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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Central Intelligence

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE (Two and a Half Stars)U.S.: 2016, Rawson Marshall Thurber

Central Intelligence surprises you — or surprised me, at any rate.

At first it seems like just another bang-bang buddy-buddy  action movie, tailor-made this time for Mutt & Jeff stars Kevin Hart and Dwayne “The Rock“ Johnson. The characters are familiar and so are the jokes, the homoeroticism, the irreverence toward authority. But then this explosive pairing of diminutive dynamo Hart (Ride Along) and Hunk of hunks Johnson (the Fast & Furious films), begins to hit some weird curves and swerves. The two leads play two ex-high school classmates at the fictitious middle American Central High — an ex-Big Man On Campus (Hart), and a one-time outcast, geek and bully victim — whose lives have gone in unpredictable directions, and who re-meet at a class reunion, and then run afoul of a bunch of crooks and spooks and CIA guys. It’s still pretty familiar, but it’s the funniest I’ve seen either actor. And both of them, working together with unusual generosity and live-wire pizzazz, have chemistry to spare.

The movie was directed and co-written by Rawson Marshall Thurber — who wrote and directed the clever adaptation of novelist Michael Chabon’s“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” and churned out the crude family comedy send-up We’re the Millers. Thurber gives the show pace and energy and (aided by what may be a lot of improvisatory inspiration from his co-stars) lots of snappy dialogue. I wouldn’t say that Central Intelligence is a funny dialogue comedy in the great tradition of His Girl Friday, Hail the Conquering Hero, The Philadelphia Story, The Miracle of Morgan‘s Creek, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment and Woody Allen‘s best. But it does have more crisp, funny badinage than we usually get these days — except sometimes by Allen, the Coen brothers, the Apatow gang and their league.

It should make you laugh. Hart and Johnson are likable and funny together — and this time out, each of them is playing interestingly against their seeming comic specialties. In this particular match up, you’d expect Johnson to be the straight man and smoothie (the Dean Martin or Bud Abbott role) and Hart to be the screwball (the Jerry Lewis or Lou Costello). But instead, Hart starts off as a straight man and Johnson plays a screwball and, in the course of the movie, they even switch off.

The idea, or concept, or whatever, is that Hart’s Calvin Joyner, nicknamed The Golden Jet, was Mr. All-Everything in high school, an academic and sports superstar and everybody’s role model, while Johnson’s Robbie Weirdicht was the overweight nerd and outcast whom the bullies picked on. (The two were both involved in a legendary piece of high school sadism when a bunch of bad guys, led by snide bastard Trevor (plsyed in maturity by Jason Bateman, tosses Robbie, in the nude, out onto the gym floor during an awards celebration — and Calvin tries to come to Robbie‘s aid, earning his undying gratitude.)

But there’s another layer. Over the years, Calvin has become a discontent accountant, and now he’s the one who gets picked on. Though Calvin started out as the super jock and Robbie played the fat, bullied victim, somewhere in their lives they switched roles. Calvin is now a discontent accountant, with a once-ideal marriage (to Danielle Nicolet’s foxy Maggie) that’s gone flat, and an obnoxious office clown (Ryan Hansen as Steve) who’s always on his back at work. Robbie, who has been working out six hours a day from twenty years, has body-built himself into a muscular Adonis, renamed himself Bob Stone, and ultimately become Liam-Neeson with punch-lines: a high-level C. I. A killer — with a lot of other CIA types (including Amy Ryan as the icy boss lady Pamela Harrison and Tim Griffin and Timothy John Smith as sullen, silent agents Mitchell and Cooper) who think Bob has gone rogue.

In high school, Robbie idolized Calvin, whom he regarded as his only friend. (Calvin, of course, barely knew him.) Now, decades have passed and the two have seen their roles reversed. Now Bob is the coolest of the cool, and Calvin is a somewhat neurotic, flustered suburbanite. They meet, or re-meet on the night before a huge class reunion, and from then on, it’s a long chase, interspersed with gunfights, interspersed with more chases, laced with buddy-buddy gags and spiced with badinage and folderol. Somehow, it all works.

There have been so many buddy-buddy action comedies over the past few decades , that you might have thought the genre wouldn’t have anything new to offer. What’s next? A monk and a fugitive Mafioso? A pair of hired killers who’ve been contracted to kill each other, and who meet under aliases? An opera singer, and a rapper hunting a maniac musical crime czar? I’m not sure I haven’t seen some of these movies, or all of them, already. In any case, Central Intelligence shows — as does the somewhat less successful The Nice Guys — how a familiar script with somewhat predictable ideas, can keep you laughing, almost despite yourself.

One of the reasons the stars jell here — better I think than the similar match-ups of Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in the Neighbors movies and Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as the cops in 21 Jump Street — or, for that matter as Hart and Ice Cube do in Ride Along — is that Thurber and his fellow writers have given them both more to work with than usual. Hart turns out to be just as funny as a reactor to other actors, as when he’s acting silly or behaving like a nut job. Johnson, meanwhile, is one of those performers who is so willing to kid and make fun of himself, that he can get away with anything, from popping his pectorals to putting Hart on pedestals. And the action scenes, while not necessarily Grade-A, don’t dominate the movie as much as the character comedy, which is the right kind of balance.

I wouldn’t call Central Intelligence a great comedy, or even always an unusually good one. But it’s good enough. These two guys know how to sell themselves and make us laugh. Well, that’s what they’re paid for…

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“One of my favorite things in watching any performance on film is when there isn’t a lot of cutting going on and when you get a chance to become really absorbed in the artist in hand. The same way we do, hopefully, at a concert, when we get a chance to really trip in to something that’s happening on stage. Whether the singer’s singing, or one of the other musicians is playing, we sort of stay there instead of cutting round with our eyes a lot.”
~ Jonathan Demme

“We’ve talked about this before in the past, my obsession with the Shakespearean histories having the ideal combination of the sweet and the sour. In ‘Henry IV, Part II’ which we’ve discussed before, in the end of that story it’s very complex and haunting because Prince Hal becomes Henry the King, and he has transcended his hoodlum days and at the ceremony is Falstaff, his good friend with whom he has really fucked around and been a loser with, and Falstaff comes up to him and says, ‘Now that you’re king we can really party,’ and the king famously says, ‘I know thee not, old man.’ It becomes Henry IV’s anointment and Falstaff’s catastrophe. That’s life. I have experienced very little unfettered triumph. There are moments, such as when my children are born, but even that comes with new fears and anxieties. In a sense the better you can communicate that life is both at once, the more powerful over time something becomes. One strives for something where the threads are there because it lasts in way that is very palpable. The idea of a tragedy is powerful in literature and theater, but in cinema it doesn’t work, certainly not commercially, and less so critically. Why is that? I think it has to do with how movies are so close to us.”
~ James Gray