You might find yourself with resting glitch face after all the stimulation of Shawn Levy’s video game comedy fantasy Free Guy (B), a film that actually gets better and richer as it progresses and reveals superpowers in some of the most supporting players in society. A bit of a riff or revival of The Truman Show set in an open-world video game, this film places Ryan Reynolds at the center as a “non-player character” who learns he can start making his own choices. There’s interplay among the denizens of the game, plus a plot about a diabolical dudebro executive (a hilarious Taika Waititi) trying to manipulate the gameplay to line his pockets and a duo of developers (Jodie Comer and Joe Keery, both earnest) helping steer the situation to a better resolution. The passiveness of the main character is a problem for the first half of the movie, despite Reynolds’ considerable charms and penchant for physical comedy. But the film gains a bit of soulfulness at the half-way point and proceeds to surprise and delight. If you can bear the clang and clamor, you’ll find Levy and company have something to say about community, about taming toxic masculinity and about choosing your own adventure. It’s a bit better than expected, with funny asides, clever effects and a timely lesson about the power of world building.
Betting on the scrappiness of a bunch of bros who become woke in a history-bending take on the founding of the country, Matt Thompson’s America: The Motion Picture (B-) is an irreverent and often quite funny animated film aimed at the adults of the household. The movie’s tipsy time bandits traversing a stew of history involving George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Geronimo, a female Thomas Edison and many others throw out a lot of vulgar gags and end up with a winning comedy in the tradition of the South Park movie, Team America: World Police or even the live action This is the End. Channing Tatum, Jason Mantzoukas, Olivia Munn, Killer Mike and Andy Samberg are among the spry voice cast ensemble in this veritable Mad or National Lampoon magazine come to life. The animation is accomplished and the profane and prophetic jokes abundant enough to keep surprising even the most academic viewers. It’s anachronistic, anarchic and lots of mindless fun and ultimately pulses with a patriotic heart.
The Royal P is painfully clean of inspiration, Your Highness, in Craig Brewer’s fan service filled sequel Coming 2 America (D+). It’s low stakes and low States, all the while firing blanks, as most of Prince Akeem’s story centers on Africa this time around, removing the fish out of water shenanigans which were the main attraction of the first film. Despite the presence of many comic actors, this follow-up is not very funny, relying on occasional bursts of pageantry, bits of whimsy and frequent musical cameos to basically tread water through the low-key variety show filling most of the film’s duration. The plot includes the discovery that Eddie Murphy’s regal character is baby daddy to a Manhattan ticket scalper (the charming Jermaine Fowler, salvaging what he can from a poorly written role), born of a feisty mom (an occasionally funny Leslie Jones), requiring some very brief trips Stateside from what is essentially a moribund melodrama set squarely in the Eastern hemisphere. Much of the film revolves around the princesses of the African kingdom (led by KiKi Layne doing fierce work despite the script) and an oddball Wesley Snipes as some sort of incidental rival villain. There’s so much retread in this cheese Zamunda that it actually resorts to flashbacks from the first film multiple times, just underscoring how old and tired some of its cast and schtick are. The enterprise is rescued at times by some sweet-natured familial moments and some roundabout girl power, plus a glimpse of the barber shop gang with a few zingers about political correctness. Otherwise it’s sloppy seconds all around for a bunch of game performers who aren’t given much to do.
In the tradition of Naked Gun and Austin Powers, Josh Greenbaum’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (B) is a delightfully daffy comedy written by and starring Annie Mumolo and Kristin Wiig as the titular characters, two best friends who leave their small town for a beachside vacation and find themselves embroiled in an absurd and often very funny spy plot. The central duo’s comic rhythm is on remarkable display as these sunshiny Midwesterners become up to their culottes in madcap adventures. A spry Jamie Dornan plays a romantic interest, plus Wiig is double cast as a vampy villain. Physical comedy and one-liners abound, and there are lots of esoteric references to please fans of Wiig’s wit. Greenbaum films the movie in lush tropical fever dream colors and with a loose and playful spirit allowing characters to break out into musical production numbers or have conversations with animals. Mostly this is a frothy celebration of female friendship and pretty entertaining for most of its duration. This is a go for broke, go with the flow escapade and a welcome retreat from the message movies of awards season.
The goodwill generated by one of the most manic fish out of water comedies in recent times is greatly diminished in this dead fish of a follow-up. There are few happy returns as Jason Woliner’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (D+) sends its intrepid foreign reporter played by Sacha Baron Cohen back to America on a redemption tour to counter the embarrassment his titular character inflicted on his homeland in the original film. The notoriously sexist and anti-Semitic but strangely likable hero is on a mission to broker a relationship with the United States presidential administration by offering his own daughter, played by Maria Bakalova, as a gift to VP Mike Pence. Aside from some pretty ambitious stunts propelling this mockumentary crew very close to high seats of power, the film is gloomily shot and meandering in theme and tone. Sequences that worked so well to make potent points in the first film are squandered this time around: a case in point is a charm school sequence used for a cheap gag instead of a funny or piercing insight. The film stumbles onto two interesting notions: Its filming during the pandemic takes it on an interesting if not fully exploited detour, and the casting of the lively and likable Bakalova as daughter and sidekick allows for a vaguely feminist arch for her suppressed character. Overall though, this glum follow-up in which its main character seems to be going through the motions, often in lame disguises, neither nails its topics nor nails its targets. It’s merely subsequent when it could have been vital as parody — or even just competent.
Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (B) is the anti-Masterpiece Theater take on the autobiographical Charles Dickens classic, and it’s a delightful ode to harnessing one’s creative impulses. It’s not as breezy a bildungsroman as last year’s Little Women remix, but it has significant whimsical charms. The director, a noted acerbic satirist, tells the story with a sunny disposition and multi-ethnic casting and condenses the novel’s hundreds of pages into a tidy two hours. It’s nearly all there: the house made of an upturned boat, the kite fashioned of prose pages, the scene-stealing lapdog personified by its ventriloquist owner and much more in a brisk build. Dev Patel embodies the Victorian Everyman with relish, even though the story feels a bit like it is happening to him rather than him having much discernible dominion over his destiny. Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton stand out in the vividly painted ensemble of eccentrics festooned with fabulous costumes and stunning locales. Dickens was notoriously paid by the installment, so it’s fitting that Iannucci dramatizes his story in almost serialized form with title cards marking each episode. Despite its storied pedigree, this adaptation is a bonbon of coming of age reality bites.
Nearly three decades after their last time trek, they’re on a mission to prove they’re dad bod-acious, but their bid for bogus bonafides exhumes a most triumphantly tepid detour. Dean Parisot’s Bill and Ted Face the Music (C) is best when it just gives in to absurdist metaphysical humor, and there are indeed a few brief flashes of the franchise’s blissfully harmless DNA scattered and smothered through a nonsensical screenplay. Most of the time, however, the story just goes through the motions with an overly sprawling ensemble of underdeveloped characters. A story lurks somewhere in this sequel about reconciling romances, discovering the music that pulses through generations and aligning a madcap world, but the plotting is listless and the episodic pacing maddening. The cheap effects that worked in the past two films now just seem like sloppy filmmaking. There’s a nice bit of sonic history with a rock ‘n’ roll supergroup involving the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong, but mostly the movie assembles lots of disparate elements – from charmless wives and daughters to an ill-tempered emo robot – and doesn’t know what to do with any of them. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are reasonably spry and great sports in multiple multiverse roles, but it all seems like it was more fun to make than to watch.
This movie is quite observant about what it means to be an American teen, down to the chapter and verse. Director Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes (B) is a sensitive coming of age dramedy about reconciling church teachings and teenage urges with a breakout performance by Natalia Dyer of the sci-fi TV show Stranger Things. Dyer is the main attraction, astute and engaging and in nearly every sequence, as her innocent and precocious character traverses a ’90s landscape of AOL chat rooms, the emergence of cellphone culture, a punishing parochial school and an even more confusing Christian retreat. These secular land mines all threaten to thwart her steadfast beliefs. Timothy Simons is solid as an authoritarian adult, and the teen ensemble is largely believable even as they navigate provincial points of view. The dramatic stakes aren’t extremely high, and the laughs aren’t as plentiful as, say, Booksmart, but the film is a righteous glimpse into adolescence geared to viewers ready for its adult themes. These types of films often glide on a combination of heart and nostalgia, and Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore tunes punctuate this enjoyable journey into wary womanhood.
It’s a merry, merry multiverse for a trio trapped in a time loop in Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs (B+). This comedy with shades of Groundhog Day triples the number of people caught in the act of living the same day over and over with Andy Samberg and Christin Milioti as two charming strangers who meet at a wedding and J.K. Simmons as a grizzled guest also swept up in the space time continuum. The story eschews some of the tedium of repeating the actual day verbatim and instead follows its progressive romance from mundane to memorable. The first-time director has crafted a jovial and thoughtful lark with enjoyable takes on the physics of love and life. The ensemble is roundly delightful on the unusual journey. Stick around for a mid-credits epilogue.
Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani have such spectacular comic and romantic chemistry as the central couple in Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds (B-) that they deserve a better movie next time they collaborate. It’s clear even in the cold open introductory credits that this brilliant duo possesses charisma in spades with hilarious banter and priceless reactions. The plot is super obligatory as the twosome is unintentionally embroiled in a murder mystery. As their quest to clear their names takes them from one extreme circumstance to the next, they must figure out how they, and their relationship, can survive the night. Along the way, they crib from diverse sources ranging from Wayne’s World to Eyes Wide Shut with reckless abandon. Each preposterous sequence is improved by Rae and Nanjiani’s daft delivery. It’s a breezy fun time, a comedy/action confection with modest levels of sophistication hiding in the routine madness. This comic couple is definitely one to watch.
Some things that don’t seem to naturally go together can create nice harmony, like the frustrated Muslim teen in rural Thatcherite England and his newfound muse, working-class American rocker Bruce Springsteen. Having played in a similar milieu with a girl who wants to bend it like her soccer hero, Gurinder Chadha crafts her latest coming of age dramedy Blinded by the Light (B) with a gentle and loving touch that transcends her story’s sometimes color by number conceits. Casting her protagonist with the talented Viveik Kalra is the first win, and although some of the exposition is clunky and techniques labored, you can’t help but root for this spry hero. The handful of songs by “The Boss” provide a fantasy foil to both the teen’s mundane struggles with his parents, finding love and testing his mettle as a writer as well as a larger commentary on the xenophobia and class warfare of 1987 British politics as it plays out in a provincial community. The musical sequences feel as awkward and amateur as the tentative young man being inspired by them (this is in fact a compliment), and the sentiment generally pays off with an authentic supporting cast. It all works better than it should, given some head-scratching plot points which don’t all get resolved. The film is ultimately a marvelous family film and a giddy glimpse at how you should go about borrowing the best traits from your idols when endeavoring to find your own voice.
One of the film industry’s most notorious writer/directors slows his roll into leisurely paced comedy and doesn’t quite succeed until things get violent. He’s clearly better at the Spaghetti Western than The Decline of Western Civilization. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (B-) explores how movie stars are always one step away from their big break, whether because of talent, typecasting or breakout performances or, more commonly, because they join a celebrity entourage or get invited by famous neighbors to a cocktail. It’s no coincidence that two of the biggest stars in the world – Leonardo DiCaprio, portraying a boozy actor in career decline, and Brad Pitt, playing his stuntman and designated driver – steal the show with wile and charm. They deliver a lot of yummy tapas in the movie, but it doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying meal. Pitt is the charismatic one here, with a cadence and style he has honed before in the auteur’s revisionist history universe; quite frankly, he’s really good in his every sequence and has uncanny chemistry with an animal co-star. With a less interesting and underwritten character, DiCaprio lacks intrigue and consistency. He’s ironically at his best in a “movie within the movie” when his character is actually acting. The discarded duo of cowboy and fighter with a backdrop of a classic industry in upheaval almost seems like the makers have Toy Story 2 on the mind. Tarantino is, of course, endlessly fascinated with movie lore, so he includes in his spotty ‘60s pastiche some gorgeously filmed milieus and commentary about the transition of the Golden Age of Hollywood to something much different. He eschews many of his usual flourishes, and without a better style to replace them, they are missed. Subplots with Al Pacino and Margot Robbie build on the film’s themes but don’t ever become center stage in a captivating way. Boy, are there some great set pieces and play sets, including a Hollywood Hills home, two insider Mexican restaurants and a former Western movie backlot inhabited by Charles Manson acolytes. It’s a film full of imaginative notions not fully realized. Like a grindhouse double feature, this feels like a talky two hour character study followed by a thirty minute short in which those characters actually get to do what we’ve been wanting them to do all along.