August 12, 2012

The Campaign

Disappointingly undercooked political comedy. If you're hoping that The Campaign will provide some leavening comic relief from the election blitz, you may feel you've simply sunk even lower into the bowels of American politics by the time the credits roll. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, as rival contenders for a North Carolina Congressional district, prove how convincingly they can play horrible people. There are scattered laughs, but the movie tries to have it both ways: it's a showcase of the unmitigated greed and buffoonery of politicians who don't have the first notion of what it means to actually do their job, as well as a dirtified Frank Capra-ish tale of what it would be like if a truly honest politician were elected to perform some much-needed housecleaning. Neither tack works, because The Campaign fizzles pretty soon after it begins. The characters have no appeal, most of the actors aren't all that funny, and the scattered laughs only point up the amount of time there is between them. The audience I was with seemed to overcompensate with its laughter during the funny moments, as though we were laughing at what we hoped would be a funny movie that was only intermittently successful. And, if vulgarity turns you off, you would do well to avoid this movie. Crassness can be very funny, but only when it's clever. Here it's just chaotic and stupid.

Jay Roach once again demonstrates his infantile directorial sensibilities. He turns an ostensibly golden premise into a not-ready-for-publication waste of time, with little help from the writers, Chris Henshy and Shawn Harwell. You can tell that Ferrell and Galifianakis improvised a lot, but their mugging doesn't work as much as they probably hoped. (Ferrell never was all that funny unscripted.) Of course they have their moments. Both of them reek of comic potential, but they never do enough with their characters, which are essentially stereotypes: the good-old-boy politician who can't keep his pants on and talks in platitudes, and the creepy, prissy mama's boy who is inexplicably married with two sons. They never transcend these paper-thin roles, and you get the feeling it's because they haven't thought about what could be done with them. Will Ferrell always looks too self-contented with the mediocrity of his work.

There were a few actors in the supporting cast who give the movie a little pizzazz: Katherine LaNassa plays Ferrell's spouse, the ultimate trophy wife who knows how to play the supportive "other half" on screen as long as she gets what she wants. And Dylan McDermott, as Galifianakis' campaign manager, looks self-assured and cruelly dedicated to his job, which is being funded by two rich old brothers (played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) who remind you of the old millionaires in Trading Places. In fact, The Campaign borrows more than a little from that movie's plot line.

With Jason Sudeikis as Ferrell's campaign manager, Brian Cox, Sarah Baker, Jack McBrayer, and a number of real-life media talking heads (Piers Morgan, Chris Matthews, Bill Maar, to name a few) appearing as themselves.

August 11, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

It's a bad movie with good moments. Jeremy Renner is a much more believable action hero than the academic-looking Matt Damon, who appeared in the first three Bourne movies. Renner looks like he could be the leader of a militia (I'm having flashbacks of The Hurt Locker, which I loved), and he's got a subdued temperament that provides occasional relief from this big, brutal, mechanical thriller.

The movie opens with Jeremy Renner wandering through snow-capped mountains somewhere in the Rockies. He's "gone rogue" and is on the run from his own government. Director Tony Gilroy cuts between scenes of Renner the Wilderness Man and scenes of high-security CIA wonks who are searching for him with their fancy computers, simultaneously conjuring up ways to combat a forthcoming newspaper story that will threaten them. Edward Norton heads these scenes, and he's perhaps as unappealing in this role as he was in Moonrise Kingdom. There's something utterly pathetic about his character: the runty, pencil-necked technophile who's pulling the strings from the safety of a computer desk and a cell phone. He's much more interesting in movies where he's portrayed as strong and threatening and vital, as in American History X. Here he seems like a younger version of the always slimy David Strathairn, who has a small role as another government guru.

There is one particularly disturbing scene of a gunman mowing through some scientists in a lab (where the heroine, played by Rachel Weisz, works as a researcher.) It's probably all the more frightening because these kinds of seemingly random outbursts of workplace violence have become so commonplace in real-life. There are several smashingly directed sequences, such as one scene where Weisz is accosted by agents in her own home, who are ostensibly there to question her, but who we later find out have far more insidious intentions.

The chase scene at the end is a good example of where The Bourne Legacy goes all wrong. It's the cinema of exhaustion. Motorcycles weaving through bumper to bumper traffic in downtown Minela, Phillipines, and somehow nobody important is seriously injured by the onscreen chaos. These are the moments in movies when you withdraw your emotional investment from the plot and the characters, partly because you can't really tell what's going on because of the editing, which cuts fast on purpose, probably to hide mistakes (either in logic or in execution).

Stacy Keach livens things up in Washington, briefly, with his particular brand of blowhard tough-guyness. He looks like a more macho version of Dick Cheney: the Dick Cheney who wouldn't accidentally shoot someone on a hunting trip. But Keach doesn't have enough screen time to save those scenes, which are virtually half the movie for the first hour, from their abject mediocrity. The banter between government officials is blandly written, badly worked out by the director and the actors, and shimmers with the falseness of self-importance.

It's only Renner and Rachel Weisz, who herself becomes a target of the government via her involvement in Renner's Outcome program (she was the one who, somewhat unwittingly, injected the spies with drugs that caused strange neurological and chemical changes inside them), who give this movie any appeal. Their scenes together are interesting enough to keep you from wanting to leave the theater. It's the Renner and Rachel Show by the end, at least until the chase scene, when the movie reverts to all the reliably dull cliches in the genre playbook.

Oscar Isaac shows up at the beginning of the film, when Renner is still on the lam in the Rockies, and he turns out to be a fellow "Outcome agent," holed up in an isolated cabin. Isaac is an actor who continues to deliver good performances in small roles, and it would be nice to see him land bigger parts. With Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, and Albert Finney (briefly). Written by Tony and Dan Gilroy.