Knocked Up/Superbad
Judd Apatow, Inc. certainly doesn’t make the worst stupid comedies today, but the combination of aesthetic laziness and disingenuous, manipulative zeitgeist-courting gives their efforts a particularly infuriating smugness. Though Anchorman’s as dreadfully made as the rest, its free-form silliness, blessedly brief running time, and unconcern with anything beyond getting a laugh gave the Apatow stable’s distinctive brand of self-impressed Green Room showboating a concise frame in which to score their scattershot hits. Dispensing with the professional farcery of Ferrell, Carrell et al, Knocked Up and Superbad not only reveal the firm’s near-total inability to tell a story, but brings the unpleasantly assertive frontality of their comic “method” into harsh relief.

Much as the films’ dialogue scenes seem to be the brutally spliced-together results of a single, directionless take, Apatow’s comic strategy (dutifully employed by Greg Mottola for Superbad) is simply point-and-shoot. An actor floating in dead space volleys a line at the audience, its complete freedom from context or reason—usually in the form of some bizarre vulgarity—a virtual command to laugh. There’s no comic logic, no conception of how to make the films’ various parts interact with one another. It’s only the shrewd recruitment of some genuinely funny and/or sympathetic performers—Michael Cera, Kristin Wiig, Alan Tudyk, Katherine Heigl, the omnipresent Paul Rudd—to occasionally offset the shapelessness of the films and the charisma-free amateurishness of the other players (especially the noxious Jonah Hill) that keeps the affairs marginally watchable.

If Apatow, Inc.’s sense of aesthetic construction is virtually nil, however, their sense of ideological exploitation is razor-sharp. Like other comic franchises from the mighty heights of Aqua Teen Hunger Force to the lower depths of Family Guy, Apatow’s is a comedy of recognition, a roll-call of generational pop cultural touchstones and half-forgotten niche pleasures evoking the everyday-life textures of his core constituency (those who came of age roughly from the late Seventies to the late Eighties). Wild-comedy fabrication coexists with stabs of what is meant to be taken as emotional authenticity, and it’s thus that the films are seized upon by deadline-facing scribblers as evocations of Real Life, “think pieces” pour forth and Apatow’s financial success bestows upon him the mantle of generational voice (Norbit made a lot of money too, but only Armond Dangerous is making grand cultural claims for that one).

Superbad.jpgPolitics are where you find them in today’s impoverished critical culture, but far more interesting (and completely unremarked upon) than Knocked Up’s supposed aversion of the abortion debate is its utterly bourgeois class blindness. Yesterday’s slacker pauperdom (as embodied by Seth Rogen’s motley crew) and today’s extravagant Hollywood wealth (in Rudd and Leslie Mann’s unpleasant married couple, whose enormous homestead the film regards as completely natural) are simply lifestyle choices in Apatow-Land, the road from one to the other a mere matter of choice: all one need do is accept Responsibility and job, spacious apartment, and American citizenship materialize posthaste. Apatow attempts to mine laughter by rubbing class disparities up against each other, but always to the detriment of the stoner contingent with which he supposedly sympathizes. When Mann notes how bizarre it is that Rogen doesn’t have a cellphone when even her four-year old daughter has one, the joke is on the phoneless schmuck rather than the overprivileged tot. There’s a dividing wall between the slacker memories which Apatow exploits and the showbiz success that exploitation has brought him; they’re films made by cynical professionals—a designation granted by financial status, not talent with camera or pen—pretending to be jes’ folks. Thus the labored shenanigans of Superbad and its unfunny verbal vileness are supposed to be vindicated by its “emotionally honest” depiction of adolescent male (nonsexual) love, the resulting mixture of sentimentality, vulgarity, and tiresome predictability leaving a particularly foul aftertaste.

It may seem foolish to hold inconsequential comedies to a degree of responsibility towards real life, but it’s the Apatow gang’s mixing of the faux-authentic and faux-democratic (as witness the bouncer’s garbled monologue in Knocked Up or the male frontal nudity in the midst of a sea of tits in the much funnier Walk Hard) with their comic hackery that supposedly marks them out as something special in the stupid comedy field. Visual and verbal wit can do much to mask ideological sins, and it’s this crew’s rank laziness in attempting to cultivate those skills—after all, why bother when they’ve scored on a winning formula?—that makes those sins stand out the more. —Andrew Tracy

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Don’t get me wrong. When I’m 83, I’ll be pleased as punch if I’m still able to eat solid food, much less direct an even passable movie, so I understand critics’ desire to herald Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It makes a great story: a well-respected working director, never quite a visionary but accomplished in his way, enjoys a late-career artistic renaissance two years after receiving a lifetime-achievement Oscar. Just when everyone was ready to write him off and start talking about his career in the past tense, he reemerges with this—a structurally complex crime story, a lurid family melodrama, and a taut, harrowing look at the darkness of the human soul and the evil in the world. No, it isn’t just a return to form, it’s a masterpiece. Yeah, right.

Passable though it may be, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is also a fairly stupid piece of pulp. Two brothers, both desperate for money (naturally) and both fucking the same woman (naturally), decide to knock off their own parents’ jewelry store (naturally), but then it all goes terribly wrong (naturally), and they accidentally knock off their mother instead (whoops). Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead hinges on a ludicrous series of contrivances and unconvincing, head-slappingly bad decisions by its principal characters. Take big brother Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the payroll manager for a real-estate firm. Somehow, he’s able to embezzle money from the firm by keeping old employees on the payroll, and somehow, no one notices (apparently he’s the only person in this by-all-appearances massive firm who ever looks at payroll). When his indiscretions are discovered, he just stops going to work, and instead of telling, say, the police, his boss leaves a few very stern phone messages (“Umm...Andy, we need to talk to you”). This gives him just enough time to get discovered and then killed (!) by his father (gee, we knew they had a fraught relationship…but really?). Oh, and here’s the best part: how does his dad find out Andy was behind the heist? He tracks down the crusty old jewelry dealer Andy contacted to unload the loot, and it turns out that the idiot left his fucking business card.

For the most part, the blame doesn’t rest with Lumet, whose direction is neither offensive nor embarrassing (except for those incredibly lame transition effects that introduce each new flashback)—Kelly Masterson’s screenplay simply isn’t the stuff that great films are made of. Hell, the “blame” isn’t even Masterson’s; his screenplay gets the job done in its own silly way. No, whatever blame there is for the relative disappointment I felt watching Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead rests with the critics who claimed to see something profound in this proficient genre piece. If Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is perfectly adequate filmmaking, it’s also the sort of movie that completely collapses under the weight of any hype. By the time I had seen it, it had already been labeled a masterpiece, but the movie I saw was, at best, a trashy good time. —Chris Wisniewski

The King of Kong
This run-of-the-mill contest documentary unaccountably received near-unanimous raves, blurbed as “stupendously entertaining” and, in one nice piece of thesaurized nonsense, “madly arresting.” I too enjoyed the dorky bravado of Donkey Kong champ Billy Mitchell and absurdities like the gamer judge who watches videos of people playing video games, but the devotion of the film’s fans was so fierce that the title’s other echo—King of Kings—proves just as apt. What I saw was a barely 80-minute movie that still bore the hallmarks of a filmmaker struggling to stitch together and pace his presentation of oh-so-juicy subculture and retro exotica (or, less charitably, someone rushing his calling card). Seth Gordon makes heavy recourse to running-in-place cutaways to empty commentary, redundant one-liners from bit players, and testimony ad nauseam to the mindboggling difficulty of Donkey Kong. (Owen Gleiberman’s review, however, would outdo even the movie: “To break a top score is to redefine the limits of human ability.”)

The hyperventilation over the villain-underdog matchup between Mitchell and Wiebe is particularly dismaying because the movie’s scenario plainly has no idea what to do with Wiebe’s evident and serious depression. He seems pathologically withdrawn from the world, not just a laid-off family man looking for something to believe in. You can understand Gordon having enough trouble delivering his feel-good face-off (and finding the right degree of irony) without fleshing out Wiebe’s portrait as well, but the run-up to a showdown feels all the more belabored and even unpleasant. Not that we get a clear picture of Mitchell; Gordon’s confident rib-nudging is a little undermined by the sense that the guy successfully limited the director’s access. The film’s perfunctory history of video games is also a wasted opportunity, as the success of KoK instead portends more kitsch and clumsy mock heroism from similar chronicles. (And by the time of the documentary’s release, Gordon had secured a deal to film the fiction feature of the story.) All in all, not the crime of the century, but, still, really and truly, this among the year’s best-reviewed documentaries? —Nicolas Rapold

Into the Wild
A harbinger of what’s wrong with film culture today: the Directors Guild of America chooses Sean Penn as one of its annual nominees, evidently conflating the quality of a director’s choices with the sheer quantity. I didn’t see a film that made more—or more inexplicable—formal decisions this year than Penn’s misguided beatification of Christopher McCandless, Into the Wild. The first thing Penn’s got cooking for us in his massive crock of shit? Insane, ugly graphics of McCandless’s letters scrawled across Eric Gautier’s incandescent widescreen framings in Simpsons yellow without any regard for composition or color. And if McCandless’s letters aren’t a suitable enough framing device, let’s add another one in the listless, indifferent narration by the protagonist’s sister (Jena Malone), and for good measure, a third, by starting the film in medias res with McCandless’s trip on the Stampede Trail in Alaska. Do you like unnecessary slow-mo shots? How about ridiculous, unmotivated direct-address to the camera? Or 360-degree helicopter shots traveling around our protagonist on a mountaintop soundtracked by wordless “primal” moaning? Add speed ramping and a poorly CG’d flood: at an ass-numbing 140 minutes, this feels bloated.

Truly, there’s something offensive about the huge pass Penn gets on his silly, erratic grab bag of techniques. If these were the director’s only crimes, the film would be apt for mere dismissal. Instead, j’accuse: 1) Wasting thoughtful, lived-in performances by Emile Hirsch, Hal Holbrook, and Brian Dierker (the best damn thing about the whole movie) by also including constipated phone-ins by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden and embarrassing improvisations by Vince Vaughn; 2) Employing master DP Gautier (demonlover, Clean) in service of adolescent lyricism for a story that merits gravity and ambiguity, reducing McCandless’s tragic life to a string of Successories slogans; 3) Those insipid Eddie Vedder songs. —Brendon Bouzard

Day Night Day Night
The unfortunate problem with Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night is that it’s a film constructed of visceral moments as viewed by an artist more attuned to the austerity of a gallery. I’d argue that Day Night Day Night would work better as an installation piece—imagine a room of monitors, each capturing Luisa Williams (who is quite captivating regardless of the film’s faults) performing a single act repeated ad nauseum, the show organized to lead one to the dawning realization that this girl plans to martyr herself for an unknown cause, the simultaneity of all the mundane gestures leading up to her death overwhelming. Alas, instead we having something like a narrative film—“something like” in that even though narrative is her vehicle, one can sense Loktev’s disdain at having to employ it (and by extension disdain for those who crave it—i.e. her audience). How else to explain the fact that Day Night Day Night ends exactly where a great film about a failed suicide mission should really begin? Largely stripped of context, Day Night Day Night is little more than a mildly complicated clockwork mechanism. Maybe Loktev and Williams are saving up for the sequel. —Jeff Reichert

Gone Baby Gone
I turned on Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River about ten minutes in, when the camera stopped for a rib-nudging linger on the letters “Da” engraved in a slab of fresh concrete: it was the first half of a character’s name, a gesture of good-natured adolescent vandalism truncated by a traumatic event that will change the course of the signer’s life—leaving him similarly unfinished. “Do you get it?” asked a friend, and her eyes were rolled to heaven; it’s a shame she moved away before the release of Gone Baby Gone. Like Mystic River, it’s a Boston Gothic adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, whose preoccupations— disappeared little girls, urban tribalism, head-slapping plot twists—are as deeply entrenched as the aforementioned “Da”; like Mystic River, it’s lousy with local color, defined here as “unattractive people leaning on stoops.” Affleck fairly revels in their unattractiveness, contrasting the supporting gargoyles with his younger brother Casey’s limpid visage. Affleck the younger’s character, a private investigator by the name of Patrick Kenzie, registers as the good guy by virtue of being clean-shaven and tucking his shirt in.

He’s the good guy, but the film’s supporters ardently deny the presence of such Manichean concepts; review after review praised the narrative’s structural and moral complexity. Substitute “complicated” for “complex” and that’s a pretty accurate description of the plot, which involves the disappearance of a local cherub and Patrick’s decision—made in hesitant tandem with his personal and professional partner (Michelle Monaghan)—to take on the case. Anyone familiar with Roger Ebert’s Law of the Economy of Characters should be able to figure out what’s going on by the midway mark —ask yourself what a certain Oscar-winning actor is doing in a throwaway role—but it’s the claims for moral complexity that really rankle. No film this show-offily lurid (check out the family of child molesters squatting in their Saw IV hellhole amidst the stained undergarments of their victims) should be dropping sanctimonious hints about the perils of taking responsibility. Affleck, heal thyself. —Adam Nayman