Movie Review ~ Spirited

The Facts:

Synopsis: Each Christmas Eve, the Ghost of Christmas Present selects one dark soul to be reformed by a visit from three spirits. But this season, he picked the wrong Scrooge.
Stars: Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Sunita Mani, Patrick Page, Tracy Morgan, Joe Tippett, Andrea Anders, Jen Tullock
Director: Sean Anders
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 127 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Before we journey through this Spirited review, I feel I must be transparent about a few things off the bat. That will help better frame how I came to this new musical re-telling of A Christmas Carol, one of the multitudes of versions of the Charles Dickens perennial classic. I love A Christmas Carol. I will watch a performance (or versions) of it every year and be struck by something new about the piece each time I see it. There’s a lesson to be learned from Dickens’s story of redemption, and my opinion is that the darker, the better. Let the story start from a deep, despairing place because the renewal of salvation Scrooge experiences at the end means much more; the takeaway is more impactful.

The next thing I’ll say is that I’m not generally a fan of either star of the film, Will Ferrell or Ryan Reynolds. Both actors trade in schtick, and while it has made them a boatload of money, it’s a schtick that’s beaten to death and quoted by those less talented on the delivery forever after. (“No really, I don’t need to hear that Anchorman bit again Kevin. Thank you.”) Each has occasionally struck out with work that has shown their acting chops, but to say they are comfortable with coasting along is putting it mildly. I also am not the biggest fan of Dear Evan Hansen, the multiple award-winning musical Spirited songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul composed for Broadway and helped adapt for the bomb-tastic 2021 musical. It even took me a second viewing to appreciate their Oscar-winning songwriting for 2017’s The Greatest Showman.

There was the dilemma I faced when Spirited was staring me down the other night. Dickens=good.  Ferrell/Reynolds=iffy.  Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) being third billed tipped the scale in the right direction, and I committed to at least starting the movie but not finishing it at that late hour. It’s rare in our house not to pause for a bathroom break or other distraction, but after the two hours was up and Spirited’s charming closing credit sequence was complete, my only regret wasn’t staying up past my bedtime but that I wasn’t able to see this joyous holiday entertainment on the biggest screen possible. (It’s in limited release now but widely available on AppleTV+ on November 18.)

Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders (Daddy’s Home), Spirited takes the story we’re all familiar with (A Christmas Carol) and gives it a modern twist. Scrooge gets redeemed on his Christmas Eve night, but what about the next Christmas? And the one after that? And the one after that? The “haunt “business is a well-oiled machine and by the time we join the crew, Marley (Patrick Page, In the Heights) is running a tight ship. The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani, Evil Eye), Present (Ferrell, Holmes & Watson), and Yet-To-Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan, The Boxtrolls, and physicalized by Loren Woods) get in, do their job, and pass their torch to the next on the schedule.

They’ve just completed their latest mission (a Karen-esque suburbanite played by a recognizable star), and are planning their next when Present suddenly turns his focus to Clint Briggs (Reynolds, Deadpool), a smarmy public relations exec that can spin any story (illustrated by Reynolds in a go-for-broke 11 o’clock musical number that comes around the 9:00 am mark). The only problem is Clint is classified as ‘Unredeemable’ and automatically excluded from the yearly haunt – but Present sees a challenge and, facing retirement, pushes Marley to take on Clint despite the warnings that their efforts will fail. Of course, they can’t know that Clint truly is as nasty as he looks and isn’t as easily rattled as the centuries of souls that came before him.

The screenplay (and songs) takes some unexpected turns, sometimes following the Dickens text but diverging enough, so you’re never sure where you’ll find yourself at given beats. That’s nice to find, especially for the experienced fans of A Christmas Carol, but also for those willing to let Ferrell and Reynolds try on a new side of themselves. Both are nicely musical and dance well, culminating in several smashing full-out dance numbers set to Pasek/Paul’s lively tunes and performed with dazzling choreography by Chloe Arnold. Sure, they start to sound the same after a while, and you won’t be turning the TV off humming them, but they’re clever and fun while you’re in it, and the old time pub song ‘Good Afternoon’ is a showstopping riot.

If the film drags its feet a little, it’s when we go down the rabbit hole of Clint’s past. That’s where we find good actors like Joe Tippett (Mr. Harrigan’s Phone), Andrea Anders (The Stepford Wives), & Jen Tullock (TV’s Severance) struggling with some saccharine dialogue (or, in Anders’s case, several bizarrely ugly wigs). So much effort is spent on the production numbers looking great, I wish more time were spent on the dramatic scenes being as tight. At least Spencer’s scenes are razor-sharp, and if you had seeing Spencer in a musical on your Christmas wish list, you could check that off now because she’s lovely in her few moments of musicality. Spencer is the epitome of the heart that Spirited is going for, so anytime she’s on screen, she has a way of centering everyone in the film.

There’s so little to offend here; I’d encourage you to block out the early negative buzz from some ‘unredeemable’ Scrooge-y critics who can’t see what the film is going for and ultimately achieves. It shows us a new way of approaching a story while at the same time illustrating the flaws we all examine in ourselves. The flaws can define us and make us embittered against the world, or we can take ownership of them and use them toward doing good. The message is clear, and sometimes, in the case of Spirited, it’s sung. This will be added to the holiday rotation in my home, no question.

Movie Review ~ Daddy’s Home

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A mild-mannered radio executive strives to become the best stepdad to his wife’s two children, but complications ensue when their freewheeling and freeloading real father arrives, forcing him to compete for the affection of the kids.

Stars: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Haden Church, Hannibal Buress

Director: Sean Anders

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  The last time stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg teamed up was in 2010’s The Other Guys, a better than average twist to the cop/buddy movie that played nicely into the strengths of its leads.  Neither actor was required to travel too far out of their comfort zone and instead of it coming off as lazy, it felt like a cohesive mix of actors putting a shine on characters they could play in their sleep.

For a time there was talk of a sequel to The Other Guys and while that still could happen sometime in the future, Ferrell and Wahlberg must have been itching to work together again and signed on for Daddy’s Home in the hopes of reclaiming some of that good will directed toward them in their previous collaboration.  Well…this Daddy has issues and it never rises above a mediocre comedy irresponsibly trying to lure families into ponying up their holiday dough to see this unpleasant gunk.

Ferrell (The Campaign) is a benign lump of good-nature as man trying to be the best stepdad he can be to his two new stepchildren.  Unable to have children due to an unfortunate dental accident (just one of the precious few inspired bits the film has to offer), he’s the superman of stepfathers whether staying on top of school activities or making sure the kids are fed.

That Ferrell’s character has been met, wooed, and wed his wife (Linda Cardellini, Avengers: Age of Ultron) without ever meeting the father of her children seems pretty hard to swallow…but it’s a paltry oversight of a set-up for the first time old dad (Wahlberg, Ted) meets new dad after he decides to enter back into their lives, causing a host of troubles along the way.  Wahlberg is the motorcycle riding tough guy with pecs that pop mighty unhappy his wife has moved on without him…so unhappy that he spends the majority of the movie trying to ruin Ferrell’s career and relationship with his new family.

It’s here the movie starts to rack up a host of losing points in my book.  The plot reads like the logline of a domestic thriller from the ‘90s and Wahlberg comes off as a middle-aged version of the crazed psycho he played in 1996’s Fear.  Ferrell and Wahlberg engage in a battle of the dads to see who can come away with the most affection, resorting to buying love rather than trying to earn it.  The ruse for hoots results in a genuine discomfort in the viewer as we watch all of this nastiness play out in front of the children.

Co-written by director Sean Anders (who also penned We’re the Millers), it’s a cheap looking film too…with special effects that appear like first passes inserted as placeholders.  Anders and his co-writers don’t bother to flesh out any character other than Ferrell and Wahlberg, leaving Cardellini in the dust and wasting valuable time on irksome supporting characters like Thomas Haden Church (We Bought a Zoo, looking more and more like that vein on your neck that bulges when you get angry) and the completely useless Hannibal Buress (Sleepwalk with Me).  Buress gained notoriety recently for unknowingly igniting the Bill Cosby scandal during his comedy act…he should be more proud of that than anything he’s doing here.

Are there a few laughs to be had?  Sure…and I laughed at them.  However, I kept coming back to fact that the movie relies on laughs that come at the expense not just of manly pride but the respect of the impressionable minds both men should be trying to be role models for.

Movie Review ~ We’re the Millers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A veteran pot dealer creates a fake family as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the U.S. from Mexico.

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn, Will Poulter, Ed Helms

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though the preview for We’re the Millers had some decent laughs in it, I was still sitting squarely on the fence when it came time to take in this cross country comedy.  If it was merely going to be a series of open road foibles then why couldn’t I just stay home and watch National Lampoon’s Vacation for the umpteenth time?  Then a strong desire to see a gleefully R-rated film overtook me and I found myself laughing more than I thought I would at a movie that’s better than it should be.

Making a strong showing in his years on Saturday Night Live, Jason Sudekis (The Campaign) hasn’t quite cracked the Hollywood code up to this point so I was surprised to see how confidentially he carried this film.  As a run-of-the-mill small time drug dealer, Sudekis has a believable charm that helps him navigate a very thin first act that finds him running afoul of a dorky drug kingpin (Ed Helms, The Hangover Part III) and being forced into smuggling drugs from Mexico back to Denver.  To do that, he enlists the help of a stripper (Jennifer Aniston, Wanderlust), a nebbish teen (Will Poulter), and a scrappy homeless girl (Emma Roberts).  As the Millers they make it easy into Mexico but, as is expected, find there’s a rough road ahead on the way back.

Look, this set-up isn’t going to blow your mind and if you can’t see where it’s all headed then you need to have your eyes examined.  What makes the film work on some mystical level is that it has its head in the right place and its heart following close behind.  Director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s last notable cinematic effort was nearly a decade ago with 2004’s odious Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and this film is leaps and bounds better.  Dodgeball was a stinker because it didn’t know what to do with its crude and crass trump cards (it didn’t help that it was appallingly homophobic) but We’re the Millers seems to have the deck stacked in its favor.

So yes, the movie earns its R rating with f-bombs a plenty, tons of sexual innuendo and a bit of graphic nudity that actually gets the laughs so many films miss out on but it’s also enjoyably funny in a harmless way.  That’s thanks to chemistry between Sudekis and Aniston – chemistry that’s been sorely missing in other Aniston-led films.  Credit must also go to supporting performers like Kathryn Hahn (The Dictator) that at times threaten to steal the movie out from under our stars.  Hahn works her way through the script by Bob Fisher, Steve Faber, Sean Anders, and John Morris and makes some trivial material hysterically funny (make sure to stay through the end credits for more of Hahn’s genius).  Hot on her heels is Nick Offerman as her square husband that gradually reveals a kinky side.  Poulter and Roberts too fit in nicely with the more established comedic stars.

Sure, if you think too hard about it you’re going to find the film has its shortcomings (like how Aniston is a stripper in a club where conveniently no one gets naked) but they are small road blocks on an otherwise well-made and agreeable journey.  It’s not a movie I’d pay full price for but it’s worth the matinee rates or at least a rental down the road.

The Silver Bullet ~ We’re the Millers

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Synopsis: A veteran pot dealer creates a fake family as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the U.S. from Mexico.

Release Date:  August 9, 2013

Thoughts: Attempting to shed her Friends image yet again, Jennifer Aniston (Wanderlust) dives headfirst into this black comedy as a stripper that gets involved with a pot dealer, agreeing to pose as his wife along with two other phoney balonies that are to be their children.  Director Rawson Marshall Thurber has a great name but a spotty track record when it comes to successful movies so this could go either way.  Bonus points go for a trailer that has some nice laughs and a cast that I’m interested to see go all the way with this type of material.