THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT
Say what you will about the current state of movies. Yet in the history of the medium, have the actors who populate film comedies ever been as across-the-board-excellent as they are right now? It took about 20 minutes for this question to pop into my head during The Five-Year Engagement, and once it did, I'm not sure I ever stopped pondering it; from the stars to the supporting cast to the bit players who show up for all of three seconds, director Nicholas Stoller's rom-com features an embarrassment of performance riches. The movie itself? Eh, it's okay.
Actually, its first hour is closer to great, as the newly engaged Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) find their marital plans interrupted by a job offer for the bride-to-be too that's good to resist - one that requires a move from San Francisco to Ann Arbor - and decide to postpone the wedding for, say, a year. Or two. As the film's title makes apparent, though, that delay lasts somewhat longer than expected, and for half the movie's length, Tom's and Violet's gradually increasing discomfort and awkwardness is both funny and lightly painful. Working from a script co-written by Stoller and Segel, the charming, empathetic leads share a relaxed and playful rapport that's fantastically appealing; you sense that beyond loving each other, Tom and Violet really, really like each other, which is actually more fun to watch on-screen. (Happily, Segel and Blunt are a much finer rom-com pairing here than they were in the woebegone Gulliver's Travels. Then again, how could they not be?) And for all of the early laughs - and the engagement party alone provides at least a dozen of them - the film doesn't shy away from our heroic couple's frequent anguish. It allows Tom's disappointment with his Michigan-based career options and Violet's recognition of her fiancé's misery to register as genuine, with a couple of remarkably well-written scenes revealing the specific toll that their extended engagement is taking on their relationship.
Yet as Tom and Violet grow more and more downbeat, it's not just the characters, but the whole movie, that sinks into a funk. At roughly The Five-Year Engagement's halfway mark - after Tom has morphed from a cultured sous chef into a depressed, hirsute deer hunter - the film's humor turns sour and unpleasant (one character is shot with a crossbow, and another loses a digit to frostbite), and the loose, flaky scenes that before felt enjoyably irrelevant start to seem damagingly unnecessary. There are still strong moments here and there - especially the initially sweet birthday phone call that goes south in a terrible hurry - but the movie never fully recovers from its midpoint meltdown, and even its predictably happy ending feels halfhearted, a generic kowtow to genre expectations.
But oh, sweet Pete, how well-cast this movie is! From the start, you're clearly in safe hands with Segel and Blunt, and it's impossible not to grin when you realize that the stars' requisite second bananas are being played by Chris Pratt, that wondrous Parks & Recreations goofball whose every moment here is priceless, and by Alison Brie, whose attempts not to break down during her character's engagement toast are high-comedy heaven. (Added bonus: This gifted American actress from Community and Mad Men proves capable of a flawless British accent.) Yet try this on for size. Violet's parents are played by Jim Piddock and Jacki Weaver. Tom's parents are played by Mimi Kennedy and David Paymer. Violet's co-workers are played by Rhys Ifans, Mindy Kaling, Randall Park, and Kevin Hart. Tom's deer-hunting buddies are played by Chris Parnell and Brian Posehn. And random roles - some of them mere cameos, all of them amusing - are played by Molly Shannon, Lauren Weedman, Dakota Johnson, and Gerry Bednob. You may not recognize all those names, but my guess is that you'll have no problem recognizing their faces. ("Hey, there's that guy from The 40-Year-Old Virgin! There's that gal from The Social Network! There's Dr. Leo Spaceman!") And while the movie itself eventually falls apart, you never tire of the sensationally talented, inventive performers who continue to give The Five-Year Engagement their all; with a guest list like this, who wouldn't want to attend?
THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS
Viewed comparatively, the cast recruited for directors Peter Lord's and Jeff Newitt's The Pirates! Band of Misfits is just as inspired as the one that graces The Five-Year Engagement, with roles here for Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Salma Hayek, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Piven, Anton Yelchin, Brian Blessed, and Extras' fabulous Ashley Jensen. Specific performers aside, though, the main differences between the two ensembles are that (a) we actually never get to see the actors in this stop-motion-animated comedy by the creators of Wallace & Gromit, and (b) they have even funnier lines. A minor miracle of wondrously detailed, nearly tangible visuals, outrageous slapstick, jokes that hit you like curveballs ("London smells like grandma!"), and curlicues almost shocking for their comedic perfection (though set in Victorian England, I never expected the film's cameo by John Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man), this latest release from Aardman Animations is a thorough joy. And just when you think the movie has reached its peak of hilarity - be it through Piven's egomania as a seafarer who pulls into town on a whale's tongue, or the manservant simian who "speaks" through a series of index cards, or the gout-ridden pirate with a hook for a hand and a wine cork for a nose - The Pirates!' happy mania momentarily stops for a two-minute, sad-bastard montage of our disgraced pirate hero walking in the rain ... scored to the Flight of the Conchords classic "I'm Not Crying." Granted, they were tears of laughter, but I sure was.
Haters will likely respond with "When isn't he?", but in director James McTeigue's bloody thriller The Raven, John Cusack is intensely irritating. To be fair, much of the movie is. Set in mid-19th Century Baltimore, and concerning a mysterious killer who dispatches his victims in manners suspiciously similar to the deaths in Edgar Allan Poe's literary works - with Poe himself attempting to solve the case - this overwrought, under-lit outing is mostly grim and dull and humorless, and gets increasingly confounding and incoherent as it progresses. (How is the movie's murderer - who, yes, inevitably details his malevolent purposes through a long-winded climactic monologue - somehow able to always be within shouting distance of both his pursuers and his buried-alive captive?) The film's design is impeccable and its storyline is amusing in an English-major-nerd kind of way (said the English-major nerd), but most of this sub-Seven potboiler barely merits a shrug ... unless Cusack is around, at which point it merits active annoyance. Popping his eyes, arching his eyebrows, and refusing to sound like anyone other than John Cusack in, you know, every single movie he makes, the actor is hopelessly miscast as Poe, his modern-era readings and physicality completely wrong for the period, and his tendency to spin every line of dialogue into ironic comedy frequently detrimental to the script. Before I left for my screening of the movie, a friend - one of those aforementioned Cusack haters - said to let him know if there wound up being a scene in which Edgar Allan Poe serenaded his girlfriend with a boom box. By The Raven's end, the image wouldn't have surprised me.
Like John Cusack, Jason Statham doesn't really do anything significantly different from one role to the next. Unlike Cusack at present, I have absolutely no desire to smack Statham for his repetition, and not only because of the ferocity with which he'd smack me back. The action star's latest, writer/director Boaz Yakin's Safe, is pretty much every action thriller you've seen with or without Statham attached. There are Russian mobsters and Chinese mobsters and crooked cops, and vicious henchman who point their guns sideways, and a targeted girl in need of protection. (A literal girl this time, in the form of a 12-year-old Chinese orphan played by the poised, grave Catherine Chan.) The plot is needlessly complex and preposterous, the shoot-outs and hand-to-hand combat sequences are frenetically edited and difficult to follow, half of the dialogue from the peripheral characters sounds looped and the other half sounds dubbed ... . You know the drill. (I was grateful, at least, for the welcome threat provided by Chris Sarandon and Reggie Lee, who make their stock figures more interesting than they usually are.) Yet in the midst of all this formula, Statham comes through not only as a fantastically intimidating ass-kicker, which was to be expected, but as a splendidly subtle and nuanced actor, which wasn't to be expected, but only because his screen material so frequently lets him down. Here, though, Yakin gives his leading man plenty of opportunities to show off his considerable gravitas; Statham's silent, demolished reaction to an early murder is particularly wrenching, and he develops a lovely, familial bond with Chan, their scenes together suggesting Luc Besson's Leon: The Professional with a less flirtatious Natalie Portman. Together, they provide Safe with some actual soul, and Statham - emoting and punching and glowering and wisecracking with equal aplomb - is utterly awesome, as characters throughout the film make deserved note of. "You've got some big balls," the man is told near the climax. "Yeah," Statham replies with resigned matter-of-factness, "I'm amazed I can even walk."