Physical and Blindspotting

Rose Byrne has emerged as an astonishingly versatile screen actress; witness her Gloria Steinem in last year’s Mrs. America. Now she’s got herself a big, heavily promoted Apple TV+ series of her own, Physical; the material is good, but she is great. This could be her Emmy; she seems destined for one.

Byrne plays Sheila, a once active activist who has settled into a seemingly comfortably mundane domestic routine in 1980s San Diego: she takes her and her husband’s daughter to day care, shops for the groceries, takes a ballet class, picks up her daughter from day care, cooks dinner. There’s one huge problem: amongst all that, she routinely buys large amounts of junk food, eats it, and then ‘purges’ it (vomits it up), telling herself every time, in an almost non-stop interior monologue voiceover that is the show’s coup de télé, that it will be the very last time.

This is tough stuff for a half-hour ‘dark comedy’, which is how the show is being marketed (I read it, two episodes in, as a drama), so much so that the show carries a content warning before it rolls. But Byrne makes it work. There is a lot of good work going on around her – the production design is excellent – but so far, the singular sensation of the show is Byrne’s performance. She’s truly ready for her close-up: as a vehicle for her, this is as good as anything, and I’m in.

STAN is making Blindspotting available one episode at a time, and based on the first, it’s a little hard to predict how things will pan out. It’s adapted from the extremely idiosyncratic (and enjoyable) 2018 film of the same name by that film’s writers, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, but this time around, they’re not the stars: Casal is in it tangentially, but Diggs not at all, and, frankly, Diggs the actor was a huge part of what was interesting about the film. The TV adaptation follows Ashley, Casal’s girlfriend from the film, as she adapts to life in Oakland, California while Casal’s Miles serves a prison term. Back in the day, they’d call this a ‘spin-off’, giving a minor character their own show with occasional drop-ins from the original leads to remind viewers why they’re there. On the basis of the first episode, I’m not convinced Jasmine Cephas Jones, as Ashley, was ready for her close-up. We’ll see; thus far, it’s touch and go.

The Meddler

image** (out of five)

Lorene Scafaria’s portrait of a middle-aged woman and her adult daughter a year after mom’s husband has passed away may be autobiographical (with Scafaria being the daughter), or at least inspired by Scafaria’s true story, but it’s nevertheless riddled with cliché and trite situations that are very difficult to swallow.

Susan Sarandon plays the mom, and Rose Byrne plays the daughter, and they’re the two reasons to see the movie. They’re both great and the scenes they share are emotionally connected and true (there aren’t enough of them, unfortunately, but that’s the essential nature of the story – the mom has to learn to live outside of her daughter’s pocket). But Oscar winner J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) looks strained and embarrassed – hiding behind a bushy mustache – as a stereotypically too-good-to-be-true love interest for Sarandon; their sub-plot is treacly, ludicrous and cringe-worthy. Wait’ll you hear the 70s hit that wells up over their big moment; it’s unintentionally hilarious.

I’m not the demographic target for this film and I suspect, among that demographic, it’s going to be a big hit. The cinema I was in had about eighty patrons and I’m sure seventy-eight of them were women Sarandon’s age or older. They are a seriously powerful and cashed-up segment of movie-goers. They deserve better than the same old hash.

Bad Neighbours 2 (aka Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising)

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There is a moment early on in Bad Neighbours 2 (aka Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising in the US) when Dave Franco’s character Pete, a frat brother a few years out of college, is proposed to by his boyfriend at a poker game with his other frat bros, and accepts. As the two young lovers embrace, their three other bros jump up and down in delight, chanting “USA! USA! USA!” It is a moment of delight and defiance: this is modern America as we in Hollywood declare it, the moment seems to be saying, and if you don’t like it, f**k off. Later, in the end credits, it will be revealed that the film was shot in Georgia, which nearly lost hundreds of millions of dollars in film production earlier this year by proposing measures that, in practice, were homophobic. How delightful to imagine the legislators of Georgia watching this film and seeing good, clean frat boys celebrating the engagement between a couple of their own in such patriotic fashion.

One of those celebrating bros is Teddy, and he’s played, brilliantly, by Zac Efron, who has evolved not only into a terrific comedic performer but also a post-modern archetype: he is, at least in this movie, playing on two levels simultaneously, both as Teddy and as Zac Efron, gorgeous and ripped sex symbol, completely self-aware and yet completely committed to the surface performance. Thus we have him, at various times, ripping off his shirt for no reason, other than the reason we all actually know: he looks good with his shirt off and we want to see that.

The other major performance this time around, in a movie as delightful and silly – indeed, much more silly – than its similarly delightful predecessor, comes from Chloë Grace Moretz as Shelby, a freshman at Teddy’s old college who, with a couple of friends, decides to start her own sorority in Teddy’s old frat house, thus once again causing problems for their “adult” neighbours Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne). Moretz, for me, has either been badly used or not on game in her past few pictures, but she’s excellent here, to the extent that maybe silly comedy is her thing.

It’s certainly Rose Byrne’s thing. Of the original film, I wrote, “Byrne again proves herself the funniest of the new batch of Hollywood comedy queens.” She doesn’t get to prove herself so much this time around – she and Rogan are side characters, letting the young ones do the heavy lifting, which includes pratfalls, spit-takes and all manner of (successful) physical comedy amongst the film’s rapid-fire dialogue. Like everything in this movie, it’s touching: Aw, sweetie, let the kids have a go! I laughed a lot during this genial, high-spirited, extremely good-natured romp, and at the end I noticed I was wearing a massive smile. These characters have been really well nurtured, and if director Nicholas Stoller wants to bring us number 3, I say, bring it on.

SPY

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** (out of five)

Even Rose Byrne, who has consistently been scoring the most comic goals in supporting roles in American studio comedies over the last few years, is left high and comedically dry by the script and direction of Spy, a generally unfunny, very expensive misfire that is often embarrassing to watch. Byrne manages to achieve a final moment of dignity in her last shot in the film with a subtle piece of physical comedy, but her co-star (and the star of the film) Melissa McCarthy has no such luck; her performance – and ninety-five percent of the movie – is laugh-free.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, the desk-bound earworm for Bond-like CIA agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). As he roams a generic gorgeous villa amongst generic baddies, she, in Virginia, directs his movements through an earpiece. She’s madly in love with him, of course, or at least in awe-love. When something happens to him, and she’s called to follow up by being deployed in the field, her actual abilities are put to the test.

Or something like that. The plot is obviously just a hanger on which to drape jokes, if there were any. That’s not fair – there are plenty of jokes, but they’re almost all stale, in bad taste, or simply not funny (usually all three). What should be comic gold – especially Jason Statham taking the piss out of his own image – is tragically, toe-curlingly flat, all due to the script. Statham has a monologue that outlines the many ways his character, über-tough spy Rick Ford, has cheated death; it should’ve been brilliant, but it feels like the “vomit draft”, the splurge of words used to denote a paragraph of a screenplay that is meant to be polished later. Nothing seems to have been polished here at all.

McCarthy remains an enigma to me, and not a good one. If she’s the funniest thing in movies at the moment, I’m missing the joke. Her persona – that of a sad sack, jealous of the beautiful people around her and depressed at not being one – is not funny, and here it takes place of character, which really confuses the movie, for Cooper is meant to be a fierce and highly skilled fighter. There is no consistency or through-line. One moment she’s kicking ass, the next she’s screaming “I shat my pants” as a way to stealthily follow her mark.

Twice-Emmied Bobby Cannavale cranks up the ham to play a third-act villain. He and Byrne are an item, and so far they’ve got the recent version of Annie, and this, under their belts as a couple in the same film. Separately, they’re often brilliant, and in good projects. Just sayin’.

Allison Janney is wasted in a role that should have been hysterical. It’s a crime to get Janney, a brilliant comedian, and give her crap to work with. Playing a CIA boss, there was endless opportunity to riff on her hard-edged persona accumulated through The West Wing and myriad other turns. Instead, she’s been given expositional, generic text, mainly glued into a drab chair. The wastefulness of her brilliance is emblematic of this bloated movie. So many good resources were involved, and so little of value appears on screen.

With some big-budget comedies that don’t work, it is often reported that at least the actors appear to have been having a good time, but one can’t say that here. Everyone looks strained, confused or downright desperate; I imagine some of these talented performers wishing they could finesse their lines but unable to since “We’ve only got the Vi Del Corso for two more hours!” Only Miranda Hart, from Call The Midwife, comes out alive, playing Cooper’s colleague and ally Nancy. She spends about half of her performance on the phone, and I imagine she was given the opportunity to just riff. Thank goodness. She’s in a completely different movie, but at least it’s a funny one.