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Sunday
Jan062013

Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

This is Almost 40?

"Incredible! A perfectly terrifying follow-up to the original."

I don't doubt that Tobe Hooper said this, following an early screening of Texas Chainsaw 3D--the new sequel to his 1974 genre-defining classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I do, however, question whether or not he meant it.

The quote presents us with two possibilities, neither of them reassuring. We can accept Hooper's words as sincere, in which case, he unwittingly confessed to having ungodly poor judgment and/or stunted mental faculties. We could also assume that Lionsgate tossed him a few extra grand in exchange for a little off-the-cuff promotion. Either way, we're dealing with a shill or an idiot, a rube or a liar.

I have no qualms making these accusations because one or the other must be objectively true. It's impossible for a reasonable person--horror fan or not--to be entertained by Texas Chainsaw 3D. Director John Luessenhop and writers Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan, and Kirsten Elms have made a film so aggressively stupid that I have to wonder if that was their intent, or simply a bi-product of unchecked incompetence.

The film begins with a recap of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her friends stop at a large Texas farmhouse, where they are systematically stalked and butchered by cross-dressing freakshow Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his nutty cannibal family. Sally escapes, and we enter the new story moments after she's whisked away in the back of a pickup truck. Sheriff's deputy Hooper (Thom Barry) shows up at the Sawyer family home and demands the family's surrender while awaiting backup.

In a bizarre nod to The Devil's Rejects, the family has magically expanded into a militia of armed-to-the-teeth rednecks who come to the aid of Leatherface, Grandpa (John Dugan), and Leatherface's brother, Drayton (Bill Moseley, stepping in for the late Jim Siedow*). Just as Hooper seems to have paddled up shit creek, along comes a rival mob of rednecks who somehow got the memo that the Draytons chopped up a group of out-of-towners in the bowels of their remote homestead. Within minutes, the "good" drunken good ol' boys have set fire to the "bad" ones, and the house collapses in a heap of bodies and ash.

During the panic, two of the mob--a married couple--steal a newborn from a young woman who'd almost managed to escape. They raise the child as their own, and she grows up to be the film's heroine. Yes, as a footloose and fancy-free twenty-something, Heather (Alexandra Daddario**) receives a letter from her late grandmother's attorney (Richard Riehle), bequeathing to her a large Texas estate--a different one from the beginning of the film, but one that for some reason has a cemetery out back with plots for everyone who died in the fire.

Heather, her boyfriend Ryan (Tremaine Neverson), and two other friends alter their plans to hit New Orleans on Halloween in order to check out the new digs. On arriving, they find a stocked kitchen, a tricked out sound system, and grandma's dirty little secret: an underground lair that houses Leatherface (now played with zero pizzazz by Dan Yeager), whom she apparently kept as a pet.

Let's pull over a moment and address the skin-mask-wearing elephant in the room: its name is math. The filmmakers would have us believe that Texas Chainsaw 3D is a direct sequel to the 1974 original--meaning Heather was "adopted" thirty-nine years ago. I'm sorry, why is she being played by a twenty-seven-year-old (who's arguably playing someone at least five years her junior)? The only age-appropriate principle cast member in the film is Keram Malicki-Sanchez,*** who plays one of the doomed friends; he was actually born in '74. But his character is also about twenty-five. I give up.

Eighty-five percent of the film's problems can be easily placed at Marcus's feet. He also wrote the story for Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, the most convoluted and boring entry in the Friday the 13th franchise. You don't have to look very far to see his handiwork here: from the left-field mythology expansion (in both cases, involving adopted-infant relatives of masked maniacs) to the same annoying-teens-and-hicks template, the only difference between these two cinematic failures is that Final Friday at least had some inventive kills. Texas Chainsaw 3D erases the line between remake and sequel with nearly shot-by-shot recreations of scenes that have been famous for decades (Close-up of orange booty-shorts walking slowly towards the house? Check. Body popping up out of a locked freezer? Check. Surprise hammer to the face? Checked beyond belief).

The other fifteen percent is a matter of the filmmakers cannibalizing other remakes in putting their embarrassment of a horror movie together. It's bad enough that this, like the putrid Amazing Spider-Man, is the second recent attempt to reboot a franchise that's barely ten years old, but the movie steals so liberally from every other slasher remake that I must assume Luessenhop and company somehow think they beat everyone else to the punch (must be more of that wonky time-math). If you've seen the remakes of My Bloody Valentine, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the remake and the prequel to the remake), or either of Rob Zombie's Halloween movies, you've seen everything Texas Chainsaw 3D has to offer--and far more effectively executed.

Hell, you could make quite a fun little drinking game by substituting Leatherface and his victims for the leads in those other films. For example: in which remake's climax was the killer choked by a chain and dragged slowly into a whirring piece of machinery?

Hey, it wouldn't be much of a game if I just gave you the answer, would it?

Maybe Luessenhop, Marcus, and the rest did all of us a huge favor. By ultimately neutering Leatherface (seriously, he's a cuddly killer by the end) and giving audiences nothing new to latch onto, they've proven that it's time to put this series to bed. I know that runs contrary to the six-picture deal the producers signed with Lionsgate, but these are the same folks who'd turned the Saw series into actual torture porn by the time they finally put it out to pasture.

On the other hand, maybe this is the perfect new-millennium franchise: recycled; gross; but neither inventively nor edgily so; and dumbed-down enough that the teens, tweens, and toddlers who occasionally look up from their phones might find it relatable. Nearly forty years after Hooper unleashed his unique, gritty, uncompromising vision on the world, his legacy has boiled down to shilling for a copy of a copy of a copy that someone used as a cat-vomit rag. I can't be too mad at him, though: In an era of massacred attention spans, the marketing exec is king.

*While I was glad to see the 1974 footage cleaned up and converted to 3D, the editing in of new clips featuring Moseley in the Siedow role was jarring and more than a little ridiculous.

**The actress has done fine work in other things, but her main function here is as a shapely mannequin for what appears to be the world's first nipple-tape-lined flannel shirt.

***Sing along, kids: "Keram Malicki-Sanchez is the wise way to say 'Merry Christmas' to you!"

Sunday
Jan062013

Jack Reacher (2012)

Movie of the Week (December 26th Edition)

Thanks to a "holiday break" that involved recovering from surgery, a major cold, and a house full of visiting family, my ability to watch and write about movies was severely hampered in December. Best intentions be damned: all signs pointed to "Slow the Hell Down". So I did. Life has now returned to normal, and I'm ready to break my hard(ish), fast(ish) rule about reviewing movies within 48 hours of watching them.

I saw Jack Reacher days before the two films I reviewed last week, Pitch Perfect and Django Unchained. So, why the delay? Simply put, I'm not excited to write about it. In the moment, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's tense, throw-back action thriller was very engaging, but I can't recommend it as a big-screen experience--making this critique late and unenthusiastic. Strap in!

The film stars Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, a former military cop whose disillusionment with the country he served drove him completely off the grid. When a troubled former soldier named James Barr (Joseph Sikora) is accused of sniping five people at a Pittsburgh mall, he asks the authorities to track Reacher down for help. On arrival, the cocky yet ultra-serious loner steps into the middle of a family feud between Barr's public defender, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), and her District Attorney father, Alex (Richard Jenkins). Reacher spends a few days in town, running afoul of various thugs whose employer isn't happy about his digging into the truth about Barr's arrest.

Who's behind the conspiracy? The answer is one part hilarious, one part captivating, and one part lamer than anything I've seen in a thriller in quite awhile. I can't go any further without dipping into spoilers, so feel free to join Reacher off the info grid for a bit; we'll meet up at the last paragraph.

Legendary documentarian Werner Herzog plays The Zec, an evil construction magnate who has set Barr up as a roundabout means of securing more work for his company (it's complicated). Though much has been made of the man behind Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss stepping back in front of the camera, I'm sad to say he's the "hilarious" component of Jack Reacher's troubles. As conceived, The Zec is a pretty terrifying character, and when Herzog is called upon to stare icily at a victim or oversee a man attempting to bite off his own fingers, the performance matches the page.

However, the second he opens his mouth, it's full-on McBain time. I can't tell if this is a matter of delivery or accent, but Herzog sounds eerily like an elderly version of the Simpsons' Arnold Schwarzenegger parody. Sometimes, when McQuarrie gets a bit too carried away with making The Zec one-up the horrors of his own back-story, Herzog evokes the Austrian action hero's black-mark turn as Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin.

Fortunately, The Zec works mostly in the shadows, leaving much of the dirty work to Charlie, his steel-eyed second-in-command, played with almost Cruise-level charisma by Jai Courtney. Charlie is used to sitting higher up on the badass food chain than Reacher allows him to be. Both men are masters at manipulating idiots to get what they want, and the movie builds as much to their eventual face-to-face meeting as it does to the truth about Barr's involvement in the shooting. By film's end, when The Zec is shown to be a truly pathetic villain with a wildly out-of-proportion scheme, I wished to God that Charlie had been the heavy all along--thus allowing Courtney's mesmerizing, shit-eating grin more screen time.

Plot aside, Jack Reacher's second big problem is McQuarrie's filmmaking. Heading into the movie, I was mostly familiar with his genius-level, award-winning writing on The Usual Suspects. And it's obvious that McQuarrie studied how Bryan Singer brought that script to screen: Reacher shares a lot of the same shots, edits, and pacing decisions.

What it lacks is subtlety. Sure, this is an unconventional action thriller, by today's standards; there are no explosive, high-wire CG set pieces and much of the story requires a tuned-in audience. But McQuarrie loves to point out, visually, how clever all of his screenplay's details (and, by extension, those from Lee Child's novel, One Shot, which he adapted) are. It's hard to illustrate without beat-by-beat analysis and a laser pointer just how smug many of the scenes are, but McQuarrie definitely performs several gaudy touchdown dances before even catching the ball.

That said, the movie works best when Cruise is simply wandering around town, looking for clues and roughing up dirtbags. The actor does some fine work here, recalling a less compromised but equally cynical version of his Vincent character from Collateral. If you've written him off as a corny, showy action figure, this movie might just change your mind.

I only hope this isn't your first experience seeing Pike, Jenkins, David Oyelowo, or Robert Duvall in a movie. They do very well with what they're given--which are thankless cog roles that only drive home the fact that Jack Reacher is not only the first film in a (hoped-for) franchise, but also the middle novel in a series of books. There's an episodic quality to the film, and the supporting characters are simply bumpers for Cruise's pinball to light up on his way to the high score. We'll likely never see many of these people again, as I'm sure the next Reacher adventure will take place in another town (possibly another country)--with only a passing reference to "that crazy thing in Pittsburgh" tying the series together.

I don't meant to beat up on Jack Reacher too much. It's an okay movie that felt great in the moment. The problem with such films is that there's little reason to revisit them once the mystery has been revealed--especially if the clues were so proudly highlighted along the way that it takes five seconds of half-thought to understand their significance. Where The Usual Suspects had great actors delivering rich dialogue in service of twisted characters, and a plot that demanded one or two more go-'rounds to fully appreciate, this plays more like an enjoyable TV-junk-novel you might enjoy on FX after next Thanksgiving's dessert. Just don't think about the story too much during commercial breaks, or you'll likely never finish it.

Note: I just remembered a meta-component of my viewing experience from a couple weeks ago, which I'll mention only because it affected the way Jack Reacher affected me. I saw the movie shortly after the school shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School. It has been suggested that one of the reasons McQuarrie's film isn't doing so well is because of its emphasis on gun violence. I found it impossible to put Sandy Hook out of my head, especially during the opening scene, in which a nanny is gunned down while running to protect her charge, a six-year-old girl.

As we get further away from that tragedy, I doubt anyone will remember the events preceding Jack Reacher's opening; the association is certainly more tenuous than what happened with The Dark Knight Rises' debut. But I must admit, as someone who is conflicted on the gun issue, it was refreshing to see such a balanced portrayal of gun ownership and usage in the film.

"Cool" weapons are not fetishized here. They're used for good just as much as for evil. In Reacher's world, the people who walk away from armed conflicts are those who have the proper respect and training for these hand-held weapons of mass suffering--as well as a lot of luck. The movie illustrates the fact that any yahoo can wield a handgun, but not everyone knows what to do with one in a crisis situation.

Tuesday
Jan012013

Django Unchained (2012)

Slavish Devotion

I've seen the word "masterpiece" thrown around a lot in reference to Quentin Tarantino's latest picture, Django Unchained. Unlike most Oscar-season hyperbole, the boot fits in this case, and no one should be surprised. From Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown in the 90s, to Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and now this blood-squibs-and-romance SpaghettiO Western in the new century, the writer/director has officially spent two decades in the masterpiece business.*

As a Tarantino fan since my mid-teens, I've had the pleasure of growing into adulthood along a track that roughly parallels his maturation as a filmmaker. The early movies were pure badassery, with quippy pop dialogue and enough inventive action scenes to inspire a generation of ear-slicing auteur imitators. In the last ten years, he's mostly abandoned the kitsch aspect of his nostalgia for the down-and-dirty movies that inspired him as a boy and focused his attentions outward. Gone is the fetishistically worshipped underworld killer (his go-to protagonist early on); in comes the noble loner on a quest for justice and/or redemption and/or love.**

Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as the titular pre-Civil War slave who's freed by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz's next big prize is a trio of murderous bandits whom only Django can positively identify, and he takes his skeptical new companion under his wing while pursuing them. Django learns the art of identity-creation as a means of infiltrating their prey's social circles, as well as the finer points of long-range assassination. It turns out he's an ace shot, but Schultz instills in him a ruthlessness that runs counter to Django's innate sensitivity; in the bounty hunting business, people are just bodies and bodies can be redeemed for cash.

After several profitable jobs, Schultz agrees to help Django track down and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). They devise a bait-and-switch scheme that doesn't turn out the way they'd expected, and this is where my synopsis ends. Django Unchained has to be seen to be believed, from both a storytelling standpoint and a visual one. Tarantino has outdone himself again, with rich characters, wild historical liberties, and an attention to texture that makes his latest film not just a "Tarantino Western", but a bona fide Western for the ages.

More than an homage to the big-name classics, this movie is a tribute to the unconventional Westerns that redefined how we look at the genre. In the mixed-race protagonist duo and flagrant anachronisms, it's impossible not to think of Gene Wilder and Clevon Little in Blazing Saddles. In his meditations on loyalty, the resilience of spirit, and the value of human life, Tarantino puts his stamp on Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. True, these are themes he's built up and tweaked in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, especially, but Django Unchained feels like a thesis statement honed from diligently considered notes.

That's not to say Django Unchained is all reference and no voice. Who else but Quentin Tarantino could pull off scoring a breathtaking Robert Richardson landscape to Rick Ross's "100 Black Coffins"? In dealing with a larger-than-life, largely unresolved issue like slavery, it takes a grand, warped personality to create comedy that's as poignant as the drama--and to offer a violent catharsis that's liable to make even the whitest white folks in the audience feel oddly guilty, then angry, then redeemed through Django's bloody vengeance.

This may be the first post-racial film of the new century. As much as Tarantino has been wrongly criticized for his liberal use of "nigger", there's no denying which side of the social-justice divide he comes down on. The word's harshness should only be jarring if you've trained your brain to reject the epithet in every circumstance, leaving no room for art or context. The genius of Django is that Tarantino makes niggers of everyone who sees it: this is not a simple parable about slavery or revenge; it's a call to uprising against a ruling class that has been around in one form or another for centuries. Blacks may be on the bottom of the totem pole here, but it's clear that everyone from the dirty cowboys who wrangle them to the plantation administrators who wrangle the cowboys are all at the evil mercy of the individual with the most money and power.***

And here's where genuine guilt enters the picture. Once you get past Tarantino's take on metaphorical slavery, you must contend with the fact that slave labor is still a very real problem. Americans have simply pushed such notions of its pervasiveness out of our collective consciousness by off-shoring our immoral labor forces and acting as though the Civil Rights Act of '64 magically made everything okay between African Americans and everyone else. Sure, we don't have plantations here in the States anymore, but there's a 99.997 percent chance that whatever device you're reading this on was created under conditions that no sane person would mistake for liberty.

Indeed, if Napoleon was correct in his assertion that history is a myth men agree to believe, then one must forgive Tarantino for his flourishes and either create some more convincing lies about the myriad injustices going on outside the multiplex--or agree to tackle them head-on.

Pardon me, while I step down from my apple crate.

The long and short of it is, you're not likely to find a more thrilling, moving, hilarious experience at the movies this season. Aside from some awkwardly episodic third-act pacing and Tarantino's horrendous, show-stopping Aussie accent (Quentin, please step back behind the camera and stay there), I can find no fault with this picture. Every performance by the main cast--and I mean every...single...one--is an award-caliber revelation.

If you've spent the last decade-and-a-half foolishly making fun of DiCaprio for being "Mr. Titanic", I promise you'll pass out from embarrassment after seeing what he can do with a great, twisted villain role. If you'd written off Samuel L. Jackson as a lazy paycheck hound, wait 'til you meet Stephen, Calvin Candie's bitter but strangely loyal servant.

Last, but not least, we have Foxx and Waltz, who fill each scene with heart, humor, and a charisma that made me want to follow their adventures through a whole series of Django movies (too bad that's impossible--SPOILER!!!). Foxx has completed his journey from lowest-common-denominator TV sketch comic to movie star to powerhouse actor, and I can't wait to see what he does next. Waltz creates a character just as compelling as Inglourious Basterds' Hans Landa, but who operates on the flip-side of the morality coin; both men are stone-cold killers with wide smiles and awe-inspiring command of the disarming anecdote, but Schultz has the added benefit of being a genuinely root-worthy character.

It's fashionable to say that a popular director's latest film is his or her best yet. In Tarantino's case, determining a "best" is always a challenge. He so frequently meddles in different genres and blows expectations out of the water that comparing his movies to one another is almost unfair--just as it's weird asking someone to rank O Brother, Where Art Thou? against No Country for Old Men: same creative team, but you wouldn't know it to look at the work.

Hell, maybe I'm just getting caught up in this bullshit, year-end need to categorize everything.

Well, fine.

In my not-so-humble opinion, Django Unchained is the second-best film of 2012.

*Let's agree to turn a collective blind eye to Four Rooms and Death Proof (a movie I happen to really enjoy, but which Tarantino recently called the worst of his career).

**True, the law rarely pops up in Tarantino movies except as a nuisance or canon fodder, but the heroes of his films can at least be relied upon to have a moral code that their adversaries decidedly do not.

***There's no finer evidence for this than a beautiful exchange between Django and Candie's sycophantic attorney, played with pure banality-of-evil cluelessness by Dennis Christopher.

Monday
Dec312012

Pitch Perfect (2012)

Glee-gurgitation

Had I seen Pitch Perfect a week ago, I would have used its plot to cut holiday cookies out of dough with my wife--the very same wife who insisted we watch this thing, and whose future recommendations now require unanimous approval by a committee of my choosing.

The film stars Anna Kendrick as a college freshman named Beca. Right away, we've got problems. In 2010, the actress was Oscar-nominated for playing a straight-edge, mid-twenties corporate creature in Up in the Air. Later, she would play a therapist in 50/50 and a cop's wife in End of Watch. Of course, older actors have long taken on younger roles, but Kendrick's left-field turn as a character ten years her junior reminded me of John C. Reilly playing a high school student in Walk Hard--but she's not nearly as convincing.

Doubly unconvincing is the kind of teen she's asked to play. Beca is a club-kid, a snarky non-conformist with the shittiest attitude I've seen in a female protagonist since...well, I guess, since Amy Mann's character in This is 40 (it's been a rough week for movies, kids). She arrives at college with a chip on her shoulder, and a beef with her wretched father (John Benjamin Hickey).

Can you believe the son of a bitch wants his daughter to put off her dreams of running away to L.A. to become a DJ until she finishes at least a year of higher education? He's even got tuition covered, the prick, thanks to his fancy job as a professor at the school. In fairness to him, Beca's technically an adult now, meaning there's nothing actually keeping her from chasing her dreams. I'm sure the big fight in which this caustic, rugged individualist tells her old man that she doesn't need his money and can make it on her own got edited out.

Anyway, Beca is recruited by one of the school's four competing singing clubs. Upper classwoman, Aubrey (Anna Camp, who looks every one of her thirty years--okay, sorry, I'll stop) is desperate to find new singers after she vomited on stage during the previous year's national championship performance. She and her second-in-command, Chloe (Brittany Snow), snatch up Aubrey and a gaggle of misfit freshmen who have no idea about the club's sunken reputation.

The newbies are the fetid stuffing in a central-casting cornucopia that will no doubt remind you of Revenge of the Nerds, Sorority Boys, or pretty much any college comedy made after Animal House. We meet the gay chick, the prim prude, the nympho, and, of course, the Mousy Asian with a Secret Wild Side.

Correction: Last week, I accused Charlyne Yi of playing the eight-millionth iteration of this offensively unfunny stereotype. But Pitch Perfect came out two months before This is 40, so all honors and benefits go to Hanna Mae Lee. Congratulations.

Oops! I left one stereotype unturned. She comes in the form of Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), an overweight Australian student who continues the sad trend in recent comedies of obese women revelling in being gross, macho freaks (as written). I don't know if it started with Bridesmaids, but Melissa McCarthy is making such a great career out of being willfully repugnant that she now has imitators, apparently.

Like her new friend, Beca, Fat Amy sneers a lot, doesn't trust anyone who smiles regularly, and has a warped sense of her own attractiveness. It's one thing for an overweight character to be comfortable in their own body, but she actively avoids exercise and calls girls who have the audacity to work out "twig bitches". I'm sorry, but watching Wilson's upper legs constantly threaten to eclipse her knees in a slow-motion avalanche of fleshy porridge is disturbing; watching her promote the attitude that being fit (let alone healthy) somehow runs contrary to being "real" is disgusting.

I haven't gotten to the plot yet, but why bother? You know what's going to happen just as surely as I did five minutes into the movie. Beca meets a cute boy (Skylar Astin) who (SPOILER?) gets recruited by her team's biggest rival. This puts their young romance into immediate jeoparzzzzzz.

Meanwhile, Aubrey insists that her girls perform only safe standards from previous decades. Beca believes they need something edgy in order to win the fiercely competitive Lincoln Center finals, so she introduces mash-ups to the group--and to the universe, I guess, since Pitch Perfect seems to exist in a dimension without Glee.

Ahhh. I've made it this far without busting out the dreaded "g" word. If you've followed the hit TV series for any appreciable amount of time, I challenge you to watch Pitch Perfect and not think it a poor imitation. First off, Glee is a genuine musical, meaning that in addition to high school kids putting on performances, there are fantasy interludes and montages in which the songs serve a thematic, emotive purpose. All the songs in Jason Moore's film are functions of rehearsals or competitions, with no greater meaning to the song-and-dance routines. You may find emotional stakes in the predictable beats of Kay Cannon's screenplay, but not in the music itself.

Great songs (and even crappy pop tunes), when used properly in drama, can offer insight into a character, provide subtext for a story, or simply evoke the necessary emotions to put the cherry on a key scene. Pitch Perfect, with its mostly one-note, show-choir renditions of radio hitz, really does play like a two-hour karaoke jam buffered by teen-soap interstitials. In a weird way, it feels as though Moore, Cannon, and Universal Pictures were banking on Glee's popularity to put asses in seats, while simultaneously hoping that no one in the audience had ever watched the show.

Friday
Dec282012

This is 40 (2012)

Sad People

Last Christmas, my in-laws gave my wife and I a financial-planning book by Dave Ramsey. We were up to our eyeballs in credit card debt, barely paying off a car, and putting about as much money into savings as faith in Miley Cyrus' Oscar-nomination prospects. Still, we had two incomes and miles of magical plastic dollars with which to make any emergencies (momentarily) disappear; in other words, zero reason to change.

Early this year, my wife lost her job and it took nearly five months for her to receive unemployment benefits--leaving me as the sole bread-winner for us and our toddler. Two nights after the news hit, we dug the Ramsey book out from under a mountain of old bill stubs and cracked it open. I no longer sneered at the frequent Biblical passages or laughed out loud at the cornpone, too-outrageous-to-be-true testimonials; it was time to get serious about the direction our lives were headed in, and Ramsey had some great ideas.

STOP!

There's no need to hit "Refresh". You have, in fact, loaded my review of Judd Apatow's This is 40, and not an infomercial. Context is key in any critique, which is why I included that bit of personal history. Had I seen this comedy a year ago, I likely would have still found it extremely unfunny--but not as offensive as I do today.

The movie stars Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd as Debbie and Pete. They were the "adult" sidekicks in 2007's Knocked Up, which was about a twenty-something loser forced to grow up when his one-night-stand turned into an eighteen-year commitment. The couple has a huge house, two kids, and a Beemer and a Lexus in the driveway, all thanks to Pete's years as a Sony Music executive. Since we last saw them, Pete has left the corporate world to start an indie label and Debbie divides her time between watching their daughters and managing the boutique clothing shop they co-own.

The trouble is, Pete has been hiding his label's shaky financial status from Debbie, along with $80,000 in personal loans to his deadbeat dad (Albert Brooks), and a delinquent home mortgage. Meanwhile, Debbie suffers near-crippling anxiety over her own dark little secret: she's turning 40! Actually, she and Peter are hitting the Big Four-oh in the same week, but she insists that everyone help celebrate her thirty-eighth birthday. Yes, until all the money problems come out at the film's half-way mark, that vain, sitcom-level nonsense passes for a major plot point.

Not to worry, though: This is 40 is a virtual side-story roulette wheel. From Peter and Debbie's meddling in eldest daughter Sadie's (Maude Apatow) Facebook drama; to their suspicions that comely store employee Desi (Megan Fox) is ripping them off; to Peter's quest to revitalize the career of soon-to-be-hipster-deity Graham Parker; to Apatow's famous Superfluous Third-Act Curveball, the movie plays as if Apatow made mini-movies out every circle on his idea board and loosely tied them together in the editing process.

That might have been okay had the dialogue been solid and the characters interesting. But Apatow, who wrote and directed this thing, is guilty of giving quality actors and comedians nothing of substance to work with. I don't know forty-year-olds like Peter and Debbie, and I'll bet that's true for ninety-nine percent of the people who will pay to see this movie. Nearly everyone on-screen plays a Conservative caricature of the Hollywood liberal: rich, self-obsessed, clueless, and convinced that banning gluten from the family diet constitutes heroism.

This isn't 40. This is 25 going on 12. Peter and Debbie don't talk to each other, except to fight. Their daughters are completely out of control, probably because mom and dad would rather attempt marriage counseling via oral sex than drive them to school on-time. And every other word out of almost everyone's mouth is "fuck". I'm no prude when it comes to language, but if the point of a movie is to say, "these are real people having relatable, real-life experiences", I'm sorry, but this degree of pre-teen-level swearing simply rings false.

It's so disappointing, too, because I genuinely like the performers. Rudd spent much of his early career playing characters who would absolutely rail against a navel-gazing, out-of-touch yahoo like Peter. So to see him disappear into such a whiny, personality-free shell is heartbreaking. He played a version of this guy in the far-superior and heartfelt Wanderlust earlier this year; the key difference being the amount of time it took the two characters to realize their shallowness (in Peter's case, the meter is still running).

Mann fares slightly better, if only because she pretty much only plays versions of Debbie. This slim, fit ray of sass with the sun-kissed complexion is fine as a comic foil, but I just can't feel the impact of a midlife crisis that involves whiter teeth and a slightly firmer ass. Everything else that's wrong in her marriage has nothing to do with aging; it's a simple matter of acting like she's married (i.e. paying attention to household finances, asking questions without yelling, etc., etc., etc.).

At least the leads invest heavily in their performances. Almost everyone else in This is 40 skates by on the comedy cred of appearing in a Judd Apatow film. Here's the thing: cameos by funny people don't work unless they generate laughs with the material. Charlyne Yi's turn as cinema's eight-millionth Mousy Asian With a Secret Wild Side is more like product placement than acting.** Likewise, for all the comedic value they add to the proceedings, Chris O'Dowd and Jason Segel might as well have been replaced by two camera-facing bottles of Pepsi. Whether it was a matter of the script being poor, the actors not caring enough to improve it, or the director not giving them the leeway to do so, there's not a "hot comedic talent" on screen whose success I could explain if the need arose.

My wife and I are not yet in our forties, but we've been together for roughly the same amount of time as the film's protagonists. Like Peter and Debbie, we've faced relationship issues, self-doubt, and financial struggles, and are sure to encounter even greater horrors in the decades ahead. But we have sense enough not to exacerbate our problems by shutting each other out and keeping secrets. It took hard work, sacrifice, and communication to become debt-free within what has turned out to be a very challenging year, but we did it. Coming out of the theatre, we were puzzled as to why no one in the film had any brains, decency, or heart.

My only guess is that the title was shortened from This is 40, You Privileged Assholes

*In Funny People, he transformed a movie about stand-up comedy into a bickering-couple picture. Here, he derails a bickering-couple picture by introducing Debbie's absentee father (John Lithgow) and turning forty minutes of the film into an exercise in blame-skirting and projection.

**Yes, she has a bowl haircut, wears giant 80s eyeglasses and says "shockingly" foul-mouthed things in a mumbly monotone. Hilahhhhrious.