The Films of Shawn Levy
Just in Time
Jett Jackson: The Movie
Big Fat Liar (December 8/02)
For what it is and for what it sets out to do, Big Fat Liar undoubtedly works. There are lots of visual jokes and the pace moves reasonably quick, so that coveted tween demographic will surely get a real kick out of this. But the problem is the story's just not that interesting and even if it were, the incredibly over-the-top atmosphere prevents the movie from becoming anything more than a relentless funhouse of images and sounds. Even the two lead performances, by Frankie Muniz and Amanda Bynes, wind up becoming grating and obnoxious - mostly because the word "subtle" doesn't seem to exist in their vocabulary. And let's not even get started on Paul Giamatti, a great actor who's completely wasted here.
The story eventually has Muniz's Jason and Bynes' Kaylee hiding out in the Universal Studios backlot, and, eventually, taking up residence in the prop department. And while it was a little exciting to see the Delorean from Back to the Future again, this particular subplot eventually leads into a Pee-Wee's Big Adventure ripoff - as the two characters are chased throughout the studio. The sad part is the majority of kids watching this will wind up thinking Big Fat Liar invented this sort of sequence, and really, isn't that just about as bad as it gets?
And for a so-called comedy, there are few laughs to be had. Having said that, there was one moment that's as funny as anything I've seen in a while. Giamatti's Marty, visiting the set of one of his pictures, witnesses a sequence from a buddy cop movie being filmed. In it, an officer is complaining to his partner about various things, and as the camera pans downwards, we see that his partner is an honest-to-goodness chicken. And the chicken's decked out in full police regalia, complete with a little hat. That was funny. Everything else in Big Fat Liar was not.
Just Married (December 30/03)
It'd be easy enough to put the blame for Just Married's failure on Ashton Kutcher's shoulders, as he's such an obvious target. But given that the film requires little of him other than comedic timing, that's not really a fair criticism. No, it's the paper-thin characters and utterly predictable storyline that does the film in. Kutcher and Brittany Murphy stars as (not surprisingly) a just married couple, who are heading off to Europe for their Honeymoon. But when anything that can go wrong does, the two wind up bickering until their flight home. Part of the problem with Just Married is that it takes these two fairly charismatic stars, and forces them to argue and fight for virtually the entire running time. And as The Story of Us has already proved, that doesn't really work. It doesn't help that the majority of the jokes are of the sitcom variety (and a bad sitcom, at that), and the film's flat visual style manages to obscure photogenic locales like Italy (blame that on director Shawn Levy). The whole thing has a TV-movie feel to it, though with slightly better actors and no commercial breaks.
Cheaper by the Dozen (December 23/03)
It's an awfully sad day when Ashton Kutcher is the best thing about a movie. Cheaper by the Dozen, an update of the 1950s family film, suffers from just that predicament. That's not to say that leading man Steve Martin isn't good - he's as wacky and occasionally funny as he's been in recent years - but given how effective he used to be in films like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Parenthood, that he's essentially become another Eddie Murphy is certainly a disappointment. While Cheaper by the Dozen, which details the exploits of a middle-class family of 14, is essentially entertaining in a mindless sort of way, it probably would've worked a whole lot better had the sentimental moments been left to a minimum. With family films of this sort, such instances of maudlin preaching are to be expected - but Cheaper by the Dozen is jam-packed with so-called tender sequences, virtually to the point where it makes Full House look edgy by comparison. Yet the movie does have a certain charm about it, mostly thanks to the work of Martin and Bonnie Hunt. As the film progresses, they're able to take these relatively one-dimensional characters and turn them into a genuinely intriguing couple (that both actors come from a stand-up background probably helps). Tom Welling, best known for playing Clark Kent on Smallville, proves that he's an incredibly able and charismatic actor - though he never really gets all that much to do here. And as for Kutcher, who's playing a conceited actor named Hank, he's responsible for some of Cheaper by the Dozen's few laughs. And while it's fairly obvious he'll never have a big career in dramatic roles, his comedic timing is undeniable. Director Shawn Levy imbues the film with all the style of a made-for-TBS production, which makes the many saccharine-laced moments far more overwhelming than they should've been. Still, you could certain do worse than Cheaper by the Dozen this holiday season (Peter Pan, anyone?), but you could also do a lot better (Elf is still hanging around, folks).
The Pink Panther
Click here for review.
Night at the Museum (July 14/07)
As lightweight and inoffensive as its premise might've indicated, Night at the Museum is a breezy piece of work that's occasionally weighed down by needless instances of heavy-handed sentimentality. Ben Stiller stars as Larry Daley, a down-on-his-luck single father who's forced to take a job as a museum night watchman to support his son. Problems emerge as it becomes clear that every inanimate item within the museum - including tiny model soldiers and a Stonehenge statue - comes alive at night, and it's up to Larry to ensure that that nothing/nobody escapes the confines of the building. Directed by Shawn Levy, Night at the Museum moves at a relatively brisk pace and features a number of genuinely entertaining set pieces - with Larry's frantic, chaotic first night on the job undoubtedly a highlight. Stiller's expectedly personable performance certainly goes a long way towards keeping things interesting, while it's hard not to find some value in the exceedingly quirky supporting cast (which includes, among others, Ricky Gervais, Owen Wilson, and Steve Coogan). It's a shame, then, that screenwriters Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon have opted to throw in a series of increasingly dramatic interludes, as there's just no denying that such moments come off as entirely needless and flat-out forced (ie unlike certain similarly-themed efforts, the film's more schmaltzy attributes stand out like a sore thumb). Still, Night at the Museum is generally entertaining and it's ultimately difficult not to be drawn into the admittedly out-there storyline.
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
There's little doubt that Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian ultimately fares slightly worse than its uneven yet agreeable predecessor, with the almost pervasively juvenile atmosphere and hopelessly thin storyline resulting in a myriad of lulls within the movie's ongoing narrative. The film follows Ben Stiller's Larry Daley as he's forced to surreptitiously break into the Smithsonian after his inanimate friends are shipped there for storage, with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently detailing Larry and company's efforts at outwitting an evil Pharoah (Hank Azaria's Kahmunrah) bent on world domination. It's a familiar premise that's initially employed to relatively entertaining effect by director Shawn Levy and screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, with the movie's briskly-paced sensibilities perpetuated by the inclusion of several admittedly clever interludes and sequences (ie during a fight in front of several paintings, the bartender from Edward Hopper's iconic "Nighthawks" attempts to assist the heroes by brandishing a broken bottle). Stiller's likeable performance is matched by an impressive supporting cast that includes Bill Hader, Owen Willson, and Robin Williams, although - as becomes clear almost immediately - it's Amy Adams' charismatic, thoroughly enchanting work as Amelia Earhart that stands as the film's most invaluable attribute. There inevitably reaches a point, however, at which the filmmakers' excessively kid-friendly tendencies become impossible to ignore, as the movie is slowly-but-surely suffused with tedious, needlessly drawn-out comedic sequences that are exacerbated by Levy's penchant for indulging his actors' improvisational impulses (with an excruciatingly prolonged argument between Larry and Kahmunrah surely the most egregious example of this). By the time Stiller's character engages in a slapping fight with a pair of monkeys, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian has incontrovertibly established itself as an endeavor designed to appeal solely to small children - which is undoubtedly a shame, given the strength of the cast and the promise of the movie's early scenes.
Date Night casts Steve Carell and Tina Fey as Phil and Claire Foster, a happily married couple who encounter a series of life-threatening obstacles after deviating from the usual routine of their weekly night out. There's little doubt that Date Night fares best in its opening half hour, as the palpable chemistry between Carell and Fey is undoubtedly heightened by the ease with which the actors slip into their respective characters. The film, which initially resembles a sitcom both in its reliance on one-liners and in its decidedly uncinematic visual style, slowly but surely wears out its welcome, however, as the affable vibe inevitably gives way to an emphasis on increasingly over-the-top action sequences - which wouldn't be quite so problematic had such moments been infused with even an ounce of real excitement by director Shawn Levy. But the filmmaker's ongoing difficulties in offering up authentic thrills ensures that the charisma of the stars is ultimately rendered moot, with the viewer's dwindling interest the most obvious casualty of Date Night's progressively erratic atmosphere. The steady cavalcade of cameo appearances, coupled with the inclusion of a few genuinely funny comedic set-pieces, prevents the movie from becoming an all-out bore, admittedly, yet it's worth noting that both Carell and Fey's small-screen work is, by and large, far more entertaining than anything within Date Night's appreciatively short running time.
Based on a short story by Richard Matheson, Real Steel follows Hugh Jackman's Charlie Kenton as he and his estranged son (Dakota Goyo's Max) attempt to win a string of boxing matches with their oversized robot - with the film detailing both the various fights that ensue and the growing bond between Charlie and Max. There's little doubt that Real Steel's biggest problem is its excessively deliberate pace and unreasonably overlong running time, as filmmaker Shawn Levy, working from John Gatins' screenplay, has infused the movie with an incongruously epic sensibility that all-too-often threatens to negate its positive attributes - with the fairly pointless (and surprisingly unpleasant) robot-vs-bull brawl that opens the picture effectively setting a tone of regrettable sloppiness (ie Charlie goes through two robots before settling on his final fighter). From there, Real Steel emphasizes, to an almost interminable degree, the father/son relationship between Charlie and Max, with the ongoing emphasis on the pair's hackneyed antics (eg Max, after being asked what he wants from Charlie, angrily responds, "I want you to fight for me! That's all I ever wanted!") wreaking havoc on the movie's tenuous momentum to an increasingly pronounced degree. It's clear, then, that the film benefits substantially from the inclusion of several unexpectedly engrossing robot-on-robot fight sequences, as such moments - which are, in the wake of Michael Bay's disastrous Transformers trilogy, refreshingly coherent - generally compensate for the melodramatic silliness that's been hard-wired into the narrative. By the time the undeniably exhilarating climactic bout rolls around, Real Steel has established itself as a frustratingly uneven (yet consistently watchable) piece of work that could have and should have been so much better.
The Internship follows fired salesmen Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) as they attempt to reinvent themselves by applying for internships at Google, with the film detailing the pair's subsequent efforts at earning actual jobs at the infamous internet company. It's clear immediately that The Internship benefits substantially from the palpable chemistry between Vaughn and Wilson, with their affable dynamic going a long way towards establishing a surprisingly (and compulsively) watchable atmosphere. The inclusion of several laugh-out-loud funny interludes perpetuates the movie's engaging vibe, and it does, in the movie's early stages, seem as though The Internship is going to top Wedding Crashers, Vaughn and Wilson's first comedic pairing, in terms of entertainment value. It's not until Billy and Nick arrive at Google that the film begins its sharp nosedive into mediocrity, as the movie, which is far-from-subtle in terms of its reverence for Google, subsequently places a consistent emphasis on elements of an aggressively conventional nature. One's interest does, as a result, begin to wane considerably as the film plods into its increasingly predictable midsection, with the inclusion of hackneyed plot twists - eg Nick and Billy must whip their ragtag group members into shape, Billy is forced to contend with an obnoxious rival (Max Minghella's Graham), etc - ensuring that the movie only grows more and more interminable in the buildup to its expectedly uplifting finale. And although the movie does boast a small handful of effective moments in its latter half, The Internship is ultimately as lazy and pointless (and overlong) a comedy that one can easily recall - which is a shame, really, given the promise of the setup and the strength of the central performances.
This Is Where I Leave You
Based on Jonathan Tropper's vastly superior novel, This Is Where I Leave You follows Jason Bateman's Judd Altman as he returns to his hometown to sit shiva after his father dies suddenly - with the film detailing the various familial conflicts that naturally ensue. It's clear almost immediately that filmmaker Shawn Levy just doesn't have the right sensibility for this material, as the director, known for his fluffy, decidedly comedic offerings, has infused This Is Where I Leave You with a terminally lightweight feel that grows more and more problematic as time progresses - as the absence of authentically heartfelt moments ultimately proves disastrous (ie the film possesses the feel of a glorified sitcom, for the most part). There's little doubt, then, that the movie benefits substantially from the efforts of its stellar cast, with folks like Bateman, Adam Driver, Tina Fey, and Corey Stoll sporadically breathing some life into the otherwise inert proceedings. Tropper's screenplay, however, leaves the various performers with too little to do, as the scattered narrative results in a disappointing absence of satisfying character arcs for many of the movie's protagonists. There is, as a result, little or no emotional resonance within the movie's climactic stretch, which ultimately does confirm This Is Where I Leave You's place as a misbegotten, ineffective adaptation.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (January 22/15)
The Night at the Museum saga comes to close with this sporadically entertaining yet ultimately disappointing entry, with the narrative following Ben Stiller's Larry Daley as he's forced to seek help after the "magic" that brings his inanimate friends to life starts malfunctioning. Though it generally suffers from a pervasive vibe of familiarity, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb remains relatively watchable for the duration of its brisk running time - with the movie clearly faring better in its action-packed, fast-paced second half. The film's initial emphasis on Larry's expected efforts to control his alive-yet-not-alive charges isn't exactly engrossing, to put it mildly, so it's not entirely surprising to note that the movie improves substantially once Larry and co. arrive at the British Museum to track down a fix for the aforementioned "magic" - with this portion of the proceedings containing a number of admittedly entertaining set pieces (including a trip through a typically mind-bending M.C. Escher painting). The inclusion of an absurd yet thoroughly captivating celebrity cameo, which essentially stands as a high point within the entire series, perpetuates Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb's better-than-expected third-act atmosphere, although, unfortunately, director Shawn Levy ensures that the film concludes with a whimper by offering up an excessively sappy final stretch that just goes on and on - with this underwhelming climax confirming the movie's place as an almost passable concluding entry in a seriously forgettable trilogy.