So I did a triple feature this weekend. Sunday I went to the Grove, and saw three movies for the price of two. They got better as the day progressed, thank god. I went from Street Kings to Harold & Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay to Baby Mama. In the first I almost fell asleep. In the second I laughed politely a handful of times. And in the third I fell in love with Tina Fey.
My expectations for Street Kings were low, which is why it took me three weeks to get around to seeing it. It would be unfair to say everyone involved in this thing is slumming, because I’m sure on paper the thing read great. I imagine Keanu and Forest and the rest of the talented cast jumped on the film just because it was penned by legendary pulp revisionist James Ellroy (The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential). And you know, I don’t think you can fault anyone for wanting to work with Ellroy’s material.
David Ayer, who directed, started out as a writer, penning effective action pics like The Fast And The Furious and Training Day. His directorial debut, Harsh Times, was here and gone before I could catch it in the theater. But now I don’t feel so bad about that.
The problem with Street Kings is typical of what happens when former writers start directing: Too. Much. Plot. Stuffed. Down. The. Audience’s. Throat. It’s as if the writer-turned-director feels the need to show off his ability to weave together as many plotlines as possible – which is what television is for. And that is precisely why Street Kings feels like a lousy episode of The Shield. I could not stop thinking about The Shield while this movie pummeled me with double cross after backstab after twist after turn after reversal. And somehow, even with all these narrative contortions happening, I almost fell asleep.
The writer-turned-director usually ends up facing the same sort of problem as the actor-turned-director – they overplay that element of cinema they most embrace, forgetting the camera is king in this world, and not the actor or the screenwriter.
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes after Street Kings, I refilled my Coke and headed into Harold & Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay. I caught Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle on cable a while back. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It is competent, moves quickly, is never boring but never too good either. The same can be said for Guantanamo Bay. It is an average movie with moderate aspirations, fully aware of its limitations and never trying to push those boundaries. The laughs come easy, the romance is cute, and the cameos are fun and entertaining. Neil Patrick Harris’ reprisal of himself from White Castle is great. But the showstopper in Guantanamo Bay is George Bush (James Adomian). They should’ve called the movie Harold & Kumar Smoke Kush With Bush. In fact, Guantanamo’s biggest shortcoming is that there is not enough weed jokes. But the few that are in there are really great, particularly Kumar’s mÃ©nage a trois with his ex-girlfriend and a giant bag of weed.
I was on my way to sneak into Baby Mama, but there were goons at the cinema’s entrance asking for tickets. So, I walked back out to the lobby and dropped eleven-and-change for my third film of the day. Baby Mama is a very funny movie. Hilarious. Genius. A knee-slapper. Guffaw-inducing. I wiped tears from my eyes a couple times. I sank down in my seat more than once after laughing harder than I thought I should have. I hugged the person in the seat next to me. It’s just a damn good time from front to back.
In a very definitive exception to my proposition that writers-turned-directors churn out overly-plotted, narratively-convoluted pictures, Michael McCullers debuts as a director with phenomenal results. McCullers is partly responsible for writing the last two Austin Powers installments, and his first foray into writing and directing is very promising. He takes the absurdist elements of the Powers movies and injects them seamlessly into a story that is very much about a real woman facing a real life dilemma.
What McCullers does best is give Tina Fey the opportunity to knock scenes out of the park, over and over again. Fey’s Kate Holbrook and Amy Poehler’s Angie Ostrowiski are so diametrically opposed as human beings that practically every scene produces laughs. With supporting turns from Greg Kinnear as Fey’s love interest, and Dax Shepard as Poehler’s estranged husband, the movie is filled with big-screen comedy heavyweights. Steve Martin and Sigourney Weaver are featured, each contributing greatly to a number of scenes. Martin’s new-agey CEO Barry, in particular, is the funniest character he’s inhabited in ages.
Baby Mama just made me smile, non-stop. Mostly because Tina Fey just knows how to be, how to react, how to make a look be more than a look, and a gesture more than a gesture. She’s the closest thing we’ve got to a Lucille Ball.