Indie Snapshot: Four Comedies and A Drama

by Ethan Alter August 3, 2012 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: Four Comedies and A Drama

Laugh it up at this weekend with four indie comedies, including The Babymakers and Celeste and Jesse Forever.

The Babymakers
Having gotten their youthful affinity for stoned state troopers and drunken beerfests out of their system, the Broken Lizard guys are finally ready to tackle more mature subject matter... kind of. In The Babymakers, the comics address the serious topic of parenthood, albeit with the same mix of R-rated raunch and proudly juvenile humor that have made many of their past films such guilty pleasures. Actually, this new picture probably shouldn't be classified as an official Broken Lizard production, since it only features two of the troupe's five members -- Jay Chandrasekhar (who also directs) and Kevin Heffernan -- both of whom are relegated to supporting roles, ceding center stage to Paul Schneider and Olivia Munn as Tommy and Audrey, a married couple eager to get in the family way.

After a full nine months of trying leaves them with no infant as payment for their Herculean reproductive efforts, they pay a visit to the doctor only to be informed that Tommy's sperm aren't up to the job of impregnating his wife. His male pride wounded, Tommy initially looks to his guy friends, including blustery Wade (Heffernan), weirdo Zig-Zag (Nat Faxon) and strategically aloof Darrell (Wood Harris), for support before remembering that they're all a bunch of immature idiots. In the meantime, everyone in the world seems ready and willing to pass along fertility advice to him and Audrey, whether they want to hear it or not. (Mostly not.) Then Tommy remembers how he paid for his beloved bride's engagement ring in the first place: that lucrative industry known as sperm donation. There's only one problem -- all of those samples (in which his little guys were swimming just fine, thank you very much) are gone save one and that remaining vial has also already been promised to a couple. So naturally, the only logical course of action is for Tommy to hire would-be criminal mastermind Ron Jon (Chandrasekhar) to plot a sperm bank break-in so that he can recover his precious deposit. One can only hope that if he and Audrey do successfully conceive a kid, it gets her brains and emotional temperament and his... um, good hair?

More conventional and less prone to random weirdness than typical Broken Lizard fare, most of the laughs generated by The Babymakers -- when it generates laughs at all -- tend to be good-natured chuckles rather than dry heaves. Chandrasekhar clearly has his eye on reaching that mainstream audience that turns up for every Judd Apatow sex comedy and thus makes sure to include Apatow-ian dashes of sentiment amidst all the penis and vagina jokes, as well as the frat boy antics of Tommy and his friends. Always the weak link on Parks and Recreation during his two-season stint on that show, Schneider doesn't exactly establish himself as the next great comic leading man here, although he is savvy enough to recognize that his primary function is to act as the straight man to the ringers in the supporting cast. His onscreen wife is able to deliver her punchlines with more punch, although Munn's clearly not as comfortable playing some of the script's emotional moments (fortunately, there aren't that many of those). Mostly The Babymakers coasts lazily along on the likability of the cast and the occasional amusing moment. It's no Beerfest, but hey, it also ain't The Dukes of Hazzard, the Lizards' last foray into mainstream moviemaking. So at least that's something to smile about.

Celeste and Jesse Forever
There are a number of romantic comedies that depict the arc of a romance, from its inception to its conclusion and, in most cases, its climactic resumption following a chase to the airport/train station/office building for a humiliatingly public declaration of eternal love. The refreshing twist of the Sundance-approved Celeste and Jesse Forever is that it picks up after the central relationship is kaputsville. Best friends and lovers since high school, Jesse (Andy Samberg) and Celeste (Rashida Jones, who also co-wrote the script with her own ex, Will McCormack) got married in their twenties and, after a few years of wedded bliss, woke up to discover that they love each other as pals but not as husband and wife. Nevertheless, they continue to live and hang out together in a domestic situation that their friends and co-workers are having an increasingly difficult time tolerating. Jesse takes it upon himself to finally man up and move out, but a small part of him still hopes for a reconciliation with his ex... that is, until he meets a new woman and decides he needs to commit to making that relationship work. Although she feigns happiness about Jesse's overdue transformation from slacker to grown-up, Celeste starts to wonder whether breaking up really was the right thing to do, especially after her first attempts at dating go terribly awry.

Stepping outside of their respective comic comfort zones, both Jones and Samberg are appealing and believable as a couple that aren't sure how to move on from what's been the defining relationship of their lives. They enjoy such a nice, easy chemistry together that the movie actually suffers when the plot requires them to spend more time apart. In fact, Samberg's presence diminishes significantly as the movie goes along, with Celeste's various personal dramas stealing the narrative focus instead. Maybe that's why the movie's second half feels somewhat aimless, becoming more of a series of tragi-comic vignettes about the perils of being a divorced, single woman in the modern age. Some of these scenarios ring true in funny, sad ways (like Celeste being unsure how to respond to the flirtations of a cute guy at her yoga class) while others feel more sitcom-ready (including Celeste's first date with a soulful photographer, which starts out great only to end in some exceptionally clumsy and ugly dry-humping). Jones's on-point performance helps navigate the film through some of its weaker sequences, though, and the final scene between her and Samberg is worth sticking around for -- a melancholic encounter that strives for (but naturally doesn't match) the bittersweet final scene of Woody Allen's seminal rom-com classic Annie Hall, which is a clear influence on this movie throughout. Hey, if you're searching for a doomed couple to model your own pair of star-crossed lovers after, you could do far worse than Annie and Alvy.

2 Days in New York
Julie Delpy's belated sequel to her 2007 self-penned and self-directed culture-clash comedy 2 Days in Paris once again stars the French actress as Marion, the neurotic, romance-challenged photographer who brought her equally neurotic boyfriend (Adam Goldberg) on a visit to her homeland in the earlier movie. Picking up a few years later in her adopted city, 2 Days in New York finds Marion now shacking up with Mingus (Chris Rock), a calm, collected music journalist. The duo enjoy a peaceful existence in their lovely lower Manhattan loft that they also share with their respective children from previous relationships. But their calm routine is shattered when Marion's eccentric family -- including boisterous papa Jeannot (Delpy's real-life father, Albert), hyper-critical sister Rose (Alexia Landeau) and her loser boyfriend Manu (Alexandre Nahon) -- makes the trip across the Atlantic for some face time. Although Mingus assures his lover that he'll be prepared for anything her relatives throw at him, he's caught completely off guard by their particular brand of Gallic craziness, to the point where it looks like this family visit could effectively end their previously solid relationship.

If you saw the previous film and were left absolutely cold by its rambunctious cast of characters and their petty behavior, New York isn't likely to win you over either. Both movies are essentially pitched as farce -- minus all the slapstick and slamming doors -- with the actors deliberately dialing up their performances to 11 and beyond (save for Rock, who is meant to be the lone sane person in a gallery of lunatics). The aggressiveness of the comedy will likely annoy some viewers, who are likely to spend the entire movie hoping that Marion's extended family is deported at the first possible opportunity. But if you accept that the whole movie is essentially a cartoon (or a puppet show, as Delpy shows us in a framing device) filled with caricatures who only occasionally come down to Earth, it's easier to accept, if not always enjoy. We're looking forward to the inevitable third installment, 2 Days in Pakistan, when Marion, her family and her new lover (paging Dev Patel) almost cause an international incident with their larger-than-life behavior. (2 Days in New York is currently available via Magnolia on Demand and will open in limited theatrical release on August 10)

From 2005 to 2009, Danish comic Frank Hvam kept all of Denmark laughing with his TV series Klovn (Clown to us Yanks) -- a semi-improvised show in the tradition of Curb Your Enthusiasm where the star played a fictionalized version of himself whose behavior was a constant source of irritation and conflict to those around him. A year after the finale aired, Hvam revived the character for a big-screen production that's now making its way to U.S. shores. But don't worry -- you don't have to have seen Klovn to understand Klown, which tells an all-new story that re-introduces the characters for international audiences. As the movie begins, our bumbling, bespectacled "hero" learns that his long-suffering girlfriend Mia (Mia Lyhne) is pregnant, but she's seriously considering not going through with the pregnancy based on her suspicions that Frank would be an absolutely atrocious father. To prove that he has the right stuff to raise a child, Frank drags along Mia's nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) on a canoe trip with his sex-crazed pal Casper (Casper Christensen). What he declines to tell her though, is that the main motivation for this trip is to reach a one-night only brothel party where prostitutes from all over the world will be flown in to pleasure the guys in Casper and Frank's social circle. En route to this event, the unlikely trio gets in a variety of wacky misadventures that seem designed to out-do The Hangover in terms of their political incorrectness and gross-out factor. (Let's just say that a running gag about Bo's small penis is paid off in a way that's both darkly funny and uncomfortably cringe-inducing at once.)

Shot fast and cheap on digital video, Klown deliberately avoids the polish of most American comedies, going for a raggedness that's meant to complement its jarring, unsettling brand of comedy. (It's similar to Sacha Baron Cohen's double-bill of Borat and Bruno in that way, where the cast and crew regularly improvised scenes on the fly.) How much you laugh at Frank and Casper's antics depends largely on your tolerance for self-humiliation and the spectacle of terrible people doing terrible things to each other. One could level the same charges at Curb of course, but that series has always offset its misanthropy through surprisingly deft storytelling as well as comic situations and a rich, varied cast of supporting players surrounding its star. Based on this movie anyway, Klown has a more limited comic range; the film is so set on upping the ante in every situation that it eventually runs out of funny places to go and settles for easy shock value over humor. It doesn't help that Frank is the only character with more than one kind of shtick; Casper's hyper-sexual aggression quickly grows tiresome, Bo is a doormat and the majority of the female characters are either humorless prudes or horny sluts (in that way, this movie is almost exactly like The Hangover). There are certainly laughs to be had here, but maybe Klown was more effective (and funnier) in thirty-minute doses on TV than dragged out to feature length.

Yet another one of those globe-spanning, everything-is-connected melodramas that were all the rage in the previous decade before exhausting their appeal, 360 follows a disparate cast of characters around the world whose stories manage to overlap in small, but significant ways. There's a grieving father (Anthony Hopkins) searching for his vanished daughter; a married businessman (Jude Law) who considers having a fling with a new-to-the-game prostitute (Lucia Siposov√°); his wife (Rachel Weisz), who has been carrying on her own affair with a Brazilian photographer for some time; and a recently released convict (Ben Foster) who is put in a situation where his criminal tendencies might be unleashed again. Screenwriter Peter Morgan (whose previous attempt at this kind of interconnected ensemble piece was Clint Eastwood's laughably bad Hereafter) based the movie in part on the famous 19th-century German play La Ronde and follows its practice of splitting the movie up into individual scenes that are tied together by the reappearance of characters rather than the repetition of specific plot points.

360 is the latest effort from celebrated City of God director Fernando Meirelles, who has yet to replicate the artistic and commercial success of that breakout 2002 movie. (Although his flawed, but fascinating, adaptation of the novel Blindness deserves a serious reappraisal at some point.) And while it's an efficiently mounted production, cutting between its multiple storylines without too much clutter or confusion, it's not a particularly compelling one. There are certainly individual scenes that work quite well (Hopkins in particular delivers a moving monologue that represents some of the best screen acting he's done in ages) but the whole tapestry isn't woven together in a dramatically effective way. Instead of uniting these characters in the same movie, 360 reinforces their distance from each other both geographically and in the quality of their individual stories.

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