Behold the island of misfit goys stuck together over the 1970 Christmas break at a New England prep school campus in Alexander Payne’s snappy and sentimental The Holdovers (A-). A grumpy instructor brilliantly inhabited by Paul Giamatti, a brainy student troublemaker beautifully portrayed by Dominic Sessa and the school’s head cook, a grieving mother flawlessly played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph are among the sterling ensemble of this seriocomedy about the unlikely bonds formed between surrogate families. Payne is a preeminent chronicler of the American experience, and he finds pockets of marvelous introspection in the seeds of the Me Decade as the cynical denizens who populate his story reflect on loneliness, loss and the lies people sometimes tell themselves to cope. That said, the film is often riotously funny amidst the piercing insights. This is the curmudgeon role for which Giamatti was born to play, as viewers watch the blowhard soften up over time. Sessa and Randolph provide the lead actor magnificent foils at two different generations and are vital contributors to one of the most endearing trios to share the screen of late. The skillful production design and mellow music capture a lovely innocence juxtaposed with the movie’s smartly sketched characters. The story could have used some tightening in a few key passages, and there are times when Randolph’s glorious character gets mildly sidelined and missed; but Payne’s picaresque with indelible characters is one for the history books.
A new movie from a generally sly observer in the director’s chair gives a little bear and a little bull but not enough of either to make a very interesting trip to the zoo. An interlocking ensemble of characters represents the haves and have nots of the modern American economy in Craig Gillespie’s often effective true-life dramedy Dumb Money (B). Paul Dano is a natural as iconoclast Keith Gill, a regular guy with an outrageous YouTube persona urging retail investors to buy and hold ascendant underdog GameStop stocks, setting in motion an epic showdown with entitled hedge fund managers and even seemingly well-meaning technologists who collectively don’t want to see their predictable cash cow of a system upended. Along the way the movie presents effective subplots featuring the likes of America Ferrera and Anthony Ramos as common folks scraping by with the most to gain, but the script doesn’t plumb the depths of their stories enough. Seth Rogen and Nick Offerman are among those playing the aloof elite, although their parts are rarely imbued with the bombast or bluster required to characterize them as full-fledged antagonists. Gillespie vividly captures the zeitgeist of a drifting American culture at the height of the pandemic and certainly generates pockets of pathos amidst all the mercenary mania. The film is most brilliant in the ways it is steeped in the specificity and nomenclature of a grassroots investing class changing the way the Wall Street game is played. It’s at times fascinating and occasionally riveting while rarely amounting to the contemporary classic it could have been.
Kelly Fremon Craig’s joyfully innocent adaptation of the Judy Blume young adult novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (A) is the book club conversation a generation has waited a half century to manifest. And it’s a modern-day film classic. Raised by a Christian mother (Rachel McAdams) and a Jewish father (Benny Safdie), a 12-year old girl (Abby Ryder Fortson) embarks on a series of questions about religion and faith while averting the preteen perils of life in the sixth grade. Craig magnificently evokes the 1970s milieu of the source material, with a spin the bottle smorgasbord of funny and heartwarming episodes ranging from fitting into a curious club to fitting into a bra. Fortson is a natural as the titular character at the center of her own set of crushes and crashes; she anchors the film with fortitude and nary a false move. She’s worthy of all accolades. Graduating from her own mean girls mentality, McAdams is exquisite as the eternally plucky mom, and Kathy Bates is a hoot as the family’s wry paternal grandmother. The film maintains sublime seriocomic delicacy as it balances glimpses at various belief systems and plumbs some taboos on the verge of adolescence. It’s heartwarming throughout, without a dash of cynicism. See it with someone you cherish.
Michael Showalter has made a cottage industry of finding the humor and humanity in tough situations such as terminal illnesses, and his latest directorial effort, Spoiler Alert (C+), presents some charming and underrepresented character types facing the Big Sick at the center of what would otherwise be a melodramatic “Movie of the Week” type format. Jim Parsons portrays real-life television critic Michael Ausiello, and Ben Aldridge plays his partner Kit Cowan who faces a cancer diagnosis. The film traces the duo’s unlikely romance, introduces some underused supporting characters including Sally Field as Kit’s mom and flashes to occasional strained sitcom tropes to punctuate the proceedings. Parsons is a wet blanket of a romantic lead, barely capable of bearing the burden of the story on his shoulders. Although often heartfelt and packing a few laughs and tears, the film doesn’t rise to the level of being very magnetic or memorable.
This is a movie in which a very small cast rises to the occasion. Sophie Hyde’s dramedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (B) tells the story of a retired school teacher and widow (Emma Thompson) who hires a twentysomething sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to help her catch up on what she’s been missing during years of the marriage and motherhood routine. Most of the story take place in one single hotel room, which sometimes feels like a two-hander stage play, but the themes and acting elevate the material considerably. Thompson is superb, all nerves while striving to be proper amidst a situation she didn’t imagine herself engaging. In the thankless role opposite such an acting titan, McCormack holds his own and gets a chance to open up as well. There are some dubious choices adding tension to the final act, but ultimately this talky film is a delight. The movie does a good job exploring what it’s like to achieve intimacy, even when everything one has learned up to this point builds up walls around close relationships. It’s a poignant and often funny tale and tackles issues which aren’t often addressed onscreen.
Sometimes DIY extends to people, and this latest twist on the Jerry Maguire archetype doesn’t give its prickly prince too far to rise to get out of his rut and assume his comic crown. Judd Apatow’s dramedy The King of Staten Island (B-) is a splendid showcase for slacker comedian Pete Davidson, who plays a 24-year-old stoner tattoo artist doing little with his life while cohabitating with his widowed mother (Marisa Tomei). The millennial protagonist’s world is upended when mom gets a new boyfriend (Bill Burr), which leads to a steady climb toward clarity and consciousness. Despite Apatow’s leisurely pace and uncertain tone, Davidson shines in the role of a character ascending to independence, with a sometimes sarcastic and occasionally soulful perspective. His wide eyes, stick figure physique and zany body art make him a perfect “rejuvenile” in search of a raison d’être. Tomei is also a delight with humor to match her obtuse offspring, but Burr is kind of a nothing-burger of a character as the newfound father figure. The function of surrogate dad as a way to stimulate the film’s man-child into a new awakening is less interesting than Davidson’s sequences bantering with pothead friends, his misanthropic exploits in odd jobs and his witty interactions with kids who are largely alien to him. There are dollops of wry jokes and fun pranks, but much of the film feels like it’s on an anti-depressant with few peaks and valleys. Still, the film has heart and is often quite amusing. Prepare for another inexplicably protracted Apatow running time, and just enjoy Davidson’s sprawling new rise to reels of royalty.
One of the best examples of investigative journalism at Fox News was actually the investigation of the journalist organization itself, as chronicled in Jay Roach’s ripped-from-the-headlines sexual harassment drama Bombshell (B). Charlize Theron brilliantly channels alpha anchor Megyn Kelly, who follows the disturbing trail of manipulative behavior by the news network’s top brass (a terrifying John Lithgow in pancaked prosthetics as the late Roger Ailes). The film is consistently engrossing even though often surface level. Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie are also effective in their roles as news purveyors who find themselves the news subjects (I wish the central trio were on screen together!), and Kate McKinnon is solid as an unexpected ally. The parade of real-life lookalikes gets a bit distracting as central characters are given short shrift (look, it’s someone playing Geraldo!), but the film will go down in history for showcasing a fascinating formula for how a #MeToo movement could take hold even in the most insular of places.
James Franco directs and stars in the lead role as a real-life filmmaker of a notorious contemporary cult movie in The Disaster Artist (B). It’s not necessary to have seen the source material (I have, and right now getting a DVD or watching rogue clips on the Internet is the only way to see it) – the colossally bad 2003 romantic drama The Room – but it helps to have a general idea of why it’s one of the worst movies ever made (namely, a loopy leading man/director, preposterous characters, staggering continuity errors and an inexplicable plot, not to mention some of the most oddball antics ever committed to film – including a really awkward three-way bedroom romp and “football in tuxedos”). Franco imbues the behind-the-scenes dramedy with an insider’s look at the abject miracle it is to find success in Hollywood, and the valiant attempts, even those that are foolhardy. Partnered with his own brother Dave Franco, the film is largely a buddy film about two misfits on a mission. James is at his unhinged best as the lanky auteur with a mop of a haircut and a Lothario swagger (it’s not completely clear what he wants or how he got the money to bankroll his film or even the origins of his unusual accent). Dave is quite charming as the more conventional leading man and does a credible job standing by his main man despite the train wreck that ensues from script to screen in the movie-within-the-movie. The inside Hollywood quotient is high with small parts for Melanie Griffith and Sharon Stone as well as contributions from comedic comrades such as Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron and Ari Graynor. It’s breezy fun, and the reenactments of incredibly bad sequences from The Room are precise and priceless. Alas it doesn’t add up to complete masterpiece status in its own right, but strong production values and the dynamic brotherly duo at the film’s center make it an enjoyable romp.