Even though the raunchy comedy Good Boys, like the Jonah Hill/Michael Cera slapstick Superbad, is about nerdy best friends prepping for a party and boasts Superbad screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg as producers, I didn't spend much time at the new film reflecting on its 2007 cousin. I did, however, think a lot about Bugsy Malone, Alan Parker's 1976 kiddie musical that imagined a stereotypical 1930s gangster flick cast entirely with teens and tweens (among them a very young Jodie Foster and Scott Baio). In that cult hit, characters were annihilated by machine guns that shot whipped cream. In Good Boys, the ammo is upgraded to paint balls. Ah, progress.
But also like Bugsy Malone, there's an inherent sweetness in this latest Rogen/Goldberg production that keeps it from merely being a one-joke “Look at the cute tykes playing awful grown-ups!” freak show. Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, and Brady Noon play sixth-graders Max, Lucas, and Thor, whose self-appointed cool as sole members of their “Beanbag Boys” club is tested by an invitation to their first middle-school make-out bash – a panic-ensuing event whose lead-up involves an abducted drone, pilfered drugs, a skeevy frat house, a horrifically dislocated shoulder, and a life-size sex toy mistaken for a CPR dummy. Some of the antics in director/co-writer Gene Stupnitsky's prepubescent gross-out are really funny, among them the boys' encounter with Stephen Merchant's weirdo and Thor's attempt to sneak a stolen beer past Sam Richardson's unimpressed cop. A few are cruelly upsetting, such as the kids' terrified attempt to cross a six-lane super-highway. (Your knowing that the actors were in no legitimate danger doesn't make witnessing this ill-considered sequence any easier.) Yet what kept me laughing, and surprisingly moved, almost throughout was the youths' utter sincerity as their attempts to look, sound, and behave like adults were consistently waylaid by their being, you know, 12.
Despite the running gag eventually growing old, if not quite as quickly as I expected, hearing hard-R profanities from the cherubic mouths of Tremblay, Williams, Noon, and others – including the remarkable Izaac Wang as a five-foot icon of awesome named Soren – is good for plenty of giggles, especially when the curses are just tossed off with conversational casualness. (Williams proves most adept at scoring laughs from under his breath, and also pulled off my personal-favorite bit in the film when the depressed Lucas cried his way through a school-choir rendition of “Walkin' on Sunshine” and told his pals, “That song always makes me sad.”) Good Boys, though, is at its finest when its title characters are trying, and desperately failing, to act mature: peppering sentences with words they don't understand such as “nymphomaniac” and “feminist”; engaging in a hurtful verbal fight that ends with all three boys sobbing, 10 feet from one another, on their individual walks home; Lucas telling the others that his parents are divorcing and Thor, with a steady hand on Lucas' shoulder, asking his friend, “What did you do?” (That one, at my screening, elicited both a cackle and an empathetic “Aw-w-w-w!”) And while Superbad concluded with the touching suggestion of impending separation, Stupnitsky's comedy takes its heroes' inevitable trek one step further, making Max, Lucas, and Thor keenly aware of their trajectories yet clear-eyed, and big-hearted, enough to accept them. It has major flaws and more uncomfortable and merely blah moments than I would've liked. But overall, I adored Good Boys, and might have even if it didn't climax with a middle-school-musical production of Rock of Ages that any sane adult would pay handsomely to see. Thor, in a frizzy Stacee Jaxx wig, belted out Foreigner's “I Wanna Know What Love Is,” and for a few brief moments while watching this hysterically inappropriate junior-high pageant, I absolutely did know.
WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE
A question mark isn't quite the only thing missing from Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Richard Linklater's engaging yet oddly unconvincing adaptation of Maria Semple's 2012 bestseller. Played by Cate Blanchett, the Bernadette under consideration is an innovative, prize-winning architect who abandoned her thriving career for a theoretically quiet life in Seattle with her Microsoft-genius husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and tween daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). Now an anxious homebody with a dog, a sprawling yet dilapidated art-project house, and a virtual assistant in India, Bernadette is a wreck – and what's especially strange about the film (co-written by Linklater, Vincent Palmo Jr., and Holly Gent Palmo) is how its title character's errant, possibly psychotic behavior is instead viewed as wistfully, comically erratic. Blanchett is in full, Blue Jasmine-breakdown mode here: helplessly fidgety, monologuing a mile a minute, crying so that her runny mascara makes her resemble a statuesque raccoon. Yet more often than not, despite Blanchett's unsettling performance, Bernadette's pain is played for laughs whether she's making sardonic mincemeat of Kristen Wiig's incensed neighbor or hoarding prescription pills because they make attractive filler for a glass bowl. It's as if the script's Bernadette and Blanchett's Bernadette had never been formally introduced.
Because Linklater doesn't seem to know what to make of his lead, neither does anyone else, and the quizzical expressions of the gifted supporting crew come to mirror our own. (Crudup, in particular, appears vexed as to how to play a brilliant man who can't solve his own domestic problem – but happily, the actor once again proves to be an effortlessly magnetic screen presence.) Yet despite the awkward, unsatisfying blend of comedy and drama, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is still filled with enough delightful fringe touches to make it an easy sit. We're treated to lengthy, fascinating snippets of a video showcasing Bernadette's architectural gifts, with Laurence Fishburne, Megan Mullally, David Paymer, and Steve Zahn amusingly recruited as the talking heads (and, unless I'm mistaken, an uncredited Reese Witherspoon providing narration). A late-film voyage to Antarctica allows for some gorgeous visuals and a welcome change from the natural gloom of Washington. Bernadette and Bee share a winning, full-throated duet on Cyndi Lauper's “Time After Time” during a car ride in the rain. And in the one shot we get of Elgie making a presentation at work, he introduces a new Microsoft device that's essentially a sticker you attach to your forehead that transcribes dictated words as you think them. Not to be ungrateful for Linklater's latest, but why was this a throwaway moment and not the entire movie?!
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
There's a fine line, in entertainment, between “feel-good” and “obnoxious,” and at the halfway mark of director Gurinder Chadha's Blinded by the Light, I'm afraid the film crossed it to the point of no return. Boasting a true-story narrative that should've been undiluted catnip for this Springsteen fan, Chadha's offering, set primarily in 1987 England, finds a Pakistani teen (Viveik Kalra's Javed Khan) tired and bored in his oppressive, lower-middle-class life among racists and boors. Until, that is, Javed's miserable existence is suddenly buoyed by his exposure to the greatness of The Boss, whose propulsive rock anthems and hardscrabble lyrics give the neophyte writer a sense of identity and purpose, as well as an excuse to cut the sleeves off all his flannel shirts. For a while, especially when Javed first hears “Dancing in the Dark” outdoors amidst a theatrically violent windstorm, this is charming stuff, and the intensely endearing Kalra has a beautiful face for the necessary musical epiphany – you see nothing but pure, unabashed fandom in his beaming expression. Yet for the next 90 minutes of Chadha's two-hour movie, Javed's unbridled Bru-u-uce!!! fanaticism remains so unwavering, permeating every aspect of the high schooler's waking (and probably sleeping) hours, that the kid starts to seem more than a little unhealthy in his devotion. And when, at the one-hour mark, Chadha has Javed, his best bud (Aaron Phagura), his girlfriend (Nell Williams), and their whole damned town perform a “spontaneous” song-and-dance number set to the entirety of “Born to Run,” the forced glee and haphazard staging and frightful choreography were enough to make even this decades-long Springsteen admirer want to burn his copy of Born in the U.S.A.
There have, of course, been plenty of great movies made about obsessives. You can't make a great one, however, if you're unwilling to admit that your lead character is an obsessive, and no one involved with Blinded by the Light seems to realize that, as presented, Javed's fandom becomes inseparable from addiction. He listens to Springsteen cassettes on headphones whether reading, writing, eating, or merely walking from class to class. He answers basic questions with re-purposed Springsteen lyrics. He composes essays about Bruce. He crafts poetry about Bruce. He makes school-assembly speeches about Bruce. He disobeys his father's orders and travels to America to visit Bruce's New Jersey stomping grounds. (Granted, his father, played by Kulvinder Ghir, is an authoritarian blowhard and priggish cultural stereotype, but still … .) And even if you want to give the film's Javed the benefit of the doubt by saying that his hero worship is a passing teen phase, the end credits prove you wrong with the information that the character's real-life inspiration – journalist and author Sarfraz Manzoor – has attended more than 150 Springsteen concerts to date, a point backed up by several photos of the maniacally happy Manzoor standing next to his idol. (The look on the Boss' face in these pics is priceless, as his subtext appears the same in all of them: “This guy again?!”) Blinded by the Light has its moments of sweetness, a fair amount of legitimate racial tension, and, of course, all those killer songs. It's also clichéd and formulaic and deathly predictable, and never earns those “The feel-good movie of the year!”-style plaudits plastered on its poster. Its hero's name may be Javed Khan, but it may as well be Travis Bickle.
47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED
In 2017's underwater thriller 47 Meters Down, directed by Johannes Roberts, a pair of scuba-diving sisters found themselves terrorized by a school of great white sharks. In its sequel 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, also directed by Roberts, a pair of scuba-diving step-sisters find themselves terrorized by a school of great white sharks. So the movies are similar, yet also … . Well, no, they're just similar, albeit with the new film offering up a few more potential victims and fewer – by which I mean zero – hallucinations due to oxygen deprivation. I actually kind of missed those, considering they gave the original a source of tension beyond its toothy predators. But like its predecessor, Uncaged is still a fair amount of trashy B-movie fun, with the composing duo of tomandandy again providing one of their signature nerve-fraying scores, and Roberts again delivering enough satisfying jolts (at least five or six of them) over 90 minutes to make you not necessarily mind the contrived nature of the plotting and dopey repetition of the dialogue. Their contributions, however, can't quite make up for the murky photography making it fiendishly difficult to know what's happening to which of our four underwater heroines (this despite the characters being of varied races). And they really don't make up for the irredeemable blandness of the heroines themselves, two of whom are played by daughters of Jamie Foxx and Sylvester Syallone. Like the rest of the Uncaged cast, they're not bad, but for the young ladies' next get-together, might I suggest a nice, relaxing pool party instead?
THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2
Did I like The Angry Birds Movie 2? Who cares. My five-year-old friend who graciously accompanied me to a screening lo-o-o-oved it, has reportedly been quoting it for days, and now calls it her favorite movie ever. (This would be easier to bear if her previous favorite wasn't the far-superior Little Shop of Horrors.) But even though my enjoyment of director Thurop Van Orman's animated-comedy sequel paled next to my enjoyment of watching my friend enjoy it, I did laugh out loud on more than a few occasions. The subplot that found a trio of adorable hatchlings trying to save their unborn, shell-covered sisters was good for several giggles, especially when their rescue plans landed them – in a turn of events my young friend easily predicted – in outer space. The casting of Leslie Jones and Tiffany Haddish as mother-and-daughter eagles provided some vocal amusement, as did several of the line readings by Josh Gad, Awkwafina, and Peter Dinklage. The clever incorporation of pop hits could compose an entire, cheerful K-Tel soundtrack. And when a group of our heroes, in costumed disguise as a tremendous dodo bird, made un-subtle attempts at stealing a waistband key card from a hulking eagle at a public urinal, I cackled so hard that my five-year-old pal shot me a look suggesting “What the hell are you laughing at?!” Although I personally found the colorful, antic, pun-filled The Angry Birds Movie 2 kind of meh, it proved just about perfect for someone just entering kindergarten. Give the kid a few years, and she'll find that restroom scene just about perfect, too.