Sunday, September 23, 2007

Review - Superbad and Good Luck Chuck


So, the Judd Apatow domination of American comedy continues apace. The latest production from his prolific laughter factory is Superbad – the younger, raunchier cousin to this summer's hit Knocked Up – and while the film has been directed by Gregg Mottola, it's the influence of the producer that we feel throughout. Once again, Apatow seems to have found that most elusive cinematic balance, a mainstream comedy which scores with both the public and the critics. Why do the films bearing his name meet with such near-unanimous acclaim? For one thing, Apatow productions tend to be pretty damn funny, but they also work on another level too, usually underscoring the laughter with a recognisable element of pain and empathy.

Much of Superbad has that same ring of truth about it, perhaps because it is such a personal project for screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The pair began writing the script when they were just 13 years old, and as befitting a film written by teenagers their central characters' prime concerns are booze and sex. For Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), high school life is coming to an end, and their thoughts are preoccupied by the end-of-term parties at which they both have specific targets in mind. Seth has his eye on Jules (Emma Stone), planning to get her blind drunk in order to facilitate the seduction process ("did you ever hear a girl say 'I got so drunk last night, I never should have slept with that guy' – we could be that mistake!" he exclaims). Evan has different ideas, though; he respects women, and he wants to have success with Becca (Martha MacIsaac) without the help of alcohol.

Nevertheless, the desire for alcohol eventually proves to be the catalyst for the insane After Hours-style night which lies ahead for the boys. Seth secures an invite to Jules' party by promising her that he'll provide the drinks, and she even trusts him with $100 of her money to do so. Seth has made this pledge in the knowledge that fellow student Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is getting a fake ID, but their plan hits its first stumbling block when they see what Fogell has produced. His card lists him as a 25 year-old Hawaiian organ donor named McLovin - no first name - and their big ideas lay in tatters when Fogell finds himself involved in a liquor store hold-up, being carted away by two police officers (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader) as the distraught Seth and Evan look on. Contrary to appearances, however, Fogell isn't being arrested. Instead, these two idiot cops are taking 'McLovin' out for a night of drinking and unconventional law enforcement, while Seth and Evan end up at a party at which they might be lucky to escape from in one piece.

Seth, Evan and Fogell are such likable and funny characters, most audience members would be quite happy to follow them anywhere, but Superbad does lose a little something when they go their separate ways for the bulk of the movie. The opening half-hour – kicking off with a funky retro credits sequence – is side-splitting, and while Hader and Rogen are fine as the cops, the scenes involving them are nowhere near as engaging as the ones featuring the teenagers on their own. One reason for this is the fact that the three young leads seem to fully inhabit their roles, giving comic performances which couldn't really be better. Seth is a brash figure, driven by his animal urges and spouting profanities with every other word, and Jonah Hill – also superb as part of the Knocked Up ensemble – shines throughout. Michael Cera is equally impressive as the more intelligent and sensitive Evan, the understated Yang to Seth's turbo-charged Ying, and the dialogue which zings between them has the freshly-minted feel of improvisation. The main trio is completed by Christopher Mintz-Plass, a non-actor who was chosen from an open audition process, and he gives a remarkably distinctive, often very funny performance as Fogell, but his performance is also a little one-note, and he lacks the extra dimensions that Hill and Cera bring to their characterisations.

There's a kind of shapelessness about Superbad as well. The film could have used some tightening up of its rambling narrative to prevent it from feeling around 10-15 minutes longer than it should be; and some of the humour misses the mark, with Hill's encounter with menstrual blood feeling particularly ill-judged. But these are minor criticisms in a film which is hilariously funny for most of its running time, and it offers a number of comic situations which are simply priceless. Seth's mime show in his cooking class; Evan being forced to sing in front of some coked-up rednecks; or Seth imagining potential outcomes as he prepares to steal the promised booze – these were just a few of the scenes which had me in stitches. There's also a fantastic flashback to Seth's younger days, which – in conjunction with the closing credits – confirms Superbad's status as the most dick-obsessed movie ever made.

And then, in the closing scenes, Superbad reveals its softer side. During the wonderfully staged climactic party and its aftermath, the relationship between Seth and Evan comes under the spotlight, and both actors play their part in a couple of genuinely touching scenes. At its simplest level, this film is ultimately about the shifting dynamics of a friendship which has hitherto defined the lives of these two characters; and by the time the film has reached its close, both Seth and Evan are on the verge of growing up and moving on into new territory. Superbad isn't quite as good a film as either Knocked Up or The 40 Year-Old Virgin, but in its own modest way this very funny picture has some perceptive things to say about the awkwardness and fears of teenage life, and the way we leave it behind. Like the best of Judd Apatow's output, Superbad
does have a heart - although on this occasion that organ undoubtedly plays second fiddle to the penis.

Good Luck ChuckGood Luck Chuck is the age-old story of a man blessed with a unique gift, who then discovers that his gift is in fact a terrible curse. Our protagonist is Charlie Logan (Dane Cook), a handsome and successful dentist who can't seem to hold down a long-term relationship. But something funny tends to happen with the women Charlie dates – they keep finding love with the very next man they meet. This is how Charlie earns the sobriquet Good Luck Chuck, and as soon as his curious ability becomes common knowledge, Charlie finds himself plagued by an endless queue of single women, all hoping that a single night of sex with him will lead them to their Mr Right.
From the above description, this film probably sounds like the dumbest and most egregious male fantasy since Spike Lee's She Hate Me - and yes, it probably is - but there's no real reason for Good Luck Chuck to be as bad as it has turned out. The screenwriters have found an original enough concept for their story, and in the early stages I was intrigued by the narrative possibilities lying ahead; but after opening with a funny scene set in Charlie's childhood, the movie quickly shows itself to be devoid of ideas. The film's dramatic tension, such as it is, develops when Charlie is attending an old flame's wedding and he literally bumps into Cam, a penguin fanatic who is also the most accident-prone woman on earth. Cam is seemingly incapable of walking a few yards without knocking over a table, bumping her head or almost killing Charlie; but as she bears a striking resemblance to Jessica Alba, Charlie is instantly smitten. This leaves him with quite a conundrum: Charlie wants to have sex with Cam, but how can he do so without simply laying the foundations for her next suitor?

Unfortunately, the chemistry between Cook and Alba is non-existent, a factor which quickly skewers the romantic aspirations of the picture, so that leaves us with the film's comedy: an avalanche of increasingly desperate gross-out gags which are mostly distinguished by their sheer laziness. Good Luck Chuck aims for the low and obvious joke every time, with a worrying percentage of the film's humour displaying a barely disguised disdain for women. The film is already on dodgy ground with its premise – implying that 90% of single ladies are desperate and needy enough to have sex with a stranger if it will get them a partner – but first-time director Mark Helfrich spends most of time offering titillating shots of generically sexy babes, and then laughing at any fat woman who wanders into frame. The film's lowest ebb is its big comedic set-piece, in which Charlie has sex with a disgustingly obese and dirty slob in order to disprove the 'lucky charm' theory. It's not funny, it's just unpleasant and cruel and cheap.

There are one or two amusing moments to be found here, a few provided by the rambunctious Dan Fogler as Charlie's lecherous pal, but the laughs die out as the film progresses down an increasingly unimaginative road. Good Luck Chuck settles for a straightforward rom-com narrative in which various obstacles and crises are thrown in the central couple's path before being quickly dealt with. It even opts for one of the oldest genre gambits in the book – the last-minute airport dash to stop a lover from leaving the country – but none of this matters as we haven't been given any reason to care about this couple. The plotting becomes very shoddy in the latter stages too, indicating that neither the director nor the writers have any idea where to take their high-concept conceit.

When all is said and done, Good Luck Chuck is a stupid and fairly offensive movie; and that's a shame, because the potential was there for something a little different, and the cast is decent value. According to the press notes Dane Cook is "arguably the most popular stand-up of his generation" (I've never heard of him), and he's a pretty solid lead here, even if his smugness is rather off-putting. Fogler makes the most of the standard 'outrageous best friend' role, stealing a number of scenes, but the real surprise of Good Luck Chuck is Jessica Alba, who comes out of the film with her reputation enhanced after displaying an unexpected knack for physical comedy. Okay, so she's no Carole Lombard, but Alba throws herself into her frequent pratfalls with commendable gusto, and her disarmingly enthusiastic performance is unquestionably one of the film's few bright spots. I'm still not quite convinced that Jessica Alba is anything more than just a pretty face, but a career in comedy may yet be the making of her.