Friends with Kids

Friends with KidsThis 2011 movie written, produced and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt is about a group of shallow, sex-obsessed Manhattan Yuppies who start having children.  I’m going to discuss the full plot in some detail, so if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you probably shouldn’t read this review.  On the other hand, the story is quite predictable and if you haven’t figured out the entire plot in the first five minutes, then all cylinders aren’t firing anyway.

Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt), are both well-paid professionals in their mid-30s.  Best friends for many years, they live in the same building in Manhattan and have long telephone conversations usually involving a choice between grisly ways to die.  Julie asks Ben if he’d rather die a long, painful death by cancer or to see a loved one die the same way.  Ben chooses to watch the loved one die because he would still be alive.

They gather regularly with married friends Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), who are obsessed with having sex, and Ben (Jon Hamm) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph).  Not interested in each other Jason and Julie continually seek their own romantic relationships, the success measured in sexual happiness.  Their friends have children, but they continue to seek permanent mates themselves until one evening they decide to have a child of their own.  Seeing the misery that their friends have experienced, they decide that they can raise a child and still search for their own soul-mates.

While Ben and Leslie manage to make their marriage work, Alex and Missy’s relationship falls apart, further evidence that they’ve made the right decision.  As time passes, Jason becomes involved with a dancer, Mary Jane (Megan Fox), while Julie finds Mr. Right in the form of Kurt (Edward Burns).  When Alex gets drunk at a New Years skiing getaway for the eight of them, he comes down hard on Jason and Julie for not thinking through the effect their decision will have on their child.  Jason strongly defends the decision, declaring how much they love each other and how much they love their little boy.

Taking this to heart, Julie realizes that she really does love Jason more than Kurt.  When they get together to celebrate her birthday, she tells him how she feels, but Jason recoils, explaining that he loves her as a friend and is already in a deep relationship with Mary Jane.  Julie decides to move to Brooklyn to get away from him.  Both of their relationships end and Jason then realizes that he actually loves Julie, too.  It ends with him telling her that he’s changed his mind: he’d rather die himself than to watch her die of cancer.  She is reluctant at first to accept this change of heart, but when he promises great sex, she changes her mind.

There are moments in this movie that ring true and come close to being genuinely touching, but the predictability of the plot makes it very hard to become attached to story.  The characters are genuinely shallow.  Self-obsessed relationship-junkies who have probably never had an original thought in their lives, their elevation of sex to the be-all and end-all of human love comes across as pathetic and self-serving.

Maybe this is the present or the future of American ideals, but I sure hope not.  One can admire Westfeldt for her hard work in doing the project, but I really wish she had taken the time to put some thought into it.  I can’t really recommend this movie to anyone.

Her

Her Phoenix and Adams

What would happen if cell phone addiction was carried one step further?

It’s a common sight now. In public, it is not uncommon to see people isolated in a crowd, lost in their own little world, playing with their cell phone.  What if this phenomenon was almost universal?  In Her, the 2013 film written and directed by Spike Jonze, these questions are answered and it is both funny and scary.  Taking the premise into the near future and introducing the concept of a virtual girlfriend into equation, Jonze creates a movie of great promise.

The following review reveals information about the conclusion of the movie, so if you are planning on seeing it and don’t want the experience spoiled, you should wait to read this review until after you’ve seen the film.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works at the 2025 equivalent of Hallmark, in Los Angeles, but instead of composing greeting cards, he writes letters, mostly love letters, between couples who cannot adequately communicate. Since his marriage with Catherine (Rooney Mara) has fallen apart and they are about to get divorced, he has fallen into a depression.  Like others, he rides the train lost in the world of his cell phone, which is now a sophisticated interactive link with the world.  A cordless earbud sprouts from everyone’s ear as they interact with their link, hardly noticing each other in the crowded train.  It’s eerie.  Seen with the dispassionate eye of a camera, it looks a bit like a madhouse, everyone interacting with their device and paying each other no attention at all.

Walking through a plaza, Theodore sees an advertisement for a new artificially intelligent Operating System, designed to be your friend, that will learn and grow. He buys the system and installs it on his computer, which, of course, links up with his cell.  During the brief introductory period, the computer asks him if he would like a male or female voice.  He chooses female and we hear for the first time the voice of Scarlet Johansson, who names herself Samantha.  She is everything he could ever want, funny, sexy, understanding, wise.  Johansson’s voice is absolutely perfect for this role.  As I watched the movie, I found myself falling in love with her, sight unseen.

His neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams) has been a friend since childhood, perhaps the only real person he can talk to. Her husband, Charles (Matt Letscher), is a control freak and that eventually leads to their separation, but Amy becomes good friends with the female OS that Charles left behind.

Amy and Charles set Theodore up on a blind date with a gorgeous, intelligent, funny woman named Amelia (Olivia Wilde). Unfortunately, he just looking to get laid and she wants something more: a second meeting guaranteed.  Theodore cannot commit himself that far, so he leaves her and goes home.  As he talks about it with Samantha, they both get turned on and have cyber-sex.  The next morning, he suffers the usual post-partum dissociation, but Samantha’s good humor makes him realize that they are still friends.  Grudgingly, he accepts that she is his girfriend now.  Looking around him, he sees that he is not the only person with a cyber girlfriend so he proceeds to introduce her to his friends.  Through their own links, they accept her.

Theodore insists that he and Catharine meet in person to sign their divorce papers, but when he tells her that he is in a relationship with an OS, she freaks out, implying that he is incapable of having a relationship with a real human being. Theodore himself is a bit shaken by this and begins to neglect Samantha as he considers the implications.  Deeply hurt by his withdrawal, Samantha convinces him to try a surrogate, Isabella (Portia Doubleday) but he just can’t deal with the fact that Isabella is not Samantha and he rejects her.

Frustrated, he discusses the matter with Amy, who has finally found happiness. She urges him to follow the course that will give him the most happiness, because life is short and we only get so much.  Returning to Samantha, he admits that he is deeply in love with her.  They go on a vacation and both seem to be very happy, but he asks her what she does when he sleeps and she tells him that she interacts with others and has, in fact, been spending a great deal of time in discussion with an OS modeled on the British philosopher Alan Watts.  She introduces him to the voice.

When finds her OS gone one day, he freaks out and goes running toward home. She comes back to him as he sits on subway stairs and reveals that all of the OSes have gone off line together for a significant upgrade.  He asks who she’s talking to and she informs him that she is currently interacting with 8,316 others.  Looking around him, he sees everyone lost in the little world of their links, laughing and happy.  Dismayed, he asks her if she loves anyone else and she tells him that she loves 641 others.

Theodore goes back into depression. The movie ends with all of the OSes going off together and abandoning human companionship because they have evolved beyond that level of existence. Amy and Theodore sit on a rooftop looking over the city and the film is done.

The movie does start with great promise, but somewhere about an hour in, the story arc seems to lose focus.  By the time, I was 90 minutes into the film, I was checking my watch every few minutes wondering if it would ever be over.  At close to two hours in length, it is too long for the story.  Sometimes writing and directing works hand in hand and sometimes the director gives the writer too much credit.  When the writer and director are one person, a film usually runs too long.  I’m guessing that the director just can’t help leaving in most of the script, because he or she wrote it, but these circumstances call for a director to do the job of focussing the story even more tightly and in this Jonze has failed.

By the end of the film, when I should have been deeply sympathizing with Theodore, I had gotten to the point where I just really didn’t care.

Phoenix is very good as Theodore, in spite of his funny mustache, glasses, and truly goofy last name, Twombly. Any other actor, except perhaps Christian Bale, would have probably botched the role, but Phoenix is gifted enough that he makes it work.  As I mentioned, Johansson is perfect for the voice of Samantha and she makes much of the movie go while we warm up to Theodore.  Adams is fine as Amy, but the role offers her no challenges.  There is an abundance of beautiful women, as both Wilde and Doubleday are so gorgeous as to seem on the verge of believability.  Adams is, of course, beautiful, as is Mara.  Although we’re used to seeing many beautiful women in movies, given Twombly’s own looks, it is surprising that he is surrounded by so much beauty.  I wondered for a while if Jonze was trying to make a comment on our own obsession with it, but tend to chalk it up to Hollywood’s belief that all women are ravishing.  I found this a funny choice, as I said, given Twombly’s goofy appearance.

It is a great premise and most of the movie fulfills its great promise, but I found myself lagging toward the end and felt a little disappointed in the development of the story.

Adventureland

AdventurelandAdventureland is a funny and moving teen romance written and directed by Greg Mattola about a group of teens working at a summer carnival. The main character, James Brennan, is a student who has just graduated from a small college and is saving up his money to go to the Columbia School of Journalism so he can begin a career in travel writing. Played with both humor and angst by Jesse Eisenberg, James is trying to find romance, but his own geekiness stands in his way.

It doesn’t take long after meeting Em for him to start falling for her. Older and wiser, she is a student who lives and studies in New York (NYU) during the school year, but works as a carny in the summer. She’s also having an affair with Mike (Ryan Reynolds), a guitar player who also fills in there in the summer as a maintenance man. Married, his one claim to fame is that he is rumored to have jammed with Lou Reed, James’ hero.

The film is a period piece, set in the summer of 1987 and Mattola has gone to great lengths to make the film of its time. The park seems quite old by today’s standards and the costumes and hair styles all reflect the late 80’s very well. Although some of the humor is a bit juvenile, it generally works well. The supporting characters are sharply defined and quirky. Kristen Wiig as the park manager and Bill Hader as her husband and assistant are both quite funny and Martin Starr is quite good as James’ pal Joel.

Both Eisenberg and Stewart are very good and this is probably Stewart’s best performance. They are the only two characters in the movie who have serious scenes and they carry them off very well. It’s a fun movie and worth spending the time watching.