This week there are reviews of Pixels (out 12 August), Trainwreck (out 14 August), and Gemma Bovery (out 21 August).
Just when I thought I was Al, they Pacino me back in. For other things I’ve written in the past fortnight, you can find “A European map of coming-of-age classics”, an examination of “Noah Baumbach’s influences from Charlie Brown to Whit Stillman”, an Eden-related “Interview with photographer Agnès Dahan” and a celebration of “The comeback of Charlie Kaufman”.
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Pixels (2015) – 3/10
Director: Chris Columbus
Writers: Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling
Starring: Adam Sandler, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage
UK release date: 12 August
“Let the nerds take control.”
Nostalgia can be perilous when it’s crashing from the sky wearing a CGI parachute. Before Pixels starts its 80s-set prologue, the logo flashes up for Adam Sandler’s production company Happy Madison – named after two of his earliest and most popular characters – which in itself establishes a theme: attempting to replicate past successes on a more expensive, global scale.
The parallel in Pixels, whether intentional or not, sees Sandler sleepwalking as Sam Brenner, a former Pac-Man champion now half-heartedly delivering the goods for a company called Nerd Brigade. (Maybe the screenwriters were subconsciously referencing Sandler’s recent years.) Misinterpreting a 1982 time capsule as a threat, aliens bombard Earth with monsters in the form of arcade figures: Galaga, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and so on. Up steps Brenner, operating a gun larger than his torso in the manner he held a joystick 30 years before. It’s like a Formula One team handing the keys to someone who won a Mario Kart competition three decades ago.
But more peculiar than a CGI Smurf eating children is that Kevin James – yes, Paul Blart himself – has been promoted from mall cop to President of the United States. It’s actually kinda amusing in its ridiculousness, with James displaying some fun in a bar announcing, “The president can’t be seen chugging a beer, so pretend you’re not looking!”
Sandler, on the other hand, is so distant, I can only assume he’s struggling with the heavy transition to greenscreen and invisible sidekicks – Q*bert, whatever it is, is one of the most irritating screen presences since Olof. Speaking of which, Josh Gad is there too as Ludlor, a creep who carries a bottle of chloroform and is in love with a computer game character. Faring slightly better is Peter Dinklage as Eddie, a conman whose sport is as much trash talking as it is gaming.
In matching uniforms, like the original Ghostbusters, the foursome – Sandler, Gad, Dinklage, James – march through the streets with something that looks like but is never called a proton pack. And like the original Ghostbusters, a woman – in this case, Michelle Monaghan – is left to the side for administrational purposes. The casual sexism running through Pixels is harder to ignore than a score bar in the corner of a screen. Not only do the men frequently instruct women to shut up, a certain subplot involving Lady Lisa – played by a mute, half-naked Ashley Benson – is so misguided that Sandler’s character turns to ask his friends, “We’re just accepting that happened?”
The action sequences themselves are fairly decent. Sparkly CGI dust decorates the chaos as the lifeless cast stand before animated 80s throwbacks. The idea has potential, teasing out commentary on an increasingly tech-driven world when the President announces to the army, “Let the nerds take over.” But until Sandler puts efforts into his films again, I can only hope he’s reawakened by a nightmare in which falling from the sky are his past glories in the form of Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and that guy from The Wedding Singer.
Trainwreck (2015) – 6.5/10
Director: Judd Apatow
Writer: Amy Schumer
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, LeBron James, John Cena, Colin Quinn, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton
UK release date: 14 August
“I’m going to ask you a question: don’t hurt him.”
Something’s not quite right when Trainwreck, written by and starring Amy Schumer, is advertised as “From the guy who brought you Bridesmaids”. A stand-up comic and viral sensation, Amy Schumer is Judd Apatow’s latest protégé, channelling her outspoken persona – cultivated on the comedy circuit and sketch show Inside Amy Schumer – in what early on suggests it could be her Annie Hall or Manhattan (she recreates the infamous bench shot). But, ultimately, it’s a Judd Apatow film, with all the same strengths and weaknesses.
That’s not to say Schumer’s distinctive voice isn’t on display. Presented as boozy in a succession of one-night stands (with a “no sleeping over” rule), her character, Amy Townsend, is refreshingly unapologetic for her behaviour, creating a welcome antidote to mainstream cinema’s gender pigeonholing. When Amy has drunken sex with hunky male bimbo Steven (wrestling champion Cena), she’s the smart one and he’s the joke figure whose idea of dirty talk is “there’s no I in team”. Reversing the roles may not be reinventing the romcom wheel, but the wheel could always use a polish.
Without any mention of financial insecurity, she lives along in New York, maintaining a staff writer gig at S’NUFF, despite expressing little interest or knowledge in what she writes. Favoured by her dotty boss (Swinton, unrecognisable), she’s on the brink of a promotion, and assigned a profile piece on sports doctor Aaron (Hader). A trainwreck implies a speeding vehicle spinning off the rails. Amy is no trainwreck.
Again, switching the tropes, Aaron – whom she dates, regardless of journalism ethics – is the uptight, stable half of the double act. A manic pixie dream boy, he puts up with her bullshit and is impossibly perfect (he owns his own fancy condo and is BFFs with LeBron James), ultimately changing her from a “trainwreck” to something on the rails. There lies the film’s strange conservative detour, especially when, as mentioned above, she was doing rather fine without him.
Outside of the many funny bits, the dramatic beats are incredibly clumsy – especially with Apatow’s love of excess coverage – and appear adjacent to the progression of Amy’s character. A subplot involving her dying father (Quinn) feels tacked on, just as a similar storyline did in This is 40. Whenever conflict occurs with her sister (Larson) or Aaron, Schumer displays her limited acting range, which jolts the editing: ordering the cheque leads to an overextended comedy bit, but a pivotal breakup scene is fast-forwarded through.
The saving grace is that, despite its many faults, Trainwreck is very funny – and often. Schumer and Hader bounce off each other with enough chemistry that it’s understandable why they’re desirable to each other. For comedy geeks, there’s a packed ensemble with scene-stealing turns from Mike Birbiglia, Jon Glaser and Claudia O’Doherty. Even the dreaded sporting cameo works, as LeBron’s amiable acting chops are a bigger surprise than Swinton’s new look. (A scene with Matthew Broderick as himself is a major clunker, though.)
In its reliability and false promise of something different, Trainwreck marks Apatow as the comedy genre’s Marvel – only with a different type of comic. There’s a new face with a new take on a familiar story, but it always ends up in the same place. It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a trainwreck to cry.
Gemma Bovery (2015) – 7/10
Director: Anne Fontaine
Writers: Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine, Posy Simmonds (novel)
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Niels Schneider, Mel Raido, Fabrice Luchini
UK release date: 21 August
“But believe me, Gemma, there’s a point when life imitates art.”
You can take the doomed romantic heroine out of London, but you can’t take London out of the doomed romantic heroine. Swapping Notting Hill for Normandy, Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton) doesn’t fit in. She still uses her original accent when greeting locals with a hearty “bonour!” and also happens to be a famous tragic figure from 19th century literature caught up in the present. C’est la vie?
Directed by Anne Fontaine, Gemma Bovery is an adaptation of an adaption. Based on a graphic novel by Posey Simmonds (who reworked Far from the Madding Crowd into Tamara Drewe), itself a tongue-in-cheek retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 novel Madame Bovary, the deadpan humour hinges upon Gemma Bovery ignoring the warning signs – like, for instance, being handed a copy of Flaubert’s book by concerned neighbour Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini). “Believe me,” he warns her, “there’s a point when life imitates art.”
Martin is a much older, sexual frustrated baker; kneading bread and needing a distraction, it’s through his POV that the film unfolds. After moving to rural France with her husband Charlie (Jason Flemying), Gemma tires of country living and weighs up an affair with posh totty Hervé de Bressigny (Niels Schneider). What’s going on inside her mind? It’s frustratingly hard to tell, as Martin’s eyes draw a bit further south – his voiceover wistfully recalls the first time an outfit revealed her legs. (He’s depicted as feeble, rather than creepy.)
However, just as in Tamara Drewe, Arterton’s off-kilter energy – Gemma loudly teaches herself French pronouns on an exercise bike – derives comedy and warmth from what would otherwise be a two-dimensional role. While Martin laments Madame Bovary as “a mundane story told by a genius”, a fair assessment of Gemma Bovery would be it’s a strong literary joke stretched out adequately.
Even if the characters barely develop beyond Flaubert parallels, the dry script hints at a darker dissatisfaction with contemporary existence that never escaped classic European literature. Experiencing middle-class monotony in a picturesque setting, Gemma questions if life becomes any more meaningful (or less meaningless) in a new setting. In the depths of her soul, she waits for something to happen.