Sunday, August 3, 2014

A.C.O.D. (Adult Children of Divorce) / Bachelorette

A.C.O.D. - 2013, d. Stu Zicherman -- netflix
Bachelorette - 2012, d. Leslye Headland -- netflix

The theatrical comedy isn't what it once was.  It used to be that you would go to the theatres to see unhinged, madcap comedies, featuring curse words and nudity and things you wouldn't normally see on TV.  It was at the movies where the biggest and funniest comedic actors could be found, in movies that would put them in ever more outrageous situations.  But with cable TV and the relaxing rules about what you can't say or show on network television, there's not as much need for comedy on the big screen, and in truth, it has a harder time existing there.  Television has the definite advantage when it comes to character-based comedy, as it has the ability to grow characters and relationships over time and build jokes upon them.  Movies aren't able to earn quite the same reward in such a short amount of time.  Situational-based comedies is where movies can have an edge, particularly where the situation calls for a bigger budget to execute the comedy.  More and more it's the big blockbuster movies that seem to be filling the desire for comedy on screen, able to deliver both character and situation based comedy amid gunfire and explosions.  It seems that smaller, character-based comedies have been largely relegated to the on-demand world, the modern version of direct-to-video.

A.C.O.D. is one such film, a film that falls into the "light comedy" category.  There's no big, outrageous set pieces here, and there's no hint of gross-out factor that seems prevalent in the most successful comedies in recent years, it's just a character piece exploring a topic in a semi-humorous way that would otherwise be dramatic and painful.  It's not a laughaminute/laugh-out-loud affair, but it is humorous, engaging, and presents a story not often seen, certainly not from this perspective.

Parks and Recreation's Adam Scott is Carter.  He runs a successful restaurant and has a lovely, supportive and understanding girlfriend of many years in a  Lauren (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).  His brother, Trey, lives in his garage, living a rather aimless life, but announces that he and his girlfriend Kieko are getting married.  Carter is given the task of negotiating wedding details with their long-divorced, still-feuding parents (and exceptionally game Catherine O'Hara and Richard Jenkins) which dredges up emotions he long thought were resolved.  He seeks out his therapist from childhood (a charmingly bohemian Jane Lynch) who turns out not to have been a therapist at all, but an author sitting with kids for research on her bestselling book "Children of Divorce".  She asks Carter if he will be a subject for her follow-up book, "Adult Children of Divorce", and he reluctantly agrees, thinking he's so well adjusted, just as his life spirals out of control upon catching his parents, since remarried, having an affair with each other.

What is most intriguing about this film is how honest Carter's emotional state seems to be.  Scott is a gifted deadpan actor, and here he's playing the straight man once more, but it's the straight man steadily coming unglued.  Typically in these sorts of character comedies, it's external factors that start driving the character insane, typically another character who is highly annoying or aggravating.  But Carter's ungluing comes from his own issues about how his life should be, and not how it is.  In most comedies, when the male protagonist comes to the realization that his long-suffering girlfriend is the woman he's meant to be with, it feels like a win... in this movie it's just another symptom of Carter's crisis of self.

The film often  teeters perilously close to wacky shenanigans as characters start colliding, but the film doesn't treat everyone like they're simpering babies, but that they can have grown up conversations and emotions and deal with things without slapstick and goofballs.  The film's close is amazing, set one year later, an abrupt halt of a non-ending with Carter, his brother and his dad all sitting on the church steps, someone's about to get married, but it doesn't let on who.  Genius.

It's not going to be a classic, and it doesn't have big memorable laughs like 40-Year-Old Virgin (it's poster is yet the latest take on the Sears Studio candid shot style) nor any meme-generating quotes but it's interesting and engaging in a different ways with plenty of chuckles to go along with it.

Like A.C.O.D., Bachelorette was a direct-to-VOD picture with a simultaneous limited-market theatrical release.  A less forgiving reviewer would liken it to an "All-girl version of Hangover" but that's awfully reductive and kind of demeaning (and that particular descriptor was pasted all over Bridesmaids, so there).  True, Bachelorette is vulgar, heavy on drug use, and not shy about sex, but its its own comedy beast, and doesn't need a male analog to be compared to.

With one of the quartet getting married, high school friends, affectionately known as The Bitch Faces, reunite in New York for a the wedding and the bachelorette party the night before hand.  Becky (Rebel Wilson) is the first of these now-30-something friends to get married, and she's asked control freak/queen bitch/perfectionist Regan (Kirsten Dunst) to organize the wedding.  Flying back in for the rehearsal is Gena (Lizzie Caplan), a lifelong partier, and perpetually clueless Katie (Isla Fisher).  When Becky freaks out at the main party, it ends, leaving Regan, Gena and Katie to their own devices... or rather, their own vices, cocaine and booze.  Goofing around the hotel room, extremely high, they mangle Becky's wedding dress, and set out on an evening's adventure to attempt to fix it.

Much like any "wild night out" style movie, the wild night is just a premise for revealing the truths about the characters and/or resolving any conflict between them.   As a remarkable change of pace for female-led comedies, there's next to no conflict between the women themselves.  They're best friends, and tensions may rise between them, but they also rise above it quickly enough, their friendship never in doubt.  The journey here is either self discovery or dealing with the past, inching only slightly forward to self-improvement, but still positive steps for progression have been made by the end.

Regan, Gena and Katie all earn about the same amount of screen time, but Lizzie Caplan's arc is the biggest of the three.  Gina is a bold and complex character, her second scene in the film takes place on a plane, seated next to an overwhelmingly enthused Horatio Sanz, as she discusses blowjob science at length as a means to antagonize him.  As a character she shields herself behind sex and drugs, because she's uncomfortable with her life.  Having to face her high school ex-boyfriend (Adam Scott, again) leads to an awkward, but necessary and cathartic reunion, and perhaps change, but it's not so cut an dry.

Regan, meanwhile, is a role Kirsten Dunst needed to play.  She's shallow and vain, bitchy and demanding, but also fiercely loyal with a never-say-quit attitude.  She has a boyfriend in med school whom she barely tolerates and generally finds her life unfulfilling (her rote speech about working with sick children betrays much of her supposed selflessness), thinking that she deserves whatever it is she wants, even though she obviously knows how to work for it.  Being on the receiving end of her primadonna act seems utterly miserable, but being the benefactor of her efforts can make a world of difference.  Dunst excels in the role.  Having watched her from a child in Interview With A Vampire through to the Spider-Man series and beyond, this may well be her best role ever.  She owns it and is believable as both a doctor and a monstrous bitch.  She's given a showcase as Regan takes to action in the final act, coordinating the final wedding arrangements while covering up the horrific details in the background from the bride.  It's an impressive sequence, that takes the manic pace up to frenetic, thus earning the cool-down-epilogue that follows.

Isla Fisher is given the task of finding something truthful in the dumb girl archetype, and she really sells it.  She starts the film as a vapid sales clerk with a gawking hanger-on (I wasn't certain if it was her gay best friend or a lustful straight boy) and turns into a careless partier.  She's sick of the type of guys she dates, but spends no amount of time thinking about what she really wants (or really thinking at all).  When she meets Joe at the wedding reception, a pleasant computer programmer, he professes to still harbor a lasting crush on her from high school, and she can't even remember his name.  In a nice role reversal, Joe won't have sex of an overdrunk Katie, despite her advances, but the impact rejection has on Katie is even more telling.

It's a shame that Becky is really relegated as the films centering point, but otherwise an inactive participant. Having watched and enjoyed Rebel Wilson's short-ish lived "Super Fun Night", she's a great comedic performer, writer and improviser who could have added a unique fourth dimension to the film.  She does have some pivotal moments at the beginning and the end, but she's not allowed to flesh out as much as the other characters.

Bachelorette is a solid comedy, straight out.  It's not a chick flick, there no "need a man to complete me" message here.  Love, sex, and romance do all have their place, but it's not the heart of the film.  It's telling that with such a gifted cast and convention-defying script, that such a well-made film got relegated to the on demand world.  It speaks to both the status of comedies and female-led comedies that studios don't put much backing into a picture of this level to push it out on the mass audience. It's great that this film got made, but without the big market push and exposure it's still represents the usual repression of earnest female sexuality in American entertainment.