The week in movies: ‘Neighbors,’ ‘Chef’ and more

May 9, 2014

neighbors

“Neighbors” may not be a particularly well-thought-out film (huge third-act problems). But it has some of the biggest sustained laughs of the summer.

The fact that the three biggest jokes are, in essence, penis jokes (one involves a used condom, so I count that) may have something to do with that. I admit it: I find jokes that graphically mock the male organ (and the homosexual panic that some men feel when in close proximity to one belonging to someone else) very funny. I probably always will.

Not that Nicholas Stoller’s film hangs together; it gradually unravels, a victim of a serious plotting problem that’s never solved. (I saw a piece online this week that referred to Stoller as an “unheralded comic genius.” It obviously was written by someone who either lacks context or has come up with a new definition of “genius,” one that lumps Judd Apatow into the “heralded” section of the comic-genius classification. Which, again, indicates a lack of perspective.)

The plot centers on a married couple, Mac and Katie (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, a pairing guaranteed to infuriate women who don’t like Rogen). They’ve got a baby and a house with a mortgage – which means they’re worried that they’re turning into old people. Which they’re not; it’s simply the scale-dropping-from-the-eyes moment when you realize you’re an adult, not a kid.

That becomes even clearer when the vacant house next door is sold – to a college fraternity, led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco. It immediately becomes Party Central, and suddenly Mac and Katie find themselves the oldsters yelling, “Hey, turn down that music!” at their younger neighbors. While they try to ingratiate themselves as adults who are hip to the young people, it quickly turns into all-out war.

The pranks, the wisecracks, the rudeness – it’s all fairly inspired, including the idea of Rogen engaging Efron in a dance-off (and, eventually, a fight). On the other hand, this is a movie that wants us to sympathize with both sides of this squabble – but dramatic structure demands that there’s a winner and a loser (and the facts of the case mean that the winner grabs victory by being the biggest jerk). There are few consequences (including the fact that no one else in this residential neighborhood of closely set houses seems to be bothered by the fraternity’s outrageous antics) for either side.

But Rogen and Byrne have a deliciously odd chemistry and Efron proves that he can handle real comedy by playing straight. As I said, it’s not great – but it is funny. That excuses a lot.

chef

I had similar mixed feelings about Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” a return for the “Iron Man” director to his roots in personal (and small) film. OK, not that small: Here’s an indy whose cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., Sofia Vergara and Scarlett Johansson, among others. It’s nice to have friends who’ll do you favors.

Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a rising-star chef who is sweating a visit by a powerful food critic to the restaurant whose kitchen Carl runs. But the owner of the restaurant (Hoffman) vetoes Carl’s plan to introduce a new menu – and when the critic eviscerates Carl’s cooking, Carl gets involved in a Twitter war with him (without really understanding what Twitter is). Carl finally confronts the critic, while everyone else in the restaurant vies to see whose camera-phone video clip of Carl’s tantrum can go viral fastest.

Out of a job, Carl winds up in Miami, buying a food truck to drive back to L.A. His old assistant (John Leguizamo) shows up to help on this shakedown cruise, as does Carl’s young son, who he’s ignored because of his preoccupation with work. You can connect the dots on the rest: reigniting Carl’s passion for food, reconnecting with his son, all while the camera hovers salaciously over each bit of cookery.

It’s enjoyable but slight, a movie that manufactures its feel-good status without really earning it. There’s nothing wrong with “Chef” that an injection of tension (or story) wouldn’t improve.

double

Richard Ayoade’s “The Double” is a marked departure from his first film, “Submarine,” or his comedy work on “The IT Crowd,” “The Watch” and elsewhere. Ayoade is channeling everyone from Luis Bunuel to David Lynch in this tense little tale of identity loss in the modern age. Adapted from a Dostoevsky novella, it is also Kafkaesque in the circular logic that flummoxes the protagonist.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a functionary at an indeterminate government office, stocked with computer equipment that looks like it would have been considered antique in the 1980s. Bullied by his boss (Wallace Shawn), unable to make time with the girl in his office (Mia Wasikowska) that he likes, trapped in a tiny single-room apartment, Simon scuttles through life, unseen and unremembered.

It gets even worse when a new employee shows up: James Simon (also Eisenberg), Simon’s smirking, smooth-talking opposite – and also his twin, a fact that no one but Simon seems to notice. James buddies up to Simon, then quickly and methodically starts to take possession of Simon’s life.

This is a psychological horror film in which the unease comes from Simon’s increasing frustration and impotence at being more than a puppet to other people. The film’s tension is amplified by both the music of Andrew Hewitt, which raises the sense of distress, and by a sound design that uses industrial noises to induce discomfort in the viewer. The image may be benign but the feelings induced by the sound imparts a sense of threat or dread.

“The Double” is not an audience-friendly film; yet it is a fascinating and disquieting experience. If you’re looking for a movie that will push you out of your comfort zone, look no further.

Short looks at a few others:

fedup

“Fed Up”: Executive produced by Laurie David (“An Inconvenient Truth”) and narrated by Katie Couric, this documentary examines the way the American processed-food industry has helped create a national plague of obesity. The information contained in the film – about the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup, the way public assistance for food forces consumers to buy more and more empty calories, the government’s insistence on subsidizing corn and soy over healthier alternatives – is important. But much of the message here can be found in past films, from “Food, Inc.” to “A Place at the Table.” Still, the presence of Couric may attract some viewers – and the message is still a vital one because the problem is ongoing.

godspocket

“God’s Pocket”: When I saw this film – the directorial debut of actor John Slattery – at Sundance earlier this year, I wrote that it “packs an urban punch, with its cast of scrambling half-ass criminals in a depressed neighborhood of Philadelphia.” The cast is headed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and includes John Turturro, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins and Eddie Marsan (among others). It’s gritty, witty and downbeat, an alternately thoughtful and juicy adaptation of Pete Dexter’s novel. Hoffman stands out as a guy trying to fight the fate of perpetually being a day late and a dollar short. That’s a flaw in most of these characters, people who can’t quite believe there’s not a better life that they somehow, through no fault of their own, have missed out on.

devilsknot

“Devil’s Knot”: You would think that the horrific case of the West Memphis Three – Arkansas teens sentenced to death for supposed Satanic murders of three children that they didn’t commit – would not need further retelling. It was the focus of three disturbing nonfiction films by documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and a further unnecessary one by Amy Berg. Now comes this dramatization by Canadian director Atom Egoyan, which casts Reese Witherspoon as the mother of one of the dead boys and Colin Firth as an investigator convinced that the suspects on trial have been railroaded. But, aside from offering a chance to use actors to depict the kind of small-town small-mindedness that turned three social outcasts into convenient scapegoats, this film has little to add to the conversation.

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