It's nearly impossible to be excited by a movie that merely fulfills your expectations. It's also nearly impossible to be disappointed by one when your expectations are merely that it be lighthearted, fast-paced, and funny, and your expectations are met. And so it is with The Hustle, director Chris Addison's remake of 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Steve Martin and Michael Caine (which was itself a remake of 1964's Bedtime Story with Marlon Brando and David Niven). This time around, it's Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson in the roles of con artists duping the wealthy in the French Riviera, and from its title to its trailer to it being the latest reboot retro-fitted for female stars, nothing about our advance awareness of the movie suggested that Addison's feature-film debut might, in fact, be special. It's not. Yet it is lighthearted, fast-paced, and funny, and at no point are its leads mandated by the script to Become Better People. By the time the end credits roll, they may actually be Worse.
I personally think this material was best-served in its Broadway-musical incarnation, given that composer David Yazbek's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels lyrics boast the fiendish wit inherent in the show's Machiavellian scams, and that the built-in romance of the Riviera should just naturally encourage inhabitants to sing. Expertly staged scenes of visual and verbal slapstick, though, prove fine replacements for songs, and The Hustle is happily filled with them. One of the film's chief delights is that neither of its game, inventive comic stars is required to play straight woman to the other, and both are given ample opportunities here to strut their stuff. Hathaway's beautifully modulated silliness is at its most delectable in her series of ridiculous accents (her finest being the one she employs as a strict German therapist), but she's similarly confident and imaginative whether acting the role of dim-bulb extraordinaire or choking on a decorative marble she mistakes for an hors d'oeuvre. Rebel Wilson, meanwhile, does her Rebel Wilson thing, but with far more style – and much better jokes – than she had in February's Isn't It Romantic. No one at present, not even standard-bearer Melissa McCarthy, literally throws herself into physical-comedy routines with more gusto than Wilson. And while I spent more time grinning than laughing at The Hustle, I did cackle during Wilson's con-artist training sessions involving knives, champagne corks, and a makeshift pommel-horse, to say nothing of her blind-woman act after she and Hathaway take on a new mark played by the boyishly sweet Alex Sharp, whose hoodie-wearing tech billionaire looks about seven hours past puberty.
If you're familiar enough with 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to know what it means that Sharp (a recent Tony winner for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) is playing the Glenne Headly role, very little that happens in Addison's remake will come as a surprise. It probably won't come as a surprise regardless. And that's too bad, because in movies ranging from The Sting to David Mamet's House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner to the Ocean's heist flicks – including last summer's female-driven reboot Ocean's Eight – narrative surprise is instrumental to the fun. (Ironically, it was Hathaway's character who proved the biggest of Ocean's Eight's twists.) But The Hustle's quartet of screenwriters at least serves up plenty of juicy throwaway banter and clever insults disguised as compliments; I particularly loved it when, after Dean Norris' rich Texan attempted to woo her with such nicknames as “cupcake,” “peanut-butter cup,” and “snickerdoodle,” Hathaway cooed, “I'm helpless against your food-themed endearments.” There's solid enjoyment courtesy of Ingrid Oliver and Nicholas Woodeson as Hathaway's allies, the latter of whom absolutely nails the one line he's allowed to deliver. And even when the comedy underwhelms, Anne Dudley's charming, mischievous score and costumer Emmy Fryer's nutball-chic wardrobe help keep the action rolling, tumbling, and pratfalling along nicely. Its aims may be minor, but The Hustle still offers doses of major pleasure.
The strangely all-caps POMS can be effectively summarized in four words – Diane Keaton cheerleader comedy – and director Zara Hayes' and screenwriter Shane Atkinson's aging-pep-squad entertainment is barely worth more than four words of analysis. But I did spend much of the movie wondering how, during filming, Keaton must have felt realizing that someone in the cast, for maybe the first time in her career, was actually out-mugging her. Despite her infrequently first-rate portrayals in such titles as Something's Gotta Give, Morning Glory, and last spring's Book Club, the star has spent most of her screen time this millennium overacting like mad, her determinedly eccentric readings and outsize expressions only emphasizing the inherent emptiness of her roles. (Watching Keaton in And So It Goes and Love the Coopers and The Big Wedding has been like watching an unfunny, ambulatory nervous breakdown in designer slacks.) In POMS, though, Keaton's off-putting, out-of-character oddness finds its match in the usually subdued Jacki Weaver's roaring caricature of tipsy, dirty-minded blowsiness, and the actress' visible joy in going for broke – combined with Keaton's unhidden amazement at Weaver's brazenness – makes the film far more engaging than it otherwise might've been.
POMS finds Keaton, Weaver, and their retirement-community friends forming a cheerleading club and threatening to take their act on the road, earning the ire of their more modest neighbors, their spouses and children, and a group of mean-girl high-schoolers aghast that septuagenarians would even think to compete with them. (I know warring squadrons are a staple of cheerleader comedies, but are teens today really so cruel as to laugh directly in the faces of women old enough to be their grandmas?) It's contrived as hell, of course, as well as shamelessly sentimental, deathly predictable, and overflowing with tepid, borderline-ageist physical gags and “naughty” bits; you'll have no trouble correctly guessing which 70-something will be the one to give someone the finger, and who that someone will be, and precisely when it'll happen. But while the movie hardly offers anything in the way of wit, insight, or surprise, the performers at least make it an easy sit. Weaver's hamminess is at all times enjoyable, and when Atkinson's script gives Keaton some halfway-decent dramatic material toward the end, she comes through with moving work reminiscent of her marvelous turn in 1996's Marvin's Room. Although she's been given nothing of interest to play, Pam Grier's smile and natural warmth are enough to light up a room, with those qualities shared by fellow squad members Phyllis Somerville, Patricia French, and Carol Sutton; the team's climactic routine, with Hayes' camera gliding alongside all those beautiful, beaming ladies of a certain age, is a grinning-through-tears cornball classic. Bruce McGill is reliably excellent as a by-the-book security guard. Celia Weston is reliably winning as a backstabbing Southern belle. And Rhea Perlman, giving the most cleverly sustained performance, is a total hoot as a shrinking violet who learns to embrace both profanity and, quite possibly, homicide. Her movie may be barely worth a cheer, but at least POMS has the good sense to showcase, properly, this beloved veteran of Cheers.
I am so confused. For as long as I've been aware of his existence, I've pronounced the last name of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien as “TOLL-kin.” However, in the new bio-pic on the writer's pre-Hobbit years, fittingly titled Tolkien, there's a scene in which one of the young man's prep-school instructors pronounces it “toll-KINE,” to which the student replies no, it's actually “toll-KEEN.” Truth be told, this familiar verbal duel was a lot funnier in Young Frankenstein. But then, not two scenes later, everyone on-screen including John Ronald Reul's closest friends begins pronouncing it “TOLL-kin” – just the way I thought it was pronounced – and the fledgling writer neither corrects them nor even seems to notice. So how the hell is it pronounced?! And of what good is a bio-pic if, after it ends, you still don't know how to say its subject's name?!
At one point here, during a discussion of Richard Wagner's musically epic Ring Cycle, one of Tolkien's school chums offhandedly remarks, “It shouldn't take six hours to tell a story about a magical ring” – a funny and pointed jab at the hours it takes to tell the author's Lord of the Rings tale whether in print or on screen. I'd argue that it also shouldn't take nearly two hours to tell Tolkien's life story pre-Lord of the Rings if the results are going to be this relentlessly blah. The British author's rise to literary greatness may be anecdotally intriguing, but as directed by Dome Karukoski and written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, it isn't very dramatically engaging; the only times the movie perks up are in its World War I battle sequences when the shell-shocked Tolkien begins seeing flamethrowers as fire-breathing dragons and an insurmountable battlefield as a vision of Mordor. Such moments, though, are few and far between, and what Tolkien most closely resembles is a halfhearted Masterpiece Theatre take on Dead Poets Society, albeit one sprinkled with so many references to alliances and fellowships and a helpful comrade named Sam that watching it is like playing an exhaustingly obvious round of charades. In the title role, Nicholas Hoult exudes his customary boyish grace, even if he can't do much to improve the deadening dialogue, and Lily Collins (as J.R.R.'s future wife), Derek Jacobi (as a loquacious Joseph Wright), and others add some charm. Tolkien, however, is still a mostly lifeless attempt at further canonizing a legend – and try as it might, to misquote Gandalf, it shall not pass.
POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU
Given that I completely avoided the 1990s craze and never bothered to catch up, I would've been as thoroughly confused by Pokémon Detective Pikachu as I was by the bio-pic pronunciation of “Tolkien” had it not been for the boatloads of advance knowledge given to me by my favorite four-year-old, a Pokémon fanatic if ever there was one. Thanks to her, I know all about Pikachu – though after seeing director Rob Letterman's film, I'm still not sure why this helium-voiced, lightning-tailed creature speaks here in the sardonic Deadpool cadences of Ryan Reynolds. I know about the malevolent Mewtwo – but don't get why this supposedly ultimate villain is the most blandly designed of all the hundreds and hundreds of Pokémon. And I suppose I can fathom the series' “You gotta catch 'em all!” hook beloved by children, teens, and young adults alike. But won't most children be confounded by the movie's consistent noir flourishes, won't most teens roll their eyes at the rudimentary plotting and kiddie jokes, and won't – or, rather, shouldn't – most young adults feel too embarrassed to be there in the first place? I didn't at all hate Pokémon Detective Pikachu. There are a few clever jokes in the vein of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Justice Smith is an appealing protagonist, the sequence involving Mr. Mime's interrogation is genuinely hilarious, and even this relative newbie got a kick out of spotting, in the backgrounds, Squirtle and Gengar and Meowth. (For Pokémon fans, the movie might be even more enjoyable on home video, which will allow for enticing “Catch 'em all!” pausing of the action.) Yet this alternately hyperactive and snoozy adventure didn't seem to know who, exactly, it was for, and was most assuredly not for me, even if I did get a kick out of seeing Bill Nighy in a role that I hope his British-thespian peers tease him about for decades. I was, however, grateful beyond belief to attend the film with my four-year-old friend, because even when I wasn't having fun, it was at least a blast watching her watch it. I'd recommend seeing the film under the same conditions, but good luck getting her to join you, as I think she's fully moved on to the Toy Story franchise now. Kids can be so fickle.
HIGH LIFE and ASK DR. RUTH
In director Claire Denis' sci-fi drama High Life, a group of death-row inmates are sent aboard a spacecraft to perform fertility experiments, and the film is rife with blood and semen, as well as scenes of masturbation and brutal violence including attempted rape. In director Ryan White's Ask Dr. Ruth, the lovably elfin sex therapist Ruth Westheimer tells of her experiences during the Holocaust and as a sniper in the Palestinian army, with the movie including snippets of her many matter-of-fact yet explicit radio and TV chats. Both are currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene ... along with the G-rated Aretha Franklin concert doc Amazing Grace. If you bring your children to the venue to share with them the natural wonder that is Aretha, please be very, very careful to wind up in the correct auditorium.
If, however, the kids aren't with you, you can have a good time at any of FilmScene's current options – although “good time,” in regard to High Life, might be pushing the phrase past its breaking point. A deeply meditative, at times punishing dramatic thriller with no discernible levity aside from the blessed tenderness shared between star Robert Pattinson and the infant playing his daughter, the latest from French director Denis is like a Samuel Beckett play staged at the end of the world. It takes an inordinately long time to glean why Pattinson's monastic loner, Juliette Binoche's Rapunzel-haired mad scientist, André Benjamin's earthy philosopher, Mia Goth's untethered weirdo, and the others are doing aboard Denis' ship to nowhere, with random flashbacks to life on Earth only complicating already complicated matters. Yet when the answer belatedly comes and turns out to be “not much of anything, really,” whatever narrative disappointment you feel will likely be assuaged by Denis' remarkable series of images: the incredible green lushness of the crew's space garden; Binoche writhing with pleasure in the ship designated masturbation chamber; Pattinson's pleading expression as he begs his baby not to cry because “it'll kill me.” This is Denis' first feature filmed wholly in English, and the dialogue devised by her and co-screenwriters Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox does sound distractingly like poorly translated French conversation. While it might have worked better as a silent film, though, High Life is still something to see, even when what's on-screen feels too raw or ugly or personal to be seen at all. Pattinson, meanwhile, is a magnificent camera subject here, and his soulful portrayal suggests that he's completely rid himself of his Twilight affectations. I'd say that no one is happier about the transition than me, but if you've witnessed the actor's increasingly excellent work in this decade's Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars and The Rover and The Lost City of Z and Good Time, you'll know there's one person who's even happier. That would be Robert Pattinson himself.
I'm not sure that anyone, however, exudes quite as much bone-deep joie de vive as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the four-foot-seven subject of the enthralling and informative documentary Ask Dr. Ruth. Like last year's Ruth Bader Ginsburg doc RBG, director White's film isn't at all interested in challenging our perceptions about its titular trailblazer and media sensation; a brief, early sound bite from a fellow therapist who considers her talk-show advice “reckless” and “dangerous” is all the nay-sayery you're gonna get. What we instead get is nearly 100 minutes of Dr. Ruth in all her diminutive glory, with the 90-year-old's infectious giggle and miles-wide grin the film's lasting images as she recounts her upbringing as a German-Jew refugee in Switzerland, her tenure in the Palestinian army (she was a sniper?!?), her numerous lovers and three husbands, and her wholly unanticipated position as America's go-to gal for sensible, unembarrassed, uncensored sexual advice. These latter reminiscences, and their accompanying film footage, are especially fascinating, as it's astonishing to be reminded of what Dr. Ruth cheerfully talked about on daytime TV that no one would even consider getting away with nowadays. But I adored every second of this captivating, wildly entertaining doc, from the animated re-creations of Ruth's underprivileged upbringing to the thoughtful recollections of her children and many friends (a couple of whom date back to her years spent in a Swiss orphanage) to her giggly yet unmistakable impatience with director White, whom she admonishes, twice, with the retort “That's a stupid question.” Asking whether you'd enjoy Ask Dr. Ruth would probably be another one.