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Indie Snapshot: Bad Chemistry

by Ethan Alter March 14, 2014 2:54 pm
Indie Snapshot: Bad <i>Chemistry</i>

Don't let the attractiveness of Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde seduce you into watching the terrible Better Living Through Chemistry. You'd do better with any of these other three indie movies instead.

Pity, if you will, the plight of middle-class white dude, Douglas Varney. His bitchy wife won't sleep with him; his overweight kid won't talk to him; his gruff father-in-law doesn't respect him; hell, pretty much everyone in his small town thinks he's a loser and all because he tries to be a decent, upstanding guy. What Doug needs to improve his lot in life is to stop being nice and start getting real -- real in this case meaning popping lots of custom-made drugs, plotting revenge on his many enemies and carrying on a non-stop adulterous fuck-fest with the knockout trophy wife who is inexplicably attracted to him. That's the odious message contained in Better Living Through Chemistry, a reverse-superhero movie that preaches that the true "heroes" are those who put their own selfish needs before the communal good. A director like, say, Alexander Payne would likely tease a healthy amount of self-aware satire out of the central character's delusions, but writer/directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier actually appear to believe what they're selling and force their overqualified ensemble -- which includes Sam Rockwell as Doug, Michelle Monaghan as his spouse and Olivia Wilde as the out-of-his-league mistress -- to play it straight. An actor who is at his best when sticking it to the man, Rockwell is stymied when tasked with playing the dorky cuckold, only hitting his stride when Doug starts acting out. But the movie's characters are so hateful and the sense of humor so flat, it's impossible to derive any dark pleasure from seeing this zero morph himself into an anti-hero. It's a comedy that OD's on its own smug sense of entitlement.

If there's still a film industry in 20 years when Rockwell has hit the big 6-0, it's easy to picture him playing roles like Nick, the grumpy old man Jim Broadbent plays in the geriatric two-hander Le Week-End. Previously a professor of modest renown, Nick has seen his job and the state of his marriage to Meg (Lindsay Duncan) deteriorate thanks to his own self-absorption and unwillingness to change with the times. While it's too late to fix his professional situation, he's finally made an effort at a last-ditch attempt to improve his matrimonial standing, jetting off with Meg for a two-day trip to Paris. But things don't exactly go swimmingly, with the two disagreeing over hotel rooms, disagreeing about what to do in regards to their lay about adult son and revisiting past sins… like a fling Nick had years ago and is now retroactively attempting to justify. While the role would be in an elder Rockwell's wheelhouse, it's something of a departure for Broadbent, who more commonly plays kinder, gentler old men. He attacks the part with gusto, though, allowing the audience to understand Nick without forcing them to necessarily find him sympathetic. (That's a trick that Better Living Through Chemistry, for example, doesn't pull off.) It helps that he has a strong scene partner like Duncan (as well as Jeff Goldblum in a small role as a former colleague who has gone on to reach the kind of prominent career plateau Nick never quite attained), who never makes the predictable choice in any scene. Director Roger Michell's picturesque shooting of Paris, coupled with Hanif Kureishi's densely written screenplay and the improvised feel of the performances can't help but recall the second chapter in Richard Linklater's Before series, Before Sunset. And while Nick and Meg may not be quite the power couple that Jesse and Celine are, their ultimate willingness to accept each other -- flaws and all -- means that younger couple could have worse role models to look up to.

On the documentary front, Matt Wolf's Teenage reconstructs the origin of teen culture as we know it today (in the Western world at least) exclusively through archival film and television footage from the turn of the century on. Kicking off in the early 1900s when children were sent to work alongside their parents in factories and sweatshops as soon as they hit the age of ten (and sometimes younger), the film presents how the strong labor union movement during that period eventually reformed the law, giving adolescents other options than indentured servitude… like the military, which made going off to fight in World War I seem like a glamorous life choice. Those that survived the war were then "rewarded" with the youth-led Jazz Age, which temporarily made them the center of the universe until the Depression and World War II once again put limitations on their freewheeling ways. (All this footage, by the way, is accompanied by narration borrowed from diary entries penned by actual teenagers from the period and read by a cast that includes Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw.) Most likely due to the availability of footage, Wolf keeps his point-of-view limited to America and Europe, especially Germany where the teens in that nation became fodder for Hitler's Youth League. That narrow focus is understandable, but it's slightly disappointing that Wolf doesn't contrast the experiences of Western teenagers with those living in the Far East. (Considering the heavy focus on World War II, for example, it would have been interesting to see the expectations placed on Japanese teenagers versus German teens.) A bigger flaw with the film, though, is that it ends too early; Wolf fades to black in the '50s, just before the world's biggest teenquake that would have seismic repercussions going forward. Though it has interesting passages, overall Teenage feels like a trailer for the yet-to-be-completed main feature.

It was something of a surprise when the hand-drawn French cartoon Ernest & Celestine nabbed a Best Animated Feature nod when the mighty Pixar failed to do so with Monsters University. But once you've seen the movie, it's easy to understand why. This slender, but sweet buddy comedy boasts lovely 2D animation, a great story and, best of all, a distinctly original world that keeps revealing new surprises. Opening in an orphanage for wayward mice, the film finds parentless rodent Celestine poised to enter her society's main profession: dentistry, taking the baby teeth lost by the bear population that lives atop the mice's underground metropolis. On her first reconnaissance mission as a "tooth fairy," Celestine barely escapes with her life and winds up falling into the clutches of homeless bear Ernest, who manages to refrain from making a meal of her and instead becomes her unlikely friend. Dubbed for its U.S. release with the voices of Forest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy in the title role, Ernest & Celestine is a change of pace for the directing team of Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar (joined here by Benjamin Renner), who previously made the hilariously anarchic stop-motion comedy, A Town Called Panic in 2009. Ernest & Celestine's sense of humor is gentler and quieter, but it's no less delightful. Don't get me wrong: I understand why Frozen claimed this year's Oscar, but if I could have cast a vote, it would have been for this bear and his mouse buddy.

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