Listening to the sustained, rolling laughter at my screening of Pixar's Incredibles 2, it became clear, even while it was happening, which individual scene was likely going to be the best-remembered and most-adored of the bunch: the one with the raccoon.
Roughly $180-million worth of opening-weekend ticket-buyers no doubt know the scene I'm talking about. In it, the diapered infant Jack-Jack – son to Bob “Mr. Incredible” Parr and Helen “Elastigirl” Parr (Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter), baby brother to teenage Violet and grade-schooler Dash (Sarah Vowell and Huck Milner) – looks out the window and sees a hungry raccoon rummaging through the garbage can. Curious, territorial, and maybe a bit envious of the animal's free meal, Jack-Jack toddles outside to confront the creature, who snarls at the child with toothy menace. Bad idea. For the raccoon, that is. Because for the next minute or so, with the nearby Bob unaware of his son's activities, Jack-Jack is going to make this uninvited visitor wish he had never been born.
In writer/director Brad Bird's 2004 The Incredibles and its tag-along short film Jack-Jack Attack, we were given a taste of the superpowers the youngest Parr genetically inherited (and that his family had no knowledge of), among them the abilities to turn into a human fireball, shoot laser beams from his eyes, and travel through invisible portals like a levitating Carol Anne in Poltergeist. That poor raccoon, who unwisely chooses to tussle with the kid, finds himself on the receiving end of these gifts and several new ones, and what results is the movie's most unbridled display of slaphappy nuttiness – Jack-Jack repeatedly clobbering the scavenger until the backyard mayhem is so vast, and so loud, that even the exhausted, distracted Bob can't fail to notice it. My audience clearly loved this sequence, as did I. (I even forgave it for momentarily reminding me of the hardships endured by that irritating Scrat in the Ice Age flicks.) But I really, really wish that Bird's sequel more frequently approached this level of inventive lunacy, because The Raccoon Scene is overflowing with two elements that Incredibles 2 could have used a lot more of, and that the original Incredibles had in spades: surprise and joy.
With superhero franchises, as the Marvel and DC oeuvres occasionally remind us, origin tales are oftentimes their series' most ho-hum releases – the exposition-heavy movies you have to sit through to get to more exciting adventures down the road. But The Incredibles was a special case. As we hadn't been introduced to Mr. Incredible's strength, Elastigirl's flexibility, the ice-sculpture magic of Samuel L. Jackson's Frozone, and the like through comic books or previous films, their powers were unveiled with a true sense of discovery, and with considerable playfulness. (So were the powers of the Parr kids; remember learning of Dash's speed-demon gifts through a video of him invisibly placing a tack on his teacher's chair?) But there was also an exhilaration in the characters' miraculous feats, and it was felt by both the audience and the characters themselves. For our adult heroes, Mr. Incredible especially, it was the thrill of realizing that their best days weren't necessarily behind them – that they were still as strong, capable, and vital in their impending middle age as they were in their youth. For the kids, the exuberance came from them finally getting to employ, and revel in, the abilities they were previously forced to hide, best exemplified by Dash's irrepressible laugh when he realized he could run on water. (Even the sullen Violet eventually joined the party, taking sardonic delight – “I think Dad has made some excellent progress today ...” – in being the only Parr able to free her family from Syndrome's shackles.)
The Incredibles may have been Pixar's most obviously sequel-ready release, and everyone I know, myself included, was looking forward to one. But it turns out that no Pixar outing may have needed a sequel less than The Incredibles. Because with the element of surprise mostly absent and the joy mostly reduced to world-saving-business as usual, Incredibles 2 stands as a fairly generic superhero epic – an engaging, fitfully funny, and brilliantly designed one, to be sure, but still something of a let-down.
Picking up precisely where the previous film ended – and only in animation could the same actors seamlessly return to the same moment 14 years later – Bird's follow-up opens with citywide demolition at the hands of John Ratzenberger's Underminer, and the Incredibles, despite saving dozens of lives, blamed for the mess. (In one of Bird's more clever screenwriting conceits, the public's newfound embrace of superheroes as a force for good at The Incredibles' climax lasted only a few days.) Those with exceptional abilities are again sent into hiding, this time with no governmental protection, and all looks grim until Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, and Frozone are invited to meet the suspiciously charming and benevolent billionaire Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk), who, along with his business partner and sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), has a plan to renovate the crime fighters' tattered public image. Needless to say, things don't go according to apparent design, but this serviceable plot does yield some good things, at least for us. Elastigirl, the Deavers' preferred test subject for superhero rehabilitation, gets to show off her skills and smarts tracking down a hypnosis-minded villain named ScreenSlaver. (An enjoyably pun-ny moniker, but given the film's early-'60s setting, does it make any sense given that no one would have known what a screen-saver was?) And Mr. Incredible gets to Mr. Mom it up taking care of the housekeeping and kids, contending with Violet's boyfriend issues, Dash's struggle with “new math,” and an increasingly complicated, unpredictable infant.
The battles and scenes of destructive chaos are superbly well-choreographed (and, it should go without saying, -animated), with Elastigirl granted the film's most memorable slugfest when forced to punch her way out of trouble with her eyes closed. Yet I sorely missed the charm of the first Incredibles' superheroics: Mr. Incredible knocking out a pair of armed guards with a rock that gradually, then really quickly, appeared in the moonlight; Elastigirl freeing her stretched self from entrapment between not one but two sets of sliding doors. Bird's comic-book-y action here is dazzling and relentless, but it's also rather heavy-spirited; the melees no longer come with a side dish of visual gags. And the film is also moralistically heavy-handed. The family-friendly messages of the original – “embrace your uniqueness,” “every family member is important” – here give way to unfortunately verbalized soapbox tirades against addiction to modern technology and a government that doesn't trust those who want to do good, and these and other capitalized Themes tend to pop up awkwardly and obtrusively. It's like being given a mouth-watering cupcake and told you can't eat it until you finish your spinach.
Bless him, though, there is Jack-Jack. Even when he isn't morphing into a Tazmanian devil or vanishing into the ether, this little bugger (voiced by Eli Fucile) is an avid, sometimes accidental scene-stealer whether staring at the TV with unblinking fascination or swatting Bob awake during story-time, or simply filling his diaper and letting out an infectious giggle. (Perhaps the loveliest grace note in all of Incredibles 2 finds Violet and Dash, mid-caper, having to pause to change the baby.) And who would have guessed it: Edna Mode is his biggest fan! Again voiced by Bird himself, this diminutive harridan with the severe pageboy is an expected riot, but hits even greater heights of hilarity when the fashionista takes little Jack-Jack under her wing for some necessary costume analysis; by the end of his visit, the kid is even toddling down the hallway just like his short-limbed mentor. They're a dream of a comedy team – so unusual and unexpected and funny that, for just a moment, the film becomes everything you want from an Incredibles. Astounding super-heroics replete with thunderous explosions and crumbling bridges can be a terrific time, but subtle, unanticipated comic perfection is awfully incredible, too.
At the start of SuperFly – the remake of 1972's blaxploitation classic (and two-word) Super Fly – I'll admit I slumped in my seat a bit, given that it opened with the umpteenth version of a genre-flick staple I'd already endured dozens of times in the past: the impossibly cool drug-dealer protagonist (this time Trevor Jackson's Youngblood Priest) striding into a nightclub and demanding that the club owner with serious attitude and cronies packing serious heat pay him his money. I was bored even before I had reason to be bored. But then the strangest thing happened. The lavishly dressed club magnate, with unmistakable threat, decreed himself “the biggest sinner in the world,” and his goons pulled out their weapons … and instead of initiating a gunfight, our hero shamed them into silence. Priest made mention of one of the bodyguard's ankle bracelets, asking if he really wanted to add 10 years to his sentence. He made fun of another for his silly fur coat. He noted that the gaudy diamonds surrounding the proprietor's neck weren't even real. And exuding ultimate calm and control, Priest left this initially nefarious trio humiliated and impotent, with the club's gangster poseur, in his now-embarrassing white dreds, calling out “I'm sorry!” while Priest drove off in the man's new car. I was almost giddy. Not only was this genre outing by Canadian music-video helmer Director X stylish and well-executed from its first minutes; it was legitimately funny.
For the remainder of its nearly two solid hours, SuperFly remains stylish, well-executed, and funny, even if the movie never quite reaches the greatness its enticing prelude preps you for. It's too entrenched in formula to be great. Even if the storyline weren't about a criminal attempting One Last Big Score before retirement – the criminal here being barely above legal voting age – there's practically no end to the genre requirements Director X checks off: the gangland shooting at a barbershop; the Dynasty-esque cat fight with thrown wine and pulled hair; the car chase in which a driver has to swerve to miss hitting a woman and her baby carriage. (There's also an interminable shower-sex scene that's kind of hot, but the length of which could make the sequence qualify as a short film in competition at the annual AVN Awards.) For a music-video director, Director X also allowed a couple of incredibly jarring, terrible effects regarding sound, with the off-screen voices during Priest's return to his childhood home laughably (vocally) acted and an outdoor funeral service's gospel choir obviously singing from a studio and not a grave site.
That said, I mostly had a blast at this thing. Jackson, who's like a Chris Rock who can actually act, may not yet have on-screen gravitas, but does have undeniable charisma and presence, and he's especially strong when his material allows him to be lighthearted and loose. (Jackson is delightfully, subtly aggrieved whenever people make fun of what one character calls Priest's “Morris Day hairdo,” which the man counters with an honestly confused “Who's Morris Day?”) There are first-rate supporting turns by Michael Kenneth Williams, Lex Scott Davis, Esai Morales, Jacob Ming-Trent, and an electrifying Jennifer Morrison, who should officially become the very first person producers seek if they can't hire Jennifer Jason Leigh. Given plenty of aid from cinematographer Amir Mokri, Director X ensures that the visuals are top-to-bottom splendid, with the arresting images of the white-clad Snow Patrol particularly vivid – especially when splattered with beet-red blood.
Those drug dealers, by the way, are described as “a bunch of grown-ass men dressing like they deserve to be shot” by Priest's confidante Eddie, and that's only one of many excellent quips the phenomenally talented Jason Mitchell gets to deliver here. I enjoyed many of SuperFly's flourishes, from the inclusion of Curtis Mayfield's 1972 slyly insinuating “Pusherman” song to the hilariously awkward mano a mano in the showroom of a discount-furniture store. Yet I'm not sure that anything about SuperFly made me happier than seeing the formidable talents of Mitchell – fabulous in Mudbound, best-in-show in Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit – employed in the traditionally hackneyed role of Hero's Troublesome Best Friend, as the actor takes this conception and absolutely goes to town. Don't get me wrong: There's definite fun in watching violent retribution on shady reprobates running drug cartels, and, depending on your historic leanings, watching a Civil War monument topple into a bonfire. For unmitigated enjoyment, though, just give me Mitchell's rationale for not wanting to enter Mexico: “I don't want to go any place where the 'J's are silent. I need to hear the 'J's.'”
Boasting a slew of gifted comic talents and a mildly promising one-joke premise, Tag is exactly what I was afraid Game Night would be before Game Night proved unexpectedly fantastic – manic yet labored, depressingly repetitive, and colossally unfunny.
Inspired by an actual group of pals who continued a monthly game of cross-country tag for 23 years – an endearing man-child pursuit chronicled in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article – director Jeff Tomsic's action farce finds four of its players determined to reach out and touch the never-tagged fifth in the days before his threatened retirement and May 31 wedding. That slim conceit isn't a bad premise for an ensemble-comedy bromance, and it's hard to fault the central casting: Jeremy Renner as the groom-to-be, Ed Helms as the apoplectic tagger, Jake Johnson as the stoned one, Hannibal Buress as the also-kind-of-stoned one, and Jon Hamm as the one teased for his past sins of crying after sex and crapping his pants at school. (Sadly, the idea of matinée-idol-handsome Hamm as a former nerd is more amusing than anything that comes of it.) But somewhere along the line, it was apparently decided that the proceedings in Rob McKittrick's and Mark Steilen's script shouldn't bear any connection to real life, despite the presence of Leslie Bibb as an incredulous Wall Street Journal reporter hoping to make a story out of the monthly shenanigans. So instead of being a fair fight amongst five 40-something shlubs, Tag is about a quartet of dipsticks attempting to catch up to one ultra-rich, tech-savvy, parkour-ing superhero played by an actual Avenger. It's Daddy's Home with Mark Wahlberg and four Will Ferrells.
If that sounds like slapstick nirvana to you, by all means go for it. But I didn't care for either of the Daddy's Homes, and was similarly underwhelmed here watching stick figures suffer spine-cracking Home Alone violence in between blandly staged, indifferently performed scenes of rote sentiment and ill-conceived comic gambits. (Someone evidently thought it would be hysterical to see how many times the word “miscarriage” could be employed in a single one-minute routine, and I hope never to meet that person.) In an attempt to stretch their material to feature-length worthiness, McKittrick and Steilen also give us an elegant, underused Rashida Jones as the former teen whom Hamm and Johnson both pined for, plus Isla Fisher as Helms' even-more-untethered wife, with the on-fire performer obviously game but lacking the necessary good jokes.
Yet barring a lightning-fast bit in which Hamm demurely refuses to pose for a photo before flashing a magazine-cover grin – the only time I laughed out loud – the chief characters are allowed so few instances of legitimate wit, and are so inherently under-developed, that the movie is easily stolen by its fringe players: Nora Dunn as a well-meaning mom with boundary issues; Thomas Middleditch as a weirdly gay-friendly homophobe; Brian Dennehy as Johnson's weed-smoking father. (I would've relished Dennehy's presence more were I not so distracted by the CGI smoke escaping from his and Johnson's mouths.) The initially enjoyable sequences of Renner Sherlock-ing his way out of trouble grow mannered and increasingly tiresome; the Budweiser product placement is copious. Hell, Tomsic's film doesn't even do a decent job reminding us who's “it” at any given time; all we know is that Renner isn't. Perversely, Tag only becomes as entertaining and touching as it clearly wants to be right before the end credits, with the home-movie footage of the real-life, overweight, balding taggers surprising and delighting their fellow game-mates. It takes a truly rare kind of disappointing comedy to make you wish you were watching a documentary instead.