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Lizzy Caplan

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Frat to the Future.

To get in the proper mood for Steve Pink’s ’80s throwback (in more ways than one) Hot Tub Time Machine after a long week at work, I made sure to sidle up to the bar just beforehand — conveniently located, at my “local” (Regal Gallery Place in DC’s Chinatown), just below the theater — and knock down a shot-and-pint (of Jamesons and Guinness respectively, of course.) And my best advice for those of you still thinking about testing these bubbling, lurid, time-traveling waters: Better make that a double.

My feelings about Hot Tub Time Machine are pretty close to how I came down on The Hangover last summer. It’s got some funny moments, sure, and I admire its throw-everything-and-see-what-sticks, Anchorman-y approach to humor. (This is vastly preferable to the “let’s make the audience better people in three acts” schtick that was in comedy vogue for awhile — See, for example, Anger Management.) It’s also sort of a kick to see John Cusack, after fighting it for decades, willingly slumming back to his Savage Steve Holland years, and, I’ll concede, the “I want my two dollars” joke made me smile.

At the same time, and maybe even more than The Hangover (which is no small feat), Hot Tub Time Machine feels like it was penned by and for the Bill “Sportsguy” Simmons nation. You could argue its casual misogyny, homophobia, and dumb raunchiness-for-the-sake-of-it is all part of the return-to-the-’80’s experience, but my guess is it’s really all about catering to the army of 21st century mooks that enlist under the Sportsguy’s standard. I mean, do you know the street value of that mountain? (As an aside, I actually think Simmons is a decent writer, and am crawling through his Book of Basketball at the moment. The problem isn’t his talent or his bball savvy, but his judgment and his (lack of) taste. Nor do I blame him for creating mook culture — he’s just one of its clearest expressions.)

More on the mookness of it all in a bit, but, first, the high-concept gist: Just like The Hangover, we have three friends (Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson) and a hanger-on (Clark Duke) trying to find themselves by taking a memorable, life-altering Lost Weekend — only this time, it’s in The Past. Adam (Cusack) has just been dumped by his girlfriend and has his Second Life-addicted nephew (Duke) living in the basement. Nick (Robinson) is a once-promising singer who gave up his dreams for a girl and now spends his day as a personal trainer for dogs. (He touches poo. Ha. That’s funny. Poo.) And Lou (Corddry), the Galifianakis of the bunch, is a perennial loser who may or may not have recently tried to kill himself. (A wasted Corddry plunking out ’80’s power-chords on his dashboard is funny, and one of the many ways he often rises above the material here.)

So, because of Lou’s maybe-meltdown, this ungainly foursome head back to the ski resort idyll of their youth for some manly bonding. Problem is, the Great Recession has hit hard and the place has gone to hell — there’ll be no skiing the K-12 here. And, just when the weekend seems like a total wash, our heroes stumble into the hot tub in question and stumble out 24 years earlier, in the year of our lord 1986 — Adam is still with the “Great White Buffalo” he never should’ve dumped, Nick is still rocking the Kid-‘n’-Play-style hi-top, Lou is…well, still a loser, and Jacob the nephew shouldn’t even exist, and thus has a phasing-in-and-out, Marty McFly in Back to the Future II problem. (And speaking of the McFlys, Crispin “George McFly” Glover is skulking around too, as is Chevy Chase.) Fire up the day-glo and the hair metal, y’all, ’cause it’s time to partay like it’s the MTV era…

And so they do, meaning all the fashion faux-pas and Wang Chung-ish blasts from the past you might imagine from living in the Eighties. But, while there are still a few funny moments here and there, this Hot Tub loses steam and falls ever more flat the longer they spend in the Me Decade. I find legwarmers and Members Only jackets as ridiculous as the next guy, but there are only so many “lordy, the sartorial sense was terrible back then” jokes you can make over the course of two hours. And, other than that, the movie just meanders through its second half without much purpose, or even much sense. Cusack ingests enough shrooms to give the good doctor pause, and is playing Sixteen Candles kissy-face with Lizzy Caplan half an hour later.

And then there’re all the fratboyisms and mookish behavior. To be clear, I wasn’t offended by Hot Tub, per se. (Case in point: I put Jackass in my top 100 films of last decade.) And, to be sure, the sensibilities were different back then in Ronald Reagan’s America — just look at much of Police Academy or Revenge of the Nerds, or even the aforementioned Back to the Future, where, as @kellyoxford recently noted, George wins Marty’s future mom’s heart basically by stopping her from being date raped.

Still, by too often resorting in puerile shenanigans — look, Rob Corddry just got pee on his face! — and particularly in portraying every gal that comes along (Caplan aside) as a dim-witted sex toy, the movie just feels lazy, half-assed, and, well, mook. I don’t want to be the Billy Zabka of this tale, but, while I’m all for nostalgifying the ’80s for a few laughs, at some point, quite frankly, it’s time to grow up.

Prince of Thieves, Queen of Hearts.

In the trailer bin, Russell Crowe grunts, growls, and generally looks very Maximus-ish in the new trailer for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, also with William Hurt, Mark Strong, Max von Sydow, Oscar Isaac, and Cate Blanchett (nee Sienna Miller) as Maid Marian. And two colorful new trailers for Disney’s Alice in Wonderland suggest Tim Burton might have gone pretty far afield from the original Lewis Carroll tome, and that Johnny Depp might get Willy Wonka-annoying here after awhile.

Update: But does he know the street value of that mountain? It’s The Hangover meets Back to the Future as John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke travel back to 1986 in a Hot Tub Time Machine, also with Lizzy Caplan, Crispin Glover, and Chevy Chase. Um, yeah.

It’s Godzilla, We’re Japan.

While poorly executed, surprisingly unengaging, and mostly banal, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield, the much-hyped version of Godzilla-meets-The Blair Witch Project produced by Lost/Alias guru J.J. Abrams, does pose at its heart one truly frightening scenario: What would you do if the moment the next 9/11-level catastrophic event happens here in New York City, you just happen to be stuck at a party downtown with a bunch of godawful douchebags? Seriously, though, I’m not sure how you screw up a ground-eye-view of “Huge Monster Destroying New York” so badly, but Cloverfield is as big a January dog as they come. Not above milking blatant 9/11 imagery for gravitas (which doesn’t offend me per se, although I do wish it was in the service of a better story), Cloverfield basically tries to be little more than a monster movie thrill ride for the Youtube generation. (The film is bookended by a trip to Coney Island, and, yeah, I’d say that’s about right.) But given that the none of the main characters are all that likable, and given that the film falters on the promise of showing NYC in full disaster mode, I can’t say it’s a ride worth paying for, Sadly, one or two brief moments notwithstanding, last year’s eerie teaser is about as good as it gets.

The setup’s all in that teaser, of course, but that doesn’t stop Cloverfield, an 85-minute movie, from starting off wicked slow. After a few moments with two young lovers in a Deluxe Apartment in the Sky (Time Warner Center, to be exact), the film begins with a surprise going-away party downtown for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a young financial type heading for Japan. (Not to obsess over real estate, but this apartment too is as impressive as the monster.) We then spend about 20 minutes wandering around said party, meeting all the young beautiful people who may or may not become Cthulhu food. (Rob, it seems, has many friends, but none of them are plain-looking.) So, let’s see, there’s Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel), his best friend (and our cameraman) Hud (T.J. Miller), Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), Hud’s current crush Marlena (Lizzy Caplan)…but conspicuously absent amid them all (at first) is the fetching young lass we saw in the opening moments with Rob, Beth (Odette Yustman). She shows up late, with — ZOMG SC4ND4L! — another man in tow (I think his name was Travis, but it doesn’t matter — he’s a plot point that’s forgotten anyway), and, soon thereafter, leaves in a huff. (By now you may be thinking, uh, where’s the monster in all of this 90210 dreck? Yes, my thoughts exactly.) Anyway, so after enough time has elapsed that Beth could’ve gotten back home, there’s a shaking and a rumbling and…finally…well, you know what happens next.

Now, I could’ve forgiven Cloverfield its interminably long set-up if we then got a New York City disaster movie for the ages. But, after letting some obvious 9/11-ish images and moments — the collapsing buildings, clouds of billowing smoke, panicked cell phone calls — do the heavy lifting, the film mostly just stalls out. As far as the story goes, Rob decides he must go save Beth from the TWC, and, for reasons that don’t make much sense, everyone else just decides to tag along. Ok, that’s fine — you gotta get the protagonists moving around New York for one reason or another. Except, once the monster attacks, the city is almost completely empty, aside from U.S. infantrymen (who, as my friend pointed out, somehow got there before the Air Force.) I mean, it’s Manhattan. You’d think there’d be people wandering around everywhere in various states of terror and confusion, but, nope, all two million people either hunkered down or got out right away. In fact, other than the Statue of Liberty and the 9/11 nods, there’s not much point for the film to have taken place in New York at all. I mean, sure, there’s a sequence in the subway tunnels in which our heroes magically leap from Spring St. to 59th St. (and one which will seem rather derivative if you saw 28 Weeks Later or The Descent.) But, otherwise, this could have taken place pretty much anywhere.

If this review all sounds a bit nit-picky, well, perhaps. But, when the film never really engages at an emotional or visceral level, you gotta do something to pass the time. (The midnight crowd at my local Magic Johnson sat there more dutiful than dumbstruck.) Except for the occasional rare moment, as when the gang get caught in a full-out alley melee between the creature and the US Army, or witness a horse pulling an empty cart around Central Park, Cloverfield never establishes a groove. And everytime you think it might start to get interesting, it falls back into Archie and Veronica grandstanding. Throw in a few wildly implausible escapes and people rallying from seriously painful injuries, and there’s not much here to recommend. To be honest, I’d wait for the video. And, if no one ever finds said video under all the debris in Central Park, well, trust me, you didn’t miss much.

Blackjack, Bigfoot, Binomials [and Beast.]

In the trailer bin, which should be teeming over soon with Thanksgiving upon us: Did Bosworth break up the band? Across the Universe‘s Jim Sturgess forgoes the Beatles for a blackjack team in the trailer for Robert Luketic’s 21 (a.k.a. Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House), also starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, and Laurence Fishburne. Nature documentarian Steve Zahn goes on the trail of Bigfoot in the so-so trailer for Fred Wolf’s Strange Wilderness, also with Allen Covert, Mac Guy, Jonah Hill, Ernest Borgnine, Jeff Garlin, and Joe Don Baker. And Frodo (Elijah Wood) and (animated) Aragorn (John Hurt) team up to solve a string of horrific math-tinged crimes in the Spanish-language trailer for Alex de la Iglesia’s The Oxford Murders, from the book by Guillermo Martinez. Doubt I’ll see any of these, but you never know. Update And another: Don’t say Lovecraft didn’t try to warn us…something Huge, Malevolent, and (hopefully) Cthulhuian stalks the streets of New York in the new trailer for JJ Abrams’ monster movie Cloverfield.

Old Gods and Little Children.

In this week’s trailer bin, 9/11 meets The Blair Witch Project (and maybe even a dash of Cthulhu?) in the cleverly low-fi teaser for J.J.Abrams’ 1-18-08, a.k.a. Cloverfield. Freddie Highmore (of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) discovers his own Pan’s Labyrinth of sorts in the new trailer for The Spiderwick Chronicles, also with Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte, and David Strathairn. And Ben Affleck directs his brother Casey in a Boston missing child case in this look at Gone Baby Gone, by the author of Mystic River and also starring Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and The Wire‘s Amy Ryan (Beadie) and Michael Williams (Omar).

Girls Gone Wild.

Ok, Louis Kahn, step aside. It’s time to talk about the law of the jungle, and, let’s face it, you’d last about an hour in the land where the Mean Girls rule the roost. Normally, I probably wouldn’t have seen this flick (although I have had fun exclaiming Mean Girls, Y’all! all week), but what can I say? Nothing else came out, the reviews were decent, and my girlfriend and I had a hankering for a movie. But enough excuses…how did Mean Girls turn out? All in all, not bad, I guess…it’s basically Heathers-lite for the Y2K kids. After trying too hard for the first twenty minutes, I’d say Mean Girls has a pretty funny 45 minutes and a really stilted 45 minutes, which is a decent humor-to-crap ratio given that this is a SNL-alum, Lorne Michaels-produced vehicle.

So, if you’ve seen any teen comedy this side of John Hughes, you can already put all the pieces together here. New girl Lindsey Lohan arrives to new high school (balkanized, of course, into Breakfast Club-type subdivisions, although we now also have groups like “cool Asians” alongside the jocks, nerds, slackers, and wastoids), and has to decide whether she’ll align with the forces of good (misunderstood hipsters) or evil (hot, rich chicks), all before the Inevitable Big Dance. Mean Girls doesn’t skip any of the usual steps, but, for the first hour at least, it moves briskly and remains entertaining enough, even if every character is straight out of High School Central Casting (or Weblog Junior High.)

Unfortunately, right around the halfway point, Mean Girls, Y’all! makes the grievous tactical decision to get all preachy up in here. Ok, no one was ever going to confuse this movie with Welcome to the Dollhouse, but still. Mean Girls could have at least tried to remain as cynical as Heathers in the “Teen Suicide-Don’t Do It” phase. But no, we are instead regaled with trust falls and lectures by Tina Fey’s character on how girls could be nicer to one another (I presume this is due to the non-fiction source material — Queen Bees and Wanna-Bes), and a saccharine-sweet ending that ties up all the loose ends. More problematic, this movie want to have it both ways…it tells its audience not to make fun of fat people or dweebs, all the while making fun of fat people and dweebs. The film can either make us nicer people or play to our mean-spirited instincts…but it can’t do both at the same time. Just like a Mean Girl to tell me one thing and do another. Harrumph…mean girls, y’all.

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