Have you ever had that tense dream when you show up for a final exam but missed the entire preceding semester of study? Or you appear on a stage to perform in a play but never memorized the script or blocking? Sure, you can get by with a little help from your friends, but your tour of duty will be dotted with some magical mysteries not easily solved. Even with the witty words of screenwriter Richard Curtis and music and lyrics of none other than The Beatles, Director Danny Boyle’s tonal troubles are here to stay in Yesterday (C-), his fussy maiden voyage into the romantic comedy genre. Sprinkle in a painfully miscast and unfunny Himesh Patel as the lead character, and base it all on a Twilight Zone style premise of “What if only one person on earth knew of the existence and song catalogue of The Beatles, and what if he were a singer who could pass off the tunes as his own?,” and you have a movie director seriously in need of a lot of hand holding. Only a lovely performance by Lily James, who lifts the love interest role into master class territory, keeps the plot grounded amidst Boyle’s kaleidoscopic swirl of perplexing supporting characters, floating fonts and fissures in the space-time continuum. A movie promising the Fab Four’s fanciful fare gets an uncomfortably competing and cloying dose of Ed Sheeran music (the musician plays himself) and very little joy or creativity in the live performances. The lead character is so wound up in guilt about the plagiarized origins of his source material that his music is robbed of its joy. This misbegotten effort is not without its occasional charms. For instance, there was some nice commentary about whether the presence of genius would even be noticed by a society marred by short attention spans. But the smiles and specific song you leave humming at the film’s finale don’t help harvest the fruit of Boyle’s often rotten strawberry field.
Jonathan Levine’s comedy set in the high stakes world of international diplomacy, Long Shot (B+), is equal parts shock and aw-shucks. Its central odd couple pairing is a meeting of hive minds and makes a wry statement about not always playing it safe, even in love and politics. Charlize Theron’s character is living in the bubble of a secretary of state role with eyes on the presidency when she encounters Seth Rogen’s schlubby ex-journalist turned speechwriter, and it’s a burst of unexpected laughs and chemistry as they embark on a world tour to save the planet, boost her likability polling and dodge a few unexpected hazards of the job. June Diane Raphael and O’Shea Jackson Jr. are supporting delights as the central duo’s witty advisors. If you’re not easily offended by vulgar sex and drug references, par for the course on the Rogen milieu, you’re in for one of the snappiest rom coms in quite a while. Theron steals the show as she reveals the vulnerability behind the statuesque veneer, especially in a sequence when she diffuses a global crisis while recovering from a night of particularly hardcore partying. Rogen enjoys his best role in years and gets to demonstrate his earnest side. The state of this union is quite satisfying.
Best known until now as a director of Step Up sequels, a Justin Bieber concert movie and flop flicks about G.I. Joe and Jem and the Holograms, Jon M. Chu seems an unlikely helmer of one of the first nearly all Asian American ensembles since 1993’s Joy Luck Club and one of the most satisfying romantic comedies since 1990’s Pretty Woman or 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, but here’s his film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians (A-), and it’s bliss. Although not a musical, the film simply sings. Although not entirely a fairy tale, it’s enchanting. Chu’s star is born, a crouching tiger ready to unabashedly entertain, and he draws spectacular chemistry from the luminous Constance Wu and the dashing Henry Golding. She’s a Chinese American professor invited to accompany her humble boyfriend to a wedding in his Singapore homeland where she quickly discovers he’s part of one of the country’s most wealthy families and heir to a fortune. Hilarity and heartbreak are in store abroad. Michelle Yeoh is incredibly fierce portraying the perfectionist matriarch-antagonist as a battle royale unfolds between family duty and the messiness of love. The film is splashy, soapy and sensational; you’ll want to book a trip to the opulent, exotic city it depicts: a place of glistening razzle dazzle dancing and locales, of kaleidoscopic fashion and costumes. The film veers into a few arch moments threatening to tonally derail it, but the committed cast members remain jubilant journeymen. American rapper Awkafina is a hoot as Wu’s sassy sidekick. There are also two popular American songs sung in the film’s native tongue, adding extra glitter and throwback to Chu’s fanciful fantasia. In a year when racial representation on screen has already delivered a stellar superhero film, it’s lovely to have such an enjoyable escapist romcom from the Asian perspective. This is one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year.
Note: The film opens wide August 15, 2018 after buzz building sneak previews. #CrazyRichAsians #GoldOpen
Despite appealing performers, Hollie Meyers-Shyer’s Home Again (D+) misses the mark in nearly every way. Reese Witherspoon plays an L.A.-based single mom whose brush with three plucky young filmmakers (Pico Alexander, Jon Rudnitsky and Nat Wolf) prompts an unconventional living situation. Candice Bergen and Michael Sheen are among those in the ensemble wasted by a phony series of unbelievably benign events. Nobody behaves convincingly in their designated profession. The biggest first world problem of all is a rom com that’s not funny or charming.
Writer and lead comic actress Amy Schumer couldn’t ask for a better feature film maiden voyage vehicle than Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck (B), a screwball character study shrouded in rom com clothing. Schumer’s central character is a boozy and sexually liberated magazine writer who meets her match in a well-grounded sports physician, warmly and effectively played by Bill Hader. Both Schumer and Hader are unconventional casting choices; and honestly, I wasn’t entirely convinced of their chemistry despite lived-in performances. But the film packs a comic punch with jabs at the mores of modern dating and has moments of poignancy in the heroine’s relationship with her misanthropic papa. There are shades of Pretty Woman and Bridesmaids as the film navigates some typical narrative arcs, and “Apatowesque” will now just be my adjective for overlong comedies. But as a sassy star is born, her film is a filling and funny frolic.
Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight (C-) is a very undernourished romantic comedy about a pompous magician rooted in realism (Colin Firth) endeavoring to out a skilled spiritual medium (Emma Stone) as a fraud while slowly surrendering to her charms. The film feels like a rushed first draft and a trifle of a notion with no standout performances. Squandering lovely settings in Germany and France and the goodwill of likable actors, the film is an unoriginal and labored dud. It’s not clear why Allen would care to share these characters or find them to advance his themes in any substantial way. The film falls into his category of lesser works.