BLADES OF GLORY
It's goofy, it's obvious, and several of its inspirations are only borderline successful, but with the exception of David Fincher's Zodiac, the figure-skating comedy Blades of Glory is the most thoroughly enjoyable movie I've yet seen in 2007. It's also, quite possibly, the best, most unexpectedly clever work of its type since The 40-Year-Old Virgin. How do I even begin to describe how surprising this is?
The signs, after all, were not promising. Though, amazingly, I had managed to avoid seeing even one theatrical or television trailer for the film, I was certainly aware of its premise - macho-blowhard skater Will Ferrell and fey-dork skater Jon Heder form the sport's first male-male competitive team - and was already cringing at the achingly unfunny possibilities. After the recent, painful antics of the Wild Hogs, how many more offensive-posing-as-progressive gay-panic gags could the slob-comedy genre endure this year? (Plenty more, as it turns out; before the Blades of Glory screening, the audience was treated to a preview for the forthcoming Adam Sandler-Kevin James "outing" I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, which finds their defiantly straight characters posing as a gay married couple. Hilarity, I'm sure, will ensue.)
From the start, though, there are indications that Blades of Glory will be a lot sharper than you may anticipate, not least of which is that fact that the leads' introductory routines are really funny. When Heder's frosted blonde Jimmy MacElroy first takes to the rink, he seems such a wispy, prissy thing that - despite the laughs generated by his space-age wardrobe - you feel like you've gleaned his one-joke character even before he's told the joke. The joke, however, is on us, because Heder throws himself into the role with unselfconscious abandon; this buck-toothed dufus is absolutely convinced of his graceful prowess on the ice, and his choreography achieves the zenith in androgynous self-regard. (Blades of Glory is the first film since Napoleon Dynamite that allows Heder to be a robust physical comedian.)
Similarly, you may feel you've seen it all before when Ferrell's alcoholic, sex-addicted bruiser Chazz Michael Michaels appears; as Anchorman and Talladega Nights proved, the comic's forte is parodying this sort of type-A man's-manliness. However, from the moment Chazz begins his routine (to Billy Squier's "The Stroke"), Ferrell's you-know-you-want-me Alpha Male gliding is hysterically confident; Chazz is so seedily repellent that he's positively endearing. During the film's first 20 minutes, directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon throw a lot of inventive touches into the mix - including a terrific "A-ha!" moment when coach Craig T. Nelson watches the skaters brawl and realizes the possibilities inherent in their partnership - yet we're mostly carried along by Ferrell's and Heder's utter comic fearlessness.
As much as we may be enjoying these early scenes, though, there lies the distinct feeling that The Fun Can't Last; the material all but demands sniggering jokes involving hands on asses, and crotches in faces, and other sights guaranteed to make mainstream audiences go "Ewww!" (We await continual, PG-13 versions of Borat's nude-wrestling match.) But Speck and Gordon, blessedly, are one step ahead of us. Before Chazz's and Jimmy's debut performance as a team, the filmmakers show a clip from a televised sports program, in which people on the street give their thoughts on this unisexual pairing, and the prevailing opinion is summed up with one man's "As if figure-skating wasn't gay enough before." This feeling is not lost on Chazz and Jimmy, who know how ridiculous their match-up may seem - the movie's shrewdest move was making the effeminate Jimmy every bit the heterosexual that Chazz is - and who, upon their introduction, greet the crowd's leery silence with understandable nervousness.
And then the damnedest thing happens. As the strains of Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" are amplified through the rink, Chazz and Jimmy start their routine ... and it's great. (For the movie audience, it's also hilarious.) The skaters' combination of athleticism, unconventionality, and what can only be called heart takes the crowd by complete surprise, and their initial hostility gives way to sincere appreciation; when Jimmy takes a tumble, the spectators gasp, the duo compose themselves, and the amphitheater goes nuts. By the end of the routine, Chazz and Jimmy are again the darlings of the skating world, and what's incredible is that you believe they actually could be; the fans' approval is touching, and surprisingly realistic, in a very American, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps way. From that point on, the movie features plenty of gags, but in general, they're not mean-spirited ones; the true subversion of Blades of Glory lies in how sweet it is.
Not that the film is devoid of satisfying nastiness, mostly delivered by the priceless pairing of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. (The real-life marrieds also played accidental marrieds on TV's Arrested Development.) As a competing brother-sister act, the actors are so vibrant in their comedic villainy that they make the film's rather wheezy plot complications work through sheer magnetism; Arnett can score laughs through the insinuating way he lounges on a polar-bearskin rug. (Their climactic routine, with Arnett's JFK preventing an overdose by Poehler's pill-popping Marilyn Monroe, would be a classic if we were able to glimpse more than a few seconds of it.) Their scenes together are fantastic, but then so is Jimmy's first date with Jenna Fischer's blushing ingénue, and the agonizingly awkward chase with Arnett trailing Ferrell - both on skates - through downtown Montreal (their escalator encounter is perfection), and Ferrell's and Heder's peerless finale, performed to Queen's Flash Gordon theme ... .
But why ruin it? Blades of Glory is Hollywood escapism of the most delightful kind, and far be it for me to give away the goods. Before the movie's opening, a friend admitted being worried that all of the film's best moments were being shown in the previews. Again, I didn't see the previews, but unless they, like the movie itself, were 95 minutes long, I'm guessing that they couldn't have been.
TMNT and MEET THE ROBINSONS
As a newbie to the world of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - I missed falling into the heroic reptiles' age demographic by about a decade - I was happy to see the computer-animated TMNT with a friend who grew up following their adventures and filled me in on plot points I would've been clueless about. He seemed entertained by the movie but a little disappointed. I was just entertained; the film is zippy and amusing and, at 85 minutes, exactly the right length. Or, at least, the right length for its material - in Disney's similarly-CGI-ed Meet the Robinsons, that 85 minutes proves positively excruciating. This bafflingly incoherent assemblage of sci-fi tropes is so hyperactive that it never gives any of its many, many ideas the chance to jell; it steals notions from about a dozen family entertainments and never finds a style - or even a decent joke - of its own. Apparently, the film is based on a popular children's book. And here I thought it was based on Attention Deficit Disorder.