Writer/director Mike White’s debut movie, Year of the Dog, was a decent film. So was Orange County. I hated the unfunny Nacho Libre, also with Jack Black. The last thing I saw he did was the interesting screenplay for Beatriz at Dinner (John Lithgow, Salma Hayek).
Since I missed the screening of this, I headed up to the Angelika Film Center to see it Saturday night.
My wife was worried this movie would be too quirky. I was worried that it was Ben Stiller playing the same neurotic character he’s done in so many movies. I hated the critically praised Greenberg so much (and that was written and directed by the amazing Noah Baumbach). Yet I loved Baumbach using Stiller perfectly in the terrific While We’re Young. I figured I’d give this movie a chance, and I’m glad I did. They toned down Stiller’s neurotic behavior a bit, although it might not seem like it, since we hear the narration going on in his head. That made him rather unlikable to many (including my wife), and he certainly does come across as a spoiled brat sometimes; yet I think people need to realize that if you heard the thoughts in anybody’s head, you’d think they were a jerk too.
What makes this movie interesting is that he’s going through a midlife crisis, and we can all feel his pain (to a certain point). Maybe it resonated with me a bit more because he was playing somebody my age, and I’ve certainly had a couple of the thoughts he had.
All his college buddies have become rich and/or famous. One of them, the criminally under-used Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows, sold his tech company and retired at 40. He lives in Maui with two women he has sex with and surfs with.
Luke Wilson plays Jason, who runs a hedge fund, and posts Facebook videos of his family goofing off in his private jet.
Nick (played by director White), is a successful Hollywood director, and his house was recently featured on the cover of an architect magazine. He recently married his boyfriend, and of course, all the college guys were invited but Brad.
The one that gets under his skin most though is Craig, played brilliantly by Michael Sheen. Sheen was recently terrific as the robotic bartender in Passengers, and the ex-husband in Home Again. He’s perfectly cast as a smarmy political commentator, best-selling author, and TV host.
Stiller gives a nicely nuanced performance, being civil when he talks to these guys on the phone, or in the case with Craig, over a dinner.
The best performance in the movie comes from Austin Abrams, playing the 18-year-old son very naturally. He’s looking at colleges, and trying to deal with his father having several meltdowns. It’s sometimes because he can’t upgrade a flight, or because a favorite professor of his has passed away. This felt like a real father/son relationship, and not some goofy Hollywood relationship that went for cheap laughs or unrealistic scenarios. They could go from such warmth towards each other, to intense bickering. Anybody that has ever had a teenager can understand that.
As much as I loved the low-key vibe this movie had, it also means that there might not be enough there for others. I noticed the few critics that didn’t like this, despised Brad Sloan’s character. My wife did, too. Yet I don’t think you have to love everything a character does to enjoy watching them. I certainly felt like he was a dolt many times. He didn’t know which college his son wanted to go to, or even realize that he would be accepted to Harvard. He resented his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), simply because she was too sweet and agreeable. He feels that maybe made him less ambitious in life. There’s another time he goes to a bar to meet up with his son’s friends, after the son has fallen asleep. It’s all obnoxious behavior, but I enjoyed going along for the ride. It doesn’t mean I would’ve enjoyed the ride from college to college, listening to him drone on about his time at Tufts, if I was in the backseat of that car.
There are enough times that Brad gets put in his place, that even those that dislike him, can at least enjoy that. One of those comes from a college student that says what we were all thinking — his problems aren’t all that bad. Other times, it comes from his son, who doesn’t want a scene being made when he misses an appointment at Harvard. Even his wife, who is woken up in the middle of the night because Brad wants to talk about their finances, tells him to shut up.
It was refreshing to see a middle-aged man deal with jealousy in ways we usually only see in teen comedies. Even if none of us are as crazy as Brad, I’m sure all of us have felt that sting of not being invited to the wedding of a friend, or being invited to a Super Bowl party, etc. So his neurotic, Woody Allenesque thoughts, masked by his outward cool…all worked for me.
There was also a terrific score (by the always great Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo), that had violins adding to the tension in Brad’s mind.
I could’ve used a lot less of that shaky-cam that’s become so common. I’ll dock it half a point for that.
3 ½ stars out of 5.