Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore in Because I Said SoBECAUSE I SAID SO

I adore Diane Keaton, but after sitting through her torturously affected performance in Michael Lehmann's Because I Said So, I'd be hard-pressed to explain why. Playing the meddling, overbearing mother of Mandy Moore's chatterbox caterer - a single woman for whom Mom is desperately acting as matchmaker - Keaton has the unenviable task of playing an abjectly hateful character, a woman so hell-bent on micro-managing her daughter's life that she makes everyone around her miserable.

But I'm left with the nagging suspicion that we're meant to find this monster lovable, stocked as she is with the expected weaponry in Keaton's performance arsenal: the fluttering hands, the nervous giggles, the ability to switch from apoplexy to despair in the time it takes most people to swallow. And despite Because I Said So's tendency to saddle its star with humiliating slapstick - Keaton can't operate a computer or carry a cake without turning the act into a routine meant for Buster Keaton - and its refusal to give her even one funny line of dialogue, a large portion of the audience happily embraces Keaton's shtick.

Yet not since Jack Nicholson in The Departed have I seen a major performer, in a major role, so flagrantly working on auto-pilot. Keaton laughs, she cries, she throws herself into fits of comic hysteria, and her exaggerated readings and gestures continually overwhelm the material; the character is meant to be a fundamentally well-meaning pain-in-the-ass, but Keaton is so aggressively "spirited" and "quirky" here that I wanted to cower from her. (If I counted correctly, the actress has exactly one moment that feels fresh, when the nicely relaxed Stephen Collins - in a seemingly improvised moment - tells Keaton to chill out, and her abashed reaction appears completely spontaneous.) Mandy Moore is becoming a lovely, inventive comedienne - her line deliveries are unexpectedly frisky, and she's not afraid to look foolish - but her character begins to seem like a yo-yo for clinging so tightly to this pushy beast.

Granted, Because I Said So probably wouldn't have worked even if Keaton had toned it down a notch or 12. In romantic-comedy terms, there's nothing much wrong with the setup, wherein, through an on-line service, Mom auditions potential suitors for her tragically single child, and becomes convinced that the Wrong Guy (Tom Everett Scott, too well-cast) is actually the Right Guy.

But then the whole of the movie is devoted to Moore vacillating between Scott's stuffy architect and Gabriel Macht's scruffy guitar player, and the film doesn't even pretend that there's any suspense about whom Moore will choose; all we can do is wait for Moore to come to the romantic conclusion that we in the audience came to in the film's first 10 minutes. (Conveniently, Collins plays the guitarist's unmarried dad, who - even more conveniently - lives with his son.)

Screenwriters Karen Leigh Hopkins and Jessie Nelson attempt to make Macht's perfect man a little less perfect by giving him a hyperactive hellion of a child who would make a sane person run for the hills, but come on: Mandy Moore isn't going to turn down a soulful hunk just because his kid's off his meds - the child is just a momentary stumbling block, as easily disregarded as any prop.

What makes the movie bearable is that its faux charm is occasionally enlivened by actors who radiate actual charm. Lauren Graham, as Moore's psychiatrist sister, delivers amusingly bitchy asides from under her breath, and Piper Perabo, with her devilish, lopsided grin, is so centered that she fools you into thinking she's actually playing a character; the actresses bring the film some much-needed sanity. Macht could easily let his dimples, bedroom eyes, and fedora do all his work for him, but instead gives a sharp, committed performance. And Moore retains her empathy even when her character is behaving like a lunatic.

Yet Because I Said So remains an oppressively mediocre piece of work (the movie's inevitable, plinky-plunky musical score sentimentalizes the experience beyond measure), and it's even more bothersome for turning Diane Keaton - perhaps the most ebullient screen actress of her generation - into a Diane Keaton cartoon. At one point in the film, Macht responds to Keaton's knee-jerk analysis of him with a sarcastic "I love being reduced to a cultural cliché"; insert "stereotype" for "cliché" and that line is a direct steal from Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Thirty years later, filmmakers have finally succeeded in turning Annie Hall into anhedonia.


Timothy Olyphant and Jennifer Garner in Catch & ReleaseCATCH & RELEASE

During the first half hour of Susannah Grant's romantic dramedy Catch & Release, I found myself waiting for the movie to start. I was still waiting during the closing credits, but it would be hard to argue that my time wasn't pleasantly spent.

After her fiancé's death on the eve of their wedding, Jennifer Garner moves in with the deceased's best friends, and for the next 100-plus minutes, the housemates - and a few random others - share secrets and deal with life and love ... and if your eyes are glazing over at the Garden State-ness of it all, know that this meandering, blithely unimportant wisp of a movie at least has a true warmth of spirit, and a calm grace that perfectly matches its Boulder, Colorado, locale. And despite roles that only hint at depth, the cast members perform with admirable sincerity and good humor; Sam Jaeger, Kevin Smith, Juliette Lewis, and Fiona Shaw are never less than welcome presences, and Garner builds a sweetly tenuous bond with Timothy Olyphant, perhaps the only actor in Hollywood who could co-star in a Jennifer Garner movie and be considered the pretty one.


Darrell Hammond in Epic MovieEPIC MOVIE

According to the invaluable Internet Movie Database Web site, Jason Friedberg's and Aaron Seltzer's Epic Movie spoof is rated PG-13 "for crude and sexual humor, language, and some comic violence."

Some comic violence? I hate to break it to the IMDb, but Epic Movie is constant comic violence, and I'm not exactly convinced that it's "comic," either.

In one sequence alone, a woman's head is lopped off, another woman's heart is ripped from her chest, and a man's testicles are literally knocked out of his body by a sledgehammer. (What makes the sequence "comic," I guess, is that in the following scene, all three characters are alive and well.) People are thrown out of planes, crushed by falling objects, and - if the character in question has a Y chromosome - incessantly socked in the nuts. There are slaps, punches, kicks, beatings, shootings, stabbings, flayings, impalings, and a dwarf who's frequently blasted into the stratosphere, and every violent outburst - I'd estimate there are about 320 over the course of Epic Movie's 80 minutes - is compounded by a soundtrack that accentuates the thwack!s and crunch!es with eardrum-splitting insistence.

There's plenty to loathe here: the total absence of comic insight and laughs; the maddening waste of genuine talent (Kal Penn, Fred Willard, Jim Piddock); the fact that the movies Epic Movie goofs on are, nearly film for film, not epics. But it's the film's PG-13 - and therefore "family-friendly" - ultra-violence that really got to me; it seems that now even the comedies geared toward a young demographic are bastardizations of Saw.

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