky
Re: This Is 40
Dude, stop. Just seriously stop trying to become John Hughes for aging Gen Xers who went on to have kids. You're not John Hughes and you're certainly not Billy Wilder either, so stop making 135-minute comedies unless you have characters who are a lot more compelling, unique, and likable than the self-obsessed, entitled, and annoying shitheads in This Is 40. How do you make Paul Rudd into an asshole? That's a crime. I love that guy.
You've made an epic movie about almost nothing. It's basically an overlong tale about two terrible birthdays combined with a subplot of how these vapid characters, Pete and Debbie (Rudd and your usually charming wife, Leslie Mann), suck at running a business. Pete and Debbie were the least interesting parts of Knocked Up, and yet you make an expansive, pop culture-infused, and product-placed-to-hell spinoff that gets right to the heart of why you took a break for over a year before you made Funny People.
What’s in the Pipe? Gandalf (Ian McKellen) ponders how to get Bilbo out the door in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
That film was just as swollen, but I have a softer spot for the woes of comedians than the barely tolerable travails of Pete and Debbie. Desperate, vain, petty, and shrill works better for outcasts. It can't for these characters, or make up for This Is 40's minor strokes of hilarity from Melissa McCarthy and Albert Brooks (that guy is so good he almost single-handedly saved your tepid, boring, fucking movie).
Thing is, at least Funny People was mostly funny. If This Is 40 were a sequel to that you'd have to call it Shitty People. In theory, that could be funny if your characters weren't so fucking hapless -- if they were just unapologetic dicks on purpose. What made The 40-Year Old Virgin so hilarious was that everyone but the main characters were dicks on purpose. Yet you still made them likable because they were ... survey says: Funny.
Don't get me wrong. I've loved your past work. From Freaks and Geeks to The 40-Year Old Virgin you were cultivating a petri dish of fertile comedic talents; Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, Paul Rudd and Joe Lo Trugilo among countless others who have been of vast and lasting importance to the world of film comedy. I'm also a married man in my 40s. I get that there are moments to be mined from familiar and familial situations that ring true in a way that might make many laugh. And I know that you have always ridden a line between sweet and raunchy that is supposed to appeal to guys and girls 20 years younger than you. That's just demographics. But it's lost on Pete and Debbie. By the end I hated what amounts to your entire family.
So you need to hang this shit up. Parents don't want to see a reflection of their real selves at the movies any more than their kids do. And worse, you're pretty bad at it. You've become too insular and your style too inconsequential as it devolves into James L. Brooks-like levels of Boomer self-importance. Get the balance back, man. There's still room for your films and your vision (Bridesmaids and Girls prove this). I want my old Apatow back -- the one who didn't have to fake not being a grownup.
Thanks for your attention in this matter,
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