The Films of Barry Levinson
Young Sherlock Holmes
Good Morning, Vietnam
Disclosure (March 28/12)
Based on the book by Michael Crichton, Disclosure follows Michael Douglas' Tom Sanders as he's passed over for a promotion in favor of a former girlfriend named Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore) - with problems ensuing as Meredith forcefully puts the moves on Tom and subsequently accuses him of sexual harassment. It's clear right from the get-go that filmmaker Barry Levinson, working from Paul Attanasio's screenplay, isn't looking to replicated the briskly-paced, tension-filled feel of Crichton's novel, as Disclosure does, for the most part, come off as a deliberate drama that relies mostly on its performances to sustain one's interest - with Douglas' expectedly compelling turn heightened by an eclectic supporting cast that includes, among others, Donald Sutherland, Dylan Baker, and Dennis Miller. The movie's watchable yet far-from-engrossing vibe generally persists from start to finish, although, to be fair, the suspense level is amped up significantly during a stretch set within a (now-dated) virtual-reality landscape. But the aggressively overlong running time ultimately perpetuates the film's arms-length atmosphere, and it seems rather obvious that Disclosure could've benefited from a few more passes through the editing bay.
Wag the Dog
An Everlasting Piece
Envy (July 28/06)
It's interesting to note that as awful as Envy is in its opening half hour, the film improves immeasurably beyond that point - to the extent that it becomes a passable and sporadically humorous little dark comedy. Ben Stiller stars as Tim Dingman, a hard-working everyman who finds himself wracked with envy after his unbalanced neighbor (played by Jack Black) invents a device that vaporizes excrement and becomes an instant billionaire (this is after Tim was offered the chance to go in on the product for a mere $2000). Director Barry Levinson - working from Steve Adams' distinctly uneven screenplay (this is a script that offers up a dead horse as a source of laughs) - initially infuses Envy with a distinctly off-kilter sensibility, eschewing anything even resembling realism in favor of a comedically-broad sort of vibe (ie characters argue and argue but never actually do anything). Stiller and Black deliver precisely the sort of performances one might've expected - ie Stiller is uptight and Black is over-the-top - but it's Christopher Walken who easily proves to be the most effective aspect of the movie. Playing a thoroughly shady figure named The J-Man, Walken is at his scene-stealing best here; there's little doubt that the film becomes as watchable as it does thanks to his increasingly prominent role. In the end, Envy comes off as a fairly pointless piece of work - yet the film is certainly not the flat-out disaster it's been made out to be.
Man of the Year (October 12/06)
Though it features a premise that's both timely and promising - a Jon Stewart-esque talk show host runs for President and wins - Man of the Year remains virtually intolerable throughout its overlong running time due primarily to star Robin Williams' relentless mugging and writer/director Barry Levinson's inordinately mediocre screenplay. Levinson's decision to essentially transform the film into a conspiracy thriller in its third act is baffling, and the entire production likewise has an unmistakable vibe of pointlessness about it. Williams stars as Tom Dobbs, the aforementioned talk-show host who decides - on the advice of an inquisitive audience member - to run for President. Tom's eventual victory doesn't come as much of a surprise - that much was revealed in the film's trailer - but nobody could have anticipated the degree to which Levinson emphasizes a silly subplot revolving around the faulty voting technology that erroneously puts Tom in office. Initially, however, Man of the Year's problems are primarily limited to Williams' free-wheeling, obviously improvised ramblings. Williams' incredibly specific sense of humor is on full display here, to such an extent that it often feels as though he's just playing himself (worse yet, such sequences temporarily transform the proceedings into a filmed concert for Williams' thoroughly unfunny act). It consequently becomes exceedingly difficult to actually care about any of this, and one can't help but wonder if the final product even remotely resembles Levinson's initial vision (it just can't, right?) The almost total lack of satirical elements within Levinson's script certainly doesn't help matters, as the filmmaker barely scratches the surface of the movie's admittedly topical subject matter (that Tom Dobbs is a political comedian turns out to be completely irrelevant). Levinson ultimately reveals himself to be far more concerned with the film's ludicrous and distinctly incongruous thriller elements, which conceivably could've worked in a different movie but simply come off as ill-advised here. And that's the bottom line, really; Man of the Year's disastrously uneven vibe prevents it from becoming the compelling, searing piece of work Levinson surely intended it to be.
What Just Happened
Based on Art Linson's breezy, thoroughly entertaining memoir, What Just Happened initially comes off as an eye-opening glimpse into the behind-the-scenes world of a Hollywood producer (Robert De Niro's Ben). Ben's efforts at shepherding a troubled endeavor through its post-production phase - as well as his ongoing ordeal with a new picture starring Bruce Willis (and his shaggy beard) - is certainly as interesting and compelling as one might've hoped, with De Niro's ingratiating performance matched by an impressive list of co-stars that includes Catherine Keener, John Turturro, and Michael Wincott. The slow-but-steady introduction of elements that simply aren't all that engaging - eg Ben's relationship with his teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart's Zoe) - does ensure that the film suffers from an awfully tedious and random midsection, with Barry Levinson's penchant for punching up scenes with a free-wheeling, French-New-Wave directorial sensibility serving only to highlight the increasingly (and egregiously) random atmosphere. It's subsequently not surprising to note that What Just Happens fizzles out to an astonishing degree as it limps towards its entirely underwhelming finale, which essentially comes off as a slightly plausible (yet hopelessly derivative) riff on the flat-out absurd conclusion of 2001's America's Sweethearts. The end result is an effort whose negatives outweigh its positives by an almost overpowering margin, and one ultimately can't help but lament the transformation of a stellar book into an utterly disappointing misfire.
You Don't Know Jack