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The Films of Barry Sonnenfeld

The Addams Family

For Love or Money (May 23/11)

Featuring an expectedly charming performance from Michael J. Fox, For Love or Money follows slick concierge Doug Ireland (Fox) as he attempts to balance his work-related responsibilities with a potentially lucrative deal involving a shady businessman - with complications ensuing as Doug discovers that said businessman is actually dating his longtime crush (Gabrielle Anwar's Andy Hart). There's little doubt that For Love or Money fares best in its opening half hour, as filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld, working from a script by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, does an effective job of establishing the slick day-to-day exploits of the central character - with Fox's effortlessly magnetic work initially compensating for the movie's lack of momentum and wafer-thin storyline. It's only as the film progresses into its increasingly prosaic midsection that one's interest begins to wane, with the pervasively uneventful atmosphere compounded by a distinct (and disappointing) absence of stand-out sequences. (Sonnenfeld's efforts at injecting the proceedings with bursts of energy - eg a frantic sequence set at a Hamptons beach house - generally fall flat and ultimately perpetuate the movie's lackluster feel.) The most obvious consequence of the film's unevenness is the romance between Fox and Anwar's respective characters, as the viewer is never quite able to work up any real enthusiasm for their inevitable coupling - which ensures that the uplifting ending isn't able to pack the kind of feel-good punch that one might have anticipated. The end result is a watchable yet disappointing effort from an otherwise reliable filmmaker, though the movie admittedly deserves a mild recommendation based solely on Fox's impressively commanding performance.

out of

Addams Family Values

Get Shorty (February 27/05)

Get Shorty was one of John Travolta's first movies after Pulp Fiction reinvigorated his career, and there's certainly an undeniable spark to his performance that's been lacking from some of his work as of late. As Chili Palmer, a mob guy turned movie producer, Travolta does a nice job of turning the character into someone we're willing to root for - despite the very obvious fact that he's not necessarily a good person. Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty follows Palmer as he heads to Hollywood to collect a debt from an incompetent B-movie producer named Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman). Perhaps in an effort to avoid paying his debts, Zimm begins involving Palmer in his day-to-day activities as a filmmaker - going so far as to seriously consider making a film out of one of his ideas. There are many, many more elements to Scott Frank's screenplay, which often feels overloaded with characters and subplots. And that's really the biggest problem with Get Shorty: there's just too much going on here, making it impossible to really connect with anything or anyone. The only constant seems to be Travolta's Chili Palmer, and while he's a fairly likeable figure, Frank's script doesn't offer him a whole lot to do other than interact with overly quirky characters (eg Hackman's Zimm, Dennis Farina's Ray Barboni, etc). That the majority of these people remain wafer-thin in terms of motivation is particularly surprising given how talky the film is, something that can be attributed to the dialogue's emphasis on superficialities. As a result, characters are either engaging in insignificant conversations or hatching schemes - preventing the audience from attaching any interest to these figures. Fortunately, the performances go a long way towards keeping things interesting - particularly in the case of Travolta and Hackman. Both men are very good in their respective roles, with Hackman effectively stepping into the shoes of an insecure, smarmy movie producer (a role requiring the actor to sport a comedically-enhanced pair of buck teeth; subtlety is not the film's strong suit). Barry Sonnenfeld, a filmmaker known for creative directorial choices, makes the unfortunate choice exercise restraint, despite the fact that some outlandish bursts of style would've infused this lackluster storyline with some much-needed energy. In the end, it seems clear that Get Shorty will appeal mostly to those familiar with the source material - as it has to be more coherent and fleshed out than this.

out of

Men in Black (May 23/12)

Based on a Marvel comic book, Men in Black follows two agents (Tommy Lee Jones' Kay and Will Smith's Jay) as they attempt to stop an intergalactic terrorist (Vincent D'Onofrio's Edgar) from absconding with a mysterious (and powerful) energy source. Director Barry Sonnenfeld has infused Men in Black with a brisk and playful sensibility that immediately captures the viewer's interest, with the effectiveness of the movie's propulsive, engrossing opening half hour heightened by the chemistry between Jones and Smith's respective characters. There's little doubt, then, that Men in Black fares best in its early stages, as the film benefits substantially from the initial emphasis on Jay's introduction to the title organization (ie there's a certain fish-out-of-water feel to this stretch that proves impossible to resist). It's only as the movie segues into its comparatively lackluster midsection that one's enthusiasm begins to flag, with scripter Ed Solomon's decision to stress Jay and Kay's ongoing investigation lending the proceedings a decidedly stagnant feel (ie it's almost Law and Order-esque in its execution). The persistently energetic nature of Sonnenfeld's direction, coupled with Jones and Smith's strong performances, ensures that the movie generally remains watchable from start to finish, and it's also worth noting that the whole thing does pick up demonstrably with its engaging save-the-world finale - which ultimately confirms Men in Black's place as an affable (yet somewhat forgettable) bit of escapist entertainment.

out of

Wild Wild West (May 21/11)

Based on the '60s television show, Wild Wild West follows a pair of mismatched U.S. Marshals (Will Smith's Jim West and Kevin Kline's Artemus Gordon) as they attempt to prevent a diabolical madman (Kenneth Branagh's Arliss Loveless) from effectively taking over the United States - with their ongoing efforts both assisted and hindered by a beautiful burlesque performer named Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek). Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld admittedly does a nice job of handling the movie's unapologetically larger-than-life sensibilities, and it's worth noting that the film fares surprisingly well in its early stages - with the palpable chemistry between Smith and Kline's respective characters serving the proceedings well and ensuring that one can't help but root for Jim and Artemus' success. The increasingly uneven bent of S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price, and Peter S. Seaman's screenplay ultimately wreaks havoc on the movie's momentum, however, and there's little doubt that the movie succumbs to a hit-and-miss atmosphere that slowly-but-surely becomes more miss than hit (eg an endless interlude in which Smith's character attempts to pass himself off as a woman). It consequently goes without saying that the action-heavy second half is rarely as exciting or as engrossing as it probably should be, with the progressively less-than-compelling vibe exacerbated by a pervasive emphasis on aggressively silly instances of comedy. By the time the frenetic, special-effects-heavy finale rolls around, Wild Wild West has certainly established itself as a sporadically amusing yet disastrously overblown adaptation that wears out its welcome to a distressingly demonstrable degree.

out of

Big Trouble (April 9/02)

Featuring a cast list that exceeds a baker's dozen, Big Trouble is the sort of film that just whizzes by on manic energy - so much so that it's almost impossible to become bored watching it. There are far too many subplots and characters for me to efficiently dole out a synopsis, so I'll instead just talk about Tim Allen's role. He stars as a former columnist for a Florida newspaper (well, the movie is based on a book by Dave Barry) who's now working as a one-man advertising agency. His life is not going terribly well - he's forced to do business with sleazy clients and his son has no respect for him. That all changes, though, when he finds himself caught up in a plot to steal a nuclear warhead (he's got nothing to do with it, of course - this is Tim Allen we're talking about). Many hijinks ensue as Allen and co. struggle to keep the bomb from detonating. There's nothing terribly original or ground-breaking about Big Trouble - director Barry Sonnenfeld has been in this territory before with Get Shorty - but it's so well made and well acted, it's hard to complain. And while the kooky storyline certainly has an efficient way of moving between characters and propelling the plot forward, it's really the various actors that make Big Trouble worth checking out. Allen, not exactly the most versatile actor around, is at his charming and wise-cracking best here playing just the sort of character he excels at. Among the mammoth support cast, which includes everyone from Janeane Garofalo to Andy Richter to Dennis Farina, Stanley Tucci is easily the stand-out. As a sleazy arms smuggler, his over-the-top antics and sniveling demeanor perfectly complement the wackiness of the script. Sonnenfeld, slowly recovering from the near-death of his career at the hands of Wild Wild West, is in top form here. The pace is brisk and efficient, and at a running time of less than 90 minutes, virtually every non-essential element has been sheared off. Though his signature wild camera moves are less evident, Sonnenfeld is undeniably comfortable with this type of material and it shows. He's to crime comedies as David Fincher is to dark thrillers. Though the character development is practically nil and the storyline is a little on the ludicrous side, Big Trouble is nevertheless one of the more enjoyable comedies to emerge in a good long while.

out of

Men in Black II (May 25/12)

A palpably underwhelming sequel, Men in Black II follows Will Smith's Agent Jay as he attempts to lure Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) out of retirement after a nefarious alien (Lara Flynn Boyle's Serleena) arrives on the scene - with the film, as expected, detailing the pair's ongoing efforts at tracking down and stopping the monstrous extraterrestrial. Like its predecessor, Men in Black II has been infused with an impressively brisk pace that does, admittedly, prove effective at immediately capturing one's interest, as filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld, working from Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro's screenplay, places an initial emphasis on Jay's exploits with his new partner - with the strength of such scenes heightened by Smith's charismatic performance (and also Patrick Warburton's frequently hilarious turn as Jay's incompetent sidekick). It's worth noting, however, that the movie suffers from a curious lack of momentum even during its more overtly frenetic stretches, and there's little doubt that the film, despite the consistent inclusion of decidedly over-the-top elements, inevitably morphs into a dishearteningly (and surprisingly) tedious experience. By the time the broadly-conceived (and executed) finale rolls around, Men in Black II has demonstrably established itself as a rather needless followup that's sure to alienate even die-hard fans of the original.

out of

RV (June 12/07)

That RV generally remains kind of watchable is certainly a testament to filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld's stylish direction and Robin Williams' energetic performance, as the movie is otherwise as silly and forgettable as one might've anticipated (ie this is one case where the marketing materials are entirely reflective of the final product). The story follows the extremely dysfunctional Munro family - dad Bob (Williams), mom Jamie (Cheryl Hines), daughter Cassie (Joanna Levesque), and son Carl (Josh Hutcherson) - as they embark on a cross-country vacation in a rented RV and subsequently encounter a whole host of problems and wacky personalities on the way. There's certainly no denying that RV gets off to an almost irredeemably awful start, as screenwriter Geoff Rodkey initially places far too much of an emphasis on the rocky relationship between Bob and Cassie - a problem that's exacerbated by Levesque's awful, thoroughly grating performance. And while things improve considerably once the Munros' vacation gets under way, Rodkey's reliance on overtly sentimental and melodramatic elements becomes increasingly problematic as the movie progresses (the entire third act is essentially a laugh-free zone). Still, RV is never quite as bad as it probably should have been and there are admittedly a number of genuinely entertaining sequences spread throughout the film's relatively brisk running time (ie the scene in which the Munros hastily escape an RV park to avoid a particularly outgoing family).

out of

Men in Black 3 (May 30/12)

A clear improvement over its nigh disastrous predecessor, Men in Black 3 follows Agent Jay (Will Smith) as he's forced to travel back through time after a vicious alien (Jemaine Clement's Boris) murders Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) in 1969 - with the film detailing Jay's continuing efforts at protecting Kay's younger self (Josh Brolin) from the murderous advances of Clement's nefarious character. Though it unfolds exactly as one might've anticipated - the film does, it becomes clear, boast a structure that's right in line with the first two installments - Men in Black 3, for the most part, comes off as a consistently entertaining sequel that benefits substantially from the inclusion of impossible-to-resist sci-fi elements (ie time travel is, with few exceptions, impossible to mess up). The novelty of the premise, coupled with Brolin's almost astonishingly engaging turn as the younger Kay, goes a long way towards compensating for the less-than-engrossing stretches within the narrative, although, by that same token, there's little doubt that the movie's midsection admittedly does suffer from its share of lulls (ie the film's longer-than-necessary running time results in a number of dead zones throughout the proceedings). By the time the better-than-expected climax rolls around, Men in Black 3 has certainly established itself as an above average followup that stands as an obvious high point within this seemingly ongoing series.

out of

About the DVDs: MGM Home Entertainment presents Get Shorty in a spiffy new special edition that's packed with bonus features, including a commentary track featuring Sonnenfeld, several behind-the-scenes featurettes (including one hosted by Peter Gallagher!), deleted scenes, bloopers, and the usual assortment of promotional materials. Wild Wild West arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Home Video armed with a pristine 1080p transfer and an impressive assortment of supplemental materials, including featurettes, a commentary track, music videos, and more.
© David Nusair