Even the delectable Anna Faris cannot get us to root for the character she plays in this charmless, distasteful dud. The first scene is weirdly identical to the opening of “Bridesmaids,” and one of the movie’s scarce pleasures is the opportunity to consider how the same introduction to both characters can make us see Kristin Wiig as needy but sympathetic and Faris as insincere and manipulative. And it’s downhill fast from there.
Ally (Faris) has lost her job but what really worries her is an article in a woman’s magazine about what your “number” says about you. That would be the number of men she has slept with, and hers is 20 after series of terrible choices, most recently a drunken encounter with the boss who told her she was being laid off (Joel McHale of “Community”). Believing she can never get married if her number goes any higher (because of some vague “study”), she decides to go through her reject pile to see if anyone from her past might be her Mr. Right. She enlists the aid of the hunky guy across the hall (Chris Evans of “Captain America” and “Puncture”) to help her track them down. Meanwhile, her sister (Ari Graynor of “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist”) is getting married and her mother is putting a lot of pressure on her.
So, the ingredients for a sparkly rom-com are in place: plucky heroine in need of a self-esteem boost after some romantic stumbles meets Prince Charming who uniquely appreciates the real her. And there’s even a chance to give bit parts to an array of handsome and talented actors as the exes.
The problem is that the gaping disconnect between the movie’s view of Ally as an adorable heroine and Faris’ game attempt to play her that way quickly collide with the inescapable unpleasantness of the characters and their actions. Ally swears she will not have sex with anyone else and then gets drunk, gives her engaged sister a mean-spirited and crude toast, and sleeps with her finger-smelling ex-boss (don’t ask). As a teen, when her boyfriend was away, Ally promised to wait until he returned so they could be each other’s first time. Then for no reason she impetuously has sex with a random dweeb just so we can see Andy Samberg with braces on his teeth and a puppet on his hand, making weird sounds while she looks bored. This might be an interesting movie if Ally was an unashamed advocate of sex for pleasure or if she acknowledged that her past behavior was trashy and self-destructive. Instead it seems a sad relic of the discredited “every player gets a trophy” school of self-esteem. Evans tries to make up for his character’s complete absence of any personality beyond running out on his one-night stands and taking off his clothes but there’s only so much anyone can do with this material.
The set-ups are weak: Anthony Mackie plays an ex who is a closeted gay man. Martin Freeman (“Love Actually”) is an ex whose English accent inspired Ally to lie about who she was and pretend to be English, too. Faris’ real-life husband Chris Pratt (“Moneyball”) is engaged to someone else and thinks their accidental encounters mean she is stalking him. The resolutions of all of these encounters are even weaker.
Ally is self-absorbed without having any self-respect, and the same can be said of the film. It is depressingly unaware of its own failure to give us one reason to care about a girl who does not seem to care about anyone but herself. It is sad to think that this miserable mess was inflicted on Faris — and us — by a female novelist and two female screenwriters. Anna Faris is beautiful, smart, funny, and fearless. Is it that hard to write her a comedy that lets her show it?
When Seth Rogen’s friend Will Reiser got a rare form of cancer at age 24, they bolstered their courage by imagining a movie that would be true to their experience. The movies they knew about people with cancer had characters who were (1) older, (2) transformed into saintliness and transcendence and reconciliation, and (3) by the end of the movie — dead. Reiser barely knew how to live as an independent adult. While his contemporaries were worried about dating and figuring out their careers, he was forced to deal with dire, literally life and death decisions.
Resier recovered and wrote this screenplay and Rogen co-produced and played the character based on himself. The result is a movie that captures the surreal nature of being seriously ill, the way you feel as though you appear to be on this planet but in reality you are living somewhere else, Planet Cancer, and the “normal” life around you is at the same time disconcerting and reassuring. But this is also a movie filled with hope, and humor, and inspiration. No one is transformed into saintliness or transcendence but there are lessons learned, losses borne, and hurdles overcome.
The superb Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a 27-year-old who works for NPR. We first see him on an early morning run, stopping at a red light even though there are no cars around for miles. This is a guy who follows the rules. And then what he thinks is a backache turns out to be a rare form of cancer, a tumor on his spine, which his doctor describes as “quite fascinating.” He is still in the early stages of a relationship with Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), an artist. “I have a drawer? We’re getting so domestic.”
Rachael means well and even likes the idea of herself as a loyal girlfriend, but she also feels trapped by Adam’s illness. Adam’s mother (Anjelica Houston) wants to help, but that threatens Adam’s still-fragile sense of independence. Adam meets with a young grief counselor (Anna Kendrick as Katherine) who is just as new to counseling as he is to grieving.
Kyle (Rogen) is immature and squeamish, but it turns out that he is braver than he or Adam knew. What he lacks in judgment and tact he makes up for in heart and candor. When he hears that Adam’s odds are 50/50, he looks on the bright side with a metaphor drawn from his own priorities: “If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds!” And then there’s priority number one — Kyle assures Adam that cancer is a real chick magnet.
I don’t know whether that which does not defeat you makes you stronger. But that which does not defeat you does show you how strong you are, and how strong your relationships are, too. Reiser’s insightful script and Gordon-Levitt’s sensitive performance make this one of the year’s most satisfying films.
Producer/writer/actress Mindy Kaling of “The Office” has a great piece in the New Yorker about women characters in movies.
[W]hat I’d really like to write is a romantic comedy. This is my favorite kind of movie. I feel almost embarrassed revealing this, because the genre has been so degraded in the past twenty years that saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity. But that has not stopped me from enjoying them.
I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from “Alien” and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.
Kaling describes some of the outlandish categories assigned to women characters from the clumsy klutz (“When a beautiful actress is cast in a movie, executives rack their brains to find some kind of flaw in the character she plays that will still allow her to be palatable. She can’t be overweight or not perfect-looking, because who would pay to see that? A female who is not one hundred per cent perfect-looking in every way? You might as well film a dead squid decaying on a beach somewhere for two hours. So they make her a Klutz.”) to the ethereal weirdo, the career-obsessed no-fun girl, the skinny beautiful woman who eats all the time, the “mother” of the young actor who is only a few years older than he is (Jessie Royce Landis was actually the same age as Cary Grant when she played his mother in “North by Northwest”), and the girl who works in an art gallery because “It’s in the same realm as kindergarten teacher or children’s-book illustrator in terms of accessibility: guys don’t really get it, but it is likable and nonthreatening.”
Read the piece to see what the guy-equivalent of art gallery worker is and why it is just as unrealistic.