Movie Review ~ Promised Land

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A salesman for a natural gas company experiences life-changing events after arriving in a small town, where his corporation wants to tap into the available resources

Stars: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Hal Holbrook

Director: Gus Van Sant

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  The ads for Promised Land make it seem like it’s a cross between Erin Brockovich and Silkwood — while there is a definite David vs. Goliath element to the plot, it turns out that the film is less interested in the business side of things and more focused in the subtle exploration of what constitutes the “right thing to do”.   In the end, the film is perhaps too subtle for its own good and ends up barely making a blip on the radar despite even keeled direction and strong performances.

Damon and McDormand are representatives for a natural gas company that is looking to lease precious farm land from a community sitting on top of a 150 million dollar payload.  Instead of going in as smarmy salespeople, the two seek to ingratiate themselves with the townspeople so they can make their pitch with ease.  It’s a tricky balancing act to perform; we aren’t sure if they believe what they’re saying/selling so it’s hard to know what to discredit.

We’re shown early on that the team of Damon/McDormand are at the top of their field, so it’s no surprise that any sort of problem with this particular town takes a while to become evident.  It’s the combination of an informed retiree (Holbrook) and the appearance of an environmentalist with a personal story to tell (Krasinski) that throws two very big wrenches in what should have been an open and shut sales trip.

I appreciated that the film kept the big city business element out of the picture – there’s very little involvement from the billion dollar company that has sent Damon and McDormand out to close the deal. Instead, we watch as the two continue to meet with their target audience to not only sell them on their plans but stand up to the claims that their mining procedures would eventually turn the soil and water toxic.

Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay from a story by David Eggers and the piece is very timely.  As we continue to deplete our natural resources and fight for oil overseas, there is the thought that we need to look within our own soil for a way to fuel our country.  As farming begins to disappear across the US, the leasing of land to natural gas companies may be the only way for families and communities to survive.  To its credit, the movie does make good points on both sides but because it never really takes a solid stand either way there is a feeling of neutrality that may leave some unsatisfied.

Reteaming with his Good Will Hunting director Van Sant, Damon delivers a nicely nuanced performance — though I found it hard to believe that it’s this particular town that opens his eyes to problems within his company.  A shoehorned semi-romance with a teacher (DeWitt) doesn’t seem to jive with the rest of the movie and the implied competition with Krasinski for her hand feels a bit too pat.  Speaking of Krasinski, it’s clear that he’s got more in him than the character he’s played for nine seasons on television’s The Office but it’s strange that he’s written himself such a one dimensional role.  It also bugged me that his environmentalist character is very concerned about chemicals in the ground but could care less about scattering hundreds of pamphlets around town and Damon’s truck.

It’s really McDormand that quietly steals the show from her male counterparts.  Clearly realizing this is simply a job to support her family, she can be equal parts bulldog and supportive parental figure.  Her scenes with a local business owner (Welliver) have the kind of on the money feel that the film needed more of.  Wearing little make-up and dressed down, she looks the part and acts it wonderfully.

Swede cinematographer Linus Sandgren helps Van Sant’s even-keeled direction with a nice eye for small town life.  There are the requisite shots of American flags, county stores, and endless fields of harvest but it’s straightforward enough to not feel gimmicky.  Danny Elfman’s score is a far cry from the work he’s done for Tim Burton and it’s nice to hear something smooth and considerate from him.

Promised Land is a perfectly fine film with good people doing good work.  It’s going to fade from your memory quite fast and probably isn’t a movie you’ll revisit after it’s over.  Perhaps it’s too small of a film to really have an impact on the big screen – had it been made for television it might have worked out better.  That being said, it’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of anyone involved or some of the stronger thematic material it covers.

Movie Review ~ This Is 40

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this_is_forty

The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the lives of Pete and Debbie a few years after the events of Knocked Up.

Stars: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Megan Fox, John Lithgow, Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Melissa McCarthy, Robert Smigel, Charlene Yi, Albert Brooks, Chris O’Dowd

Director: Judd Apatow

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: A miserable cinematic mallet to the head, This Is 40 is the latest film from director/writer Apatow and is being billed as a “sort-of sequel” to his 2007 blockbuster Knocked Up.  Instead of continuing on the story of the mismatched couple that found themselves pregnant, Apatow has crafted a very long follow-up that focuses on the characters from the “B” storyline from the first film.  In Knocked Up, married couple Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) were interesting variations on the best friend characters…people that had problems of their own that didn’t always come to the rescue like they would in most films.

In This Is 40, Debbie and Pete are both approaching the big 4-0 within days of each other (at least I think they are close together, the timeline for the film seemed to be rewritten every half hour) and…stop me if you’ve heard this before…the female is taking getting older worse than the male!!!  I know, right?  Unheard of!  That’s just one of the many clichéd situations, jokes, dialogue, etc. that This Is 40 employs in its epically long 2 ¼ hours.

It’s clear that Rudd (Wanderlust, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Mann (ParaNorman) have good chemistry and, like Knocked Up, I totally bought them as a married couple.  I’m just convinced that these particular characters didn’t need another whole film to themselves to complete their arc.  What’s more, this film is LONGER than Knocked Up and doesn’t have the strong supporting players that film did to keep things moving.  Instead, the movie is laboriously carried by Rudd, Mann, and the actresses playing their daughters.  Did I mention that Mann is married to Apatow and their real-life children play the offspring of Mann/Rudd (clearly standing in for Apatow) in the film?  Basically you are paying money to see the Apatow family home movies.

Like Apatow’s previous directorial efforts (Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Funny People) the movie is nearly 90 minutes too long.  There is so much extraneous material here that Apatow has seemed to jump the Director’s Cut gun and just given us his preferred cut of the film now instead of later.  What’s more, Universal Studios let him do it!  There are characters and scenes that could be wholly excised and not harm anything integral to the story yet there they are consistently ruining any sort of momentum the film gets going.  I’d go out on a limb and say that every scene went on at least a minute too long.

When you have to say that Megan Fox is the best of the supporting players, you know you may be in trouble.  The truth is, Fox is quite good as an employee at Mann’s barely mentioned California boutique and she saves whatever scenes she’s a part of…even though many of the jokes come at her expense.  Brooks and Lithgow play Rudd and Mann’s loser fathers – both actors could play these characters in their sleep…and it looks like they are asleep most of the time.  (Interesting to note that the credits list more make-up artists for Brooks than Mann…yet he still looks like a sand dune with eyes)  Yi and O’Dowd are awful in their roles…McCarthy starts off fairly well in her glorified cameo until she and Apatow take the comedy to an out-of-control hyper-vulgar state that lost my attention almost immediately.

Vulgarity is really the lifeblood of this film and Apatow may have thought he was being real witty letting his actors use all the swear words in the book and their derivatives but it only shows how average his writing style is by not finding a better voice to give to his actors.  I’m absolutely no prude when it comes to potty mouth-edness but the amount of expletives that come from every person in the film (even the children) is exhausting and undercut any point they are trying to make while using them.

Mann and Rudd spend 98% of the movie bickering and when they aren’t bickering they’re drunk, or high, or having sex, or laughing at their own jokes.  By the time Mann blows up at Rudd for the 900th time, the audience is numb to the conversation and we just await their eventual reconciliation.  Even if Apatow gets in a few on-the-nose observations about married life, they wind up being overshadowed by a general feeling of misery that is absolutely toxic.

So, in summary, here’s what I learned from seeing This Is 40: Marriage is hard, raising kids isn’t easy, parents are crazy, getting old sucks, and young people have different musical tastes than older people. Cutting edge material, Mr. Apatow….cutting edge.  It’s hard to believe that the same guy that gave us the excellent and witty television show Freaks and Geeks has sunk to this sub-par level.  It’s one of the least entertaining and least funny films released in 2012.