McQuarrie, who hasn’t directed a picture since 2000’s promisingly nasty The Way of the Gun, keeps the proceedings stripped down to the essentials. As befitting a protagonist who espouses Spartan minimalism, the movie eschews modern CGI bombast and fancy editing tricks in favor of cleanly directed, practical stuntwork. It’s plain, old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes filmmaking that aspires to competence and simplicity, a nice change of pace.
There are sly supporting turns from Robert Duvall as a crotchety old Marine and Werner Herzog (!) as a seething, mysterious baddie. But Jack Reacher is The Tom Cruise Show, and he’s clearly having a blast playing up the character’s iconic deadpan. There’s a pulpy zing to the dialogue, with some serious belly laughs arising from Reacher’s blasé understatements and lightning-quick displays of superhuman strength. It could all easily seem like a silly exercise in movie-star ego gratification if Cruise and McQuarrie didn’t approach the material with just the right touch of knowing humor.
This is a very droll star performance, capitalizing on Cruise’s vaguely inhuman qualities better than any part since Collateral. He’s always at his funniest when taking himself desperately seriously, even if Pike overdoes it with the gobsmacked reaction shots.
Jack Reacher’s limited scale and modest ambitions make it sometimes feel a bit smaller than it should. But it’s hard to complain about such a sensibly crafted, business-like film. This thing is gonna play forever on cable. —Sean Burns
Jack Reacher opens in theaters nationwide on Fri., Dec. 21.
An All-Star Cast Hits Sour Notes in the Abysmally-Shot Les Misérables
Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables boasts a woman selling her hair and teeth before turning to prostitution, an Occupy-style student revolution gone bloodily awry, a Dickensian ragamuffin protractedly gunned down and the majority of its characters dying, often horribly. The title loosely translates into “the wretched.” Needless to say, the musical adaptation is the third longest-running show on Broadway (now closed) and the second longest on London’s West End (still going). The movie version opens on Christmas Day, presumably as an alternative to those who can’t stomach The Impossible, a recreation of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Abject suffering isn’t what makes this Les Miz—the 15th-or-so film adaptation, although the first with high kicks—periodically unbearable. It’s one thing to wallow in poverty and tragedy, but does it have to be shot so poorly? The director is Tom Hooper, who could do whatever he wanted after The King’s Speech. Hooper is almost certainly the only person to win a Best Director Oscar who can’t direct. That’s not fair; he’s generally good with actors. It’s not easy getting Geoffrey Rush to calm down, and he gets massive points for having Colin Firth do actual, not movie, stammering.
But at least Richard Attenborough and Ron Howard know how to set up a shot. Watching The King’s Speech in a theater, I kept wondering if the projectionist was high. Was the framing off? Why did everyone have massive head room? Was there an aesthetic reason to ritualistically violate the precious rule-of-thirds? It’s as though Hooper was trying to do for ugly framing what D.W. Griffith did for parallel action.
Hooper includes a couple “signature” head-room shots in his Les Miz, but most of the time, he has no idea where to put the camera. He tends to shove it in the actors’ faces, which works for the show’s many power ballads—sometimes. Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” sung “live” in an unbroken close-up, is as brutal and deeply felt as you’ve heard.
Other times, the camera’s close proximity seems to have made the actors uncomfortable. Hugh Jackman is theoretically a fine Jean Valjean, our reformed yet on-the-lam ex-con hero. But while he sounds a beaut, he looks pinched. Russell Crowe, as the absurdly dogged Inspector Javert, is a disaster: He’s stiff, as though he was entirely fixated on singing, something he can’t do. Hooper is lost when he has to shoot more than one performer. How you fuck up “Master of the House” is beyond me, although one way is by casting people (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who can’t carry a tune or bother to pronounce Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics.
Hooper’s Les Miz isn’t a train wreck. It’s a mixed bag, with some decent performances. And at the end of the day, most of those weaned on this monstrosity in their misspent youth won’t care that it’s a frequently bloated eyesore. This downer musical’s real draw has always been Claude-Michel Schönberg’s obnoxiously catchy melodies, although having “Lovely Ladies” and “Red and Black” take turns as one’s permanent earworms is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. —M.P.
Les Misérables opens in theaters nationwide on Tues., Dec. 25.
The Shrill, Overlong This is 40 Lacks One Key Ingredient: Humor
Clearly aspiring to be the John Cassavetes of dick jokes, writer-director and lowbrow comedy mogul Judd Apatow turns inward for This is 40, a semi-autobiographical sprawl with some bracingly honest moments strewn about the shapeless bickering. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their roles as Pete and Debbie, the devoted but dissatisfied married couple who stole Apatow’s 2007 surprise smash Knocked Up out from under Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl.
Now its five years later, and they’re both turning 40, though Debbie’s not ready to admit that quite yet. Instead, she goes on a passive-aggressive self-improvement bender, subjecting the family (their two daughters are once again played by Apatow and Mann’s own brood, Maude and Iris) to draconian health-food regiments and restrictions on electronic devices. What she doesn’t know is that they’re financially drowning, with Pete’s floundering record label betting it all on the unlikely prospect of a Graham Parker resurgence, and Debbie’s own clothing boutique hemorrhaging money. There’s also Pete’s mooch of a father (the sublime Albert Brooks) constantly dropping by for a handout.
It’s probably not the savviest moment in the zeitgeist to try and elicit sympathy for a wealthy couple living beyond their means. (Let’s just say that Apatow’s idea of financial distress is a good deal comfier than my own experiences.) The meandering first hour and a half of this absurdly overlong movie is much better at depicting the day-to-day grind of family life, unflinchingly chronicling all the temper tantrums, petty slights and lack of privacy that come with any prolonged cohabitation. Poor Pete’s often caught hiding in the bathroom, playing Scrabble on his iPad just to get away from the claustrophobic cacophony. A lot of the time, you’ll wish you could do the same.
Apatow’s severely underrated Funny People confounded audiences with its bleak streak of self-loathing, and I imagine This is 40 is headed for a similar fate. There’s an unflinching shrillness to the movie that is admirable in theory but rather off-putting in practice. It’s just not very funny. Worse is the feeling that we already saw Pete and Debbie cover most of this same ground already as a subplot in Knocked Up. What’s Rudd’s toilet sanctuary here besides a less-amusing spin on the previous picture’s revelation that he goes to the movies by himself? And yes, there is another scene in which Mann is the oldest gal at the nightclub, lacking the payoff we got last time around.
Things pick up quite a bit in the final stretch, with a prolonged birthday party sequence that, at last, allows the supporting players to interact and offer a bit of relief from Pete and Debbie’s central squabbles. Brooks heroically rides in to the movie’s rescue, dropping one deliciously acidic barb after another upon finally meeting Debbie’s estranged dad (John Lithgow). Jason Segel, Megan Fox and Robert Smigel mill about the margins scoring laughs, and though this is the most conventionally plotted portion of the film, it at least offers conflict resolution and a sense of forward motion.
It takes guts to cast your own family in such a warts-and-all portrait of married life. But even if Apatow’s honesty is commendable, after 134 minutes of This is 40, you can’t be blamed for wishing he’d keep some things to himself. —S.B.
This is 40 opens in theaters nationwide Fri., Dec. 21.
Geek Invasion 2013