The Films of Greg Mottola
Superbad (July 24/07)
Though he's only listed as a producer this time around, Judd Apatow's unique comedic sensibilities are all over Superbad and the movie consequently fits comfortably within the context of his free-wheeling, thoroughly distinctive body of work. Written by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, the film transpires over the course of one very long night - as high school buddies Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) encounter a whole host of obstacles and quirky characters while attempting to procure alcohol for a graduation party. There's little doubt that Superbad works best in its relatively low-key opening scenes, which feature an emphasis on Seth and Evan's raunchy (and often hilarious) conversations; armed with the screenplay's clever, unmistakably R-rated dialogue, Cera and Hill infuse the early part of the movie with a palpable sense of authenticity that proves impossible to resist. It's only when the characters are split up during the film's episodic mid-section that one's interest starts to flag, as it becomes increasingly difficult to care about their individual misadventures (ie Evan is forced to belt out a tune for a room full of stoners). And although the movie does recover for an admittedly effective finale, there's simply no denying that Superbad is simply unable to hold the viewer's interest through the entirety of its distinctly overlong running time.
Set in 1987, Adventureland follows bright college graduate James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) as he reluctantly agrees to take on a job at a low-rent amusement park to pay the bills - with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently revolving around his various misadventures within the title locale's sprawling grounds (as well as his attempts at wooing Kristen Stewart's spunky Em Lewin). Director Greg Mottola has infused Adventureland with a laid-back sensibility that inevitably proves an ideal complement to his unapologetically uneventful screenplay, and there's little doubt that the pervasively authentic atmosphere proves instrumental in initially holding the viewer's interest (ie Mottola effectively captures the circa-1980s landscape without resorting to over-the-top tricks or gimmicks). Eisenberg's winning work as the central character certainly perpetuates the low-key yet likeable vibe, with his efforts ably (and agreeably) assisted by a uniformly appealing supporting cast that includes Martin Starr, Ryan Reynolds, and Bill Hader. There comes a point, however, at which the increasingly plotless bent of Mottola's script becomes oppressive, as the filmmaker's relentlessly episodic modus operandi is ultimately hindered by the inclusion of several eye-rollingly predictable plot threads (a fake break-up? Really?) It’s consequently not surprising to note that the positive vibes established by Mottola and his cast are inevitably rendered moot as the movie limps towards its exceedingly anti-climactic conclusion, with the end result a weak coming-of-age story that's simply unable to bring anything new to the well-worn genre.
Paul follows a pair of British sci-fi enthusiasts (Simon Pegg's Graeme and Nick Frost's Clive) as they encounter and befriend an actual alien (Seth Rogen's Paul) while touring various UFO hotspots, with the movie subsequently detailing the road trip that ensues as Graeme and Clive attempt to deliver Paul to a meeting spot while avoiding the relentless pursuit of several dogged agents (including Jason Bateman's Zoil and Bill Hader's Haggard). It's an irresistibly off-kilter premise that's employed to pervasively watchable (yet far from engrossing) effect by filmmaker Greg Mottola, as the director does a nice job of initially capturing the viewer's interest by emphasizing the back-and-forth banter between Pegg and Frost's respective characters - with the actors' palpable chemistry together ensuring that the movie is at its best when focused on their low-key exploits. Paul's episodic midsection plays an instrumental role in perpetuating the film's decidedly uneven atmosphere, however, and there's little doubt that certain sequences ultimately fare a whole lot better than others (ie it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for the protagonists' uneventful trip to a small town). The sedate atmosphere also ensures that the action-heavy climax can't help but feel a little out of place, as the movie is, for the most part, a talk-heavy endeavor that seems content to remain within the confines of Graeme and Clive's motor home. It's finally clear that Paul falls right in line with Mottola's affable yet unspectacular prior efforts, with the film elevated by the charisma of the various actors and by the enjoyably tongue-in-cheek nature of Pegg and Frost's screenplay.
Though it has its moments, Clear History is ultimately a disappointing endeavor that's rarely able to live up to the high standard set by star Larry David's television show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. (The comparison, though perhaps unfair, is certainly apt, as the movie generally feels like a 100-minute-long episode of the HBO series.) The film casts David as Nathan Flomm, a marketing executive who walks away from a promising automotive startup and almost immediately loses over a billion dollars in earnings - with the film following the character as he subsequently changes his name (to Rolly DaVore) and starts a new life on Martha's Vineyard. Problems inevitably ensue as Nathan/Rolly's former boss, Jon Hamm's Will Haney, arrives on the island with his wife (Kate Hudson's Rhonda) and son in tow, which prompts Nathan/Rolly to embark on a campaign of revenge alongside a pair of wacky locals (Michael Keaton's Joe and Bill Hader's Rags). It's obvious immediately that David, along with director Greg Mottola and co-writers Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, has little interest in offering up a film that's radically different from his long-running television program, as Clear History has been infused with precisely the sort of attributes that one associates with Curb Your Enthusiasm - including confrontational bits of comedy and a myriad of smaller, more subtle touches (ie everything, from the scene transitions to the peppy score, contains echoes of CYE). And while the movie is admittedly quite entertaining for a little while, Clear History begins to run out of steam to fairly dramatic effect somewhere around the half-hour mark - with the less-than-fleshed-out storyline contributing heavily to the film's egregiously slight and far-from-cinematic atmosphere. The sporadic laughs and revolving door of familiar faces - folks like Danny McBride, Eva Mendes, and Philip Baker Hall make appearances - can't, as a result, compensate for the pervasively stale vibe, and it's finally impossible to label Clear History as anything more than a needless vanity project from David.
Keeping Up with the Joneses
Relentlessly bland and devoid of laughs, Keeping Up with the Joneses follows affable suburban couple Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen (Isla Fisher) as they become convinced that their new neighbors (Jon Hamm's Tim and Gal Gadot's Natalie) are, in fact, spies. There's ultimately exceedingly little within Keeping Up with the Joneses worth getting excited about, as the movie suffers from a run-of-the-mill sensibility that's compounded by a predictable narrative and ongoing emphasis on misguided comedic set-pieces. (The best example of the latter is surely a silly, unfunny sequence wherein Tim takes Jeff to an underground snake restaurant.) It is, as such, rather difficult to work up any genuine interest in or enthusiasm for the various characters' exploits, although, at least, the somewhat unwatchable nature of Keeping Up with the Jones' first act gives way to a second half that's almost passable. (It's all just so generic, though.) The actors' uniformly solid efforts are, naturally, squandered by director Greg Mottola's middle-of-the-road approach to Michael LeSieur's paint-by-numbers screenplay, which is a shame, certainly, given the strength of, especially, Hamm's agreeable turn as a conflicted international secret agent. (Galifianakis, on the other hand, isn't doing anything here he hasn't done countless times before.) It's ultimately impossible not to wonder what drew the talented folks in front of (and behind) the camera to such stale material, and it's difficult to envision even the most forgiving of comedy fans finding much worth embracing here.