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Spy

Spy is the best comedy I have seen since 22 Jump Street.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

spy 1I assume that you have all seen the trailers, posters and such for Spy by this point and have this movie figured out.  There will be a lot of swearwords, because swearwords are funny, Melissa McCarthy is fat and not twenty-something so therefore will fall over a lot and be the butt of ten-hundred jokes about how undesirable she therefore is, it’s two hours long and as such will be padded to hell and back, and it’s an action-comedy so the action will be cheap-looking, flatly directed and mostly just an afterthought to endless pointless sequences of characters riffing on one gag until it’s long-past being entertaining.

Well, you’re wrong.  You’re dead wrong, primarily because you’ve been sold the wrong film.  Writer-director Paul Feig, and his immensely talented mostly female cast, has actually crafted a brilliant, subversive, and hilarious movie that wastes not a second of its two hour runtime, is really intelligent in its silly comedy, and, thanks to its self-belief message and a whole bunch of conscious and unconscious design choices, is quietly feminist.  What appears to be cheap and mean-spirited out of context builds up to make a heartfelt point in context, and what sounds sophomoric and juvenile out of context ends up quietly clever and character-driven in context.

To wit: Spy follows the exploits of Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a lowly analyst at the CIA who, despite making an incredibly effective team with ace field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) whom she has an unreciprocated crush on, is treated like complete garbage by almost everyone at the Agency, either willingly – in the form of loose cannon field agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) – or unwittingly – by Fine himself, mostly.  When it turns out that Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), the daughter of a recently-deceased terrorist who has come into possession of a nuclear bomb, knows the identities of every single one of the CIA’s field agents, Susan steps up and volunteers to be sent into the field, aided back at the Agency by her only real friend, the anxious and slightly bumbling Nancy (Miranda Hart).

Again, this is probably the point where you’re expecting Susan to klutz her way through the operation, discovering leads by mistake, and generally proving Rick Ford right when he keeps insisting that “you’re gonna f*ck this up” to her face.  In a lesser movie, this would be the case for all of Spy’s two hours.  Here, though, that does not happen.  Susan is an immensely capable field agent, as the film bold-facedly demonstrates before she’s even sent out when the CIA’s head (Allison Janney, who is exactly as brilliant at being alternately inspiringly nice and hilariously cruel as you’re thinking she’ll be) brings up footage from her training days.  Susan is an excellent field agent, all of the skills are right there… she just doesn’t believe in herself because everyone, quite literally everyone, has told her that all she can be is a bumbling fat middle-aged woman.

Those demeaning cover identities?  Provided to her by an agency that only sees her as an ugly middle-aged woman.  Her directive to follow the targets and never directly engage?  The agency refusing to believe that she is capable of taking the lead.  Fine is a guy who can butter her up one minute by thanking her for her invaluable help and then, the next minute, treat her like a secretary and order her to fire his gardener for him; equal parts oblivious to his demeaning treatment of her, out of some misplaced fear as to what might happen to her, and perfectly aware, as he uses these stealth snipes to ensure that she can’t steal his glory by doing his job.  And Rick… well, Rick is just Fine without the veneer of obliviousness, a walking pompous macho-man who brags excessively about his undoubtedly made-up accomplishments but in practice can barely make a dramatic entrance without falling on his arse.

So when the film does provide a fat joke, and I counted maybe three in the entire movie, or dresses Susan up in hideous clothes and has lecherous men ignore her totally, Susan is not the target of the jokes.  The joke is instead on everybody else for being so unrepentantly awful towards her and the laugh coming from just how terrible they are.  Susan herself is always treated with respect and always shown to be legitimately capable, with her early-film klutzes coming from nerves more than anything else.

Compare this with a Kevin James movie.  In those, the target of the joke is nearly always Kevin James.  There is no subversive intent to Paul Blart fat jokes.  Paul is fat, he is doing things that he is supposedly not physically in shape for, and the punchline is always “fat man fall down go boom”, which is why the moments where he does display competence don’t resonate, because the film never asks you to take him seriously because he is always the target of the gag.  In Spy, though, Susan is not the target of the joke, everyone else is, and her competency is just a fact of her character.  And once she understands that she is, in fact, damn good at what she does, there’s basically no stopping her.  She’s even better than her male counterparts who are either utterly useless, lecherous, or heavily reliant on her support.

Relatedly, then: the swearing.  Believe it or not, there is actually a point to it, which may surprise you since that first Red Band trailer relied a lot on the idea that swearwords are inherently funny.  As you might have gathered, the spy world is considered a man’s game so, in Spy, the men are obsessively masculine caricatures who fill most sentences with a vocabulary akin to that of a drunk pirate who’s just stubbed his toe.  Susan and Rayna, though, are women in a man’s world, women constantly underestimated and not taken seriously by their male counterparts, so one of the ways in which they try fitting in is to awkwardly launch into sweary tirades over everything – Rayna taking to it better than Susan since she’s basically a spoilt child resentful of the fact that her father clearly wanted a son instead of her.  It’s swearing with a point instead of swearing for swearing’s sake.

And yet these gender politics and messages don’t overtake the film.  Susan’s tale of self-confidence is the primary arc and underpinning, but everything else is subtext that one doesn’t have to get to enjoy the film.  After all, Spy is more than very enjoyable on its surface terms.  It’s funny, for one.  Incredibly funny.  Paul Feig’s other similarly brilliant female-driven comedies, Bridesmaids and The Heat, were very funny but also seemed to creak under the weight of their 2 hour runtimes, unable to keep up the pace for their entirety.  Spy is somehow able to remain consistently funny throughout, as Feig’s propensity for running gags and well-defined and established characters pays off a relatively slow beginning by mining endless material from the world and characters that he’s created instead of endless non-sequiturs and improv.

He’s even able to sustain the comedy in the film’s final third, the point where the plot should take over and the jokes normally vacate the premises.  But because the script is so tight, and he does such a good job at building up the film’s various running gags and character quirks, the jokes work themselves seamlessly into the finale, as they do most other action scenes.  Yes, this is an action-comedy in the truest sense of the word, where the action sequences are equal parts funny and thrilling.  A pre-title prologue with Fine out on assignment is shot just like the action and staging in a spy thriller then contrasts that by cutting back to the mundanity of the CIA and their constant infestations, a chase to capture some would-be assassins is genuinely exciting but also knows just how much to undercut its seriousness with a joke without completely robbing the scene of tension.  But the standout is undoubtedly a one-on-one fight in a kitchen that utilises excellent fight choreography and clear camerawork to create a fight that works brilliantly and equally on both the comedy and action levels.

Then powering the film is the exceptional cast.  Jason Statham is going to get most of the attention, since he is going so against type by playing his excessive machismo for ridiculous comedy, and he does deserve that praise because he is phenomenal here, but that’s doing a disservice to the rest of the cast who are just as good and in some cases even better.  Miranda Hart is delightfully charming as Nancy, managing to infuse a genuine warmth and personality into a role that could have just been stereotypical, while Peter Serafinowicz goes the complete opposite as the sex-crazed Italian agent Aldo, playing up the character’s deranged sexual deviancy to such extremes that he manages to cross from being offensive to just plain hilarious.  Rose Byrne, meanwhile, is clearly relishing the opportunity to play Rayna and commits totally to being a stuck-up petulant child, and her dynamic with Susan is pure gold.

But the true star, unsurprisingly, is Melissa McCarthy.  McCarthy is one of the comedy world’s fastest rising stars for a reason, not even Identity Thief and the underrated-but-still-mediocre Tammy could damage that, and Spy is where even her staunchest critics will have to finally give up resisting her charms.  She seems to connect with the script in a way that goes beyond just ‘getting’ the character – which, since one can also read the film as a meta-commentary on how Hollywood sees McCarthy and other women like her, makes sense – and so every facet and every change in Susan Cooper works totally.  McCarthy gets to stretch her range, going from timidly quiet and awkward to excessively boisterous and sweary to self-confident and self-accepting, and nails all of it, hopefully finally breaking out of any potential type-casting for good.

I’m five days removed from Spy as I write this, folks, and I’m still surprised that this film is this good.  I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised, Paul Feig has nearly always been at least great and the cast is so strong that it would have taken a minor miracle to turn in a mediocre or worse film, but I’m shocked that Spy is this good.  That it has had this much thought put into it, that it would still work if you stripped out the “comedy” or “action” part of the “action comedy” equation but wouldn’t work as well as it does with both, that it bothered to have legitimate emotional and thematic through-lines propping up the comedy, that it is so well-paced, that it is just so goddamn funny…

Pessimists and cynics could see this as a damning observation on the state of the American feature-length comedy today.  That wouldn’t change the fact that Spy is the real deal and the best comedy I have seen since 22 Jump Street.  Do not miss this.

Spy is due for release on June 5th.

Callum Petch has been waiting hours for this.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

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The DUFF

The DUFF is exactly what you’re expecting, but it also has charm, wit, and a killer lead performance from Mae Whitman.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

the duffThe DUFF follows Bianca (Mae Whitman), a high school senior who has two hot popular best friends (Bianca A. Santos and Skyler Samuels) and wants to fit in but who’s very much an outcast due to her alternately snarky and awkward attitude, love of cult horror cinema, and not being a complete hottie that lecherous boys can drool over.  One night at a party, perpetual frenemy and next door neighbour Wes (Robbie Amell) informs Bianca that she is The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) of her friends which crushes Bianca and the resultant paranoia leads to her breaking up with her friends.  Enlisting Wes’ help, as he’s the only one who told her about it, she sets about trying to un-DUFF herself and maybe even ask out hunky dreamboat guitar player Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman).

…so how many spots on your “Teen Comedy Bingo Card” are currently filled in?  I think I’ve got a full house on mine, just need a bitchy popular girl who makes it her life’s mission to bring misery to everyone and especially our protagonist (Bella Thorne) and a soundtrack of hip pop music… oh!  Oh, I have bingo!  I have bingo!  Flippancy aside, The DUFF really is exactly the movie you’re expecting it to be from the premise, trailer, poster, name, hell, even an out-of-context screenshot.  Will Bianca realise that labels are utterly meaningless unless you prescribe meaning to them?  Will she realise that everyone is a DUFF to someone?  Will Wes and Bianca seem to bond real close-like during their escapades?  Will she make peace with her friends?  Will she eventually “own” being the DUFF at the Homecoming dance?  If you have ever seen a teen comedy before, you already know every single one of these answers.

That said, I don’t mean this as a dismissive insult towards The DUFF.  Originality may be a valued commodity in filmmaking for us critics, in all honesty this film’s lack of it is why I’m not about to bust out the five-star rave review quotes, but it’s not the be-all-end-all of a film’s qualities.  For example, I could predict every last beat of The DUFF almost down to the second as I was watching it – including the moment where the slightly self-absorbed mother (Allison Janney who makes the most of what she’s got) would finally offer up some real advice for Bianca – but I still enjoyed the heck out of this movie.  Seriously, I’m sat here typing up this review with a tangible bound in my being, the kind that I can only get from seeing a particularly good movie on a nice day.

So why does The DUFF work?  Well, there are three particular reasons.  The first is that it’s really charming.  Visually, director Ari Sandel enjoys deploying social media aesthetics in order to help convey information and such – the opening of the film introduces each of our main cast of characters with little hashtag-accompanied montages to get us up to speed on them, and is incidentally the sole time in the history of mankind where I have and will laugh at the word “amazeballs” – which undoubtedly is going to date the crap out of this film in a few years, but does give it a nice distinct feel of its own instead of just trying to be Mean Girls 2.0 or whatever.

That charm also manifests itself in the script, too.  The characters do mostly fulfil the expected archetypes, but they’re still incredibly well-drawn and likeable.  The DUFF very smartly casts Bianca’s friends, Jess and Casey, as her real genuine friends with Bianca’s breaking up with them coming purely from her paranoia instead of anything they did.  After all, pretty much everybody wants some kind of companionship and the concept of The DUFF – the approachable one who makes their other friends look hotter by comparison, not necessarily fat or ugly – combined with the social pressure cooker that is high school, is just the kind of thing that can cause somebody to misguidedly eject those closest to them from their lives out of paranoia.  A lesser film would have made Jess and Casey exactly what Bianca fears them to be, but The DUFF portrays them as genuine friends and that sort of sincerity is manifested in most every character.  Hence: charm.

(Incidentally, and I feel I need to mention this before we go further: The DUFF does not condone the idea of The DUFF or that Bianca herself is in any way super ugly or fat.  At least to me, anyway.  The film very much paints her struggle with DUFF as her own self-esteem issues and fear of not being accepted rather than her becoming more socially acceptable and such.  It also never asks you to see her as ugly or in any way undesirable, helped by it making most of the guys who subscribe to that line of thinking as lecherous jackasses whose behaviour is Not OK.  That’s my take, at least – others may feel differently and may even be correct since I’m probably the last person who should speak authoritatively on this.)

The script also provides reason number 2 why The DUFF works: wit.  Whilst not a gut-buster of a film, and filled with material that again will date this thing substantially in a few years’ time – this is the kind of movie where teenagers are able to make the requisite cyber-bullying video go viral by saying out loud to each other if they want it to “Go viral” before sending it off – this is still a very funny movie, one that roots the majority of its jokes in character work and teenage behaviour at this moment in time.  It’s the kind of film that throws around constant references to various social media and teenage aspirations – Bella Thorne’s character’s dream goal in life is to be a reality TV star – but at no point caused me to cringe horrifically at their mentioning because the film doesn’t loudly judge these things or just name-drop in an attempt to be hip.  It all feels somewhat natural, even the inevitable “older characters reminiscing about non-technology days” tangent.

There’s a similar naturalness to the jokes.  Because it’s not aiming for giant major laughs, the film manages to get a good flow going rarely stopping for an extended sequence of beating a joke into the ground – although there are one or two and they are still rather funny thanks to the third reason that we’re about to get to.  This is not really a setpiece comedy movie which means that there are no major laughs, but instead comes with the vastly preferred trade-off of having consistently funny material excellently delivered by a great cast headed up by…

The third and final reason why The DUFF really works: Mae frickin’ Whitman.  Now, full disclosure, I adore Mae Whitman and have done for ages.  Her resume is the kind that most actresses would kill to have, she does a tonne of voice acting, and she is an extremely talented and relentlessly charming performer.  Hell, I was alerted to and excited for this film by the fact that her name was in the lead role and I couldn’t wait to see what she would do with the opportunity to headline a film.  Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t waste this chance.  Hell, that’s an understatement; she absolutely kills it, she’s phenomenal here!

Whitman, you see, commits.  She commits.  No matter what the script asks her to do – whether that be snark her way through the requisite voice over, or believably-without-overdoing-it convey Bianca’s emotional upset over social rejection, or spend several minutes strutting about in ill-suited makeover clothes whilst sexually coming onto mannequins in a sequence that should not be anywhere near as funny as it is – she’s there leading the charge, throwing herself into it with palpable gleeful abandon.  That natural likeability practically becomes a weapon, actively challenging the viewer not to fall for and root for Bianca, and her comic talents, especially her way with facial expressions, are given ample room to work their magic.  In a just world, this would be the performance that launches her into the big time if she wanted it to.  Seriously, she friggin’ kills it.

Admittedly, I have seen The DUFF multiple times before, under different names and usually much better than it’s done here.  However, I still don’t consider that much of a knock.  I have a soft spot for a good charming teen comedy, which is very much what The DUFF is.  It has a charm to it that makes the aesthetics, if not the underlying mechanics that power the thing, feel like its own thing, it’s got an enjoyable wit to it that got me laughing at various levels throughout most all of its 101 minutes, and it has a powerhouse Mae Whitman performance backed up by strong supporting work – particularly by Alison Janney, Bella Thorne, and Robbie Amell.  I went in wanting pretty much all of that and got almost precisely that.  It’s fun, it’s sweet, it’s a teen comedy, and when those are good they can be really good.

Or to put it another way, it’s a film that makes prominent usage of the song “#selfie” and the rest of the film is so good and so enjoyable that I didn’t immediately want to barge into the projector room and set the place ablaze.  I very much class The DUFF as a win, in my book.

Callum Petch has got muscle, he is tough.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Over The Hedge

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


over the hedge12] Over The Hedge (19th May 2006)

Budget: $80 million

Gross: $336,002,996

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

For a lot of movie folk, that is to say folk that work in movies, there is a saying that I imagine follows them around everywhere like a really annoying ghost that just won’t quite get the hint and leave already: “you’re only as good as your last film”.  It’s definitely applicable to prominent animation companies whose filmic output has a kind of studio auteurship attached to whatever they do put out.  Like, nobody looks at Shrek and goes, “Oh, that’s an Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson joint!” just like how nobody looks at Madagascar and goes “That is an Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath production!” (although they should, we’ll come back to them later in the series).

With animation, unless the director has already been established (Genndy Tartakovsky, Lauren Faust when Medusa eventually graces us with its presence) and even then they often have to switch to other medium to make their names very recognisable (Phil Lord and Chris Miller), we typically don’t care about who’s making it.  It’s the studio we focus on, and frequently just the studio.  This is why that standing of Pixar has taken a major hit in the past few years, because their last three films (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University) ranged from “good” to “shockingly poor” and we expect better of the studio.  This is why Disney are advertising Big Hero 6 as “From The Creators of Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen”, because those were the studio’s last big hits and they indicate that Disney aren’t coasting on their reputation from several decades ago.  Hence the application of the phrase, “You’re only as good as your last film.”

DreamWorks Animation’s last film in April of 2006 was the universally lauded Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.  Except that everyone, arguably quite rightly, attributed that film’s success to its main production company, Aardman Animations.  Therefore, DreamWorks Animation’s real last film in April of 2006 was Madagascar.  Critics didn’t really like Madagascar.  Oh, sure, the public liked Madagascar, but the public also liked Shark Tale.  I sort of like Madagascar, but hopefully you get what I mean.  It had been about 2 years since Shrek 2 and their one knock-out since then came from a different company that they were affiliated with rather than themselves.  DreamWorks films at that time seemed to be a lot like Adam Sandler comedies, devoid of quality and critical approval yet inexplicably popular with the public.

Therefore, the critical success of Over The Hedge probably came as a surprise to a lot of people, especially since their next few films would firmly restate that, no, DreamWorks had not gotten their mojo back yet.  The film ended up Certified Fresh, no less, and many critics awarded it praise for being cleverer, funnier, and just plain better than the other animal related animated movies coming out around that time (2006 was the point in which that particular sub-genre hit over-saturation as the destination of this link will demonstrate).  It even beat out Cars, overall, a feat that I’m pretty sure most caused most people to perform spit-takes the length of whatever room they were in when they got the news.

Financially, the film was a decent success, although, much like with last week’s Wallace & Gromit, not to the degree that DreamWorks would have liked.  Over The Hedge debuted in second place with a very respectable $38.4 million.  It’s just that, y’know, The Da Vinci Code opened to double that.  In any case, the film held strong over the following two weekends against X-Men: The Last Stand and The Break-Up.  Then Cars happenedOver The Hedge would close with $155 million domestic and $180 million from international markets, marking a $336 million gross against an $80 million budget, but it only lasted five weeks in the Top 10 domestically and not once did it sit atop the chart.  The film was a success, but it arguably wasn’t a big enough success, it wasn’t a Shark Tale level success, which is probably why the planned sequel never happened.

In fact, one could see this “mediocre” box office performance against a critical success as a precursor to the studio’s current problem, especially if one wants to take the Adam Sandler comparison further.  Both got their starts on the motion picture stage with pretty darn good films that attained critical respect of some degree and a healthy financial following from the public.  Both proceeded to coast once their big financial breakthrough occurred with critically-trashed films that kept making a tonne of money despite their often audience-insulting content.  Both occasionally break out of their rut to show off their skills in critically acclaimed films that either underwhelm or out-right bomb financially, sending them scurrying right back to what pays.  DreamWorks, obviously, have kicked their arses into gear these past few years, unlike Adam Sandler, and we’ll get to that, so the metaphor falls apart here but hopefully you see what I’m getting at.

It’s weird how the mass public at large keeps rejecting those DreamWorks films that are actually really good.  Remember, Mr. Peabody & Sherman from this year is a financial failure and it took multiple weeks for people to change their opinions on whether or not How To Train Your Dragon 2 was actually a financial success.  Unlike a lot of critics, I tend to give kids the benefit of the doubt when it comes to films aimed at them.  I don’t settle for “good enough” and I don’t let people get away with slinging unwatchable crap their way because kids deserve better and, frequently, do actually know better.  Yet, more recent non-franchise DreamWorks films keep underwhelming.  Do you think it could be burnout?  Poor advertising; after all, I thought Mr. Peabody & Sherman looked like garbage until I actually watched the finished film…

Sorry, I’m just spitballing ideas of various kinds in public.  Back to Over The Hedge.

Like a lot of other DreamWorks movies (see also: Sinbad, Shrek, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, How To Train Your Dragon), Over The Hedge is only very loosely related to its source material, a long-running newspaper comic of the same name.  In fact, it’s still going strong today, as evidenced by the fact that its website is still posting strips and that the guy who does the drawings – Michael Fry – keeps following, and promptly unfollowing me immediately after, on Twitter whenever I mention this film or sometimes just DreamWorks in general.  Now, if, for some reason, Mr. Fry is reading this article, perhaps with a Monday morning cup of coffee in hand and his feet on some kind of footrest, I would like to humbly admit that I am not familiar with the comic strip.  In my defence, I’m British.  The closest we get to proper newspaper comics in this country is Andy Capp, and nobody should ever have to read Andy Capp.

However, not knowing the source material can oftentimes set one at an advantage when looking at a film.  After all, then you’re not spending forever watching a film and mercilessly comparing it to its source material; looking for changes, big or small, good or bad, nitpicking at every little thing and such.  Instead, you get to look at it on its own merits, judge it on its own merits.  I, for example, recognise that both live-action/CG Garfield films are terrible in their own right, but I will never not be able to separate them from my childhood love of the Garfield & Friends TV series, trade paperbacks of the comics and the subsequent horror I experienced when I saw Garfield dancing to Black Eyed Peas.

Oh, look at me dancing around the issue!  Dance-y, dance, dance!  “Callum, just tell us if Over The Hedge is any good, already!  Stop time-wasting!”  Fine!  OK!  I’ll admit it!  I really liked Over The Hedge!  You happy now?

I’ll admit that the real reason why I spent so long dancing around the issue of whether Over The Hedge is good or not came down to the fact that I did not like Over The Hedge when I was 11.  I was one of those kids that I spent a few paragraphs back being bemused over.  I’m rather ashamed of this fact, to be frank, as two years earlier I had really enjoyed Shark Tale and I can’t get away with the “I was a stupid goddamn teenager” excuse because I was 11 and still watched Cartoon Network religiously; it wouldn’t be for another two years until my stupid goddamn teenager habits kicked in.  And the reason why I tried to avoid admitting that is because it undermines one of my key arguments as to why Over The Hedge holds up better than anything DreamWorks Animation solely produced between 2003 and 2006.

It really is just as good for adults as it is for kids.  See why I didn’t want to divulge disliking that movie when I was a kid?  Fact of the matter is, watching this back for the series, I don’t even get why I disliked it, but I did and that very fact undermines this very argument.  Nonetheless, despite 11 year-old me being a total nitwit, Over The Hedge really does work about equally for kids and adults.  The issue, the one that I imagine was the thing that made me dislike the film when I was its target market, is that it often doesn’t achieve this by double-coding.  For example, go back to the first Shrek and its “Do you think he’s compensating for something?” line regarding Farquard’s castle.  For kids, it’s a joke about his short height.  For adults, it’s a joke about his tiny penis.  Hell, Lord Farquad’s name in general!  For kids, it’s a silly name.  For adults, it sounds like one of your friends saying “f*ckwad” with a bad Mark Wahlberg impression.  There are some jokes just for kids and some just for adults, but mostly they cross over with one another.

By contrast, Over The Hedge tends to segregate its jokes with only the occasional cross-over in intended audience.  Kids get fart jokes, a wacky comic relief character burping his ABCs, and the sight of a nearly-bald woman being elbow-dropped by police officers.  Adults get casting in-jokes, Ben Folds songs, and a lot of not-particularly-subtle satire against white middle-class suburban life.  Can you see why kids – and it is kids that drive the success of lower-than-PG-13-animated films due to that continued mainstream stigma that this kind of animation is only enjoyable to children and nobody else, make no mistake – mostly rejected Over The Hedge, especially when the much broader and more-focussed-at-them Cars came along?  Unlike that film, which double-coded properly, Over The Hedge has long stretches where kids don’t really have anything to command their attention (besides some character designs and animation that… honestly kept looking rather off-putting to me).

Maybe that’s why I really like Over The Hedge now.  The purely kid-focussed gags are rather minimal; most of the laughs created for them that aren’t fart jokes etc. come from bits of physical humour which, assuming it’s good enough, crosses between both demographics.  Therefore, the really bum jokes don’t drag down the pace of the film for long stretches at a time, as it skips the easy jokes in favour of genuine satire and jokes coming from the characters.  And, yes, the satire may not be, say, Network or Great Dictator or In The Loop levels of razor-sharp, but watch RJ’s monologue about food and see how many aspects of human nature you can apply it to when you strip out the specific ties to food and overconsumption.

Throughout, the film takes swipes at that lifestyle, of the clueless people who inhabit it, of the inconsiderate way we tend to view wildlife that encroaches upon our picture-perfect surroundings, and the cost our desire for more puts upon nature and the environment… all things that more than likely flew right over the heads of kids.  After all, how are they going to relate to jokes about how suburbia and its white middle class inhabitants, as well as those who often engage in that selfish excess behaviour, are gigantic assholes?  Note that I’m not knocking the film for this.  After all, remember, I don’t rate animated films based on how much kids will like them, I’m just noting why it didn’t catch on the same way that, say, Madagascar did.  The humour is primarily just a little too intelligent, a little too subtle, for kids to completely appreciate, and there’s too much of a gap between the broader jokes for most kids to remain entranced by, especially when Cars would appeal to them more.  Again, I’m basing this off of personal experience, so I could be wrong, but at least you’ve got an idea where I’m coming from.

And on the note of “too subtle for kids to appreciate”, the fact that these Ben Folds songs didn’t become massive and nominated for several Academy Awards is one of the great crimes of this modern age.  OK, obviously not that bad, but you get the idea.  The thing about the Ben Folds songs, and the reason why I love them way more than any other song utilised in a DreamWorks film so far, besides the fact that it’s Ben Folds, is that they work even if you remove the context of the film.  A lot of the original songs in films like Spirit, The Road To El Dorado and Joseph are too on-the-nose, too desperate to link into the film they feature in, and their frantic attempts to tie in end up causing songs to lack hooks or memorable lyrics or something that sticks with you after the film has finished.

Compare that with “Heist”.  There’s the ultra-catchy horn riff, the vocal harmonies in the background, a super simple yet fun to sing chorus, and the lyrics relate to the film whilst still being open and non-specific enough to apply to similar situations that aren’t the film.  Also, despite the toe-tapping and upbeat nature of the song, there’s this tinge of melancholy throughout, as if the narrator knows that the train he’s talking about will eventually stop and maybe even sooner than anticipated, that makes the track stick with me.  The “da-da-da”s that initially sounded carefree and triumphant now sound slightly unsure, even mocking.  There’s a sense of regret, of fear of some kind of inevitability, and it is so f*cking clever that I have literally no clue as to why it didn’t become some kind of breakout cross-over hit.

(I’ve had it on constant loop on my iPod for the last week.)

But look, great goddamn Ben Folds songs (even the family friendly re-write of “Rockin’ The Suburbs”, although not as venomous and hysterical as the original version, is insightful and entertaining) and smart, funny satire are all well and good.  Without some kind of emotional base underpinning the film, though, Over The Hedge would just be a more intelligent Madagascar; entertaining, yes, but lacking in substance and memorability.  Fortunately, and more so than any other DreamWorks film covered in this series so far post-Sinbad, Over The Hedge feels like a film whose production was started because somebody wanted to tell a story with characters, rather than a business executive going “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny is Will Smith voiced a fish?” and greenlighting said film with nothing more to it than the dollar signs that lit up his eyes.

Though it is a bit over-stuffed when it comes to characters, to the degree that a lot of them can be boiled down to one specific trait without too much work, the majority do get character arcs of some kind and are not just here to act as designated comic relief.  They’re characters, characters of their own kind and any influence their voice actors may have on them is purely down to their having been cast and the voice they bring to the table.  Or, to put it another way: Ozzie is a possum and his technique for playing dead is to be as hammy and overly dramatic as is humanly possible.  William Shatner plays Ozzie so, obviously, he Shatner’s the scene in which Ozzie has to play dead as a distraction.  But rather than feel like a “Hey!  We got William Shatner to do that thing William Shatner does!” moment, one that pulls somebody out of the experience by feeling more like a casting gag than something that comes from the character, it still feels in character for Ozzie to over-act that much.  It’s his trait, his choice – Shatner just adds to the performance.

And besides, one can’t really remain that cynical about what may or may not have been done for snarky in-jokes and pop culture references.  Not when everything in Over The Hedge is brimming with heart.  In the characters who constantly re-enforce the bond they share with one another instead of just being needlessly cruel to each other for 80-odd minutes, in the script which has clearly been honed and refined as much as possible so that there’s a genuine reason for every joke (this is why the THX gag got a full-on laugh out of me instead of a sigh of derision), for the characters so that they don’t end up interchangeable or painfully one-dimensional, in the character development that ensures that the attempts at emotion actually mean something…  Dammit, somebody wanted to tell a story!  Somebody came to this project with the intention of telling a story and saying something!  That desire infects nearly every part of the film and bleeds out into the viewer, which helps elevate the parts that work and make the whole damn great.

It’s not perfect, though.  Besides the aforementioned younger end of the audience likely being lost – after all, they’re probably expecting something as broad as Shrek 2, it’s by the same people, so a more intelligent comedy based more around an emotional centre may end up turning them off – and skipping the animation and character designs (as my opinion on them keeps shifting every few minutes), the big issue for me that keeps Over The Hedge from that upper echelon is the two leads.  Not the characters of RJ and Verne, the voice actors that portray them, Bruce Willis and Gary Shandling.  Now, the rest of the cast are mostly great and give off the impression of being cast due to their being the best people for the job (the aforementioned Shatner, Steve Carell, who would later go on to prove his VA talent with the Despicable Me series, and Allison Janney being the standouts) rather than for stunt casting.  OK, maybe not so much Avril Lavigne but she’s also decent enough to make that not an issue.

Willis and Shandling… really aren’t.  Willis’ problem is that he’s inconsistent, both in terms of quality and in terms of tone.  Some of his lines and some of his entire scenes are near spot-on, especially when he plays the too-cool guide to the suburbs for the forest residents.  Other times, he’s, well, post-2000s Bruce Willis, lazy, bored, more than a little flat.  Then there are multiple times where it’s clear that scenes are being stitched together from individual line takes, like the previously-embedded rabid squirrel scene.  Shandling is more consistent, which is his problem.  Instead of being a warm, comforting leader/father-figure presence, his lines are almost universally flat and lacking in emotion.  It’s especially bad whenever Verne has to display emotion because Shandling, well, doesn’t and that robs many scenes, especially the ones where Verne is supposed to be scared, of a fair chunk of their power.  Much of the film hangs on these two leads, and Shandling is never good whilst Willis is really inconsistent; both of which end up distracting.

Hang on, I’m starting to sound like I’m down on Over The Hedge.  Let me change tack real quick…  Over The Hedge, then, is a damn great film and a definite bright spot in the non-Aardman mid-2000s DreamWorks’ catalogue.  It achieves this primarily by being a film, with characters and substance and heart, instead of a formula pitch that was rushed into production half-finished before it had the chance to lose any potential cash.  That sounds like damning with faint praise, but it really isn’t meant to be.  It’s a highly entertaining film with stuff to say, likeable characters whose arcs feel genuine instead of forced, legitimately funny jokes and, yes, great Ben Folds songs.  It may not break any ground, it may not crack anybody’s Favourite Animated Films Ever lists, and it most likely sails right over the heads of children, but it is a damn great film at what it does, balancing cynical satire with heart-on-sleeve character work better than I’ve seen a lot of vastly inferior animated films try this year.

So, hey!  Turns out that Younger Me was wrong again, only this time in a good way!  How’s about that?


As their first film distributed by Paramount Pictures, Over The Hedge was a qualifiable success, winning back some critics that their past few films had lost but coming up short financially compared to everything else they’d produced.  Understandably, many could have been wary about the film for their own reasons; DreamWorks with the possibility that their box office days may have begun a steady decline, and critics who may have been wary that one good film doesn’t mark a total turn around for the company as a whole.  Their next film would reset to the status quo, somewhat saddeningly.

However, before that, we have to take one last trip over to Aardman Animations for their second film in two years, the first that was made all in CGI, the last one they would make with DreamWorks, their first release to not receive universal acclaim, and a film sold as “From the creators of Shrek and Madagascar.”  Next week, we look at Flushed Away and see whether 2006 Me was right to be immensely disappointed by it.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch will tell y’all what it’s like being male, middle-class and white.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Tammy

TammyGenuinely sweet and often funny, Tammy’s problem lies not in its lack of big laughs, but in its title character.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

I’ll say this for Tammy, I really liked going to see a comedy whose primary humour is, for once, not derived from characters being cruel to one another or just plain grossness as the main source of comedy.  There’s nothing wrong with either of those things in concept, so long as the jokes are actually funny, it’s just nice to get some variety in comedies.  When one of the characters snaps and refers to Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) as “cheeseburger,” it’s played for drama instead of laughs.  There’s a legitimate sweetness running through the film, though it may poke fun at its character, it feels more like good-natured ribbing than mean-spiritedness and that makes a nice change of pace.  Know what’s also a nice change of pace?  Homosexuals being treated as people in 15-rated comedies instead of punchlines.  There’s a sequence where Tammy and her grandmother, Pearl, (Susan Sarandon) end up at Pearl’s cousin’s (Kathy Bates) house for a lesbian 4th of July party and at no point does the film make a joke about two straight women being at a party for lesbians (OK, it does so once, but it’s invoked by the characters themselves as a sweet way to establish how close they are).

I take time to bring those things up because they’re the best things Tammy has going for it.  Look, I know that this Summer, hell, this year in general, has had us drowning in comedies.  You’re probably learning to be tighter with your money (Guardians Of The Galaxy isn’t going to see itself three times, after all) and you need reasons beyond “that trailer made me chuckle at points” to turn up to a comedy nowadays.  After all, after a certain point, they do start blending into one another.  Well, Tammy’s selling point is that it’s a comedy with a legitimate heart and a sweet nature about it.  The trade-off for this USP is that giant laughs are practically non-existent.  Trust me, you will not leave Tammy clutching your sides from laughing too hard, cos I certainly didn’t, so if that is a pre-requisite for you going to see a comedy, you’re better off holding off for something else or seeing 22 Jump Street again.

That being said, Tammy is not bad and nor is it dull.  See, although that sweetness seems to have robbed the film of giant laughs (although I’m not willing to pin that wholly on the sweetness, seeing as I am pretty sure you can actually have it both ways), it trades that for consistency.  The sweet tone allows for a nice laidback feel where the actors and actresses can strike up a smooth, easy-going chemistry that enables things to be funny, even when they’re not so much.  If the actors are clearly enjoying themselves, and that enjoyment is believable without being smug, then it’s going to end up leaking out of the frame and reaching the audience, making them have a good time, too.  So when Tammy and Pearl end up discussing the time that Pearl had sex with an Allman brother (not Gregg, the “Brother” part of the band name) and then end up verbally jamming along to one of their songs together, I actually found myself chuckling along despite that on paper sounding just plain terrible.

And so it goes.  Scenes come and go where likeable actors and actresses like Allison Janney, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole and Sarah Baker appear on screen and interact with either McCarthy or Sarandon and a steady stream of chuckles keep appearing.  It all flows well, there’s good pacing, even if the actual plot itself is rather non-existent (although I’d argue that adds to the charm).  McCarthy and Sarandon are the primary reasons why this film ends up working as well as it does.  Their chemistry together is palpable, believable and almost capable enough to draw attention away from the script’s uncertainty as to who Tammy and Pearl actually are (more on that in a sec).  McCarthy, who co-wrote the script, seems desperate to prove that there’s more to her than you might have gathered from Bridesmaids, Identity Thief and The Heat and she’s very good here.  Although she seems as lost as the script as to who Tammy is, she plays the various different versions of her very well, resisting the urge to get boorish, excepting one sequence set to “Thrift Shop” that feels airlifted from a separate film, and nearly always managing to stay attached to the big heart that exists at the character’s centre.  It’s a good performance and a better script would make this the role to break her out of the type-casting she seems to have fallen into.

Because, yeah, the real problem with Tammy, the one that keeps me from making a proper recommendation to you to go and see it, is the fact that I have no idea who Tammy is supposed to be.  The script jumps about the place, making her sweet and awkward in one scene, and short-tempered and childish the next.  A bit pathetic and needy one minute, just plain dumb the next.  I feel like the film wants to make her realistic, a sweet person who takes bad news and setbacks poorly but just spends forever whining about it instead of actually trying to enact change and bettering herself, but it doesn’t pull it off.  Instead of a singular and multi-layered three-dimensional person, Tammy feels more like a series of rejected clones from Orphan Black.  One scene she’s awkwardly trying to flirt with Mark Duplass, the next she’s pathetically sleeping outside her own motel room because her grandmother was using it for sex, the next she’s childishly knocking over gas station stands because the cashier shouted at her.  Several of the various sides attempt to come together during the fast food robbery scene that’s been played in all the trailers and, whilst the scene is funny, it just serves to make Tammy feel more like somebody suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder than the ordinary girl the film wants us to see her as.  One can also apply this to Pearl, the grandmother, too and be justified in feeling that way, seeing as she feels like a conflict inciter more than a character.

That being said, I did enjoy Tammy a fair bit and I’d even go so far as to say I actually liked it.  Maybe it’s just the change of pace in seeing a comedy designed around being nice and sweet with nary a bad bone in its body for once (I did give a positive review to the similarly nice and sweet The Love Punch, after all), but I genuinely liked what this film was selling.  I may not have laughed with every fibre of my being at any point, but there was a constant stream of chuckles and smirks and snickers and maybe even a full on laugh at one or two points (not a giant laugh, just for clarification, there is a difference).  Everybody involved has great chemistry and is clearly enjoying themselves even if they aren’t saying anything funny (in less polite terms, there is a criminal wasting of Allison Janney and Sandra Oh going on here) and the whole experience is so kind-hearted and sweet that it severely dampens down the impact of the otherwise glaring problems of character inconsistency and general aimlessness.

If you’re wanting a comedy that operates at a different speed than the other ones drowning the cinema this Summer, Tammy may be your bag or what have you.  It’s not essential viewing or anything, and I practically guarantee that you won’t come away feeling like your world has been revolutionised, but catching it at a matinee or cheap somewhere would honestly not be a bad use of your time.  If nothing else, I’m hoping that Melissa McCarthy is willing to try coming back to these kinder types of roles in future.  A better script than the one featured here and I feel like she could seriously surprise the living hell out of people by proving that she’s got more depth as an actress than people may think.

Callum Petch can ring anybody’s bell and get what he wants.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Way, Way Back

THE WAY, WAY BACKThe success of winning an Oscar for their screenwriting work on Alexander Payne’s The Descendants opened some doors for Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who have spent most of their careers acting in minor roles in US sitcoms and comedy films. The Way, Way Back is their directorial debut, and is a sweet and very funny coming-of-age story with a whiff of autobiography.

Duncan (Liam James with the adolescent awkwardness of a young Michael Cera, but countered by a beautiful melancholy) is a 14-year-old spending the summer with his mother (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell in brilliantly dickish mode) and his daughter at Trent’s beach house. Duncan and Trent’s relationship is strained, and it only gets worse when Trent attempts to give the young man a pep talk and ends up writing him off as a “3-out-of-10”. Duncan spends the summer trying to avoid the embarrassingly debauched antics of Trent and his friends, and is befriended, and then employed by Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manger of a local water park.

As soon as Rockwell hits his stride the film takes off in a wonderful fashion. Owen is the perfect Peter Pan-esque blurring of surrogate father and elder brother that both Duncan, and the film, needs. Too often I’ve seen promising US indie films stare at their navel and forget to make the audience smile (Adventureland, I’m looking at you), but Rockwell delivers a performance of such charm, energy, and out-right hilarity that the audience never gets a chance to think about the possibility of getting bored.

Yet despite Rockwell doing his best to hog the limelight, this is one of the finest ensemble cast performances I’ve seen all year. As well as Carell and Collette, the roll call of supporting actors is pretty much a who’s who of US indie comedies, with great performances from Alison Peet, Rob Corddry, and Maya Rudolph; meanwhile Nat Faxon and Jim Rash also get a chance to show off their comic skills as employees at the water park, And almost stealing the show from Rockwell is the incredible Allison Janney as Trent’s flirtatious, drunken neighbour, and it’s a good job she doesn’t share any screen time with Rockwell as I’m not sure the fabric of the universe could cope with the awesomeness that would entail.

Although the film briefly wallows in sentimentality and hackneyed nostalgia, it’s such a warm and funny film that I am more than prepared to forgive its minor flaws. In a decent year for comedy, this stands out as one of the best yet.

The Way, Way Back is released in cinemas today.