|by Peter Sobczynski
In this round-up of films I didn't get around to writing about at length, Paul Giamatti loses his soul, Gerard Butler really gets into the world of videogames, a young George Hamilton comes of age and Robin Williams actually makes a funny movie for once.
Since screenwriter Charlie Kaufman burst onto the scene with such cheerfully scrambled and wildly metaphysical mind-benders as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” many filmmakers have attempted to replicate his unique approach. Most of these attempts have failed but writer-director Sophie Barthes’ new comedy “Cold Souls” is a hilarious exception to the rule. In it, acclaimed actor Paul Giamatti plays. . .well, he plays acclaimed actor Paul Giamatti and as the film opens, the burden of playing the lead role in a stage production of “Uncle Vanya” weighs so heavily on his soul that he finds himself barely able to function. Luckily, while perusing through a copy of “The New Yorker,” he reads an article about a firm (run by David Strathairn) that has perfected a process to remove souls from the physical body and allow people to live lives of heedless joy and abandon. Paul undergoes the process and discovers that while the results may work for most people, they don’t aid someone trying to play Chekov. Without ruining too much of what transpires from this point, Giamatti’s attempts to retrieve his soul lead him all the way to Russia, where his chickpea-sized soul has been assumed by a talent-free soap actress (Katheryn Winnick) who believes that possessing the soul of a great American actor will help her career--of course, she is under the impression that she is carrying Al Pacino’s soul. Like Kaufman’s efforts, the idea behind “Cold Souls” is so irresistibly trippy that you can’t imagine how it could possibly work and like Kaufman’s efforts, it works so beautifully that you can’t understand how anyone could have doubted that it would work. While newcomer Barthes is clearly stronger as a writer than as a director (the film could probably stand a little trimming here and there), she has effectively realized her audacious premise despite obviously working on a limited budget and she gets excellent work from her cast (which also includes Emily Watson as Giamatti’s wife and Dina Korzun as a Russian soul smuggler) as well. Unfortunately, “Cold Souls” is only in limited release and unless you happen to live in or near a big city, there is a good chance that you might not get a chance to see it until it arrives on DVD. However, if the opportunity arises, you should most definitely take it as it is one of the smarter and funnier comedies to arrive so far this year.
Having already essentially translated the infamous “Grand Theft Auto” videogames to the big screen with the hyper-violent, hyper-active and hyper-stupid “Crank” films, it should come as no surprise that the creators of those films, the writing/directing team of Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, would use the gaming world as the basis for their latest assault of the senses, “Gamer.” In the dippy dystopian tale, an evil software designer (Michael C. Hall in a scenery-chewing turn that comes across as half-Bill Gates and half-Blanche DuBois)) has perfected a technology that allows gamers to control the actions of real people and has applied it into two incredibly popular games--a “Sims”-like environment and a brutal war game in which Death Row prisoners engage in real combat and anyone who manages to survive 30 encounters wins their freedom. Gerard Butler, an actor born to play a two-dimensional avatar, stars as the action game’s top gun, an innocent man trapped in a deadly situation who is trying to free himself so that he can track down the wife (Amber Valleta, who does little more than model an extensive collection of fetish gear--not that there is anything wrong with that) and daughter who were taken from him. With the help of the twerpy kid (Logan Lerman) who controls him in the game and a band of rebels (including Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Alison Lohman) hoping to expose the truth behind what is going on, he escapes into the real world and causes even more mayhem before the story just kind of ends and the credits begin to roll. As writers, Neveldine & Taylor certainly have no shortage of ideas--even the occasional good one like the extremely unexpected musical number--but their fundamental flaw is that as filmmakers, they have no idea of how to properly execute them. (This is ironic since they have no trouble coming up ways to execute practically everyone and everything else in sight.) Their wildly kinetic visual style is so overstated and chopped up in such a frenetic manner (the film credits three editors and based on the evidence, it would seem as if each one was being paid per individual cut) that it becomes impossible to understand what is going on at any given moment. (It gets so messy that during the end credits, I was surprised to discover that Zoe Bell, the extremely distinctive babe from “Death Proof” and the upcoming “Whip It,” made an appearance at some point that managed to get lost in the shuffle.) Although marginally better than the “Crank” films, mostly because it doesn’t rub its vulgarity in the faces of viewers as much as those films, “Gamer” is still a rock-stupid and wildly hypocritical mess that implicitly condemns viewers for spending their money on violent and mindless entertainment after they have just spent their money on its particular brand of same, a notion funnier and more ironic than anything on display on the screen.
Over the years, I have seen countless coming-of-age stories involving teenagers learning life lessons from colorful and flamboyant parents or relatives who initially embarrass and eventually inspire them with their overwhelming sense of joie de vivre. However, “My One and Only” is the only one that I can recall that not only ends with the young George Hamilton making the successful screen test that kicks off his Hollywood career but considers that event to be a happy ending. Inspired by Hamilton’s formative years, the film opens in 1953 as socialite Anne Devereaux (Renee Zellweger) takes leave of her philandering bandleader husband (a grating Kevin Bacon) with her two sons--flamboyant would-be actor Robbie (Mark Rendell) and quiet would-be writer George (Logan Lerman)--in a brand new Coupe de Ville in search of a wealthy new husband capable of keeping her and her boys in the style to which she has become accustomed. However, she discovers that the dating scene has changed somewhat since she was presumably last on the market (both Prohibition and the Great Depression have ended, for starters) but no matter where and to whom her quest takes her--including grumbly Army guy Chris Noth, destitute former suitor Steven Weber, two-timing playboy Eric McCormack, poor-but-honest mechanic Nick Stahl and paint-magnate-with-a-secret David Koechner--she never loses her feisty spirit or belief that everything will work out in the end for her. Alas, anyone watching her misadventures will find it hard to work up the same kind of indefatigable spirit because this is pretty much a groaner from beginning to end--the whole thing feels like a literal road company production of “Auntie Mame” and Zellweger so overdoes her Southern dynamo shtick that by the time it finally comes to an end, you may find yourself never wanting to see her again. (Her performance here makes her work in “Cold Mountain” seem subtle and restrained by comparison.) There is one decent performance in the film and it comes from David Koechner, everyone’s favorite go-to idiot these days, as the only one of the potential suitors who actually seems to genuinely like Anne and her brood despite their generally annoying nature (his version of a birds-and-the-bees talk with George is the single funniest moment)--thankfully, the reason for that is explained completely during his final scene.
Having made more treacly comedies over the years than you could shake a stick at (an activity far more entertaining than actually watching them), the very notion of watching Robin Williams in something called “The World’s Greatest Dad” may appall a good segment of the moviegoing population. However, this is not that kind of movie and if anyone is going to be appalled, it will be at the rude, crude and fairly hilarious jet-black humor on display. In the film, he plays Lance, a failed writer/failing poetry teacher who is trying (and failing) to raise his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara), a spiteful, selfish and hateful teen whose only apparent interests are online pornography, auto-erotic asphyxiation and humiliating his well-meaning dad at every possible turn. Without going into too much detail, I will say that something unseemly happens to Kyle and in his efforts to clean up the mess left behind, Lance does something that bizarrely reverberates in ways that could potentially bring him fame and fortune while transforming his brat into a misunderstood saint in the eyes of the public. This marks the third screenwriting and directorial effort from comedian Bobcat Goldthwaite (the others being the immortal “Shakes the Clown” and “Sleeping Dogs Lie”) and as surprising as it may sound to some of you, he has developed into an interesting comedic filmmaker capable of taking wild and potentially offensive premises and spinning them out in ways that neither pull their punches nor go over the line into absolute tastelessness. Even more surprising is the way that he manages to avoid cheap shots by giving his characters, even the peripheral ones, more shadings than you might expect. There are a couple of rough patches here and there and the finale isn’t quite as sharp as the rest but considering that the rest of the film has several enormous laughs, a bunch of smaller ones, the most focused comedic performance from Robin Williams in a long time and what should prove to be the year’s funniest cameo appearance, I am more than willing to overlook those problems. Granted, “The World’s Greatest Dad” is not for everyone--I am no shrinking violet and even I was shocked at a couple of points--but those with a taste for the outrageous will most likely love it.
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originally posted: 09/04/09 18:09:41
last updated: 09/04/09 23:14:49