LITTLE TO LAUGH AT
THERE’S a scene in the new chickflick comedy, The Other Woman, that seems to typify post- Bridesmaids Hollywood: Mark (Nikolaj CosterWaldau), a married man and serial womaniser, is given a cocktail laced with laxatives by Carly (Cameron Diaz), one of his girlfriends, and winds up in a restaurant toilet evacuating explosively and at considerable length. This is supposed to be hilarious, and for many young filmgoers undoubtedly it will be, but (call it a generational thing if you like) I find it a bit depressing that this sort of adolescent toilet humour has become such a staple of socalled comedy on screen these days.
I’m tempted to remind the reader how smart and sophisticated comedies about adultery used to be (does anyone remember The Awful Truth?), but instead I’ll try to explain why I find The Other Woman and other films that confuse crass vulgarity for humour so tiresome.
The set-up is promising. As the opening credits unfold, Mark and Carly are enjoying a series of romantic dates while a sentimental song plays on the soundtrack. They make a handsome couple, and Carly — who, we later discover, is a lawyer — is clearly bowled over by Mark’s charm and attentiveness. He even gives her a present to mark the anniversary of their eighth week together. This romantic idyll comes crashing down the night Mark breaks a date with Carly with the excuse that he has a plumbing problem at his home in Connecticut and she decides to surprise him there, only to be confronted on the doorstep by his wife, Kate (Leslie Mann).
Despite everything, the wife and the girlfriend become close friends, and when they discover Mark is cheating on them both with the statuesque Amber (Kate Upton) they recruit her into the anti-Mark girls’ club — but, of course, if you’ve seen the trailer for the film you’ll know all this, and more, plus you’ll have seen all the best jokes, such as they are.
The film is directed by Nick Cassavetes whose father, John, was one of the great independent American filmmakers, a pioneer of the kind of intimate, probing, ultra-realistic style with landmark films such as Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence and many more.
Nick’s films to date have been maudlin ( The Notebook) or witless ( The Other Woman). Subtlety is not a word in his lexicon; he’s a stranger to nuance. He encourages his actors to play to the hilt and beyond, whether they’re in a sentimental drama or a silly comedy.
Cameron Diaz just about survives his direction, but Leslie Mann’s shrill and at times embarrassing performance doesn’t. Mann’s Kate is one of the most annoying characters seen in a movie in quite some time. However, Nicki Minaj, who overplays Carly’s secretary, is a close runner-up.
The director’s lack of subtlety extends to the selection of music used on the soundtrack; when the women decide to go on the attack, the theme from Mission: Impossible accompanies their actions, and that’s only one of the blindingly obvious uses of music cues.
In the end, even Melissa Stack’s screenplay fails to follow through on the theme of wronged women getting the better of weak and dishonest men: poor Amber winds up in the arms of a character (Don Johnson) not only established as yet another serial womaniser but one who is old enough to be her father. So much for neofeminism. IT must be tough to be the son of an artist such as John Cassevetes, who is widely regarded as a major figure, and being constantly reminded you’re not in the same league your old man. An- other case in point is Nils Tavernier, whose father, Bertrand Tavernier, is one of the finest of the older generation of French directors still active. (Bertrand’s latest, the funny and charming political comedy Quai d’Orsay, was a highlight of the recent French Film Festival.) Like Nick Cassavetes, Nils Tavernier began his career as an actor, but he has made a number of documentaries and two features, of which De toutes nos forces, aka The Finishers, is the second.
This is a story of courage and endurance in the field of sport. Julien (very well played by Fabien Heraud), suffers from congenital palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. He lives with his parents, Paul (Jacques Gamblin) and Claire (Alexandra Lamy), in a beautiful village in the French Alps. Tensions between father and son increase when Paul, who works on the maintenance of ski lifts, loses his job and takes to drinking in the local bar rather than spending time with his family.
Partly in an attempt to get his father out of a rut, but also to spend more time with him, Julien proposes they enter as a team in the forthcoming iron man race, which takes place in and around Nice. At first Paul dismisses the idea, but eventually agrees and — well, there are absolutely no surprises here, because even if you didn’t guess there’d be a happy ending the idiotic English title given to the film would confirm it for you.
Still, though the film is shorn of anything in the way of suspense or surprise, it’s very watchable, thanks to the competence with which it has been made, notably the fine photography by Laurent Machuel and the excellent performances from Gamblin and, especially, Heraud. The film strives to be inspirational and ends up being sentimental, but despite its flaws it conveys a sense of exhilaration and personal triumph. IN Review last week, Tom Ryan wrote about the background to Cedric Klapisch’s Chinese Puzzle, the New York-set culmination of a trilogy that began in 2001 with L’Auberge Espagnole, and there’s no doubt that catching up with the lives of Xavier (Romain Duris) and his friends every few years is proving as pleasurable as becoming re-acquainted every so often with the lovers in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. To begin with, discovering Xavier is no longer married to Wendy (Kelly Reilly), the girl he met in the first film, is almost as painful as learning a couple you know and like have divorced. But Xavier has accepted that Wendy is now living with an American (Peter Hermann) and has moved to New York to be close to his children.
Chinese Puzzle explores his life in an environment that is so different from his European roots with quiet humour, emphasising those chance encounters that can make such a difference. Xavier’s meetings with an injured taxi driver or an African-American single dad bring him unexpected opportunities as well as friendships. Klapisch packs a lot into the film and though there are a few missteps (Xavier’s encounters with dead German philosophers seem particularly ill-advised), the film as a whole is a very satisfactory conclusion to the trilogy — if, indeed, it is a conclusion. Perhaps we’ll be catching up with Xavier again in a few years.