A question for those of you who saw Disney's Christopher Robin over the weekend: While watching Ewan McGregor's titular character interact with vocal actor Jim Cumming's eerily lifelike Winnie-the-Pooh, did any of you immediately flash to Mark Wahlberg trading profane quips with his Teddy-bear best friend in Ted? Another question: If so, did you find yourself, as I did, kind of wishing you were watching Ted instead?
It's not that director Marc Forster's A.A. Milne homage – a quasi-sequel to the author's Winnie-the-Pooh series – is bad. Much of it, especially the beautifully downbeat readings of Eeyore portrayer Brad Garrett, is quite good. But if you're going to make a movie about the absolute least magical character in the Pooh books, the least you can do is make the film itself magical. Forster's gentle family adventure, however, is sadly lacking in wonder, and so much effort has been put toward making Milne's fabled Hundred Acre Wood characters and their milieu “realistic” that any hopes for whimsy and gleeful silliness fly out the window in the film's first five minutes. Christopher Robin is, in many ways, an incredibly artful achievement, and has obviously been made with technical acumen and care. But I would've readily traded the movie's diligent, painstaking work for even one sequence of legitimate joy. When Tigger (also voiced by Cummings) croons and lisps his way through his signature tune while bouncing on his tail, you don't share in the plush beast's exuberant happiness. You're more likely to wonder, with detachment, what manner of CGI trickery went into the underwhelming spectacle, and why the filmmakers didn't bother to make the now-blond Tigger his recognizable shade of orange.
It apparently took a full quintet of screenwriters and “story by” contributors, among them Spotlight Oscar winner Tom McCarthy, to concoct the most traditional, least inventive Winnie-the-Pooh storyline imaginable – one in which the adult Christopher Robin, a harried junior executive at a London-based luggage company, learns to reconnect with his inner child through a reunion with Pooh, Tigger, Eyeore, and the rest in order to become a better husband, father, and, depressingly, career man. (The movie's climax, I'm kind of mortified to say, involves a frenzied race to Robin's company headquarters so he can pitch a new marketing scheme designed to rid post-war Brits of money they can't afford to spend.) Hayley Atwell delivers a few lovely, resigned readings as Robin's wife, the gifted Bronte Carmichael is touching as his young daughter, and while McGregor has been a more interesting actor in nearly every one of his previous film roles, he at least boasts enough screen charisma and natural wit to keep you from nodding off at regular intervals. Yet the truthfulness of the Robin-family encounters doesn't have much impact when every human in the characters' vicinity – from Mark Gatniss' overbearing CEO to Mackenzie Crook's newspaper vendor – has been designed as a cartoon, especially given that Forster doesn't appear to possess any sort of cartoon sensibility. The verbal and visual slapstick here is awkwardly set up and even more awkwardly executed, and I found myself longing for the farcical panache of the Paddington movies, which have the added benefit of not being focused on the deathly boring spiritual crises of a middle-aged, well-to-do white guy.
Longtime Pooh/Tigger vocalist Cummings, bless him, provides aural amusement at nearly every turn, and Garrett is a madly inspired casting choice for Eyeore, finding such hilarity in the tailless donkey's woebegone declarations that I silently cursed the Disney brain trust for not putting their money behind Eyeore: The Movie instead. And Forster's film does occasionally find its magical sweet spot, as in the expository montage framed as flipped chapters in a children's book, and when composers Jon Brion's and Geoff Zanelli's generally effective score subtly morphs into the familiar Winnie-the-Pooh theme song. At times, particularly in the first 10 minutes, Forster comes close to pulling off what David Lowery oftentimes did in his 2016 remake of Pete's Dragon, and a gorgeous hush falls upon the images, and the audience, in a way that's truly spellbinding. But more often than not, Christopher Robin is banal and unmemorable, with the hand-held camerawork (by cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser) constantly reminding us, rather nonsensically, of how realistically we're meant to take these profoundly unrealistic circumstances. But at least Forster had the good sense to incorporate the delightfully Milne-ian image of Winnie-the-Pooh's red balloon. It was a pleasant relief being charmed by the sight again after being so thoroughly unnerved by it in It.
THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME
While perusing review headlines for The Spy Who Dumped Me prior to seeing the film, I noticed a common theme, in that many of them seemed to chastise the movie for being unduly violent. I initially took these complaints as the sorts of lazy, condescending critiques I recall being lobbed at Melissa McCarthy's similarly R-rated action comedies Spy and The Heat. (“Why so much blood? There are ladies present!”) But after viewing writer/director Susanna Fogel's tales of besties who get unwittingly roped into international intrigue, I have to admit that the grumbles were earned, and even feel the need to pile on a bit: Sweet Jesus, is this thing violent. I've seen Saw sequels that made me wince less. The script, co-written by David Iserson, is basically just a goofy, harmless excuse to have Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon engaging in Bond-esque slapstick shenanigans set against gorgeous European backdrops. But “harmless” certainly doesn't apply to the on-screen carnage, which includes squibs that shoot like geysers, bone-cracking physical assaults, horrific car-chase casualties, the severing of a corpse's thumb, a man's face scalded in a pot of cheese fondue, and a murderous Russian gymnast (Ivanna Sakhno) whose icy expression and cheekbones could be registered as deadly weapons. For me, it's not that The Spy Who Dumped Me is too garishly violent for a comedy; it's simply too garishly violent to be much fun. The experience is like buying a ticket to Nancy Drew and winding up at Atomic Blonde.
That being said, Fogel's movie is occasionally a lot of fun – at least when you're not being actively put off by the copious bloodshed. Considering that Mila Kunis looks like, you know, Mila Kunis, by which I mean the world's most hands-off supermodel, it's rather astonishing that she's been able to forge a screen persona that's so likable and, better yet, relatable. Yet the star is as dryly funny and effortlessly engaging as ever, and there are similarly enjoyable turns by Justin Theroux as the guy who gets the stars into their overseas hot mess, Sam Heughan as a potentially untrustworthy beefcake CIA agent, Hasan Minhaj as a fellow agent who can't stop name-dropping his Harvard cred, and Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser as the endlessly supportive parents of McKinnon's chronic screw-up. Hey, it's McKinnon: Who wouldn't be endlessly supportive?! No one familiar with her genius should be surprised to learn that McKinnon, as a continually failing, endlessly optimistic wannabe actress, is The Spy Who Dumped Me's constant ace in the hole. But even this longtime McKinnon fanatic was knocked out by seeing the Saturday Night Live phenomenon strut her stuff in her first bona-fide film lead, whether arguing with her Uber driver that yes, she actually is a middle-aged Chinese man, or fangirl-crushing on Gillian Anderson's CIA head by saying, “I respect you so much that it's turned back around into objectification.” Watching the glorious Kate McKinnon in action, I felt the exact same way.
Bo Burnham, in his Netflix special Make Happy, is the only comedian who has ever crafted a stand-up concert performance that made me laugh out loud for the majority of its length while reducing me, in the final minutes, to a weepy wreck. Even after numerous repeat watches, I still haven't quite figured out why I have this reaction to Burnam's 2016 showcase. But I think part of the answer can be found in his justifiably acclaimed feature-film writing/directing debut Eighth Grade, a movie in which, as in Make Happy, Burham expresses feelings of self-doubt and self-deprecation and barely-hidden panic so humanely that what results feels almost astoundingly cleansing. Burnham is not, and never was, a 13-year-old girl contending with insecurity, unpopularity, one-sided crushes, a well-meaning but beleaguered single father, and a YouTube channel that no one watches. (By contrast, YouTube made Burnham a star, his videos, since 2006, having been viewed some 228 million times over.) But Burnham's spirit seems to permeate every nanosecond of his remarkably controlled, accomplished, and heartfelt dramatic comedy. He may not “be” graduating middle-schooler Kayla Day – at least not in the way her magnificent portrayer Elsie Fisher is – but Burnham is absolutely in her soul, and ensures that those of us watching are, too.
Plotless in the most satisfying of ways, Eighth Grade follows Kayla as she grits her teeth and tries to make it just one more week before summer vacation and the promise of a better, richer life in the fall as a first-year high-schooler. (Good luck with that, kid.) For now, though, she's still an acne- and baby-fat-ridden youth who records inspirational YouTube videos – “Be Yourself!” “Put Yourself Out There!” – whose advice she's debilitatingly unable to embrace. And Burnam frequently puts you through agony in set pieces involving his unformed protagonist: the embarrassment of attending a birthday pool party and being the only girl there in a (truly unwise) lime-green, one-piece bathing suit; the misery at realizing how your birthday gift reveals your fundamental unworldliness; the nightmare of being grossly unprepared for accepting a ride home from a handsome teen stranger. But Burnham's film isn't designed to mock Kayla's understandable ignorance, and it isn't at all designed for cruelty, as in Todd Solondz's exercise in miserablism Welcome to the Dollhouse. Burnham views these and similarly heartbreaking circumstances for Kayla with a clear eye yet never without kindness, and not once chooses to present them with anything beyond extraordinary empathy. We've all been Kayla, Burnham seems to be saying, and from the thunderous loudness of her earbud music to the slow-motion humiliation as she enters the day's newest challenge, Eighth Grade's writer/director creates a painfully beautiful comedy of self-inflicted alienation.
There are sequences here so deadly accurate about newly pubescent angst that you're torn between staring at the screen drop-jawed and cowering beneath your theater seat: Kayla enduring that birthday-party invite while the birthday girl herself (Catherine Oliviere's Kennedy) clearly wants nothing to do with her; Kayla realizing she's become the crush of the nerdiest guy on Earth (Jake Ryan's Gabe); Kayla fending off the careful small talk of her treading-on-tiptoes dad (a perfect, heart-wrenching Josh Hamilton). Though billed as a comedy, very little about Eighth Grade is funny in the traditional sense, and I think the experience might be something of a horror-show for parents of middle-school girls, especially in the scene of Kayla being unwittingly roped into a terrifying game of backseat truth-or-dare. But I urge all such parents to see the movie regardless. Burnham provides such incisive insight into Kayla's state of being, and the effervescent Fisher enacts her with such glorious honesty and humanity, that the film feels instantly indispensable as a character study, and an intensely engaging one at that. By all means, catch Burnham's movie during its theatrical run. Then, when it hits home video and you're hosting your daughter's next sleepover, subtly suggest an all-night marathon of Eighth Grade, Sixteen Candles, The Edge of Seventeen, and Lady Bird, in that order. Best quadruple-feature ever.