MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Valentine’s Day and Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Valentine‘s Day (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Garry Marshall, 2009

Lonely on Valentine’s Day? Hollywood has your number. They’re holding tickets (or at least one ticket) to director Garry Marshall’s appropriately titled Feb-12-14 weekend release Valentine’s Day — an all-star Angeleno big-movie box of flavorless chocolates, creamy clichés and stale nuts that’s almost enough to sour to sour you on the whole idea of movie romance and comedy.

Or at least on classic-style romantic comedies, as they’re currently concocted in the big studios.

Wasn’t there a time when movie romantic comedies were one of the smartest genres in Hollywood’s bag? When they were full of Lubitschian sparkle, Hawksian sass, Cukoresque class and Capra-corny crackle? When they were written by the likes of Preston Sturges, Samson Raphaelson, Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, or Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin? Or, a bit later on, by Woody Allen, Elaine May, Neil Simon, John Patrick Shanley and Paul Mazursky?

The last great American romantic comedy I can remember was 2004‘s Sideways, which was also a great buddy-buddy comedy — though I suppose we should also include this Oscar season‘s Up in the Air, a fine shrewd movie, but without the old giddy euphoria of It Happened One Night, Adam’s Rib or Broadway Danny Rose.

Now, we’re being peddled movies that are about as romantic as a perfume ad or a reducing salon commercial and as comical as the evening news. (No, less comical!) They’re laugh-challenged, especially if you temporarily lay aside the current Apatow and Farrelly models as too raunchy to fit the old classic style.

Valentine’s Day is a prime example. It‘s a movie that throws two dozen cute, sexy big movie stars of various ages at us, including Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Anne Hathaway, Queen Latifah, Bradley Cooper, Topher Grace, Julia Roberts, Emma Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Hector Elizondo, Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner — all in tailor-made (or, in some cases, Taylor-made) roles — and surrounds them with Valentine’s Day icons and prime product placement opportunities in candy stores, sunny beaches, Hollywood cemeteries (with outdoor movies playing), chic stores and a flower shop where everyone runs in and out. Then it scrambles them all up in a Crash-like mish-mash of budding love, ruined engagements, deflowering, secret infidelities, wallflower blossoming, last-minute chases to the airport, heartfelt confessions, pesky triangles and romantic misunderstanding.

Actually, the whole movie seemed to me like a romantic misunderstanding. And a comedy misunderstanding too — even though director Garry Marshall has spent his entire career, bringing us both or either, and occasionally hitting the jackpot, as in Pretty Woman. This movie might better be subtitled “Pretty Women and Pretty Men in a Pretty City” — though, truth to tell, Marshall, cinematographer Charles Minsky and production designer Albert Brenner (maybe by design) don’t give us a very sexy Los Angeles. The whole movie looks a little smoggy, shaggy and underdressed. And I don’t think that’s because of a fierce desire for realism, which isn’t otherwise apparent in Katherine Fugate‘s script.

Realism aside though, Valentine’s Day does have, in the spirit of Angeleno multi-culturalism and liberal rom-com broad-mindedness, what someone more cynical than I might call token African Americans, as well as token gays, token senior citizens, a token kid, a token Army captain (Julie Roberts), a token Latino (George Lopez, as a family-values role model for Kutcher), and lots of token Indians at a token Indian restaurant on a Monsoon Wedding kick. Does it matter that they’re all highly talented and it’s good to see them on screen? I suppose Lopez may also be serving as the token comedian here, but he’s been give far too many worldly nuggets of wisdom and far too few jokes. (To get those, you have to skip all the way the movie’s end title blooper reel, and watch Ashton’s attempts to strap on his flower truck seat belt.)

I don’t want to blame everything here on screenwriter Katherine Fugate (The Prince and Me). But her script is certainly no box of fresh chocolates. Valentine’s Day doesn’t have that mix of sharp sexual savviness, pungent dialogue and dreamy wish fulfillment that a great romantic comedy has, and that the better recent British models still do. Despite the numerous plot lines and the bevy of lovers, most of the characters here — as Todd McCarthy noted in his right-on Variety review — tend to sound the same.

I don’t mean that Ashton Kutcher sounds like Queen Latifah or that Taylor Swift sounds like Bradley Cooper (though it might be funnier if they did), but that everyone here tends to fall into similar rhythms, grooves, speech patterns and character types. The younger women tend to be chipper, gorgeous and a little bitter, as if they’d taken a lot of their neurotic cues from Sex and the City. Most of the men struck me as chipper, hunky, well-meaning and sometimes a little naïve (excepting Patrick Dempsey as the token lying jerk), as if they’d taken cues from Sex and the City too. All of them might be better watching a little more of The Office, or even The Simpsons.

Actually, the main model here, as many have noted, seems to be British, most notably Richard Curtis’ 2003 ensemble comedy Love Actually. So why couldn’t there be a few token Brits too, just as there were Americans in Curtis‘s movie? Doesn’t Hugh Grant have to perform some more comedy community service? (Especially after his recent felony in Did You Hear About the Morgans?) Aren’t Emily Blunt, Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley up for a little Rodeo Drive slumming? Couldn’t Helen Mirren and Michael Caine join Shirley and Hector at that Hollywood Forever cemetery movie (which happens to be Shirley’s 1957 Hot Spell, a reminder of happier times)?

Valentine’s Day could use more than a token presence from the city’s non-white-cutie-pie contingents, who could have easily upped the laugh quotient. And maybe some more Brits or Aussies or Kiwis. But even then, this show, with this script, would probably still be pizzazz-challenged. I don’t know that a house call from Doc Clooney, bringing along his buddy Brad Pitt, and both Angelina and Jen, would have sparkled it up enough — even though those four would have brought the movie’s all-star roster up to two Taylors, two Jennifers, two Jessicas, two Georges and two Brads.

One of the biggest problems with Valentine’s Day and with most of the new would-be Hollywood sophisticated realist romantic comedies (as opposed to the raunchy ones) is the peril of too much political correctness. Many of the new comedies, even though they tend to ignore politics and social issues in their dialogue (which the old classics often didn’t), are written as if they have to be fables of exemplary sexual attitudes as well as funny movies. And political correctness, however well-meaning, is usually the enemy of comedy. (It’s why seemingly obvious assholes like Rush Limbaugh, aka Blimp Rushbomb, rule the radio waves.)

Take one example here: When Topher Grace, as certifiably naïve Midwestern transplant Jason, finds out that his new girlfriend Liz (Anne Hathaway) has financial problems that force her to take work as a sex-phone fantasy-talk girl, he becomes so offended that he temporarily breaks the bond, before realizing that he should be tolerant and give Liz a break.

Well, duh! Speaking as a one-time naïve Midwestern transplant to L. A. myself (like McCarthy, who also suggest this), I can only confess that, at Topher’s age, I wouldn’t have been so prudish or run off so fast — and I find it hard to believe that Jason would get that upset, unless it’s a case of social snobbery and rich parents. Many of us might actually have been delighted and excited, in younger years, to find a new girlfriend who really knew how to talk dirty. (It’s not prostitution, Jason.) And, in any case, we would have thought twice (at least) before leaving her and making her feel bad.

I know a lot of naïve Midwestern transplants that would have felt the same, and I like to think we’d be responding from the heart, from that old Midwestern help-your-neighbor syndrome, as well as horniness. But maybe I’m kidding myself. There’s some comedy and dramatic truth in a situation like that, but Fugate, and Marshall, a one-time naïve Midwestern transplant himself, are missing it. Maybe out of political correctness.

Usually, the presence in any movie of Shirley MacLaine, for many years my all-time number one movie fantasy girlfriend, is good for a star or two from me. But this movie wastes Shirley as much as it squanders its younger stars. Couldn‘t they have given her the jokes they kept from George Lopez?

I suppose we should be glad that Marshall and Fugate are so solidly behind correct politics (the lesser of two evils, after all), that they’re in favor of romance, comedy, big stars and fresh flowers — and that Valentine’s Day didn’t turn out to be the start of a new Friday the 13th- My Bloody Valentine-style slasher franchise, with crazed flower deliverypersons, enraged because they can’t fasten their seat belts, driving around L. A. on a gory rampage, handing bloody bouquets to squealing fornicating would-be customers (“Have a heart on Valentine‘s Day!”).

But I think the whole movie needs something more than token comedy and all-star sex. Real jokes. Real romance.

And love, actually.

_____________________________________________________________

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Chris Columbus, 2009

Based on another popular children‘s literature series, Rick Riordan‘s tales of the old Olympian gods of The Iliad and The Odyssey, mixing it in with modern kids — the tortuously titled Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (we’ll leave it with the Michael Mann-ish minimalism of Thief for the rest of the review) is filmed by old Potter-maker Chris Columbus with lots of great effects.

Columbus also has three cute stars — Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, and Alexandra Daddario — as Percy Jackson and his buddies, goat-footed Grover and Athena-daughter Annabeth. They’re three star students and/or guards at the local mythological-heroes-and-heroines school (cheaper-looking than Hogwarts, which shows, I guess, that wizards and witches outrank gods). One of the school’s major attractions: a horses’ hindquarters sticking out of the back of Pierce Brosnan, who takes on another franchise role as Chiron the Centaur, who has a license to trot.

Percy, the product of inter-human-and-deity sex between his mom Sally (Catherine Keener) and the watery gent Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), has been falsely accused of lightning thievery from Dr. Zeus (Sean Bean). And Sally has been kidnapped by Hades, after being so pissed off at her mistreatment by absent god Poseidon, that she took up instead, unwisely. with Joe Pantoliano as Gabe Ulgliano, more proof that Memento was Joe P.‘s best role.

Now, Perseus/Percy, has to travel cross country and into Hell itself, without a Southwest Airlines ticket, but with the invaluable aid of Grover and Alexandra, and with a magical shield Percy got from a sneaky-looking fellow god-bastard: Jake Abel as Luke, said to be the son of that old devil Hades, but looking more like the clone of Hugh Grant and James Spader. The mythical teen trio (only 12 in the books) embark on their quest to save the world from Hades (played by a hell of a guy, Steve Coogan). Lurking around are Medusa (played with an icy stare and snaky locks by Uma “Puma” Thurman), Persephone (Rosario Dawson in a devilish mode) and other mythological all-stars, including the Lotus Eaters of Las Vegas. Will they save the world? Wasn’t that settled in 2012?

I’ve never read Riordan‘s books and never will. And I don’t think the world can be saved, as long as there’s more CGI around. But I know these gods well, the result of a myth-spent youth. And this movie isn’t too bad, though I’ve ranked it right with The Wolfman, which gets extra points for production. Still, Thief is more on a kid’s wavelength than mine. Or yours. I just hope Logan Lerman doesn’t signal, together with his godfathers Ashton Kutcher and Zac Efron, some new wave of chubby-cheeked hunk stars incessantly tossing their hair. And that Alexandra’s prowess with sword, bow and arrow doesn’t mean every new kids movie heroine has to kick your ass — even a horse’s ass like Chiron’s.

But I repeat: Why does children’s literature get so often so lavishly adapted by the movies, so much more than new or classic adults novels? Imagine what a great director could have done with Herzog’s Henderson, the Rain King, which Jack Nicholson had forever. Imagine what Sidney Lumet could have made of Malamud‘s The Assistant, which he tried to do for decades. What about Conrad? Twain? Melville? Fitzgerald? Hemingway? Faulkner? Cather? Pynchon? Projects like that are masterpieces waiting to happen. Now take a gander at the care lavished on Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

I’m glad literate kids are so well-served. But who buys the damn tickets anyway?

– Michael Wilmington
February 11, 2010

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