Tag Archives: Cameron Diaz

Shrek 2

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.


shrek 2 208] Shrek 2 (19th May 2004)

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $919,838,758

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%

Shrek 2 is a film of excess.  If the original Shrek was a tight, lean, and meticulously calculated and planned film (the kind of tight, lean, meticulously calculated and planned film that could throw out $4 million worth of animation because its star figured out a better way of voicing the lead character late into production, but nonetheless), Shrek 2 is the gloriously bloated victory celebration that follows the breakthrough into the big time.  It’s like when an Indie auteur who made a name for themselves for making tight, character-focussed stories and making the most of their miniscule budgets gets picked up by a major film studio, is given A Major Film Studio Budget and then goes mad from the power that’s been thrust upon them.  The kind of film where nobody ever said no to anything he cooked up with it because he made it work before and surely they won’t let the power go their head, right?  To put it in a more tortured and poorly-thought-out way, if Shrek was Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, then Shrek 2 was Heaven’s Gate, if you drop The Deer Hunter from this scenario and can get on this bizarre wavelength that I am currently operating on.

Shrek had a modest budget of $60 million, in the same ball-park as what-would-have-been-safe-bets-until-outside-circumstances-screwed-them-over Sinbad and SpiritShrek 2 had a budget of $150 million which, though it looks pretty standard today, was pretty frickin’ extravagant back then.  Shrek had a star-studded lead cast but had its supporting characters mostly played production members.  Shrek 2 has stars populating every single new and supporting role that wasn’t brought back from the last film.  Shrek kept its focus laser-targeted to 3 characters (plus an under-developed villain only made interesting by John Lithgow’s performance) and gave each of them a tonne of development that felt natural and well-paced.  Shrek 2 has at least 8 main characters and integrates its supporting cast into the plot as more than just one-appearance cameos, giving each of them some development but short-changing some of its cast (primarily the female side) for other members of its cast (primarily for the male side).

Shrek kept proceedings reserved to a handful of small locations, reflecting the relative small-scale of the story.  Shrek 2 similarly has few locations but all of them are much, much bigger than before (Far, Far Away is a very unsubtle expy of Hollywood), reflecting the wider-scale of the story.  Shrek featured pop culture references and parodies but derived most of its humour from character work and character interactions, the “satire” (in the thinnest definition of the word) and toilet humour aging poorly but not being the primary source of comedy.  Shrek 2 is 80% pop culture references.  Not parodies, references.  And that’s not 80% of the jokes when I say “80%”, that’s 80% of the film.  Shrek had a DVD bonus feature that was just a three minute extension of the Dance Party Ending from the film.  Shrek 2’s DVD bonus feature is a mini-epic, a six-minute take-off of American Idol complete with a requisite flat appearance by Simon Cowell himself (during that sweet spot of the 00s where people still gave a sh*t about what he did on a daily basis) and the urging of the viewers to actually go online, for the first three days after it was released into the wild, and vote for which they thought was the best performance.  Doris won, by the way.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Shrek 2 has aged poorly.  Shrek 2 has aged really poorly.  Shrek 2 has actually aged so poorly that I finished watching it and immediately questioned how on earth anyone found it any good in the first place.  Considering the fact that this one is widely seen as DreamWorks’ creative high-point until Kung Fu Panda rolled around, I am baffled as to how bad this one is.  But, like most things that are bafflingly poor, it went on to great success.  In fact, “great” is probably understating it.  Shrek 2 was a monumental success.  Critically, it surpassed the original in terms of rave reviews, many even throwing around the phrase “a rare example of a sequel that’s better than the original.”  Financially, it was the highest grossing film of 2004.  Not “highest grossing animated film”, although it was that as well, not “highest grossing film domestically”, although it was also that too; Shrek 2 was 2004’s highest grossing film worldwide.  Although it’s been displaced in terms of being the highest grossing animated film of all-time worldwide (by films with 3D premiums or re-releases or both, whereas Shrek 2 has neither), it’s still the highest grossing animated film of all-time domestically.  The DVD and VHS releases have brought in, according to Wikipedia, $800 million for the company (although a miscalculation when reporting initial figures to investors led to DreamWorks Animation being sued by said investors cos, y’know, that’s the kind of world we live in), and the film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar at the 77th Academy Awards, although it lost to The Incredibles (thank Christ).

So, as you can see, Shrek 2 is a major, major success story.  The kind of success story that will go down in history as a great movie deservedly making all of the money, earning the respect it deserves from the normally snobby critical class, and remaining as a classic in the animation genre.  No matter what I write about it, I will not be able to convince anybody, much less history, that we got it all horribly wrong and that this was where the decline of Western animated features and DreamWorks Animation as a whole began, not next week’s film (oh, Christ, I have to do Shark Tale next week…).  Nevertheless, Shrek 2 is a bad film and the problem that it has, the biggest one of them all, is that everybody involved at DreamWorks seems to have learned the wrong lessons from the first Shrek’s success (and I get the very strong feeling that this will not be the last time I use that phrase).  Back when we addressed the first Shrek, I noted that the thing that everyone latched onto as the reason why the film worked, the most quantifiable element, was its edge, its satire, its pop culture references.  You may also recall that such a claim was emphatically shot down by myself (although I don’t purport myself to be an expert with these things, so feel free to tell me that I’m talking out of my arse) and that instead the reason the film connected was due to strong character work, an undercurrent of sadness and the same sappy romantic mentality that it spends most of its time pretending to dismiss with a dissatisfied mouth raspberry.

But, again, nobody realised that fact and everybody gravitated towards the quantifiable thing, the edge.  So, rather than risk alienating audiences by giving them more of what they didn’t know made the first film work, that’s what DreamWorks doubled down on.  I can understand why they’d want to play it safe.  Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas had failed spectacularly, and between that and the DVD release of Shrek 2, DreamWorks itself had been sold to Paramount and the animation division had been spun off into a publically traded company (hence the suing over DVD sales).  In fact, this can very much explain why DreamWorks Animation spent the rest of the decade playing it safe.  See, unlike, say, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation can’t afford a giant bomb, as one enormous failure is enough to pull stockholder support from the company.  Plus, why drastically change a formula that worked, eh?  Why not take a victory lap and give the people what they want?

As you can probably guess, there are several good reasons why this shouldn’t be the case.  But chief amongst them is the substitution of character for pop culture references.  These are no longer three-dimensional characters that feel real and have genuine depth and multiple sides, these are simplistic one-dimensional caricatures designed to feed the plot and jokes through.  Fiona, especially, is dumbed down and marginalised to hell and back.  In the original, she was a well-drawn character whose overly-romanticised notions of fairy tale endings and how her story is “supposed” to go are built into the fact that she wants to become “normal” and to be freed from the curse placed on her, but over time she defrosts from these notions as she accepts her true self and finds love in unexpected Ogre-like places.  In this film, she has all agency removed from her and simply becomes a thing that Shrek and the villains fight over, occasionally getting to complain about how the two men in her life aren’t getting along.  Puss In Boots’ character arc, meanwhile, is zipped through in one three-minute scene, Donkey has had the sadness inherent to his character instead changed into a simple “he’s a petulant child” routine, and the villains remain villains because, well, they’re evil and stuff.

And that’s when they’re not just blatantly recycling material from the first film.  The basic message of the first film, never deny your true self as you are special no matter how non-“normal” you may seem, is back and in full effect, but the genders are reversed this time so it’s completely different(!) True love comes in all shapes and sizes and it’s amazing no matter how it looks.  Am I referring to Shrek 1’s moral or Shrek 2’s?  Meanwhile, the “people who aren’t for your true love due to it not being ‘normal’ are meany-boo-beenies” message at least gets a boost due to the Fairy Godmother getting more screen-time and being a more interesting villain than Lord Farquad ever was, but the film doesn’t do anything with the villain set-up (she’s supposed to be this mega-famous, beloved fixer for Far, Far Away’s denizens, but the film only takes full advantage of this for one song during the climax) and the overall message is muddied by the fact that she has personal manipulative scheming stakes in the equation.  After all, why tackle a giant concept and place the villainy on all of society when you can just have one “I’m evil because EVIL” mega-villain, eh?

Look, I wouldn’t have a problem with this, these are all morals that people today can do with being bludgeoned over the head repeatedly with, if the film found new beats to explore these themes with, or was at least entertaining enough to make it not an issue.  But themes aren’t the only things that the film ends up recycling.  Many jokes from the first film make a return in both an example of the writers misunderstanding how you do call-backs, and giving off the idea that everyone involved had just discovered what global warming was and decided to do their bit by wasting absolutely no resources from the first instalment.  As an example, remember the “better out than in” gag?  That’s back and there is basically no difference.  Fiona burps, Shrek says his requisite line, and the rest of the participants of the scene are shocked because, “A LADY?  Burping like A MAN?!  Why I never!”  Oh, sure, the order of the gag has been switched around, but the principles are the same; instead of being a cute little nod to how close Shrek and Fiona are as a married couple, like I imagine the intention was, it just becomes the same joke from the first film with the intention shoved so far into the background as to become unnoticeable because, again, IT’S THE SAME DAMN JOKE!

And then there are the pop culture references.  Earlier in this article, I stated my belief that Shrek 2 is 80% pop culture references, but upon reflection and the further writing of this article I find that statistic to be a bit harsh.  Let me rescind that and rephrase.  Shrek 2 is about 75% pop culture references.  There, forgot just how much recycling the film did!  But, yes, barely a minute goes by without a pop culture reference bursting in through some window and dating the film immeasurably.  And, no, I don’t mean “parodies” or “jokes”, I do mean “references”.  A “joke” or “parody” would use the pop culture reference for genuinely subversive means, or at least have something to say or a reason for bringing it up.  For example, Character A might remark that Character B is so fat that they could pass themselves off as one of Jabba The Hutt’s fat rolls.  OK, that’s a bad example, because you may have gathered by now that I cannot write a funny joke to save anyone’s life, but hopefully you get where I’m coming from.

Shrek 2 does not have pop culture jokes or pop culture parodies.  It has pop culture references.  Things that were popular at some point or another, be they in celebrity culture or film or television or music or something, are presented to you and you’re supposed to laugh because that is a thing you recognise.  This approach kind of works for the opening montage of Shrek and Fiona’s honeymoon, even if I did audibly eye-roll at the Lord Of The Rings “parody”, because the idea is to put both of these atypical characters into your typical sappy romantic lovey-dovey montage and let them be themselves for comic effect, but it’s the only time that the film actually places a meaning behind its references.  In Shrek and Fiona’s room at the palace, there is a poster of Justin Timberlake on the ceiling because he was a total teen-girl crush at the time.  OH, THE GUFFAWS I HAD!  Puss In Boots is a take-off of the Zorro films, so it at least makes sense to do those requisite gags even if they don’t amount to anything more than, “Hey!  That actor you know from that movie you liked is here in our film playing a character like that one!”  But what is the point of the chest-burster reference in his first scene with Shrek other than to go “Alien was a thing!  Laugh!”  There’s a section where Shrek’s thwarted attempt to get back to Fiona is shown in an extended Cops reference, in an instance that feels more like the plot cramming itself into the reference than the reference coming organically from the plot.  Joan Rivers (R.I.P.) shows up to do that thing she does, the Far, Far Away sign is done in the style of the giant Hollywood sign, the Fairy Godmother sings a godawful Eurodisco cover of “I Need A Hero” (a situation everyone could have avoided if they remembered that Bis once made an entire song deriding that type of genre, but I digress)…

Rarely do they actually help fill out the world of Far, Far Away or act as anything more than a glowing neon arrow pointing out just how much they are a thing that is a reference to a real thing you may quite possibly know.  It’s all dated really, really poorly, playing now like a time-capsule of the year that it was released in and a really cringeworthy one at that.  The rest of the jokes are aimed at kids; so you have fart jokes, chase scenes, characters spouting playground-ready catchphrases that act like they have been meticulously calculated in a factory somewhere for maximum parental-annoyance, and fairy tale characters doing stuff they’re known to do!  You know: The Gingerbread Man goes on about The Muffin Man, The Big Bad Wolf lays in people’s beds, Pinocchio’s nose grows because he is a terrible liar, The Little Mermaid shows up kissing someone before being tossed back into the sea because “we’re to kewl for your sappy Disney fairy crap; now, to prove how hip we are, here’s a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds song coming out of Captain Hook’s mouth!”  I laughed at one of these, the arrival of Sleeping Beauty at the red carpet (it’s an easy joke but, goddammit, it’s executed with the perfect rapid-fire timing that pretty much nothing else in this film gets), and found only one other of these, the run-down bad guy bar populated by most of the land’s villains, to actually fit the world of Shrek.  The ceaseless “look!  It’s fairy tale characters in Hollywoodland!” schtick makes the world of the film feel unreal, too constructed, too much like a joke-machine than anything real and anything to get invested in.

To put it another way, the jokes drive the film and not the other way around.  Again, unless that’s the point of the film, the comedy needs to come from the characters.  You can’t force jokes into characters or situations that don’t fit it or don’t need it, it just makes everything come off as too constructed and too unnatural.  You need the jokes to fit the situation or the character, and if they don’t then you need to drop them, regardless of how good they might have been.  Shrek 2 too often lets the jokes drive the film and that, coupled with the pop culture reference well being the primary source of said jokes, creates a film that feels unnatural and lacking near-totally in heart and emotional investment.  For example, straight after the prior-mentioned Cops segment, there’s a Mission: Impossible reference that then leads into a Kaiju movie parody (with said big dumb slow monster being named “’Mongo” because nobody was paid to think during the writing of this movie) and it feels completely unnatural and unnecessary, like the film is bending over backwards to fit these bits in somewhere because everybody involved thought they sounded really cool and couldn’t bear to just admit to cutting them as they don’t fit the story.

Oh, also, and normally I wouldn’t point this out but it’s indicative of a larger point, there’s this weird undercurrent of Transphobia running throughout the whole thing.  I count at least 10 instances where the film pulls a “That man looks a lot like/dresses like a woman!  EW!” joke from its arse and there is never once any change, never once any other tone, no overall subversion or message to make.  Just “EW!  That man looks like a butch woman!  How different and wrong!”  I don’t think that there was any malicious intent behind them, just overall laziness, a desire to just reach for the easiest jokes that require practically no skill or effort in telling and then knocking off for lunch.  But it’s that laziness that permeates the entire venture known as Shrek 2, a safe bet made because “look at the extravagant piles of money that we can (and kinda need to) make” rather than any artistic reason for existing, and it just ends up drowning out the things the film does well.  The voice acting is a noticeable improvement from pretty much everyone (even notable-Shrek 1-weak-link Cameron Diaz), pacing is still tight and fast, it touches on themes that highlight a better film underneath the muck, and animation is a vast improvement with extensive detail and smoother character movements… well, until Shrek’s human form took over the back third of the movie and my eyeballs involuntarily removed themselves from my skull and made a run for the Scottish border to get away from the hideous Uncanny Valley his face falls into.

But, again, what exactly do I gain by systematically pulling this film to shreds a decade on from its release?  Shrek 2 is, according to the history books, a bona-fide success story.  It debuted in the $100+ mil range, it stayed in the Top 10 for 10 weeks, it sold a fortune of DVDs, received giant critical acclaim, won a Grammy for “Accidentally In Love” (which is a good pop song but, let’s get real, is no “All Star”), proved that this is the template that animated films needed to take to be able to survive the decade, was held up as DreamWorks Animation’s creative peak until How To Train Your Dragon and the Kung Fu Panda series, and sufficiently enraptured 10 year-old me enough to see it in cinemas and watch it on DVD a whole bunch of times.  It did its damage and nothing I write about it can change that fact.  It won.  Shrek 2 won.  So this entire article is going to end up making me look like the kind of person who rags on about something that’s popular for no other reason than to prove my hipster credentials.  It’s like when people crack jokes about U2, except that U2 haven’t written a good song in a decade and Shrek 2 is a bad film.  It gave the people what they thought they wanted, the edgy kids’ film, and everybody was too in awe of that fact to realise that what they wanted was not what they thought they did.  Unfortunately, people didn’t realise this until far too late.

It’s what’s going to make the next two months (barring one certain week) absolutely painful.


Next week: Shark Tale.

Goddammit.

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

Callum Petch is flyer than a piece of paper bearing his name.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Sex Tape

I did not laugh once during all 98 minutes of Sex Tape, and that is the least of its problems.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

sex tape 2I am convinced that Sex Tape is some kind of deliberate Andy Kaufman-esque prank on the rest of us.  It has to be, I will not accept any other excuse.  How did Cameron Diaz, a talented comedic actress, Jason Segel, a talented comic actor and a very good comedy writer, Nicholas Stoller, a very talented writer and director of comedy, and Jake Kasdan, responsible for the brilliance that is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, create a comedy film so utterly dreadful?  Hell, not just a comedy, a dreadful film in general?  This is a failure on every single conceivable level, to such an extent that I feel like it’d be easier to list the things that the film does right, like “string enough moving pictures together so that the result technically resembles what one would consider a movie to look like”.  This is one of those times where I utilise the phrase “fundamentally flawed” and I absolutely mean it.  This should not have been released, this should not even have been filmed, and I refuse to believe that everybody involved went ahead on this project not realising this fact; there is too much talent involved here to give anyone any benefit of any doubt.

The premise is that Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel make a sex tape that Jason Segel accidentally syncs to a whole bunch of iPads and, because neither of them have any clue how technology works, this leads to the two of them trying to hunt down the iPads in order to erase it before anyone sees it.  I specify “premise” and mention the fact that Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel are in this film because I want to specifically draw attention to the fact that those things are all that Sex Tape has.  It has a premise and a cast and literally nothing else.  There are no jokes in Sex Tape.  There are no characters in Sex Tape.  There is no structure to Sex Tape.  There is no thematic backbone to Sex Tape.  There is no emotional undercurrent to latch onto in Sex Tape.  There is nothing to Sex Tape except the premise, the cast and 98 torturous minutes.

It all comes back to that screenplay, written by Segel & Stoller and Kate Angelo, who also came up with the story.  It’s barely a first draft, that’s how awful the thing is.  For example, despite running at a relatively svelte 98 minutes, there is still too much dead weight to Sex Tape.  There are too many characters that drop in, get extended sequences of screen-time and then drop out again despite having no effect whatsoever on proceedings, the most egregious example being Nat Faxon as Jason Segel’s workmate who pops up in one scene for three minutes, which is mostly focussed on his character despite him never showing up again and the scene having no reason for existing.  A good fifteen minutes, at least, of the runtime are spent at Rob Lowe’s house as they try and find his iPad.  Fifteen.  Fifteen whole minutes of this film are dedicated to one scenario where Jason Segel is chased by a dog and Cameron Diaz acts surprised that Rob Lowe isn’t a completely wholesome guy.  Lowe even disappears completely from the film after it’s done, just to rub salt into the wound!  Jack Black pops up at one point and the film stops dead for a full minute (not an exaggeration) to have him rattle off a seemingly endless list of porn site names.  It’s padding of the most blatant and egregious kind, as if it’s straight up admitting that there is not enough material to cover an entire 98 minutes of film.

Screenplay Problem #2: there are no characters here.  None.  None whatsoever.  Our leads barely qualify as one-dimensional and their romance is seemingly predicated entirely on sex.  One would think that this would lead to them going through a nuanced arc as they discover the true reasons why they married one another, but that’s not how it goes.  How it instead goes is that they both get angry and annoyed at one another until the film decides that they then love each other totally.  There’s no real change, no growth, no reason why this is brought on; they just hate each other until they don’t.  This is the most character development that goes on in the whole movie.  Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper turn up as happily married friends of Segel and Diaz, and the film promptly uses that set-up to have the pair of them be turned on by Segel and Diaz’s sex tape.  Yes, that is it.  The villain (yes, this film has a villain, don’t be surprised) is evil for literally no reason, Rob Lowe’s trait is that his character is a debauched degenerate who is the head of a family company ha ha ha, and Jack Black’s character amounts to “he has a stupid moustache and a fur coat.”

You may have already figured out Screenplay Problem #3 from that prior paragraph: there is no meaning to any of this.  You could use this premise to explore the issues of married life, of breaking out of modernity and revitalising the spark, of how making a sex tape maybe isn’t the most desperate thing you can do in a relationship, maybe contrast Kemper and Corddry’s happy marriage with Segel and Diaz’s unhappy one, or maybe even have the tape become something that the duo can treasure as proof of how strong their bond is.  As you may have figured out, none of that happens.  Scenes just lurch from one to another with no real meaning behind them, no theme, no character arc, no emotional reason to exist.  That last bit is especially ridiculous when the film decides, in the final fifteen minutes, to crash headfirst into sappy sentimentality and it all falls incredibly flat due to the aforementioned lack of characters, arcs or reasons to care.  There is nothing going on here and yet it lasts 98 minutes!  98 minutes of nothing!  This is literal time-wasting, people!  A lack of characters, well-developed or no, in a comedy doesn’t have to be a problem if that’s the point (like how Airplane! is a nonsense parody of disaster films, or how 22 Jump Street is an all-in parody and embracing of pointless comedy sequels), but you need a point, a reason for existing, otherwise you are literally just time-wasting.

Honestly, that last problem makes Screenplay Problem #4 seem completely irrelevant or, at the very least, minor in the grand scheme of things, but it needs mentioning anyway: there are no jokes in Sex Tape.  Stuff happens and you’re expected to laugh.  Hey, hey, did you know that the f-word is naughty and that saying it is funny for that exact reason?  Did you also know that sex is absolutely gross?  As is talking about sex?  And that white upper-class people can like metal and rap music?  Also, aren’t kids that don’t speak like kids just adorably funny?  And that adults who don’t know how to use technology are weird and out-of-touch?  There, I just listed every single bit of “humour” that Sex Tape wants to throw at you.  It’s all extremely obvious and very easy, lazily tossed off with near-total contempt for the audience who inexplicably were busting multiple guts during my screening.  I realise that humour is subjective, more so than pretty much anything else in life, but to laugh at this is to basically admit that you have no standards for comedy.  I’m sorry if you’re not willing to hear this, but it’s the truth, and the sooner you accept this fact, the sooner you can learn to better yourself.

Two further issues, real quick.  1) This film’s shilling of the iPad is absolutely ridiculous.  I get that the iPad is a necessary part of the film’s premise (again, not plot, big difference) and I am willing to suspend my disbelief when characters mention the thing by its brand name instead of just as “tablet” or some such.  When you repeatedly have characters stop the film and openly express the virtues of its camera and resolution and durability in extensive detail, then it crosses the line from a part of the film to gaudy and blatant product placement.  Unsurprisingly, this happens a lot.  An unacceptable amount of a lot.  2) You think late-series How I Met Your Mother was Jason Segel phoning it in as an actor?  Son, you have no idea.  You have no idea…

I don’t like to parrot my reviews 100% as consumer advice, because different people will find different things entertaining, especially with comedy, and I can’t tell you what you will and will not like, but I cannot order you enough to stay away from this one, folks.  What we have here are a whole bunch of really talented people, really talented people that have proven that they are really talented people who can do better, who have created 98 minutes of absolutely nothing, with nothing to say and no value whatsoever.  And I have come to two theories as to why this has happened.  Either everyone involved decided to see if they could get away with making and releasing a film with as little effort or work put into it as possible in an attempt to see how much damage their careers would take as a result, or they have purposefully crafted a comedy with no jokes or reason to exist to see if such a thing would be possible.  Attempted career suicide or performance art.  I don’t much like either theory but they’re the only ones I can come up with as to how these very talented people could fuck up so totally.  This may be the worst comedy of the whole dire year.  Blended may have been racist, sexist, and twenty unbearable minutes longer than this, but at least that movie had thematic and emotional arcs and a reason to exist!

Again, I don’t like parroting my reviews as full-on consumer advice, but I really did see Sex Tape so that you don’t have to.  And if you do see Sex Tape and laugh at it, with that laughter brought on by the film and no outside factors, then you have no sense of humour or low standards in humour and should devote extensive time to bettering yourself as a human being as a result.  Do not reward everyone involved in this.  Stay far away.

Callum Petch loves your love action.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Shrek

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

shrek 2This 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.


05] Shrek (18th May 2001)

Budget: $60 million

Gross: $484,409,218

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%

What can I say about Shrek that hasn’t already been said and that won’t just dissolve into hyperbole?  See, everybody knows Shrek.  Everybody knows the impact that it had on Western Feature-Length Animation for almost a full decade, everybody knows just how much to the forefront it brought stunt casting to the medium, everybody knows how it signalled the switch to an all CG format for these films, everybody knows the lyrics to “All Star” by Smash Mouth.  Shrek is one of those films that everybody knows, and that makes it rather difficult for me to talk about.  I don’t want to just sit here and regurgitate facts at you, but I don’t want to resort to hyperbole and overstate the film’s importance like, let’s face it, it is very easy to do.  So, instead, I am going to have to go the dull route this time and explain the joke, explain why Shrek works and why it was seen as a major breath of fresh air at the time.  I know, that means I have to turn into That Guy, but a nice bit of perspective is good every once in a while.  Plus, it may be able to help contextualise why the next two DreamWorks films didn’t do so well and why everybody, including the company itself, would spend the following decade making shallow rip-offs of the winning formula.

First, however, a clarification, Shrek is not the saviour of Western Feature-Length Animation.  1999 may have been a dreadful year for animation, as we already discussed, and 2000 honestly wasn’t much better, but 2001 was not too bad, most likely down to the relative lack of releases.  Yes, there were bombs, most notoriously the live-action/animation hybrid Osmosis Jones and the photo-realistic CG spectacle known as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but there were several unqualified successes.  Recess: School’s Out quadrupled its budget thanks to the large popularity of the show at the time, Atlantis: The Lost Empire significantly underperformed but still managed to turn an OK profit, Richard Linklater’s experimental Waking Life somehow managed to take $2.5 million, Monsters, Inc. became one of the year’s highest grossing films, and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was so successful that Nickelodeon were able to spin a full-fledged franchise out of the thing.  Shrek was not an anomaly, is what I’m getting at.

It was, however, and this cannot be overstated, a full-on box-office phenomenon.  It opened to $42 million, a ridiculous opening for an animated film that didn’t have a company with the kind of marketable goodwill that Pixar had with Toy Story.  It did not stay at the top for Week 2, due to Pearl Harbor, but it did something far better than Pearl Harbor: it gained money.  Not a lot over the three day weekend, 0.3%, but the full-on four day Memorial Day weekend saw a 30% increase over the opening weekend takings.  No, this simply does not happen to films that open that big; that’s the power that Shrek held at the time.  It only started making serious slides down the chart when Atlantis showed up and, even then, it gave as good as it got, actually beating Atlantis on the pair’s last appearance in the top 10.  Domestically, it actually beat Monsters, Inc. overall for the year.  You can overstate its importance in the animated landscape, you cannot overstate its box office dominance.

So, why?  Why was Shrek such a major success?  Why did it connect with audiences in a way that most non-Pixar films weren’t?  Well, honestly, it’s due to a multitude of factors but only one of them was taken away by people, both viewers and executives who noted the film’s success, who saw the film, the most tangible element: its edge.

Now, to say that Disney films are toothless and aimed at the youngest is a major misnomer.  You want an animated film that’s toothless and aimed at only the youngest, go and watch The Quest For Camelot.  However, Disney films are sentimental, very much so, and are prone to trying to water down the darker or more adult elements of their stories with comic relief sidekicks for the kids, primarily of the talking animal variety.  Mushu, Terk, Timon & Pumbaa, all the way back to the seven dwarves.  Regardless of whether you like them or not (and they are often some of the best parts of their movies in the best instances), their mere existence can scream to most people, “Look!  Funny cartoon for kids!”  And Disney films are romantic to a fault, especially their early work, with tales as old as time of brave, dashing princes saving fair, kind-hearted young maidens from whatever evil befalls them, of true love at first sight, magic and all that fancy, wonderful stuff.  They were on their way of at least toning down the overtness of this formula, and this obviously wasn’t the formula for everything they did, but it still wasn’t really enough.  Their films were still a bit too sentimental, too younger-skewing, too “safe”.  The fact that most other competitors were more focussed on attempting to emulate Disney’s style than come up with a voice of their own probably didn’t help matters.  Times had changed and the public needed something different.  Something with edge.

Cue the opening of Shrek.

I mean, sure, it looks tame and childish and petulant and toilet-humour and, well, that’s because it is, but for the time this was quite revelatory.  This was DreamWorks Animation throwing down the gauntlet.  “This is our film!  We’re not like those Disney films!  We’re not going to romanticise anything!  Here’s a real protagonist, he’s ugly and he farts and he’s as far removed from your typical clean-cut hero as we can get!”  Again, edge.  Sledgehammer-subtle satire and open digs at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s old company.  The film is littered with these: the Duloc welcome machine, the design of Duloc looking like it was rejected from Disneyland, Princess Fiona’s continued assertions that her rescue is all wrong, the Robin Hood song being rather disturbing in content and quickly cut off because we are a film in the 21st century and musicals are sooo last century man, waterboarding the Gingerbread Man, there’s an extended Matrix reference because this was 2001 and we were just close enough to the end of Spaced’s second series (the cut-off point for this stuff) to not be completely sick of Matrix references yet…   Most of these achieve the desired effect of “parody” and “satire” barely, the best instances coming up with actual jokes or character work (you get no surprises for guessing what one element of Fiona’s character arc is) instead of just pointing at them and going “That’s a dumb thing for poo-poo heads!”  There are a lot more of the former than I was expecting, it’s just that a lot of it has aged really poorly; satire that curiously and possibly ironically carries the same toothless easy safeness that its target applies to telling actual stories.

Yet, at the time, it worked, possibly due to that broadness and occasional childishness, because that allowed everybody to get it and have everyone feel like they were part of this big taboo thing.  Although the film wasn’t really doing anything particularly edgy and risky, toilet humour and digs at Disney aren’t exactly hard to come by nowadays and I suspect they weren’t back then either, people lapped it up because it looked risky, it looked edgy.  They were insulting Disney and making a whole bunch of fart, burp and poop gags!  You simply didn’t openly insult that sacred cow on film or show that stuff in feature-length animation because, well, nobody else has done those things before to our knowledge so it must not be OK!  It’s like when you first watch an escapologist on a stage show in a locked water tank.  He’s not really in any danger cos he’s done this trick a million times before and there’s a highly trained rescue crew all set in case anything does go wrong, but you’ve never seen the trick before and the sheer audacity has you on the edge of your seat wondering if they can get away with it.

Plus, the constant piss-taking of the nature of fairy tales and especially their sappiness seems rather hypocritical when the film, in its final third, turns into a straight fairy tale, just with non-conventionally attractive characters.  I mean, it was obviously coming from frame one, but it’s the way that it mocks certain tropes (ones that it’s not using for character development, like Shrek’s belief that fairy tales are a bunch of bullcrap) but then goes ahead and plays them straight in the finale anyway.  A lot is made out of Fiona’s agency in the first two-thirds, how she may be overly attached to the romantic storybook nature of fairy tales but is still strong, capable, more of a tomboy than she first appears and frequently acts like a woman willing to take charge and drive proceedings, but then the plot entirely hangs around whether she’ll be saved from the evil man by her true love, Shrek.  She even spends the finale being easily restrained by the villains despite having previously had an entire sequence that showed her effortlessly wiping the floor with a group of the exact same size.

So, edge is predominately seen as the reason why Shrek was a runaway mega-success.  You may claim different, but it’s what countless lesser imitations took from it and it’s why Donkey became the thing that practically every kid was quoting on every playground for a good while after.  Like it or not, toilet humour connects with kids and jokes aimed squarely at parents, often around mocking how terrible the kind of dreck they’re often forced to sit through is, connects with them too.  It was the tangible “something different” that audiences could latch onto, the edge.  So, naturally, that’s what everybody ran with, the fact that it had an attitude.  Except that, well, that’s not the reason why Shrek works or, in fact, the reason why it was so successful.  See, edge on its own, with nothing to back it up or off-set it, is just off-putting; an entire film of just Shrek pointing at fairy tale tropes and sugarcoating and the like and smugly going “Heh!  Look at those squares with their baby stories!  We’re too cool and grown-up for that sh*t!  Now here’s a fart joke!  *fart*!” would be insufferable and likely have turned away the mass public it ended up courting.  In that case, what’s the real reason why Shrek succeeded to the extent that it did?

Well, let’s look at a few more surface-level and tangible things before we ensnare the real reason in our grasp.  For one, you cannot fault the marketing.  You’ve seen the trailer that was embedded earlier in this piece.  Hell, you’ve seen the trailers for the films in every one of these articles so far.  Regardless of what you think of the film it’s advertising, you have to admit, from an objective standpoint, it’s a fantastic trailer.  It’s got laughs, it sells the premise easily, the cast is clearly marketed because apparently such a thing really does drag people who wouldn’t normally see this stuff into the cinema, and it has a clear target audience in mind.  Allow me to put it to you this way: compare that with the trailer for Titan A.E., or the trailer for Atlantis: The Lost Empire, or hell even the trailer for The Emperor’s New Groove.  Again, we’re not rating the films, we’re rating the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns.  Also, and yes it really must be said, the fact that Shrek was CG probably helped get a lot of initial butts in seats.  You may scoff, but do you think anybody would have seen Dinosaur or Jimmy Neutron without that New Technological Advancement Smell (see also: films that inexplicably made a bucketful more of money post-Avatar than they would have because they too came with alternative 3D viewing modes) coming off of them?  Plus, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz were at the top of their box office games when this was released, for whatever that’s all worth.

But this is all getting away from the real reason why Shrek was such a runaway success and why it still, to a degree, works today.  Of course, the film itself wouldn’t admit to it if you showed it to it, it’d probably derisively laugh and snidely quip about how that’s so yesterday daddy-o or something.  And, perhaps surprising no-one, it’s the element that all of the desperate imitators that cropped up in Shrek’s aftermath (you have no idea how much my soul cried upon seeing Disney’s Chicken Little when I was younger, you really don’t) chose to ignore.  Nonetheless, it’s the reason why the film works and it’s really quite a basic one.  See, strip away the CGI, the well-done marketing campaign, the stunt casting, the toilet humour, the Dance Party Ending and the “satirical” and “edgy” humour, and you find filmmaking basics: great character work and a tonne of heart.  That’s it.  That’s the secret ingredient.

I’m not kidding.  This film is at its best when it wears its heart on its sleeve and feeds its humour through character work or genuine heart instead of just “for-the-hell-of-it”.  For all of the opening’s pomp and circumstance, the edgy-but-not-too-edgy Smash Mouth soundtrack and the extensive sequence of Shrek showering himself in muck, the little character beat that best sells the character of Shrek is a blink-and-you’ll-miss it little cue near the end when he spots the villagers coming to hunt him and he just sighs and shakes his head before heading off to do his ogre thing.  In that one little action, likely missed by most people, the personal conflict that appears in Shrek’s arc, his preference for being alone but in actuality craving some kind of acceptance, is conveyed.  It’s why the onion thing works, too.  It’s not just an easily quotable scene that’s rendered funny by the rapport and delivery of Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers, it gets across Shrek’s desire to be looked upon as more than just an ogre in his jerkier form; note how the stargazing scene that he and Donkey share later on basically touches upon the same things but in a softer way, more reflective of how he’s warmed to Donkey even if he won’t admit to it.

The character work is why the fact that our four lead characters are played by major and recognisable Hollywood actors isn’t an issue.  See, unlike, say, Shark Tale (we will get to that thing, believe me), everyone in Shrek is playing a character instead of themselves.  Donkey may be a very Eddie Murphy character, but he has his own identifiable character, arc and traits that are obviously distinguishable from Murphy.  He delivers his lines in a way that is unmistakably Eddie Murphy, but he’s still playing Donkey, if that makes sense.  The same is true of Mike Myers, the same is true of Cameron Diaz, the same is true of John Lithgow.  It’s not just stunt casting because they’re big name stars (although, considering the fact that she is by far the weakest of the bunch, one could still level that complaint at Cameron Diaz), it feels like they were picked because they honestly were the best for the job.  Mike Myers, especially, commits 100% to making Shrek a character instead of a thinly-disguised Mike Myers self-insert or something; the decision to have the character speak in a Scottish accent came from him and, according to Kaztenberg, caused $4 million worth of animation to be thrown away in order to fix the lip-syncing caused by the change.  Of course, seeing as that Scottish accent so perfectly embodies the character of Shrek in this film, I have a feeling that few people minded in the end.

Shrek, though, is always at its best when it wears its heart on its sleeve.  Because it does have a heart, a great big mushy one not unlike the fairy tales it spends a lot of its runtime openly flipping metaphorical birds at.  See, when you get right down to it, this is a film about sad lonely characters outcast by society for their various physical deformities and eccentricities forming friendships and relationships with one another based on that shared lack of acceptance.  It’s why the film’s turn in the last third into a straight fairy tale, whilst admittedly a bit hypocritical seeing as it spent the prior 60 minutes snobbily scoffing at their continued existence, works, because it believes in the characters.  It loves the characters, it wants to give them that fairy tale ending because it truly cares for them, and we sit there and go, “Yep, story checks out,” because it let that heart break through early on and its total taking over of the picture doesn’t feel false.  That middle 30 minute stretch with Fiona, and most specifically the montage set to an admittedly on-the-nose choice of Eels song (in fact, let’s not beat around the bush, all of the film’s song choices, whilst mostly great, are so on-the-nose it makes The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’s sound cues look subtle by comparison), is what makes the curse twist and what makes an otherwise super on-the-nose “Hallelujah”-backed montage carry genuine emotional resonance instead of ringing false.

But the heart isn’t just limited to the obvious moments and arcs, it informs some of the film’s best gags and scenes.  For every Matrix reference just because, for every open mockery of Disney (which, again, really has not aged well at all), there are gags and scenes that have had heart and effort put into them.  Think of the Magic Mirror The Dating Game riff.  On the one hand, yeah, it comes out of nowhere and is a clear reference to dating game shows.  But, on the other hand, it’s a different spin on the exposition dump that princess back-stories in these types of films are usually saddled with.  It dresses up the trope in fancy new clothing, making what once was rote, boring and obvious now fast, funny and interesting.  There’s a genuine reason for it being here and, barring one awfully-misguided gag about Snow White (and, no, this is not the last time that I will call out a Shrek film for going too far joke-wise), it retains a respect for the characters it ensnares.  The fight scene in Duloc’s palace is funny for its wrestling references and there is something basely funny about an old woman screaming for someone to “Give him the chair!” but, again, it works on character and heart-based levels.  It’s not just a wrestling scene just because, like Fiona’s Matrix sequence ends up, it helps foster Shrek and Donkey’s relationship and gives Shrek his first taste of public acceptance, igniting the need he didn’t think he had.  Likewise, the plight of the fairy tale creatures, their persecution and occasional torture, is nearly always portrayed sympathetically.  Yes, there is something inherently funny on seeing a legless Gingerbread Man begging to keep his gumdrop buttons, but the film is always on his side and isn’t just doing it for the laughs and cruelty.

That is why Shrek works.  Strip away the still pretty-decent CG (the strong character designs are what carry it through comparatively stiff animation), the all-star cast, the pop song soundtrack, the double-coding of gags (incidentally, the recurring “Do you think he’s compensating for something?” line in relation for Farquad’s castle is an example of double-coding done right), the “satire” and the “edge”, and what you have left are strong characters and a tonne of heart, the cornerstone of most great films worth their salt and what Disney were still putting out at the time of Shrek’s release.  But, of course, most people take those things for granted and look for the more obvious and tangible elements to praise instead.  Admittedly, they’re not totally wrong, the attitude, “edginess” and CGI are what made Shrek unique and are likely a large reason for its success, we do like to have our classic stories and tropes dressed-up in newer clothing after all.  But they’re not the reason why the film works, they’re not the reason why people kept coming back to the cinema for eight full weeks, they’re not the reason why the film won the 2001 Annie Award for Best Film and the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar, and they’re not the reason why the film still works 13 years on and well after viewing #30 (yes, I was a kid and mainlined the VHS and DVD at the time).  Shrek works because it remembered that edge does not equal a substitute for strong characters and a giant beating heart at its centre.

Unfortunately for most of the 2000s, it’s a shame that nobody else really seemed to figure that out.


Shrek changed pretty much everything, but it would take a while for its effects to be fully felt and for anyone to be able to capitalise on the major impression that Shrek made on the pop culture and Western Feature-Length Animation landscapes (animation lead times, and all).  In the meanwhile, DreamWorks Animation still had two traditionally-animated films to burn through… unfortunately, they ended up being released in the worst possible time for that form of the medium.  Over the next two weeks, we’ll chart the fall of traditional animation in Western Feature-Length Animation, beginning with 2002’s Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.

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

Callum Petch ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Other Woman

The Other WomanIts cast is game and clearly trying, but the laughs in The Other Woman are still too infrequent.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

When you are making a comedy, you typically need two things in order to make it work.  One is a funny script stuffed to the brim with jokes, the other is a cast willing to go the extra mile to make that material work.  With a funny script but bored or non-committed actors, you have at best good material landing with much less of an impact than it could have and at worst material with bags of potential being wasted due to the atrocious delivery, timing and all that other good stuff by the actors.  With committed actors but a dross script, your talented cast can come off as trying-too-hard or your script just looking even worse than it would have if bored actors were sleepwalking their way through it.  That’s not all you need for a good comedy, of course, but if you have those two elements, the rest basically falls into place and it takes something special to screw up the results.

The Other Woman has one of those two components and, if the headline hasn’t already given it away, it’s the game cast.  Pretty much everyone who is involved with this film is trying desperately hard above all hope to make this film work and make funny from a script that has little funny; most of them are really good at that trying, too.  Unfortunately, despite their very best efforts, they still can’t generate enough laughs to fill the giant voids in the script where there should be more, and there are a lot of those giant voids.

Revolving around three women all being two-timed in some way, shape or form by the charmingly despicable asshat known as Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau); Leslie Mann plays his unaware wife Kate, Cameron Diaz plays his unaware lawyer mistress Carly and Kate Upton plays his unaware youthful mistress Amber.  The three are thrown together when they each become aware that Mark is playing the lot of them and, because this is a comedy and not a melodrama, they plot to make his life a miserable sack of crap as revenge for how they treated him.  It takes a while to get there, though, I don’t think Amber even enters the film throughout the entire first hour, as the film’s true focus mostly seems to be on the burgeoning friendship between Kate and Carly with Kate freaking out over the collapse of her marriage and Carly finally earning some friends for once in her life.

That’s all fine, the film regularly lampshades how weird it is that the two of them do end up being friends (predominately by having people in the film call out how strange it is) and you know how I feel about strong character work.  It does come with the drawback, however, that the film ends up spending a lot of that pre-Amber time spinning its wheels, hitting the same points over and over again.  Kate will have a freak-out or attempt to contact Carly or both, Carly will show up and roll her eyes and be kinda bitchy as she tries to prove herself above the situation (Diaz is not so much the Straight Man as she is more the Unlikable Alpha Bitch for a lot of the run-time, the script making her come off too mean to be fully likable for at least 70 of this film’s 109 minutes), then the pair will bond regardless and it’s off to the next scene to do it all again.

This stuck-in-a-rut narrative structure wouldn’t be such an issue if the jokes in the script were anything approaching funny.  When Kate comes over to Carly’s apartment, she brings her untrained Dalmatian with her for some such gut-busters like… it sitting on Carly’s sofa when she’d told it not to, it licking Kate’s face after she and Carly had subjected themselves to a night of heavy drinking, and it taking a dump on the floor because animals pooing in front of the camera is… is just… oh, hold my aching sides, please.  There’s also a section where the duo are tailing Mark on his way to meeting, what turns out to be, Amber and the Mission: Impossible theme plays and you’re supposed to laugh because it’s the Mission: Impossible theme and that is a thing you recognise.  Nicki Minaj shows up, and drops out as the script demands, as Carly’s useless bitchy receptionist whose first response to finding out from Carly that Mark has a wife is to go “And you don’t think you can take her?” because it’s Nicki Minaj acting and isn’t that a novelty?

Things honestly don’t get much better script-wise when Amber enters the picture.  There’s an extended (and I mean extended) sequence where Mark is on the receiving end of industrial strength laxatives and fart noises you get from one of those royalty-free sound effect CDs that litter college AV rooms proceed to bombard the soundtrack, Mark is fed hormones meant for pre-op transsexuals and gets freakish looking nipples, and there’s a short situation whose entire punchline revolves around the preconception that transsexuals and cross-dressers are inherently gross and funny.  WACKA-WACKA-WACKA!!  There are few particularly funny lines thrown about, most of the big scenes run on for way too long and it’s all weirdly paced.  Nothing ever really seems to be properly building to anything, it all just kind of meanders, which is likely down to director Nick Cassavetes (previous of the rather good Alpha Dog, the rather not The Notebook and the really rather not My Sister’s Keeper) who, incidentally, is also utterly incompetent at filming and staging physical comedy.  I love physical comedy, I adore a good piece of physical comedy, but Cassavetes always picks the wrong camera angle, or paces it wrong, or stages things in such a way that a fall through garden-based scaffolding feels like a brick of cement was thrown through it instead of the character we’re supposed to be watching.  He just plain sucks at it.

Going back to the script, though, because the script is the main problem here, what on earth was going on with the final 15 or so minutes?  I’m pretty sure I broke my neck on the severity of the various mood whiplashes as we go from wacky comedy to dead serious drama and back again in seconds flat frequently throughout.  And you know when the drama is supposed to be going on because mournful piano/inspirational Top 40 hit is cued up on the soundtrack, soft focus is busted out and characters start exchanging long, mournful looks at stuff that probably means something to you if you’re the kind of person who watches these kinds of sequences and goes “THIS SPEAKS TO ME” but just comes off as jarring and out of nowhere.  The Other Woman spends most of its run-time mining Kate’s reaction to her marriage falling apart for laughs and then suddenly, for about 5 minutes, it wants to mine it for drama by pulling out the oldest and most clichéd trick in the book?  Nope, I’m not biting.

The film even manages to mess up its ending!  You know the scene where the women reveal themselves to the man and he breaks down in pure anger at how they managed to play him and ruin his life and it’s immensely satisfying to see this dickhead get his comeuppance?  Yeah, they screwed that up!  It’s literally the easiest thing in the world, if you’re halfway competent at your job, and they still screwed it up!  How?  Well, do you know why everything that happened to Dabney Coleman in 9 To 5 remained funny even though he was basically kidnapped and tortured for a much longer time than one can deem as redeemable?  Besides the fact that he remains a horrible misogynistic prick right up to the end?  Because no blood is ever spilt.  It lends proceedings a cartoony feel, an air of unrealness, that all of this behaviour is fine because no-one’s getting hurt so you can cheer on proceedings without ever having second thoughts, feeling guilty or expressing sympathy for the man.

Except that blood is suddenly spilt in the finale and it suddenly becomes harder to laugh at and cheer along with the breakdown.  It injects a shot of reality that makes proceedings unpleasant even though the guy having karma collapse on top of him is a huge twat who deserves bad things.  The physical comedy that causes the blood is still silly and over-the-top, to such an extent that if the blood wasn’t there it would probably still be OK.  But the blood is there and it adds a sudden shot of extreme meanness that, for me at least, pulled me out of that satisfied feeling the finale should have carried.  It’s jarring, primarily because blood never appeared anywhere else and it was too much of a shock for it to be in the finale.

In all fairness, there are some laughs here but they are mostly due to the cast of leads attempting to elevate poor material.  To some extent, they do succeed.  Although the actual scene of him on the toilet never ends up being funny, the whole bit is almost redeemed by a short scene at the end of it where Mark comes home and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau near-flawlessly delivers his explanation to Kate of why he’s turned up home in jeans that aren’t his, aren’t his size and why he’s about to “go see if the toilet can take a punch”.  Cameron Diaz is probably the weakest of the bunch, but it’s entirely down to the script that, again, paints her as Alpha Bitch for a lot of its run-time and then shoves her into a romance subplot with a guy who often looks like a douchier Wil Wheaton in order to pad out the runtime.  When the film lets her cut a bit loose, she does good work especially with her chemistry with…

…the film’s best asset, Leslie Mann.  If you do laugh at this film, I guarantee that 70% of the time it’ll be down to her.  She uses her natural charisma and peppy “I’m glad to be here and I will do everything to in my power to make whatever you hand me funny” attitude to great effect, saving over-long stretches or just plain willing material into being at the very least chucklesome.  A bit where she’s caught with Carly trying to break into an exclusive club really shouldn’t be funny at all, let alone the near minute and a half it runs for, but she manages to at least make the joke funny for some of that time by virtue of committing fully to the bit.  There’s a section where she and Carly are bitchily sniping at Amber from afar when they discover she’s another one of Mark’s mistresses in a scene that is so natural and free-flowing, and contains most of the film’s few legitimate funny lines, I can only assume it spun into improv.  And when the film finally allows Kate the chance to get her own back on Mark, Mann is there relishing every last second.  She is also a master at hysterical crying which is something her character has to do a lot and, credit is absolutely down to Mann here, it never gets old, producing most of the few legitimate laughs I had at the whole film.

I can’t wrap this review up, though, without mentioning Kate Upton and how surprisingly great she is here.  She may flub some line readings, but she’s got natural comic timing and is seemingly very excited to be here.  She plays her character as incredibly earnest where the script just wants to write her as Dumb Blonde and it’s the absolute best thing she could have done because it changes her character into somebody more entertaining than it would have been.  There’s a bit where the trio are brainstorming ways to hurt Mark and she suggests kicking him in the balls.  It’s not laugh out loud funny, but the pure non-cynical “girls, I suddenly have a great idea” nature of her delivery, and her puppy-dog facial expressions when Carly is gently shooting that idea down, at least gave me a good chuckle which is preferable to the total non-reaction I would have gotten otherwise.  It’s kind of a shame the film doesn’t use her more, because Upton is genuinely operating on a level not too far removed from the excellent Mann.  More roles like this for her, if she’s going to keep acting, please!

Lest you think I’m getting too soft or am about to do an about-face and let off The Other Woman, though, I should stress that my actual laughs were very, very few and far between.  Again, despite the cast’s absolute best efforts, this is garbage material at play and it can only be elevated so high.  I did smirk a fair bit, giggle a little bit often and, yes, openly laughed every now and again, but there were still too many stretches, too many unintentional stretches, where I was either rolling my eyes or sighing in disgust at yet another tired or unfunny gag or just plain not reacting at all, and those stretches are long.  Couple that with the weird tonal fluctuations and the botching of its ending and I cannot recommend The Other Woman overall.  It’s better than it could have been, looked and I thought it was going to be, but its capable cast only managed to take a dreadful looking comedy and turn it into a disappointingly bad one and that’s a damn shame.

Callum Petch is a little too young with not enough time.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Podcast: The Counselor, Unnamed Characters, and terrible sequel ideas

The Counselor BArdemTwo podcasts in one week! You lucky, lucky people.

This ‘week’s’ installment is heavy on the new releases, with the team running the rule over The Counselor, The Butler, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon.

We also dust off Triple Bill, presenting our favourite unnamed central characters; as well as discuss the new Marvel/Netflix projects, the Monty Python reunion, and a sacrilegious plan to produce a sequel to It’s a Wonderful Life.

Join us next week for our review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Owen, the old cynic, might have to watch The Family instead.

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