ALL ABOUT STEVE
It's one thing for a movie to present its audience with hateful characters. It's quite another when the movie itself appears to hate its characters, and in the depressingly, almost sadistically unamusing All About Steve, very little reads beyond the filmmakers' contempt for the "lovable" whack-job they're purportedly championing. I've seen stupider movies this year - at least two or three of them - but I don't think I've endured one that annoyed me more than this new Sandra Bullock vehicle by director Phil Traill, which humiliates its star at every turn, and humiliates you for spending 100 minutes trying to make sense of it.
Not that, as one of the film's producers, that star is altogether blameless. In what might be the most charmless performance that this once-charming performer has yet given, Bullock plays crossword aficionado Mary Horowitz, a socially awkward, incessantly talkative type who's probably meant to be endearingly eccentric, but who actually comes of as, shall we say, more than a little touched. Mary winds up on a blind date with Steve (poor Bradley Cooper), the TV-news cameraman who decides - quickly and understandably - that she's not the woman for him. Plucky, potentially deranged Mary, though, refuses to take the hint. And through a series of circumstances that only screenwriter Kim Barker (of 2007's License to Wed) could devise, Mary begins stalking Steve and his crew from one Southwestern locale to another, with Steve's incredulity growing ever more panicked, Bullock's nattering growing ever more tiresome, and no one on All About Steve's filmmaking team apparently cognizant of how aggressively insulting the whole enterprise is.
As we're frequently asked to do with a Sandra Bullock comedy, let's look past the lackluster direction, the inconceivable plotting, and the time-killing storyline diversions that are actually more involving than the leading character's romantic woes. (Here, it's 20 minutes devoted to a news story about a baby born with an extra appendage; better a child with a third leg than Bullock with half a brain, I say.) What we're still stuck with is a movie that's truly schizophrenic in tone. If we're meant to roar at the abuse suffered by Mary, a teetering mess in her shiny red boots, why strike up the sad-bastard music whenever Bullock delivers her laughing-on-the-outside, crying-on-the-inside shtick? And if we're meant to feel for her, why make her the butt of so many jokes, and engage her in such ungainly slapstick? (And on that note, why give the film's lone funny moments to Thomas Haden Church's egomaniacal reporter, whose treatment of Mary is consistently cruel?) Beyond humor and narrative sense, All About Steve is infuriatingly lacking in any kind of empathy or humanity; it's the sort of thoughtless, unfeeling comedy that never should have been released, except, perhaps, into the wild, where it wouldn't be found even accidentally.
Roughly a half hour into the Mike Judge comedy - or rather, "comedy" - Extract, Jason Bateman's artificial-flavoring magnate is seen sitting at a bar, miserable about his wife's disinterest in sex, and contemplating an affair with his company's flirtatious new temp. His bartender buddy, played by Ben Affleck, provides him with a Xanax but quickly realizes that the pill Bateman just swallowed was, in actuality, a horse tranquilizer. As we've only been given a handful of minor chuckles with a third of the film already over, the audience is definitely primed for some long-overdue belly laughs. But what happens when the effects of Bateman's pill eventually kick in? Absolutely nothing - the man just acts a little sleepier and more despondent than he was before ingesting the tablet. And that's when it dawns on you: It's like the whole movie is on horse tranquilizers.
Extract isn't the unholy debacle that All About Steve is; it features some mildly funny throwaway sequences, and none of Judge's cast members embarrass themselves. (Some - particularly Affleck, David Koechner, and dim-bulb-par-excellence Dustin Mulligan - are actually quite good.) But in many ways it's a more dispiriting experience than Sandra Bullock's howler, not only because the movie is such a sad waste of talent, but because you're not even granted the luxury of actively hating it. This wan, affectless outing is so devoid of energy, personality, and even basic rooting interest that it suggests the cinematic equivalent of a coma, or at least a really long nap. (At the screening a friend and I attended, the only things keeping us alert were the snores from the gentleman three rows ahead of us.)
There would seem to be a lot going on in Extract: the impending sale of Bateman's business; the lawsuit filed by a worker (Clifton Collins Jr.) who lost a testicle in a job-related accident; the potential strike by disgruntled employees; Bateman's lust for Mila Kunis' doe-eyed con artist; his attempts to get wife Kristen Wiig to cheat before he does. Yet nothing that happens is of any real import - not even comedic import - and scenes continually end before delivering either a punchline or a point; one blandly serviceable, mildly hostile encounter simply meanders into the next with no regard for pacing or logic. (Or even the time-space continuum: Bateman gets in his car sporting a newly blackened eye, and before he reaches his destination, the shiner is all but gone.) With credits including Beavis & Butt-Head, King of the Hill, and Office Space, Judge has delivered no end of comic wonders over the years, but Extract finds the writer/director working at a dishearteningly low creative ebb. At one point here, while lamenting his profession's lack of conversational appeal, Bateman mutters, "Nobody cares about extract." Indeed.
Michael C. Hall looks to be having so much fun in Mark Neveldine's and Brian Taylor's futuristic thriller Gamer that, every now and again, he manages to make this vile and deeply offensive futuristic thriller somewhat bearable. Playing a psychopathic billionaire who amassed his fortune through video games featuring living (and frequently dying) human avatars, the Six Feet Under and Dexter performer chews the scenery, the script, and his co-stars with such ferocious abandon that the portrayal could have easily been ludicrous. It's not, though, because of the playfulness behind Hall's impish grin and quick-witted, unpredictable line readings; the actor lets you know that he knows the movie is a joke, and the mad gleam in Hall's eyes allows you to enjoy his unbridled hamminess without guilt. Whether kicking the crap out of Gerard Butler, condescending to Kyra Sedgwick with an elongated Southern drawl - as if to parody the actress' accent on The Closer - or lip-synching (and dancing, spectacularly) to Sammy Davis Jr.'s rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin," the clever and confident Hall, here, is a sight to behold.
Which doesn't mean that you necessarily should behold him. When Hall isn't around, the film is every bit the nightmarish, nauseating spectacle that Neveldine's and Taylor's Crank: High Voltage was this past spring. (Scorsese's forthcoming movie was scheduled for fall and pushed to February, yet these guys get two released in one year. Stunning.) It's best not to dwell on the experience; beyond some spiffy video-game graphics, Gamer is an appalling assemblage of stylized über-violence, maddeningly frenzied editing, and incoherent storytelling. I will say, however, that the filmmakers might have thought twice about dedicating so much screen time to the sweaty, half-naked, morbidly obese man masturbating in his basement, and that Gamer's camera routinely follows women's rear ends with a proximity that borders on the pornographic. This isn't cinematography on display here; it's a colonoscopy.