I'd love to tell you about the numerous, big-budget action sequences in Iron Man, the first of the many, many special-effects-laden extravaganzas hitting multiplexes this summer. But a day-and-a-half after seeing the movie, I don't remember much about them. I know there was an early scene in which the Iron Man prototype attacked an Afghan army with flamethrowers before whooshing his way to safety, and a scene where the new-and-improved version evaded American fighter jets, and a climax featuring our metal-plated hero battling a hulking creature with the body of a tank and the voice of Jeff Bridges. Beyond that, though, they're mostly a blur.
Here's what I do vividly remember: Robert Downey Jr., as billionaire-genius-inventor-playboy Tony Stark, contentedly sipping a Scotch on the rocks while fielding fawning questions in the back of a Humvee. (Or, as he calls it, the Fun-vee. His beleaguered friend Rhodey, played by Terrence Howard, is relegated to the Humdrum-vee.) Stark returning from his three-month Afghan imprisonment, and demanding an immediate press conference and a cheeseburger - the cheeseburger first. The press conference itself, with Stark and a room full of reporters, as innocent as kindergarteners, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Stark sharing a dance with his good-humored assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who can't believe she's wearing a sleeveless gown on the night she forgot deodorant. Bridges' Obadiah Stane, before his über-villainous transformation, tempting the overworked Stark with a New York-style pizza. (Stane offers him two slices. Stark only takes one.)
The film features dozens of random, throwaway bits such as these - some that even utilize the pricey visuals, as when Stark's preliminary test-run with his new suit finds him crashing into a wall - and they underline just how refreshingly subversive much of director Jon Favreau's Marvel Comics adaptation is; Iron Man may be the first of Hollywood's superhero blockbusters that can deservedly (and not disparagingly) be called quirky. Favreau previously directed the Will Ferrell comedy Elf and the sci-fi kiddie flick Zathura, but Iron Man's tone is more in line with his script for 1996's singles-in-L.A. classic Swingers; when it's really rolling, which is pretty much any time Downey isn't encumbered by gleaming red and gold, the movie is insouciant, quick-witted, and a hell of a lot of fun.
Not that it's necessarily bad during the effects-heavy sequences; it's just typical. Though Iron Man's script features some smashingly smart touches and shrewd, War on Terror updates - in 1963, Marvel Comics' Iron Man was invented by Stark when he was a prisoner in Vietnam - there's not much that the film's quartet of writers seems able to do to enliven the film's commonplace origin-story arc, and Favreau's action scenes, while boasting wizardly visuals, are mostly unimaginative. When it's merely going through the motions, the movie, like its hero, tends to clank and clunk, and even its normally zippy dialogue hits eye-rolling lows; before unleashing their weaponry, the metal-clad Stark and Stane engage in banalities of the "Now it's my turn" variety, and I'm amazed that Downey and Paltrow got through their "Push the button!"/"But you'll die!"/"Just do it!" exchange with straight faces.
Iron Man could have used more narrative surprises (not including the sight of a bald Jeff Bridges, which is a huge surprise). But it's an enormous relief to spend time with a superhero who isn't carrying the world's weight on his shoulders - Downey may be the funniest, most effortlessly likable screen presence this genre has yet seen - and there's so much unexpected eccentricity, even improvisation in the performances that whining about the movie oftentimes being "just" a conventional blockbuster seems less petty than wholly inaccurate. It's a measure of the film's frequent ingenuity that it saves its best line for its closer; Iron Man is pretty terrific, but considering the doors opened by Downey's final utterance, I'm betting that Iron Man 2 will absolutely rock.
MADE OF HONOR
There's a scene in Made of Honor in which Patrick Dempsey, serving as chief bridesmaid for best-friend-he-secretly-loves Michelle Monaghan, takes the bride-to-be shopping for china patterns, and at one point he picks up three heavy plates, successively spins them on his fingers, and then juggles them. It's a giddy, unexpected moment, and it's nice to know that Dempsey's good for something, because after Enchanted and this new offering, carrying the lead in a romantic-comedy is clearly not among his strong suits.
Granted, most performers would find themselves stymied by this depressingly formulaic outing in which a rich, vain, selfish jerk gets everything he always wanted. But while Monaghan and supporting players Sydney Pollack, Busy Philipps, and Kevin McKidd add some sparkle to the proceedings, Dempsey again proves that small-screen and big-screen charisma are not interchangeable. With his generically alert, TV-trained timing, wan, hangdog expression, and eye slits that aren't windows to any kind of soul, Dempsey, here, is a vacuum where a star should be; I've occasionally enjoyed him on television (in Will & Grace and Once & Again especially), but if Dempsey wants to make it in movies, somebody needs to inject the guy with some personality, stat.