Three is a Crowd

From crashing the wedding to crashing the honeymoon, Owen Wilson continues his one-man assault on the funny bones of the world with this middling ménage-a-trois comedy, which might be underwritten and derivative but still provides a fine platform for the golden boy’s easy charms. In You, Me & Dupree, newlyweds Molly (Kate Hudson) and Carl (Matt Dillon) return from their Hawaiian honeymoon to discover that Carls oldest friend, and best man, Randolph Dupree (Owen Wilson), is homeless, broke and looking for somewhere to stay. Carl offers him the couch, without first clearing it with the new wife, and so begins a comedy of exaggeration that is ruthlessly efficient in its bright and breezy method, with a script tweaked to within an inch of bruising to deliver the humourous circumstances that allows a wide-eyed Wilson to do his thing in his calm, carefully measured, way. Molly and Carl are the perfect couple, with a fine line in eco-consciousness and social responsibility. A trust fund girl, she teaches a class of children in a public school. He toils as a low level desk-jockey in her fathers company, promoted after the marriage but disillusioned that his pet project – an ecologically sustainable property development – has been changed by her father (Michael Douglas) into a sprawling conurbation.

Although she looks like a strong breeze would knock her over, the smiling Kate Hudson is an adorable presence, goodness herself, with the face of a beauty queen and the patience of a Stoic. With an easy sexuality and a nice line in spontaneity, Hudson does very well in this rare foray into comedy. Beside her, and playing Wilson’s straight-man, Matt Dillon is asked to do some very odd things, least of which is change from generous buddy to jealous husband in a couple of short scenes. Stranger still is the appearance of the permanently surprised-looking Michael Douglas, doing a riff on his Wall Street character Gordon Gekko to little comic effect although his shiny visage is a tribute to the art of sandblasting. Unhappy with his daughter’s choice of husband, Douglas’ mean old dad hatches various humiliations for Carl, the most conniving of which involve bringing Molly and Dupree closer together.

Played strictly according to the formula and adding nothing in particular to the long run of similar American comedies, Dupree is a mediocre romp elevated to three-star respectability by Wilson’s endearing presence. Part Zen philosopher, part surf dude, part puppy dog; what Wilson does best is play annoying characters without being annoying to watch. Skirting the borders between sweetness and infuriation, Dupree is a classic Wilson character, an innocent abroad, wrinkling his brow at everyday American life, confused by everything but able to smooth the ruffles in life with a smile and a wink. I have no doubt this kind of man still exists somewhere outside of the movies, a thirty-something with negligible emotional intelligence, eternally arrested in adolescence and prepared to float through life on a breeze, but Dupree is also a man with advanced cooking skills and the innate ability to exist on his wits alone, so how does that work? Dupree’s breathless tomfoolery, little of which is particularly inspired, seems sometimes like the actions of a different character in a different movie, one that doesn’t have to rely on tired old set-ups and extracts from old movies to make its point. Dupree is an essentially tragic character, popping up in a knockabout farce and joining in the fun, but his confident grin doesn’t really hide the sadness. “Oh, I can’t impose”, he says, while already seated and scanning the room for somewhere to dump the rest of his stuff. It’s a shame he is surrounded by so many distractions, from a lost-and-found of physical props to the more infuriating dead-end sub-plots, which together swallow-up his essentially good-natured Dupree, leaving him chasing around in circles mugging for laughs. They do not always arrive.

For a film that, at almost two hours, is more than a little too long, Dupree contains some decidedly strange omissions. The character of Mandy, a Mormon librarian corrupted by Dupree in an homage to Last Tango In Paris, is never shown on screen. Later, the shrewish wife of a neighbour can certainly be heard, screaming orders, but again, her face isn’t seen. These enforced anonimities are odd decisions, that ensure Hudson is the only woman on display but cause the film to suffer as a result. Other elements of the set-up feel forced and unnecessary. A street full of neighbourhood kids, all arrived from central casting with their 8x10s still pinned to their lapels, add nothing but backdrop to Dupree’s kidult capering. A very craggy Harry Dean Stanton gets a bewildering cameo that leaves the distinct impression there was far more of his performance dropped to make room for another chase sequence or gags about malfunctioning toilets. The other cameo comes from Lance Armstrong, the mono-testicled cyclist who pops up momentarily in more than a few of these buddy comedies, representing, I suppose, the crowning achievement of American manhood and the glory that awaits us all, if we only had the time and the thighs.

Wilson antics in particular had me sniggering away but the comedy is not sustained in any meaningful sense, the energizing release a big laugh would bring doesn’t arrive and the film peters out to such an extent that it was difficult later to recall the events of the final reel, barring the usual frantic chasing about that typically brings events to a stop in this battered old genre. With Dupree, we get three of these toppers in a row, the various degrees of destruction wrought providing the backdrop for most of the secondary cast to take a final bow and good night. It’s a shame but it is not unusual for welcomes to wear thin, as Dupree could tell you himself.

What Does A Scanner See?

Richard Linklater is for me, one of those hit or miss filmmakers but regardless (- I have to stop myself going into my anti Before Sunrise, Before Sunset rant here. Give me a minute-...) one with the ability and determination to make his own personal, experimental films, like them or not (-deep breath-) while at the same time crafting slick commercial entertainments like School of Rock. Thankfully A Scanner Darkly is a hit, but a perverse one. A meditation on the nature of addiction and perceptions of reality presented as a paranoid, psychedelic freak-out, Scanner Darkly is real, surreal and hyper-real and all at the same time. It’s as close as science-fiction cinema has come since Blade Runner to capturing the vibrancy, intensity and complexity of Phillip K Dick’s fiction. That it achieves this while being made more linear and accessible and frequently very funny, marks it out from the crowd of others that have tried and failed to translate Dick’s warped, wild visions into ‘must-see’ cinema.

As he did with his stream-of-semi-consciousness Waking Life, Linklater has shot the film in real life and then applied the techniques of ‘interpolated-rotoscoping’ to the results, making Scanner Darkly into a kind of demonic cartoon, a constantly shifting, ethereal presentation that connects with the films themes of disorientation, identity loss and hallucination. Set in the sprawling Californian exurbs ‘seven years from now’, the film opens with one of its strongest scenes, as Freck (Rory Cochrane), a junkie addicted to Substance D, wakes to find he is covered in monstrous insects that might or might not be crawling under his skin. Unnerved, he hightails it to the oracle Barris (Robert Downey Jr), a talkative, similarly addicted know-it-all, who dispenses cracked advice from the sofa in the doss house he shares with Ernie (Woody Harrelson) and Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves). They are all addicted to the same drug, marking time through popping pills and amusing themselves with garbled conversations and conspiracies. Arctor, though, is not what he seems. Not only is he a drug addict, in a relationship with a dealer Donna (Winona Ryder), but he is also an undercover policeman, assigned to infiltrate this zoned-out gang and remove the threat of Substance D from the streets. Arctor though has turned, and despite wearing a ‘scramble suit’, a constantly shifting human appearance projected onto a holographic outfit that gives him a sealed, protected environment to work in. Arctor is both operator and subject of a massive government surveillance network, a grid of phone-taps, satellite cameras and spies that matches the sprawl of housing estates, roads and blank office buildings in which he operates. There are references throughout to Dick’s other fiction, and the film even boasts an appearance from the writer as one of the multitude of images in the scramble suit. The shaggy, mad-looking one.

Although it might appear straightforward enough when laid out in synopsis, Scanner Darkly turns constantly, adding layers of deception and deceit onto its mobile surface, a whirlpool of interconnected relationships made even messier when we discover that Arctor is spying on himself and that Barris has turned informant, believing his friend to be a terrorist recruiter. Arctor is nearing the end of the road, the regime of drug addiction and the strain of his double life precipitating a breakdown, one that leads him to another sealed environment, a meadow full of flowers and a lobotomized life as a farm worker. The whacked-out environment and the surface gloss of animation makes it more difficult for the actor’s performances to make a deep connection, but Reeves in particular does extremely well, blank and monotone as we have come to expect, but full of emotion and despair as he moves inexorably to his own psychic breakdown, without the softening touch a note of hope would allow. The film calls for Reeves to deliver whole chunks of Dick’s precise, maddening prose in a dreamy voiceover, an insight into his interior descent as powerful as his outward decline. Downey Jr, Harrelson and Ryder have all, interestingly, had their own well-publicised drug addictions, lending some real-life weight to their anxious roles, even if Downey Jr plays Barris for laughs, Harrelson does an easy surf-bum and Ryder floats moodily through the piece, as if she is someone else, somewhere else. And perhaps, according to the noir-influenced Dick, she is. Linklater has taken the best of the source novel and compressed it into a unique and overwhelming film, as paranoid and unhinged as any of Dick’s work, but one with the directors own stamp of authorship applied, making it as close to a dead-cert cult-hit as anything we’ll see this summer. Profoundly pessimistic, immediately relevant and as dark and stark as its title suggests, Scanner Darkly, which ends with a scrawl of Dick’s LSD casualty friends over the closing credits, is a perplexing, ethereal film that offers as much immediate, satisfying entertainment as it does food for thought later.

"A Lightning Doodle Project"

Long exposure times and coloured torches allow the Japanese animators at PIKAPIKA to eat light and shit magic.

Not Waving But Drowning

Lucky old Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), the newspaper film critic in M Night Shyamalan’s bizarre and incompetent new film about a beautiful sea nymph called Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) who inspires ordinary people to do magical things. The socially awkward, snippy new arrival to The Cove, an apartment building managed by Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), encounters a CGI monster three-quarters of the way through The Lady In The Water, and is so spared the sight of talents like Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright and Bryce Dallas Howard struggle through to an uncaring finish, not waving but drowning.

The film, from a story Shyamalan made up to read to his children before bed, starts badly, with an introductory hieroglyphic animation that gives a scant introduction to a magical universe of undersea creatures that once lived in harmony with man. These angelic creatures, called Narfs, make occasional forays onto land from The Blue World to impart wisdom to Man and inspire peace on earth. Trying to stop them are the demonic Snarks, camouflaged wolves with red eyes and sharp teeth. Later, when it suits Shyamalan, we discover that the Snarks are policed by a similarly difficult-to-see gang of cosmic monkeys called the Tarturic, but only if there’s a full moon and an ‘r’ in the month and you touch your nose while turning around three times. Or some such. Cleveland is charged with assembling the team that will cast the complicated spell in order to allow the dying Story return to her own world, a Dirty Dozen of freaks and dropouts that must all play some part in the ceremony. All he must do is figure out who does what and when. This slow, convoluted casting, cued up by a taciturn Korean mother’s half-remembered old folk tale, conveniently allows Cleveland to do all those things that a diligent writer might do. He gets out and meets people, asks questions. He observes and listens. This emergence, which is told in a mundane array of episodic chapters, is the second half of the film. Shyamalan, who appears to be making it up as he goes along, even has his snooty film critic explain to Cleveland the various cookie-cutter rules of Hollywood storytelling, describing how the permutations might play out in a supposedly barbed taunt that only casts the directors own fluency and motivation in a further poor light.

In casting himself as a pivotal character, a blocked writer whose half-finished book holds the key to the future happiness of the world no less, Shyamalan displays an unfettered egotism only previously suspected. His is a strange, blank performance, played mostly in close-up. He’s no actor and this time, as director, fares little better. From the get go, Lady In The Water has a rushed, unfinished feel, a sepulchral pace and a rapidly dwindling interest. There is none of the grand staging, inventive camera positioning or other directorial grace notes Shyamalan has shown before. The toothy Snarks offer a few ‘boo’ moments to maintain attention levels but otherwise the production follows the storyline, being flat, cramped and bland.

Not even the usually dependable ensemble cast (and ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle) can rescue the film, itself an exemplar of the maxim that ‘cinema starts on the page’ as any of its own crippled allusions; to writers and their interior voices or faith in the salvation of imagination. Giamatti is the only one here with any presence, even if his stuttering, damaged loner never emerges as a true hero. Damsel in distress Bryce Dallas Howard does well initially, her pale features giving her a compelling, otherworldly look, but she is removed from the second half of the film, huddled in a shower cubicle spouting riddles while Cleveland rushes around enabling her, and his own, self-actualisation. Almost everyone we are introduced to in the building is a writer of some description; novelist, diarist or storyteller. One guy loves crosswords so much we never see him without a pencil and a folded newspaper. His ten year old son helps by reading secret messages hidden on the back of a cornflakes box, much in the same way Shyamalan does, you might think. These eccentric wordsmiths, and their various fellow tenants, are all wilfully inventive, wise and well-meaning and, crucially, able to suspend disbelief on cue, especially when the visitor called ‘Story’ arrives out of the blue. The film is not peopled with characters – these are beasts of burden, all carrying heavy metaphors and waiting to drop them off at appropriate points to supply the plot. Curiously, the heavier the metaphor, the less dramatic weight it adds.

Lady In The Water is a vainglorious self-portrait drawn as a simplistic fairy tale and a thundering waste of resources – talent, reputation and audience time. It is the flimsiest, most apologetic feature yet from the flim-flam man Shyamalan, whose output since his breakthrough film The Sixth Sense has been a steady decline into mediocrity. Referenced throughout the script and prominent in the advertising is the director’s coy line about his film being merely a ‘bedtime story’. Some might think this is misdirection, another devious cinematic trick. They might expect to find instead a reinvention of old genetic memories, doing for folk tales what Sixth Sense did for ghost stories, or Signs did for paranoid UFO movies. Lady In The Water has nothing like that. It is dull and insipid and fatuous. There is no enchantment here; just foolish, immature thinking, babbling gobbledegook and ultimately, embarrassment for all concerned.

Engine Trouble

From their first short film, twenty years ago, the Californian animation studio Pixar have set the standard in computer-drawn cartoon features, a mark none of their competitors have come close to matching; six record-breaking, impossibly innovative blockbusters in a row that rejuvenated a dying art-form and brought happiness to millions of children and their equally rapt parents. Yet, with Cars, their seventh release and the pet-project of their most successful director John Lasseter, that long run of winning films comes to an end, with the studio’s consistently maintained qualities of character and script falling shy of perfection.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a confident, charming young racing car, in his rookie year on the competitive circuit and desperate to make his name. Having lost his companion Mack The Truck (returning Pixar favourite John Ratzenberger), Lightning is speeding along the famous old Route 66 when he crashes, literally, into sleepy Radiator Springs, destroying the main street and causing consternation among the few inhabitant automobiles that remain in the almost-abandoned roadside town. Brought before the judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), the cocky racer is sentenced to community service, which must be completed before he can leave to get to the final race of the season. Lightning must win the coveted Piston Cup in order to secure a better contract with a more glamorous, better equipped sponsor, introducing an element of beat-the-clock to his court-appointed good works, his efforts to restore the town dwindling spirits, assemble a new pit crew and win the heart (carburettor?) of the smart, optimistic local beauty, Sally The Porsche, brightly voiced by Bonnie Hunt. The rest of the folks in town, a population that offers various diversions and entertaining dead-ends, include the slow-witted Mater The Tow Truck (voiced by a US hillbilly comedian called Larry the Cable Guy), Fillmore The VW Van (George Carlin) a free-wheeling throwback specialising in ‘natural’ fuels, and Tony Shalhoub and Guido Quaroni as the Ferrari-loving tyre specialists Luigi and Guido.

Putting the undeniable skill and passion of the filmmakers aside, there is a limited appeal in the general scenario and only so many familiar car-related puns and jokes that Lasseter and his five other credited screenwriters can inject to liven things up. The decision to meld a couple of Hollywood standard storylines, and following them through without deviation, makes Cars a thin experience. Lasseter gives us another take on the notion that an impetuous youngster will learn lessons from a grizzled veteran and cannot avoid including whole sections establishing the soothing effect that the low-tempo rural way of life has on the spirit of a sophisticated urbanite. Once we go down these well-travelled roads, there is no turning back, making long stretches seem more like an animated updating of Doc Hollywood than a wholly original tale.

The films two big racing set-pieces top and tail the central story, leaving long sections of the film without much in the way of excitement, visual or otherwise. Ultimately, the story here is too twee and culturally specific to connect with audiences with the same impact as the undersea spaces of Nemo or the alternate universes of Toy Story. Cars laps at a much slower pace than Pixar usually set, extending the middle section of the film at the cost of making scant introductions and one-track characterisations that in turn reduce any surprises when it comes to the chequered flag. It’s also the least funny of the studio’s films, or perhaps my ignorance of the scenarios of NASCAR racing meant most of it went over my head. The score, from regular Pixar tunesmith Randy Newman, is virtually anonymous, not helped by the absence of the space in which to stage a jaunty sing-along. Squealing tyres and revving engines fill in instead, at volume.

The character design in Cars is somewhat less than we have come to expect from Pixar, with the fundamental design of the inspirational automobiles only made remotely anthropomorphic with the addition of windshield eyes and flipper-like tyres. The background art here is the real stand-out; pin-point accurate, bright and clear and astonishingly detailed. The single most stunning sequence comes during Lightning and Sally’s sparky romantic interlude, a meandering drive through the mountains and on into the Baja desert that offers luminous landscapes and backdrops, the striated mesas drawn after the old bonnet ornaments of the streamlined fifties, lit gold by a setting sun. Even by Pixar’s own high standards, this sequence is a breathtaking piece of work but without the connection with the characters that generates a growing emotional involvement in the adventure itself, Cars becomes just another digital cartoon, one in a very long line of similar releases already this year. The studios seventh feature is a solid entertainment for kids rather than the transcendent display of cutting-edge writing and animated artistry we have come to expect. Incidentally, don’t leave before the closing credits – the traditional ‘outtakes’ are better than most of what has gone before.