Welcome to the latest, greatest Viewing Diary. This week we have the hit comedy Neighbors, the indie puzzler The Double, along with looks at William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and the comedy classic Airplane!
Dir: Nicholas Stoller
One of the many things that makes Neighbors so enjoyable is its efficiency. In a world where so many comedies let scenes ramble on for way too long, this film ruthlessly moves from scene to scene without letting a gag overstay its welcome. There may be one exception (an extended riff featuring various takes on the phrase “bros before hos”) but it’s to the film’s credit that this exchange, which would be pretty standard for most comedies of this ilk, feels a bit long in the tooth. All this helps Neighbors become a wildly entertaining Hollywood comedy that works simply because it features great jokes, characters, performances and direction. There’s no real secret to this film’s success, except that it’s really, really good at what it is trying to do.
If there is a key, it is Rose Byrne, and by that I don’t just mean her performance. (Though it’s fantastic.) It’s that Neighbors actually makes her an equal part of the action. Often times you’ll see a film like this toss the female characters to the side and let Seth Rogen go to war against the frat next door on his own, all while Byrne looks on disapprovingly. Her character is very much the co-lead of Neighbors, and she takes full control of every scene she is in. Much credit should also go to Zac Efron, who tried his hand at R-rated comedy earlier this year in That Awkward Moment, but couldn’t quite elevate a horrific character. Here he shows just how charismatic a performer he can be, and he proves to be the perfect counterpoint to Rogen and Byrne’s married couple. It’s all a very literal, and hilarious, battle between youth and adulthood, along with one of the greatest baby performers in cinematic history. That face, you guys. That face.
The Double (2014)
Dir: Richard Ayoade
Richard Ayoade’s The Double seems to take place in a universe where there is no such thing as “outdoors.” Even when the characters are ostensibly outside, it feels as though they are living under some kind of dome that gives them just enough light to function, but no more than is needed. This is a murky, bleak universe that certainly seems suffocating for the characters, and occasionally for the audience as well. There have been many apt comparisons to Brazil, and while this is mostly due to the look and tone, this film similarly explores the idea of a man living a life with no immediate meaning. His name is Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), and while he is a smart enough employee he has no apparent ability to stand out anywhere in his life. One day, however, a new employee shows up at work named James, and the two of them happen to look identical.
As you might expect, James is a much more confident man than Simon. He rises through the ranks at their office, is very successful with the ladies, and in general seems to float through life without much resistance. If there are still any skeptics out there of Eisenberg’s acting abilities, this film should shut them up. He plays the roles of both Simon and James incredibly well, showing how two distinct, opposite personalities can actually be two sides of the same coin. If only the film was able to match Eisenberg’s charisma, then it really would have had something. As it is, The Double is an effective showcase for a lot of talented people, but it’s all a little too cold to become truly engaging. Plus, as outwardly odd as Ayoade’s universe it, it also feels very familiar. He certainly knows what to do with the camera, and he writes some wonderful dialogue, but The Double doesn’t quite have a story as intriguing as the premise and performances deserve. This film seems set up for greatness at the outset, but it gets lost on the way.
Dir: William Friedkin
Film history is full of passion projects that land with a thud, but time has been kind to William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, which initially was gobbled up by a troubled production and a release date precisely one month after a little sci-fi project called Star Wars was set loose upon the world. In the wake of a thrilling epic like that, Sorcerer must have seemed like a real buzzkill, and it’s easy to see why. A re-imagining of The Wages of Fear, Friedkin’s film follows four criminals as they attempt to transport four cases of nitroglycerine across South America to an exploded oil rig. This is some sensitive nitroglycerine too; it’s made clear that any significant disturbance of the material will lead to an unfortunate and deadly explosion. Once the rather long prologue is out of the way, the plot of Sorcerer essentially becomes a filmed version of an egg-and-spoon race, only a whole lot grimmer. Recently released on Blu-ray, this film has gotten the second wind it so deeply deserves, even though it’s hard to see it ever breaking through to mainstream acclaim. It’s a quiet, difficult film, every moment loaded with existential terror. Even so, the best scene in the film is actually the loudest, as the trucks attempt to cross a swaying rope bridge in the middle of a raging storm. In a film usually so careful with its words, this sequence is Sorcerer‘s chance to scream bloody murder.
Dir: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker
There’s not a great reason behind this viewing, except that I came across it On Demand and I realized I hadn’t seen it since I was much younger, so hey, why not? My main takeaway this time around: what really makes this whole thing work is the acting. There are about a million gags per second here, of course, but it would have all fallen apart if there was a single wink at the camera. Sure, Leslie Nielsen rightfully gets a lot of the accolades, but just about every actor in this thing plays every scene absolutely straight. There’s barely a smile to be found, and that’s what sells it. I don’t think an Airplane!-type film has been able to pull this off since then, and it’s likely because no ensemble has been so able to fully commit to the truly absurd material. Everyone involved with Airplane! knew precisely the movie they were making, and it’s still a classic because it has yet to be replicated.