The Films of Seth Gordon
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (January 28/08)
Unquestionably the most engaging and flat-out entertaining documentary since Murderball, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters follows would-be Donkey Kong champ Steve Wiebe as he attempts to topple the almost unattainably high score held by Billy Mitchell since 1982. Though filmmaker Seth Gordon sporadically places the emphasis on less-than-enthralling tangential elements, there's little doubt that the increasingly antagonistic relationship between Wiebe and Mitchell ultimately transforms the proceedings into a classic underdog story. Gordon's success in portraying Wiebe as a sympathetic, utterly likable figure proves instrumental in the film's success, as Wiebe - a family man with a history of failed endeavors behind him - comes off as someone the viewer can't help but root for. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mitchell, a smug douchebag who instantly establishes himself as the film's villain due to his smarmy persona and devious modus operandi (his refusal to even acknowledge Wiebe at their first encounter is nothing short of remarkable). The end result is a documentary that'll hold the interest of even the most rabid anti-video game detractor, and it's certainly not difficult to see why the film has managed to garner such a passionate following in the months since its theatrical release.
Infused with eye-rolling instances of melodrama and a pervadingly over-the-top sensibility, Four Christmases instantly joins the ranks of such hopelessly ineffective similarly-themed contemporary efforts as Surviving Christmas, Fred Claus, and Christmas with the Kranks. The storyline follows happily-unmarried couple Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) as their seemingly perfect relationship slowly-but-surely begins to unravel after they agree to visit their various relatives in a single day, with the characters forced to confront childhood humiliations and long-buried secrets at the hands of their uniformly stereotypical kin. It's a reasonably intriguing premise that's squandered virtually from the word go by director Seth Gordon, as the filmmaker - working from a screenplay by Matt Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas, and Scott Moore - consistently places the emphasis on comedic set-pieces that are almost painfully unfunny (ie Brad wrestles his rough-and-tumble brothers, Kate is trapped within a Bouncy Castle, etc). The movie's admittedly impressive roster of supporting performers - which includes, among others, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Jon Favreau - subsequently find themselves powerless to infuse their broadly-conceived characters with anything even resembling authenticity, while Vaughn and Witherspoon primarily indulge in the most obnoxious aspects of their respective onscreen personae (ie he's a fast-talking rebel and she's an uptight conformist). Exacerbating matters is the undercurrent of far-from-subtle sentimentality that's been hard-wired into the proceedings, with Gordon's third-act efforts at transforming the film into feel-good holiday fare falling entirely flat. An amusing cameo by Gordon's King of Kong star Steve Wiebe notwithstanding, Four Christmases - having been geared to the lowest-common-denominator crowd - generally comes off as an interminable would-be comedy that'll leave most viewers feeling like the Grinch.
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Identity Thief (March 12/15)
Saddled with an almost astonishingly overlong running time (111 minutes!), Identity Thief suffers from an often unwatchable first half that admittedly does give way to a passable final stretch - which does confirm that the movie could've used some judicious editing prior to its release. The narrative follows Jason Bateman's Sandy Patterson as he's forced to track down the woman (Melissa McCarthy's Diana) who's stolen his identity, with the film consequently detailing Sandy's ongoing efforts at bringing Diana to justice. It's ultimately clear that Identity Thief fares especially poorly in its utterly wrongheaded opening half hour, with the ludicrous nature of the movie's premise compounded by a prototypically irritating performance from McCarthy - as the actress indulges in virtually all of the ticks and mannerisms with which she has come to be associated (ie she won't be winning over her detractors with this incredibly broad turn). There's little doubt, then, that the film improves to a fairly noticeable degree once Bateman and McCarthy's respective characters are forced to work together, with the movie adopting a buddy-comedy vibe that is, undoubtedly intentionally, strongly reminiscent of John Hughes' far superior Planes, Trains & Automobiles. The passable vibe is all-too-often thwarted by scripter Craig Mazin's emphasis on thoroughly questionable set pieces, including a seriously misguided scene in which Sandy is attacked by an almost comically fake-looking computer-generated snake. By the time the oddly dramatic climax rolls around, Identity Thief has confirmed its place as an utterly uneven comedy that could (and should) have been so much better.
An awful, interminable TV remake, Baywatch follows disgraced Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron) as he joins an elite crew of California lifeguards and must eventually solve a series of murders alongside his new coworkers (including Dwayne Johnson's Mitch Buchannon and Alexandra Daddario's Summer Quinn). The degree to which Baywatch ultimately alienates the viewer is somewhat shocking, as the movie boasts a relatively engaging opening stretch that's rife with charismatic performances and silly yet entertaining set pieces. (Johnson, in terms of the former, is at his likeable, easygoing best here.) It's only as the picture progresses into its almost painfully by-the-numbers midsection that one's interest begins to wane, as screenwriter Damian Shannon and Mark Swift deliver a narrative that's bursting at the seams with hackneyed, hopelessly uninvolving elements - with, especially, the heavy emphasis on the protagonists' investigation into the aforementioned murders consistently threatening to bring the proceedings to a complete and total stop. (There's little doubt, as well, that the eye-rollingly simplistic trajectory of Matt's character arc contributes heavily to the thoroughly tedious atmosphere.) The expectedly action-heavy third act, which is utterly lacking in any genuine thrills, ensures that Baywatch concludes on as anti-climactic a note as one could have imagined, and it's ultimately hard to imagine what the various folks in front of and behind the camera were thinking when they signed up for this mess. (And what on earth is up with the almost two hour running time?)