This is not just a bad film; it is a despicable one. The slim but highly profitable torture porn genre has now begun to permeate major studio films directed at a general audience and the result is this dim-witted thriller that purports to have some legitimacy beyond serving as an excuse for full-on butchery. It does not. This is the “Saw”-ification of mainstream films.
Clyde (Gerard Butler of “300” and “Phantom of the Opera”) is quickly and very briefly established as a loving husband and father and then five minutes into the film two intruders come into the house, knock him out, and rape and murder his wife and little girl. Later, a slick prosecutor named Nick (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal that gives the worst of the two offenders a reduced sentence while his partner is sentenced to death. The execution goes wrong and the death is agonizingly painful. And the other offender, released from prison, is captured and subjected to excruciating torture (described in excruciating detail) before he, too, is killed. It turns out that Clyde has not just a motive for revenge; as a former highly trained government operative, he has the means. And he is just beginning.
It is supposed to be an intriguing cat-and-mouse game, but the fun of those stories is putting together the pieces of the puzzle and seeing the bad guy out-smarted. But there is nothing smart here, much less out-smart. The screenplay is so lazy that it cannot even decide who Nick works for, the District Attorney (local), the Justice Department (federal), or both. He also seems to be moonlighting as a detective, leaving the courtroom behind as he races into dark buildings without calling for any back-up. Because Clyde’s character has suffered so profoundly and the bad guys are so over-the-top despicable, we are supposed to find some satisfaction in their hideously painful deaths. But we’re supposed to be on Nick’s side, too. He may be a little too slick, but when the body count starts to pile up and Clyde threatens to kill “everyone,” we’re back on the side of law enforcement, previously portrayed as ineffectual and pragmatic to the point of moral compromise.
Revenge is such a reliable plot engine that it is hard to mess it up. Think of the purity of the first “Kill Bill.” But in this film, the details of the torture as entertainment, the sheer pointless excess of the carnage in the context of what purports to be a drama, and then the literal over-the-top ending that once again undercuts everything we have been asked to believe is more than exploitative; it is depraved. Viola Davis adds some class and dignity to the film as the frustrated mayor, like a visitor from another film, maybe another world. But then we are back to the phony sanctimoniousness of this film, with its final insults the idea that even upholders of the law are entitled to cause massive destruction and put lives at risk for payback and that all of this carnage is justified as a reminder to be a better daddy.
Pay attention, class. Jennifer Aniston makes two kinds of movies. When she has her hair tied back, it’s usually an independent film (like last summer’s “Management”) and usually worth watching. But when her hair is loose it’s usually a big, glossy, studio film like this one. She tends to hide behind her hair in these films, flipping it around or holding her head to keep it still instead of acting. And it hasn’t been working out that well for her. Other than the ensemble film “He’s Just Not That Into You,” and the movie about the dog, “Marley & Me,” she has not been very successful at the box office lately. And this charmless, predictable, and downright dull unromantic romance is another big dud. I’d call it manipulative, too, except that it never came close to manipulating any emotions in me. It’s a romance without an ounce of chemistry between its leads or between its story and its audience.
Aaron Eckhart plays Burke, a successful self-help author and motivational speaker about to sign a huge multi-media deal. He specializes in helping people deal with tragic losses, inspired by his own struggle to deal with his wife’s death in a car crash three years earlier. But like two other self-help authors in movies within the last couple of months (Kevin Spacey in “Shrink” and in Jeff Daniels in “Answer Man”), he is better at giving advice than taking it. Burke has been using his work, the book and seminars, to insulate him from his pain instead of dealing with it.
At a Hilton in Seattle, he (literally) bumps into a florist named Eloise (Aniston). For the first time since his wife’s death, he feels something. She has just broken up with an unfaithful boyfriend and has no interest in feeling anything. He likes her because (I’m not kidding about this) she writes obscure words on the wall of the hotel behind paintings. She tries to dissuade him from his interest by (and I’m really not kidding about this) pretending to be deaf. Defacing property, exploiting a non-existent disability, and making money from the pain of ordinary people. They are meant for each other!
Even Aniston cannot make the antics forced on her by this screenplay look adorable — including a parrot-stealing adventure that is, like everything else in the film, poorly paced and over-long. Eckart’s best moment is early in the film when a photographer asks him a question and a range of emotions flicker across his face, giving us a glimpse of how much more he has to offer than this film allows. The delectable Judy Geer, go-to best friend in studio romance films, featuring actresses named Jennifer or who look like they should be named Jennifer is as usual criminally underused. And I don’t even want to tell you how mistreated poor Martin Sheen is. Worst of all is the screenplay. There is a lot to be said about the way that self-help gurus are this generation’s Elmer Gantrys, but this movie’s decision to try to have it all ways leaves the story without any point of view, forcing the characters to behave in completely inconsistent ways just for a preposterous “feel-good” resolution.
At one point in this film, a minor character in great pain from a devastating loss begins his recovery with a trip to a hardware store. We expect that this will lead to some building project with a positive impact that will help him and the other people in the group work on something constructive and generous. But it turns out to be just a shopping trip, a lot of money and a lot of building materials for nothing. The same can be said of the movie.
What is it about zombies?
Dating back to 1932’s “White Zombie,” the stories of the relentless, omnivorous undead and the humans who try to escape them have been one of film’s most popular genres, with sub-genres including the flourishing category of zombie comedies, best described as gallows humor, gasps of horror alternating with gasps of laughter. Zombie films turn out to provide many opportunities for some core elements of humor, especially the juxtaposition of dire circumstances with trivial detail and the deconstruction of our assumptions about what we need and the norms of lifestyle and behavior. As its title suggests, “Zombieland’s” take is darkly comic, with zombie encounters as theme park or video game. It even ends up in a real theme park, the few remaining humans battling the hordes from rides and concession stands.
One thing about zombies is that they thin out the herd. In this story, only four non-zombie humans seem to be left, which gives them an opportunity to try to band together with people with whom they would otherwise have nothing in common and show each other and themselves that they are capable of more in both physical courage and relationships than they ever thought possible.
The mixed bag, all known only by the names of cities, includes shy college student (Jesse Eisenberg) who tries to maintain some sense of control by compulsively making lists of rules for survival. He meets up with a modern-day cowboy (Woody Harrelson) in search of his favorite Hostess treat and a pair of sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) who have their own methods for taking care of themselves. And even though they have not much idea where they are going or why they should go there, they hit the road.
Funny zombie movies can be just as scary as straight zombie movies, but they leaven the terror with humor that comes as the characters try to find some element of normalcy in between double-tapping zombies (one of the rules), grabbing whatever they want among the abandoned cars and grocery stores. It also includes checking out the home of a major movie star who shows up for an hilariously deadpan cameo before one last zombie attack in the actual amusement park — that juxtaposition element again.
The actors, including the movie star, are all superb. Eisenberg and Stone are two of the most talented young performers in movies and they hit just the right notes here. The usual getting-to-know-and-trust-you road trip developments play out in a manner that is both endearing and funny, as when Eisenberg asks Breslin if her sister has a boyfriend as though there are any other possible candidates for dating who would have a very different idea of having her for dinner. It goes on a little too long and does not match the inspired lunacy of “Shaun of the Dead,” but it will keep zombie-philic audiences as happy as finding the very last Twinkie.
“Once Upon a Mattress,” a musical version of “The Princess and the Pea,” is one of my favorites. Carol Burnett became a star for her portrayal of the kind-hearted but rather loud princess when it premiered on Broadway and she repeated the part in two television broadcasts. In this version she plays the queen, who will do anything to stay in power, which means stopping her timid son from finding a bride. The songs, written by Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard Rodgers of “South Pacific” and “The King and I”) and Marshall Barer, are tuneful, witty, and utterly charming.
In supporting roles, Zooey Deschanel (“(500) Days of Summer”) and Matthew Morrison (“Glee”) are fairy-tale perfect. A great family movie!
(NOTE: Some mild references to making babies)