Vanity Fare

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More so than ever, we seem to live in a cultural world unable to let things die. Every time a television series is canceled, or ends its run voluntarily, there are immediate calls for it to be resurrected elsewhere in TV or movie form. The former makes a bit of sense, but the idea of making a feature film as a sequel to any series has never added up for me. For one, most television shows are television shows for a reason, making their formulas particularly ill fitting for feature length. This is especially true of Entourage, a 30-minute HBO show that has been blown up to 100 minutes and given a wide theatrical release. Its formula is so low-stakes, so predictable, and, frankly, so uninteresting that attempting to turn it into a worthy cinematic event seems inherently like a fool’s errand.

To begin, I will admit I am no Entourage expert. However, in the days leading up to my viewing of the film, I burned through this list of eight episodes recommended by show and movie mastermind Doug Ellin. It didn’t take long for me to catch on to the series’ ever-stagnant dynamic, and its obsessions with giving its protagonists a happy ending whether it makes any dramatic sense or not. Take the ending of the season five finale “Return to Queens Blvd.,” which is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen. The episode, as a whole, is not bad—as close as this series gets to a character piece—and it actually suggests that things might go wrong for the career of our hero Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier). Then, in the dying moments, he gets a call from Martin Scorsese offering him the lead in his next project. All relationships are mended, and the season ends with our group of immensely successful white dudes walking down the street together in victory.

Entourage, the movie, is essentially just an extension of the show’s worst tendencies—a non-plot held together by shoehorned cameos and female nudity. It begins with a boat party in Ibiza and ends with (spoiler alert) one of the characters winning a Golden Globe award. The film centers on the production of Hyde, a $100 million retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story in which the protagonist is a dystopian DJ played by Chase, who also directed. The main conflict for most of the movie is Chase’s desire to get more money to polish his masterpiece’s visual effects, but the financier (Billy Bob Thornton) isn’t giving it up. We only see a couple minutes of Hyde, and it looks horrid. But forget that, because we’re told multiple times that it’s actually an incredible feat that will make a billion dollars and bulldoze through awards season. As you might be able to tell from what I revealed above, that’s precisely what happens. Entourage is so perversely dedicated to its basic premise of “rich white man does well” that it’s almost admirable.

While this budget squabble is the primary thrust of the film’s “plot,” there’s a whole lot of equally tedious nonsense going on. Eric, aka “E” (Kevin Connolly) is about to have a baby with his ex-girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui), but in the meantime has sex with two other women and must deal with the consequences of that. (It is just like Entourage to have a major conflict resolve around one of its protagonists having too much sex.) Vincent’s brother Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) hopes that his role in Hyde will propel his career forward. Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) is now very rich in his own right and wants to go out with MMA fighter Ronda Rousey. There are various cameos, most of which consist of said celebrity showing up, yelling a profanity at somebody, and then leaving, because that’s the joke. Never mind that they stop what little momentum the movie had dead in its tracks. As with the TV series, Entourage only ever feels alive when Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) hits the screen. When he spouts Ellin’s macho dialogue, at least he seems to be chewing into it. He is a much-needed tornado in the middle of what is otherwise the cinematic equivalent of a lazy river.

There are a million other questions to be asked here, particularly with regard to the timeline. The film apparently takes place in the months following the 2011 series finale, but the references and cameos throughout suggest a setting of 2015. It’s not particularly well thought out, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The world of Entourage has always existed outside of time, in a dimension not infested with such things as poverty, conflict, or women who have conversations with each other. It is an unapologetic fantasy, but at this point it feels downright stale in its celebration of a Hollywood type that many are no longer inclined to embrace. There’s a reason the obnoxious “oh, yeah!” at the end of the theme song (“Superhero” by Jane’s Addiction) has become a catchphrase for both Entourage fans and detractors: it so perfectly captures the overriding mentality behind the storytelling. For this small group of bros, things are awesome, have been awesome, and will continue to be awesome. Oh yeah, indeed.

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Even so, Entourage has nothing on the rampant cluelessness on display in United Passions, which could not have chosen a worse (or better) weekend to grace American moviegoers with its presence. It is one of the most delightfully misguided pieces of filmmaking you’ll ever see, in each moment flaunting its basic misunderstanding of why people enjoy movies, sports, or entertainment of any kind. Combine that with the recent legal developments surrounding the very people it deifies, and what you have is cinematic hate-watching perfection.

Essentially, United Passions tells of the history of FIFA, the international governing body of soccer in charge of the massive World Cup. Who would want to see such a movie, you ask? Why, FIFA executives themselves. This ~$30 million garbage heap was paid for almost entirely by FIFA, and the end result feels less like an actual propaganda film than a parody of a propaganda film, heaping cliché after cliché onto a story that could not be less interesting if it tried. The first half of the movie concerns the creation of FIFA and the World Cup, led by the likes of Jules Rimet (Gérard Depardieu). The film presents the pre-FIFA soccer world as anarchy, run by an uppity tribe of racist, sexist Brits, and only our heroes are brave enough to stand up and complain that not everybody is following the rules. When Rimet proposes a world soccer tournament, the following exchange occurs:

“He’s mad.”
“No, he’s a visionary.”

The film really ventures into cuckooland when Sepp Blatter (Tim Roth) enters the picture, and the second half depicts his rise to the presidency of FIFA in the face of overwhelming opposition from… somebody. It’s never made clear who or what is in his way. The media, perhaps? Anyway, the struggle begins when the preceding president João Havelange (Sam Neill, playing a Brazilian) informs his minions that FIFA is low on money and needs sponsors. This becomes the major conflict for a large section of the movie: where will Sepp find a brand to give FIFA the money that it needs? Thanks to his brilliance, and the generosity of Adidas (thanks, Adidas!) the sponsorship money comes rolling on in.

Throughout the film, we are treated to various interludes of children playing soccer, suggesting that this the purity FIFA is fighting for. You don’t once get a sense of that in the rest of the movie, since United Passions is far more concerned with the brilliance of the executives, and all they do to keep the organization operating and the money flowing. This all leads up to the film’s climax, in which Blatter is reelected as FIFA president in 1998. That’s it, that’s the big triumph. As with the organization itself—a rampantly corrupt behemoth with so much money lying around that it can afford to flush $30 million down the toilet on an amateurish cinematic monument to itself and not break a sweat—United Passions could not give a crap about the game, the players, or the fans who are so intensely devoted to the product on the field. It is more than happy to hang out in a comfy suite, where the executives can talk dollars and cents. It is one of the weirdest things I have ever seen.

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Anyway, it is about time we move on to signs of cinematic hope, and this past weekend brought us one of the best comedies of the year in Spy, the third collaboration between Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig. And dear lord, is it funny. This is easily the best role McCarthy has had yet, and it deftly mixes her physical comedy abilities with actual, bona fide character work. She has always been a tremendous actor, but that has been somewhat masked by the tendency of some films to lean heavily toward the easy, fall-down-go-boom type stuff. Spy sets itself up as that type of movie—and the marketing has been trumpeting that aspect as well—but it then quickly subverts that expectation and gives McCarthy far more interesting things to do. She is tremendous, and the film serves her well.

The jokes in Spy hit at a high rate, and much of the credit goes to the amazingly deep supporting cast. The talent on display scene in and scene out is impressive, and it’s able to breathe some life into a spy spoof formula that has been stale since long before the days of Johnny English. Rose Byrne brilliantly plays the main antagonist Rayna Boyanov, Jude Law makes an impression with limited time as the Bond-esque Bradley Fine, Peter Serafinowicz is delightfully cartoonish as Italian agent Aldo, and there are other memorable contributions from Allison Janney and Miranda Hart. The character who provides Spy with the biggest spark of energy is Jason Statham as Rick Ford, a blunt object of an agent who spends more time flaunting his past accomplishments than actually doing something productive in the field. If Law’s character pokes fun at the smooth, charming spy stereotype, Statham utterly commits to playing the type of man who’d much rather burst through a door than knock.

Previous Feig/McCarthy joints Bridesmaids and The Heat were both consistently funny, but Spy surpasses both in terms of pure hilarity and filmmaking accomplishment. Feig will never be mistaken for a visual stylist, but he deserves credit for keeping this film moving despite what could have been a long-in-the-tooth running time of 120 minutes. As a filmmaker, he has yet to come close to the heights of his television masterpiece Freaks & Geeks, but in the cinematic comedy world he has proven himself to be an essential and generally forward-thinking voice. While he would likely (and rightly) give much of the credit to his cast, it’s not just anyone who can put something like this together.

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The most ambitious film to come this weekend was almost certainly Love & Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic from director Bill Pohlad. It is, essentially, two different films stacked on top of each other, and while they both work independently, cutting back and forth between the two makes for an occasionally jarring experience. The first is a more standard, but mostly gorgeous chronicling of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds era, as a younger Wilson (Paul Dano) attempts to take the group’s music in more ambitious directions, all while starting to fall victim to encroaching mental illness. The second film follows an older Wilson in the ’80s (John Cusack), a clearly sick man under the care of psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy is abusing and overmedicating Wilson, and is clearly threatened by the addition of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) into the picture.

Love & Mercy is tremendously watchable, and filled with moments of brilliant performing and emotional resonance. Both Dano and Cusack play their respective takes on Wilson brilliantly, even if you’re never quite sold that they’re the same guy. Dano’s performance is tremendous, and more obviously actorly—he actually puts on weight as is appropriate, and isn’t afraid of overplaying a moment if necessary. Cusack, on the other hand, takes more of a naturalist approach, and casually inhabits the mind of a man trying to climb his way back up from rock bottom. We don’t ever really see the breaking point, but rather the before and the after. It’s all we really need.

Pohlad does some interesting things to distinguish between the two eras as well. The ’60s are colorful, energetic and communicate the feeling of endless possibility. The ’80s scenes, meanwhile, feel almost dystopian, as though Wilson had just survived a hurricane. The color gray is everywhere—in the clothes, in the sky, in the set decoration, etc. The man we once saw on top of the music world is now more likely to be sitting in his bed wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt. Love & Mercy does a great job of contrasting the two eras it depicts.

It does a less great job of comparing them, though, and another consequence of its structure is the loss of plot detail. The story hits its marks, but too often feels a bit like a summary. The few moments the film gets to breathe are terrific, but it resorts to biopic clichés a bit too often to get the story across. (The actors are also left to explain away exposition in case of a time jump, which is often clunky.) Even in its more awkward moments, it’s refreshing to see a biopic attempt to tell its story in a more unconventional way, and Pohlad brings a soul to the proceedings that you don’t always get. Love & Mercy invests itself in what is going on in Wilson’s mind, and some truly great moments are able to come out of it.

Other cultural observations:

  • This past fall, an Arclight Cinemas location opened just down the street from me, and it has become my regular moviegoing destination. Among its many virtues: it only shows three trailers before every movie, which is good for those of us who like a good preview but don’t want to be bombarded. The downside? Now, whenever I go anywhere else, I start to die inside by the time the fifth, sixth, or seventh preview starts. This past week I went to a local Regal, and I realized that I had lost all patience with such things. So, this new theater is a blessing and a curse.
  • Speaking of trailers, let’s look at a few. We begin with Bridge of Spies, the latest collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. That should be enough to sell you right there, but add to that the Cold War element and WHY ARE THEY NOT SELLING TICKETS ALREADY?
  • Ever since he got the Amazing Spider-Man movies, Andrew Garfield hasn’t really shown up in anything else. Luckily, that’s about to change. He will soon be in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and this trailer for the acclaimed 99 Homes looks quite promising. We might finally be getting the Andrew Garfield I signed up for.
  • On a computer screen, or even in a small screening room, the trailer for Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk doesn’t leave much of an impression. But a couple weeks ago I saw it on a huge screen in 3-D and it looked incredible. I was dizzy by the end of it. If nothing else, Zemeckis’ film may actually be one of the rare instances where 3-D is the preferred method of viewing.
  • One of the things that most annoys me about the Happy Madison releases of the last several years is how amateurish they are on a purely visual level. At the very least, Pixels, directed by Chris Columbus, looks like something intended to be shown in a movie theater in front of people. I don’t even hate the premise. However, Adam Sandler lost the benefit of the doubt a long time ago. We’ll see.

Unnecessary sports thought of the week:

  • The Cavs, somehow, tied the Finals at 1-1 over the weekend. As I post this they are about to play game three. Excuse me, but it’s time to go scream for three hours. Update: yay.
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