Review: ‘The Argument,’ starring Dan Fogler, Emma Bell, Danny Pudi, Maggie Q, Tyler James Williams and Cleopatra Coleman

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dan Fogler and Emma Bell in “The Argument” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Argument”

Directed by Robert Schwartzman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the romantic comedy “The Argument” features a racially diverse cast (white, black and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A playwright and his actress girlfriend, with the help of some of their friends and random strangers, recreate an argument that the couple had to determine who was correct in the argument.

Culture Audience: “The Argument” will primarily appeal to people who like over-the-top, fast-paced comedies with many unrealistic moments but enough wacky sensibilities to keep people watching to see how it all ends.

Tyler James Williams and Cleopatra Coleman in “The Argument” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The absurdist romantic comedy “The Argument” will test the patience of many viewers who are looking for a more conventional way that love and relationships are depicted in the story’s plot. The movie suffers when the “repeat loop” part of the story is focused only on the six main characters. But “The Argument” is at its best during “casting session/script reading” scenes in the last third of the movie, when random strangers are introduced to the main characters and turn the movie into many laugh-out-loud moments that are sly commentaries about ego posturing and stereotypes in relationships.

Directed with a madcap pace by Robert Schwartzman and written by Zac Stanford, “The Argument” (which takes place in Los Angeles) centers on an artistic couple named Jack (played by Dan Fogler) and Lisa (played by Emma Bell), who live together in a modest Hollywood home. Jack is a playwright/screenwriter, and Lisa is an actress. They’ve been dating each other for three years.

It’s revealed later in the movie that Jack and Lisa met through a fairly obscure horror movie that Jack wrote called “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.” Lisa had a small background role as a zombie in the movie. Jack’s most recent project is an independent play called “Wolfgang,” which has Lisa as the leading female role of Constanze, the wife of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play has a modern comedic tone to it, and it’s recently ended its run at a small theater. Based on the number of people in the audience for the last show, the play’s attendance was fairly good, but not great.

The biggest problem that Jack had with the play is how Lisa and the vain actor who was cast as Mozart seemed just a little too flirtatious with each on stage and off stage. The actor’s name is Paul (played by Tyler Christopher Williams), and Jack is jealous because Paul is younger and better-looking than Jack is. Jack’s suspicion that Lisa and Paul are sexually attracted to each other is a nagging thought that he’s kept to himself, but it later explodes in messy and uncomfortable ways in other parts of the story.

Now that the play is over, Jack thinks he and Lisa won’t have to deal with Paul anymore. After the last night of “Wolfgang,” Jack plans to have a small cocktail party at his and Lisa’s home. Jack has invited his and Lisa’s two closest friends—married couple Brett and Sarah—to celebrate.

Brett (played by Danny Pudi) is Jack’s eager-to-please literary agent. Sarah (played by Maggie Q) is an entertainment lawyer with an icy demeanor and a photographic memory. Jack has another intention for the party, which is pretty obvious in the message that he sends to Brett and Sarah: Jack is going to propose to Lisa.

When Sarah and Danny show up for the party, Danny is happy to be there, but Sarah seems very uninterested. She explains that she has to get up early in the morning because she has an important contract negotiation meeting the next day. Sarah was the attorney who negotiated the overseas rights to “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night,” but she’s frustrated that Jack hasn’t been a lucrative client for Brett.

Sarah blames Jack and Brett for Jack not being able to get much work as a writer. None of Jack’s screenplays has sold since “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.” Sarah thinks that Jack isn’t very talented and that Brett isn’t a great agent. By contrast, Brett is in awe of Jack and isn’t ready to give up on him so easily. At one point during the party, Brett gushes in Jack’s presence that Jack “isn’t just a great writer … he’s a genius.”

The party is interrupted by two guests whom Jack did not expect: Paul and his ditzy Australian girlfriend Trina (played by Cleopatra Coleman), who soon finds out that she’s not the only one who’s suspected that there’s been sexual tension between Paul and Lisa. Jack is very surprised to see Paul and Trina at his door, but he lets them in because he doesn’t want to be rude and because he finds out that Lisa invited them.

Jack takes Lisa aside for a private conversation in their dining room, and they briefly argue about Paul being at the party. (Observant viewers might notice that the dining room walls in the movie have posters of Schwartzman’s first two movies that he directed: 2016’s “Dreamland” and 2018’s “The Unicorn.”) Lisa insists that she told Jack in advance that Paul would be there. Jack is equally insistent that Lisa never told him, because if she had, he would’ve remembered. They reach a stalemate but agree that Paul might as well stay at the party.

As the party goes on, Jack gets more and more irritated because Lisa and Paul keep re-enacting flirtatious and sexually suggestive scenes from the play in front of everyone. Lisa and Paul think it’s hilarious, but Jack obviously doesn’t. Meanwhile, Sarah looks very bored, Brett tries to keep things friendly with everyone, and Trina starts drinking enough alcohol to get tipsy and overly talkative. Trina mentions that she and Paul (who has a day job as a fitness instructor) got together as a couple because she signed up for one of his fitness classes, in the hopes that he would notice her and want to date her.

It turns out that Trina is a big fan of “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night” and she actually remembers Lisa’s role in the film. Trina gushes like a fangirl about the movie, which endears her to Jack and Lisa. However, Paul continues to get on Jack’s nerves. When Jack serves a charcuterie board at the party, Paul says he can’t eat almost anything that’s served at the party because he’s a vegan and he’s on a strict diet for a fitness commercial that he’s about to film. Jack is also baking an apple pie, which he plans to serve as dessert.

As the night wears on, Paul and Trina grow more uncomfortable with Lisa and Paul’s flirtatious shenanigans in front of everyone. Jack starts rambling about Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival who was famously jealous of Mozart’s talent, fame and accolades. Lisa makes a seemingly innocuous remark that Jack “isn’t really comfortable with the word ‘genius.'”

Jack interprets the comment to mean that Lisa doesn’t think that Jack isn’t very smart, so he shouts at her, “That’s not funny!” The argument between Jack and Lisa escalates to the point when Jack ends up taking the apple pie out of the oven and throws it on the ground. And the party abruptly ends.

The next morning, Jack and Lisa are in bed and they continue to argue about what happened the previous night. “I wish I could redo the whole night so you could see how wrong you are!” Lisa shouts. Jack says the same thing to her. And then they have an “aha” moment and decide to recreate the party and have the guests decide if Jack or Lisa was the one was in the wrong.

The middle section of “The Argument” is a little hard to take because of the shrill and annoying ways that the party is recreated. Because the movie makes it clear from the beginning that it’s an absurdist comedy, viewers will have to suspend their disbelief that Jack and Lisa’s party guests have nothing better to do with their time than go through with these ridiculous re-enactments. Trina shows up hung over, and she reluctantly agrees to get drunk again for every re-enactment. Jack even goes as far as preparing the same food over and over again every time they do a re-enactment.

Of course, the re-enactments don’t go smoothly because no one (except for Sarah, who has a photographic memory) can remember exactly how they acted and what they said the first time the party happened. Because everyone goes “off-script” at one point or another, it leads to more tension and arguments.

Sarah’s jaded attitude becomes even more apparent when Trina says being an entertainment lawyer must be glamorous, and Sarah’s deadpan response is, “It’s just a job. I don’t even like movies.” Eventually, Sarah gets fed up with the re-enactments and leaves.

“The Argument” finally starts to improve in the last third of the movie, when the party guests find out that Jack has put an ad on Craiglist to get actors (whose character names are not revealed in the movie) to come to his and Lisa’s home and to portray the party guests during these re-enactments, with the original party guests (except for Sarah) in attendance. Jack has even written a script, which is heavily skewed with his biased perspective.

The actors who answered the Craigslist ad have been told that it’s supposed to be an audition/read-through, with Jack being the one to decide who will play which role. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Jack casts the best-looking “hunky” guy of the auditionees to portray Jack, who’s written as the hero of the story. (The role of Actor Jack is played by Mark Ryder.)

Actor Trina is an ultra-liberal, ultra-politically correct African American activist (played by Marielle Scott), who over-exaggerates and bungles the real Trina’s Australian accent, which offends Trina. Actor Lisa (played by Charlotte McKinney) is a big-breasted blonde who has her bikini photos on hand, while Lisa is offended that Jack wants a “bimbo” to portray her.

Actor Brett (played by Karan Brar) pretty much agrees with everyone, while the real Brett is offended that he’s being portrayed as a pushover without a mind of his own. Meanwhile, since Sarah isn’t there, Jack decides that Actor Brett can use a sock puppet to portray Sarah. Actor Paul (played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is a loudmouth wannabe rapper (who wears gold chains), which offends the real Paul, who’s nothing like this walking racial stereotype, but Actor Paul ends up upstaging everyone in the room.

What Jack has written in the script is read aloud by the auditionees to hilarious results, because it reveals Jack’s perceptions and opinions of everyone at the party. If this “script reading” part of the plot had been put earlier in the movie, the quality of “The Argument” would have been much higher.

Fogler and Coleman handle the slapstick scenes fairly well, while Williams makes great use of facial expressions. All of the actors playing the “auditionees” are very good and bring much-needed spark to the movie. Stewart-Jarrett is the movie’s biggest scene stealer, since he’s easily the funniest part of this movie, whose comedic scenes are hit and miss.

Fogler, Bell, Pudi, Q, Williams and Coleman are talented, but the way the characters are written tend to become one-note caricatures by the middle of the film. Having other actors come into the story to portray those characters is a clever send-up that works well. The discomfort that the real Jack, Lisa, Brett, Paul and Trina feel at seeing how other people portray them is actually funny, whereas the original argument between Lisa and Jack wasn’t that funny. There’s an almost British sensibility to this “script within a script” parody.

Because director Schwartzman moves the pace of “The Argument” along fairly quickly, it’s easier to take the cringeworthy aspects of the movie. For example, some of the people in “The Argument” over-act—and not in a good way that was intended by the screenplay. And there’s some physical comedy that could have been choreographed better.

The Jack character can be very grating with his “control freak” insecurities and insistence on always being right. Lisa is also irritating with her tendency to be self-absorbed and not very empathetic to other people’s feelings. Some viewers might find it hard to root for this couple.

“The Argument” can best be appreciated when the main characters (and their flaws) are put up to a proverbial mirror and they see how complete strangers (who are wannabe actors) perceive and act out their personalities. Sarah eventually finds out that Jack cast her as a sock puppet, and so her reaction (which isn’t as funny as it could’ve been) is also part of the movie’s plot. If people are willing to keep watching “The Argument” until the “script reading” scenes, it will be worth the wait, because those scenes redeem what could have been a completely annoying movie.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Argument” on digital and VOD on September 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Kajillionaire,’ starring Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins and Gina Rodriguez

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

“Kajillionaire”

Directed by Miranda July

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and briefly in New York City, the dark comedy “Kajillionaire” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class and poor.

Culture Clash: A family trio of con artists, who are on the verge of being evicted, scheme up ways to get their rent money and team up with another con artist who has a big effect on them.

Culture Audience: “Kajillionaire” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky comedies that have original and memorable characters.

Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

Stepping into the world of “Kajillionaire” (written and directed by Miranda July) is like stepping into a sad and desperate world that rarely gets acknowledged in the media, but exists for an untold number of people in America. It’s a world where unemployed white people are barely making enough money to survive, but they’re not homeless, they’re not out on the streets begging for money, they don’t fit the “trailer park” stereotype, and they give the appearance that they’re regular, middle-class citizens. They’re not on government assistance, probably because they haven’t filed any recent tax returns to prove they’re eligible for benefits.

And so, some of these destitute people turn to illegal scams as a way to make money. Usually, the narrative in the media and in movies is that poor people who live a life of crime in big U.S. cities are usually people of color who are drug dealers or armed robbers. But “Kajillionaire” flips that narrative to show that there’s an underbelly of people who might not be dealing drugs or committing armed robbery, but are still caught up in illegal activity that involves cheating and stealing. “Kajillionaire” also flips the typical narrative of white con artists in movies, who are usually depicted as thinking big and going after fortunes worth millions.

People familiar with writer/director July’s work already know that she brings a quirky and often sardonic sensibility to her movies. It’s a sense of humor and style that’s not for everyone, especially people who prefer more conventional, straightforward comedy. “Kajillionaire” (which is July’s third feature film) is her best feature film so far, because it’s more than a story about con artists. It’s also a story about the value of empathy and human connection.

In “Kajillionaire,” viewers are introduced right away to the lifestyle of a Los Angeles family trio of small-time con artists who are barely getting by financially. Old Dolio Dyne (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is a morose 26-year-old who doesn’t know any other life except being a con artist, because her parents trained her to be that way. Old Dolio’s parents Robert Dyne (played by Richard Jenkins) and Theresa Dyne (played by Debra Winger), who look like ex-hippies, think up a lot of schemes with their daughter to get money illegally, but the parents usually send Old Dolio to do a lot of the dirty work.

That’s what happens in the movie’s opening scene, when Old Dolio is shown taking a set of stolen keys to a post office, opening a mailbox there, and extending her hand so far back into the mailbox that she can reach over and steal the contents of the mailbox next to the one she opened. She feels confident in committing this crime because there’s no surveillance camera in that particular room of the post office. There’s a choreographed movement sequence that Old Dolio does before she enters the post office, so she can avoid other video cameras around the building.

What she steals from the other post-office mailbox is a package in a bubble wrap envelope. When she goes outside, she and her parents open the package, only to find that the package’s contents have very little value. There’s a stuffed animal that Old Dolio figures she can use to get a fake refund at a retail store, because she has an old sales receipt from the store that lists a generic “toys and games” item for $12.99.

There’s also a necktie in the package, which Robert guesses is “not a cheap tie.” And he says something odd to Old Dolio: “You can’t see it because you’re not a cheap birth.” It’s the first sign that something is “off” about the way Robert and Theresa have raised Old Dolio, besides the fact that they’ve taught her how to be a con artist.

It’s revealed later in the movie that her parents named her Old Dolio (which is her legal name) because it was the name of an old loner guy they knew who inherited a fortune. Robert and Theresa (who walks with an unexplained limp) were hoping they could steal his fortune through identity theft after he died. But after he died, they found out that he had squandered his fortune, so the name turned out to be useless.

It’s just one of many examples that show why this family has remained on the margins of society as small-time con artists. They’re not down on their luck. They’re just not very smart and they don’t want to do honest work.

On the one hand, Robert and Theresa seem to want the American Dream of becoming wealthy. As Robert says, “Most people want to become kajillionaires.” On the other hand, Robert and Theresa don’t want to call too much attention to themselves by doing scams involving large amounts of money. It’s a mindset that they’ve instilled in Old Dolio.

Later in the movie, Robert tells someone that Old Dolio learned how to forge before she learned how to write her own name. The eccentric con artists in “Kajillionaire” also have a fear of experiencing a devastating earthquake, which they call “The Big One.” It’s a term that people who live in California often use to describe the earthquake that scientists say can happen sometime in the future and can kill thousands of people.

Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio are a self-contained con-artist unit. They live in a downstairs back office of a factory called Bubbles, Inc., which apparently is in the business of making water bubbles. One of the inconveniences of the family’s cramped and cluttered living space, which has been rented to them, is that pink water bubbles frequently seep from the ceiling and down the walls at a certain time of day. They have to clean the bubble mess before it spreads to other parts of the room. (It’s one of this movie’s many quirks.)

Old Dolio, Robert and Theresa don’t have any friends, and no other family members are mentioned. It’s not said outright, but it’s implied that Old Dolio never went to regular school and was probably homeschooled by her parents. There are many signs that Old Dolio is clueless about certain things in life that she would’ve known about if she grew up being around people other than her parents.

It also becomes apparent that Old Dolio is very uncomfortable in her own skin and is fearful of being touched by people. After the family’s stolen haul from the post office yields items of very little cash value, Robert and Theresa then send Old Dolio to do a scam they’ve apparently done before: Old Dolio dresses up as a Catholic school girl and pretends to be a “good Samaritan” who found an expensive watch and is returning it to the rightful owner.

The scam is that the family really stole the watch, and Old Dolio is supposed to get a reward for “finding” the watch, not by asking for a reward, but being so nice that there’s a big chance that the owner will give her an unsolicited reward. It’s not explained in the movie how or where they got this stolen watch and how a random Catholic school girl would know how to track down the rightful owner. However, Old Dolio is next seen showing up at the house of an upper-middle-class, middle-aged couple named Althea (played by Patricia Belcher) and Victor (played by Kim Estes), who welcome her into their home when they see she’s there to return Victor’s watch.

Old Dolio’s entire conversation with Althea and Victor isn’t shown, because the next thing that happens is Old Dolio goes back to her parents, who find out with dismay that Althea and Victor gave a reward, but it isn’t the cash that the con artists were expecting. The reward is a gift certificate for the massage business owned by Althea and Victor’s daughter Jenny (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whom Old Dolio says (with some envy) Althea and Victor couldn’t stop talking about because they’re so proud of their daughter.

Old Dolio goes to Jenny (who works out of her home) to try and finagle a deal so Old Dolio can get some cash out of the gift certificate. Jenny explains that there’s no cash refund for the gift certificate, and she offers to give Old Dolio the massage so she can at least get something out of the gift certificate. Old Dolio reluctantly agrees, but she says that she wants the massage to last only 20 minutes instead of the usual 60 minutes that would be covered by the gift certificate.

Old Dolio flinches every time Jenny touches her. Her discomfort goes beyond someone who’s never had a massage before. It’s a sign (one of many) that Old Dolio has never been touched affectionately before, especially not by her parents. Old Dolio’s almost pained reaction to the massage reaches a point where Jenny just keeps her hands slightly above Old Dolio’s body without touching her and asks her if that’s okay. It’s only then that Old Dolio says this touchless “massage” is acceptable to her, but she doesn’t stay long anyway.

Another awakening for Old Dolio comes when she finds out about how mothers who’ve just given birth form a bond with their newborn babies. This discovery (which serves as a catalyst for what comes later in the story) happens by chance. A neighbor named Kelli Kain (played by Rachel Redleaf) sees the family outside the bubble factory and knows their con-artist reputation, because she offers Old Dolio $20 to impersonate her to attend a class that was “assigned by a case worker.” Kelli says that the people in the check-in area won’t ask for identification.

When Old Dolio gets to the class, she finds out it’s a class about parenting newborn children. The class watches a video showing how a mother bonds with a newborn baby, who instinctively knows how to find a breast to nurse on when the baby is placed on the mother’s chest. The class instructor named Farida (played Diana Maria Riva) then explains that newborn babies who are placed on their mothers’ chests are more likely to be well-adjusted people, compared to babies to are ignored and “put on a cot.”

This information ignites a curiosity in Old Dolio, who asks her parents if she was one of those “cot babies.” Her mother says yes. And there are many other signs that Old Dolio’s parents have withheld physical and emotional affection from her.

There are also indications that Old Dolio is a virgin who has never dated anyone before, because she’s been taught not to trust other people who aren’t her parents. In one scene, Old Dolio shows her mother a wooden trinket. Theresa responds by saying in a tone of warning, “When a man gives you anything made of wood, he’s saying, ‘You give me wood.'”

In another scene, when Old Dolio asks her parents about what it was like to take care of her as a baby, Theresa suspiciously asks Old Dolio if she is pregnant. Old Dolio shakes her head in surprised disgust and reminds her mother that it wouldn’t be possible for her to be pregnant. But then, Robert bizarrely starts sniffing like a dog at Old Dolio, as if he can smell whether or not she’s pregnant. No one said these people are entirely sane.

Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio have been dodging their landlord Stovik (played by Mark Ivanir), because they’re three months behind on the rent. When they do see him, Robert always lies and says things like that they’ll have the money but he just started a new job and hasn’t gotten paid yet. They owe $1,500, but in reality, they aren’t even close to having $150. Stovik (who has an unusual emotional condition where he starts to cry when he’s agitated) finally has had enough of their excuses and gives them two weeks to pay what they owe or else he’ll evict them.

Old Dolio comes up with the idea to do a luggage insurance scam. The plan is for the three of them take a round-trip air flight to New York City, with their luggage insured. On their return trip back to Los Angeles, Old Dolio will pretend to be a stranger to Robert and Theresa, who will “steal” one of Old Dolio’s suitcases from the baggage claim area. Old Dolio will then file an insurance claim, which pays about $1,575.

Viewers have to assume that this trip was paid for with a credit card, since these con artists don’t have the cash for this trip and they don’t have checking and savings accounts. Knowing this family, the credit card information was probably stolen. On the flight back to Los Angeles, Robert and Theresa are seated next to a chatty and flirtatious stranger named Melanie (played by Gina Rodriguez), who makes it clear that she likes to drink alcohol and have a good time.

Robert takes to Melanie right away. Old Dolio, who is in a seat located slightly behind her parents, notices this instant camaraderie and seems envious that her father is friendlier to this stranger than he is to his own daughter. It isn’t long before Robert tells Melanie about the family’s luggage insurance scam. Melanie immediately agrees to help them, which sets off a series of experiences where Melanie latches on to the family because she’s a con artist too. Unlike the Dyne family, Melanie has a job, but she’s looking to make more money, and there’s a sense that she’s in the con game for the thrills.

During the family’s con artist antics with Melanie, it’s apparent that Old Dolio’s repressed sexuality is something that she can no longer ignore. Melanie is aware of it too, and she sometimes seems amused by it and sometimes seems to be sympathetic about it. There are several scenes in the movie where Melanie subtly and not-so-subtly uses her sex appeal to test boundaries with certain members of this family.

Old Dolio sometimes scolds Melanie for trying to “rile people up” because of Melanie’s tendency to wear revealing and tight clothes. Any adult can see why Old Dolio has this reaction to what Melanie wears. It’s because of Melanie that Old Dolio starts to understand how her parents have prevented Old Dolio from missing out on many things in life.

Melanie, who lives alone, is very close to her mother, whom she talks to frequently on the phone. (Elena Campbell-Martinez is the voice of Melanie’s mother.) It’s the type of mother-daughter relationship that Old Dolio never had with Theresa. And Melanie joining this family of con artists tests the bounds of the family’s loyalties to each other.

What’s so distinctive about “Kajillionaire” is how July made this story otherworldly yet grounded and how well the main characters are brought to life by Wood, Winger, Jenkins and Rodriguez. Wood (who does some great physical choreography in the movie) and Rodriguez are the standouts, because the heart of the story is how Old Dolio and Melanie’s relationship evolves. Melanie and Old Dolio have opposite personalities but have something in common: They’re both con artists, in more ways than one.

It isn’t until Melanie comes into the family’s lives that Old Dolio slowly finds out how emotionally stifled she has been. Old Dolio hasn’t been really been “living” but really has just been “existing” in a dysfunctional bubble created by her parents. (And if people really want to go deep in analyzing this movie, perhaps the bubble factory is a metaphor.)

Wood plays the Old Dolio character with a voice that’s a few octaves below Wood’s normal speaking voice. It’s a way of perhaps giving Old Dolio a somewhat androgynous aura. When she’s not dressed up as part of a con game, Old Dolio wears baggy unisex clothes. It’s an indication that she’s unsure of her sexuality, or at least trying to avoid wearing clothes that make her look feminine.

Old Dolio and Theresa also have identical hairstyles: very long and parted down the middle. They wear their hair in a way that it sometimes obscures their faces, as if in their perpetual lifestyle of being con artists, they know that it’s better to have their faces disguised as much as possible. Old Dolio automatically looks for surveillance cameras everywhere she goes, as demonstrated in a scene where she and Melanie are shopping in a grocery store and Old Dolio tells her immediately where all the security cameras are. Melanie cheerfully responds by saying that she doesn’t need that information because she’s going to pay for her selected items.

“Kajillionaire” has such unique characters and situations shown in memorable ways that it’s a welcome alternative to the stale and formulaic comedy films that Hollywood has been churning out for several years. People who have no tolerance for seeing weirdos on screen won’t like this movie. But for everyone else, “Kajillionaire” takes viewers on a sometimes unsettling, sometimes humorous ride that shows how the pursuit of money everything else is not worth the cost of losing one’s humanity.

Focus Features released “Kajillionaire” in select U.S. cinemas on September 25, 2020.

Review: ‘Tom of Your Life,’ starring Baize Buzan and Jeremy ‘Jer’ Sklar

September 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jeremy “Jer” Sklar and Baize Buzan in “Tom of Your Life” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Tom of Your Life”

Directed by Jeremy “Jer” Sklar

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago and other parts of the United States, the sci-fi comedy film “Tom of Your Life” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A hospital nurse kidnaps a newborn person who has a mysterious biological condition: Every hour, he ages four years.

Culture Audience: “Tom of Your Life” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching under-the-radar indie comedies that tend to be meandering with annoying characters.

Dominic Rescigno and Baize Buzan in “Tom of Your Life” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The sci-fi comedy “Tom of Your Life” had so much potential to be a clever story about what happens when someone ages rapidly in one day. Unfortunately, the movie (written and directed by Jeremy “Jer” Sklar) wastes a lot of time with scenes that don’t really go anywhere, unexplained plot holes, and some uneven acting by Sklar, who also stars in the movie.

“Tom of Your Life” begins with viewers finding out that a hospital nurse named Jessica “Jess” Budusky (played by Baize Buzan) has kidnapped someone named Tom from the hospital because Tom was going to undergo scientific studies as a freak of nature. Why? Because when Tom was born at 4:44 a.m. that day, the doctors found out that Tom aged four years every hour.

At the beginning of the film, Tom is now 8 years old (played by Judah Abner Paul), he’s with Jess in a diner, and they’re having breakfast. Jess explains to Tom that he was born two hours ago and why he’s “different” from other people. It’s easy to see why Jess abducted him: She wants to him to experience having a “normal life” before he’s possibly locked up in a research lab. (Tom’s parents are never shown in the movie.)

For whatever reason, Jess keeps getting Tom a red tracksuit with white stripes to wear, up through his adulthood. It’s a little bit of an aesthetic gimmick that isn’t nearly as problematic as the last third of the movie, which goes downhill very quickly with numerous scenes that aren’t funny and wasted opportunities to make Tom a fascinating character.

Inexplicably, Tom already knows how to talk like an 8-year-old, even though he’s technically only two hours old. He can point to things like a clock in the diner and know exactly what it is. He knows how to use eating utensils. It’s implied that the kidnapping happened so fast that there wasn’t time for anyone to teach Tom how to walk, talk, identify objects, and a myriad of other things that a newborn baby wouldn’t be able to do. Therefore, Tom must be at beyond genius level to learn so quickly, right? Wrong.

Jess takes Tom to a schoolyard where several kids are playing kickball, but Tom just stands there dumfounded, as if he doesn’t know what to do. And he still can’t figure it out after watching the kids play, so Jess has to show him how to play this extremely easy game. And oddly, if this kid is supposed to be so smart and inquisitive, he doesn’t seem curious at all about why how long he’s supposed to be driven around by this strange woman who’s not a family member. It’s one of many plot holes in this jumbled movie.

When Tom is 12 years old (played by Joshua Paul), Jess takes him to a farm that gives guided tours so that he can experience being around farm animals. This scene only seems to exist for two purposes: First, so there can be a “put out to pasture” metaphor, when Tom sees that elderly animals are ignored, compared to the younger animals. “Is that what they do to old people?” Tom asks Jess. “Put them to the side and forget about them?”

The other reason for the scene is to show that while Tom is on the guided tour, Jess has snuck back to her car to smoke some dope. You see, she’s not the straight-laced, responsible parental figure that some people might think she would be in this story. She’s a hot mess.

It turns out that Jess has been having an affair with the married doctor who’s one of the few people at the hospital who knows Tom’s secret and that Jess has kidnapped Tom. Dr. Dennis Benedict (played by Paul Tigue) is in love with Jess, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Because of his love for Jess, Dr. Benedict won’t call the police to report the kidnapping. Instead, he hires his private-investigator brother Carl (played by James Sharpe, the movie’s producer) to find Jess and Tom and bring them back to the hospital.

In her car, Jess conveniently has a wig that she puts on when she feels paranoid about being recognized as a fugitive kidnapper. Eventually, she figures out that she’s more likely to get caught because she’s using her own car, so there’s a part of the movie that’s about stealing someone else’s vehicle, in order to make it harder for Jess to be tracked down. But stealing someone else’s vehicle comes with its own set of problems.

While Jess tries to maintain a façade to Tom that they’re on a fun “family-styled” adventure, she’s been persistently calling a doctor she knows in Chicago named Dr. Bill Albrecht (played by Billy Minshall), but she keeps getting his voice mail and he’s not returning her messages. Why does she want to contact him? Because he’s the only medical professional she knows who could possibly figure out what’s going on with Tom.

And there’s something else: Dr. Albrecht happens to be Jess’ ex-boyfriend and he has a restraining order against her. (She seems to have a thing for older men who are doctors.) The reason why he has a restraining order against her is revealed later in the movie. Jess has already made up her mind to drive to Chicago and meet with Dr. Albrecht in person.

At this point, it’s four hours after Tom has been born, and he’s now aged to look like he’s 16 years old. (Dominic Resigno plays Tom in his teens and 20s.) Tom finally asks who his parents are and if they know he’s been kidnapped. Jess gives an extremely vague answer: She tells Tom that his father is in the Navy and that the last thing she knew about his mother was that she sedated from the C-section she had when she gave birth to Tom.

Tom begins to tell Jess that he’d really like to go sailing, and she says they’ll try to do that on their trip. Tom’s fixation on sailing and being on a sailboat is repeatedly brought up in the movie, but not to a lot of great comedic effect. And because he’s a teenager at this point in the movie, he becomes interested in finding out how to drive, learning about sex, and rebelling. The movie has a predictable masturbation scene, and there’s a part of the movie where Tom steals the car to go to a strip club, leaving an infuriated Jess stranded.

It should be noted that although Jess’ life is messed-up, she not very sympathetic at all. It will be hard for viewers to root for her and the adult Tom because they’re both very difficult people to like. At least Tom has an excuse for his tacky behavior since he hasn’t been alive long enough to learn a lot of social skills.

As an example of how rude Jess can be, while she’s stranded on the road, an unnamed man in a purple van (played by Patrick Zielinski) stops and asks Jess, “Do you need a lift?” She snaps at him, “Not in your piece-of-shit rape van!” And when it’s revealed what Jess did to have a restraining order against her, any sympathy that viewers might have for her will vanish, even though the movie gives an emotionally manipulative excuse for her grossly awful actions.

Jess gets even more obnoxious as the story goes on. Even though she’s taken it upon herself to be responsible for Tom during this road trip, she has no qualms about driving under the influence of drugs while Tom is in the car with her. During one part of the trip, she tells Tom that she has a tendency to leave her purse behind wherever she is, and she asks him to keep an eye on it for her. As soon as she says that, you just know that something is going to happen to that purse.

As the story goes on and Tom becomes a guy in his 30s and 40s and so on (writer/director Sklar plays all the oldest versions of Tom), he becomes even more dimwitted instead of the quick-learning person he was at the beginning of the story. Rather than developing a personality, he seems to be an overgrown man-child who has a hard time thinking for himself and is easily led by others.

It’s just an excuse for the movie to have Tom say a lot of politically incorrect things to people, such as when Tom is sitting on a subway next to an African American man and asks him what happened to the color of his skin. The man replies, “What happened to yours?” And then there’s the predictable scene of Tom partying for the first time, with substances legal and illegal, as well as the obligatory prostitute who’s hired when Tom wants to lose his virginity.

As Tom gets older and more experienced, he should have gotten more interesting. Instead, “Tom of Your Life” drags in the scenes where middle-aged/older Tom is just an empty shell of a person. Perhaps Sklar was inspired by the Peter Sellers character in “Being There,” but Sklar’s acting skills just aren’t on that level. And unfortunately, most of the supporting characters aren’t interesting either.

On the plus side, “Tom of Your Life” has some noteworthy cinematography from Christopher Rejano, who really makes great use of autumn colors and exterior shots to really bring some vibrancy to some scenes. And the aging makeup by David Ian Grant is also very good for a low-budget film such as this one. And even though Buzan plays a very aggravating character in Jess, it’s clear that Buzan is more talented than most of the cast when it comes to acting.

“Tom of Your Life” has an original score composed by Sklar, whose band the Blackstrap Molasses has original songs in the movie. The music isn’t very memorable, but it gets the job done on an adequate level. Unfortunately, the last third of the movie just seems to be written as a series of awkward comedy sketches instead of a cohesive story arc, with very little to show that these characters have genuinely relatable feelings and personalities. There’s an attempt to bring some emotional connection and sentimentality in the very last scene of the movie. But by then, it’s too little, too late.

Gravitas Ventures released “Tom of Your Life” on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020.

Review: ‘We Are Little Zombies,’ starring Keita Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura, Satoshi Mizuno and Sena Nakajima

September 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sena Nakajima, Keita Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura and Satoshi Mizuno in “We Are Little Zombies” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“We Are Little Zombies”

Directed by Makoto Nagahisa

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the dark comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” has an all-Japanese cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A group of four teenage orphans who resist adult supervision become unlikely pop stars and navigate the pitfalls and fickleness of fame.

Culture Audience: “We Are Little Zombies” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse films with a quirky sense of humor.

Sena Nakajima, Satoshi Mizuno, Keita Ninomiya and Mondo Okumura in “We Are Little Zombies” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” (written and directed by Makato Nagahisa) takes the movie cliché of orphans being pitiful and desperate for love, and blows up that narrative with this concept: “What if there are orphans who aren’t really sad that their parents are dead?” “We Are Little Zombies” gets its title because the four 13-year-old orphans at the center of the story feel like emotional zombies. It’s a zany movie filmed with a lot of artistic and kitschy flair, but it’s not recommended for people who like to see conventional storytelling in a film.

Who are these four orphans? And exactly why do they have so much apathy about their parents’ deaths? It’s because the kids didn’t feel like their parents really loved them. All four of the orphans seemed to have met at an orphanage, where they quickly bonded with each other. When they ask a yard worker outside to take a group photo of them, he says, “Smile, everyone. Cheer up. You look like zombies.” And so, the nickname sticks.

The leader of this group of orphans is bespectacled Hikari Takami (played by Keita Ninomiya), who is also the narrator of the story. Hikari’s parents died on a tour bus owned by a company called Super Wild Coach Tours, which has a slogan like “Destination: Happiness” and takes people on trips like an All You Can Eat Strawberries tour. Hikari, who felt neglected by his parents, deadpans in the narration that it’s “the worst-named package tour of all time. So much for happiness. They went straight to hell.”

Yuki Takemura (played by Mondo Okumura) was raised by a single dad, who committed suicide. Yuki is the only one of the four orphans who has siblings. After their father’s death, the siblings were split up and put in separate foster homes. It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki was physically abused by his father. Yuki also has an older brother who’s an aspiring punk musician who would practice with his band in the family’s garage and typically treated Yuki as a nuisance if Yuki tried to watch the band perform.

Ikuko Ibu (played by Sena Nakajima) also felt unloved by her parents, who were murdered. (It’s mentioned later in the movie that the murder suspect was apprehended, but there’s no mention of what happened to this suspect.) It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki had a strange relationship with her parents because Ikuko’s father Haruhiko (played by Masatoshi Nagase) appeared to have incestuous thoughts about her. Ikuko’s mother, also named Ikuko (played by Rinko Kikuchi), resented her to point where she called her daughter Ikuko a “femme fatale” and accused Ikuko of having a strange effect on people.

Ishi (played by Satoshi Mizuno) felt disconnected from his parents because they worked so much. His parents owned and operated a restaurant, which didn’t leave much time for them to give Ishi attention. His parents died in a gas explosion at the restaurant. Ishi’s reaction is relief because he knows he won’t have to spend long hours working at the restaurant, as he was expected to do when he got older.

Because Hikari is the narrator, “We Are Little Zombies” spends the most time showing how he dealt with his parents’ death. At the funeral, where none of the adults spoke to Hikari, he can’t cry. He says in a voiceover, “Reality is too stupid to cry over. I’m not sad … A funeral … is five times more boring than history class.”

Hikari continues in saying that he can’t remember the warm touch of his parents because “I was never loved … Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.” And Hikari says in a voiceover: “While the bodies are being cremated, please enjoy some phantom piano.” And then some piano music plays. It’s one of the movie’s many quirks.

Throughout the movie, there are many artistic touches that are reminiscent of 1980s video games. Scenes are framed as if they are part of videogame sequences. There are bright neon colors and florescent lighting. And the movie’s original music (also by Nagahisha) sounds like it came straight from a 1980s videogame from Sega or Nintendo.

The movie’s cinematography (by Hiroaki Takeda) is similar to going on a ride in an amusement park, since the camera dips at odd angles and sometimes bounces around at an almost-dizzying pace. There are a few scenes that involve live fish being taken out and put back in water, and the camera sometimes gives a fish-eye view of what’s happening.

And the movie also contrasts the colorful scenes with stark interiors that have neutral colors. The scenes with muted colors are usually when there are parental or authority figures who try to oppress the kids. It’s an obvious metaphor for how drab and dull they think life can be under adult supervision and how much more vibrant their lives are when they’re free to be on their own.

Despite these seemingly whimsical motifs in the movie, there are also some dark themes of childhood neglect and abuse. Ikuko’s father tells her that if he were younger, he would want to marry her. She tries to shrug off this creepy comment by saying that she can’t get married because her ring finger is missing. (It’s true. The ring finger on her left hand is missing.) Meanwhile, Ikuko says in a voiceover, “Mom once told me that she wished I didn’t exist.”

Ishi has had insecurities over whether he was a wanted child because his father once told him that the only reason why he married Ishi’s mother was because she was pregnant. Hikari’s father was a womanizer, and the infidelity caused a lot of pain in his marriage and family. In a voiceover, Hikari says that he knows that his father was well-loved by a lot of people, but Hikari wonders if his father ever loved him.

In one of the dark humor scenes of the movie, the pregnant mistress of Hikari’s father calls the house shortly after the funeral. She doesn’t know that Hikari’s parents have died. And so, when Hikari answers the phone, he nonchalantly tells her the bad news. She is heard wailing in grief on the other line before Hikari calmly hangs up the phone.

The four orphans are sent to various homes but are unhappy there. They rebel by trying to run away or by trying to skip school. During all of this youthful rebellion, the orphans end up on the streets with some homeless people. And there’s a wacky musical interlude where the homeless people break out in a banjo-playing song.

This musical experience inspires the four orphans to form an electro-pop band called Little Zombies. Hikari is the lead singer, Yuki is the guitarist, Ikuko is the keyboardist, and Ishi is the drummer. They make a music video of themselves called “We Are Little Zombies,” a song that is insanely catchy and is very memorable, long after you see the movie. The orphans put the video on the Internet and think not many people will see it.

Instead, the video goes viral and catches the attention of editors of a major magazine, which does a big article about the orphans. The article leads to more media attention. And before you know it, Little Zombies are very famous. As Hikari explains, “We went from being poor zombies to glamorous rock stars.” The kids in the band go from wearing school uniforms as stage outfits to clothing that was designed so they could look like steam-punk-inspired, edgy artists who made their clothes out of garbage.

The kids soon find that after they become famous, people at home and at school who used to ignore or bully them now want to be their best friends. The orphans also become targets of greedy adults who want to exploit the band’s sudden fame to make money for themselves. And the band has an obsessive fan base on social media. The movie has biting commentary on what fame can do to people, particularly people who are still children, and how celebrity obsessions can take a very dark turn.

Underneath all the goofy hijinks is a message that people can’t really find love through fame and public adoration. If the four Little Zombies thought that they would be happy as pop stars, they learn some harsh life lessons along the way. “We Are Little Zombies” drags a little too long (the total running time is two hours), but there’s enough originality and compelling visuals in the movie for people to be interested in finding out what happens to these emotionally jaded kids who aren’t as tough as they might think they are.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “We Are Little Zombies” in select U.S. cinemas on July 10, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 8, 2020.

Review: ‘The Broken Hearts Gallery, starring Geraldine Viswanathan, Dacre Montgomery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Molly Gordon, Phillipa Soo, Arturo Castro and Bernadette Peters

September 11, 2020

by Carla Hay

Geraldine Viswanathan and Dacre Montgomery in “The Broken Hearts Gallery” (Photo by Linda Kallerus/TriStar Pictures)

“The Broken Hearts Gallery”

Directed by Natalie Krinsky

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the romantic comedy “The Broken Hearts Gallery” features a cast of Asians and white people (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 26-year-old woman, who’s been dumped by an ex-boyfriend and fired from her art-gallery job, tries to get over her problems by helping an aspiring hotel owner decorate his boutique hotel, even though her personal style clashes with his.

Culture Audience: “The Broken Hearts Gallery” will appeal primarily to viewers who like formulaic romantic comedies that have people with mostly relatable personalities.

Molly Gordon, Geraldine Viswanathan and Phillipa Soo in “The Broken Hearts Gallery” (Photo by George Kraychyk/TriStar Pictures)

The romantic comedy “The Broken Hearts Gallery” is so unapologetically mushy and predictable that it would be absolutely a chore to sit through this movie if it didn’t have its share of charming moments. Much of the credit goes to star Geraldine Viswanathan, whose quick-witted comedic timing and her keen ability to bring a sense of fun to the story end up saving what could have been a mostly forgettable and cliché film.

“The Broken Hearts Gallery” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Natalie Krinsky, who previously worked as an occasional writer on “Gossip Girl,” the primetime soap opera about upper-class young people in New York City. “Broken Hearts Gallery” is also set in New York City, but the young people at the center of the story are definitely less privileged than the wealthy scions of “Gossip Girl.”

Lucy Gulliver (played by Viswanathan), the story’s 26-year-old protagonist, is an assistant at an upscale and trendy art gallery. She has dreams of owning her own art gallery someday. Lucy lives with her two best friends—sarcastic and bossy Amanda (played by Molly Gordon) and womanizing lesbian Nadine (played by Phillipa Soo)—and they have all been close pals for years.

Amanda is currently a law student, but a running joke in the movie is that she’s always giving unsolicited legal advice, as if she’s already a lawyer. Amanda is also in a relationship with a guy named Jeff (played by Nathan Dales), who is mostly silent and henpecked by Amanda. (When Jeff finally starts talking, it’s one of the funnier parts of the movie.) Meanwhile, Nadine has a thing for dating Russian models, but then she gets bored and usually ends the relationship to move on to her next conquest.

The beginning of the movie shows the trio of gal pals while they were seniors in high school in an unnamed suburb of New York, with Lucy already planning to live in the big city. Lucy has just gotten dumped by a boyfriend, and Amanda and Nadine are comforting her while Lucy is nursing her broken heart. It’s a scenario that gets repeated more than once in the movie.

One of Lucy’s quirks is that she likes to keep mementos and knickknacks, including those that remind of her of ex-boyfriends. She freely admits she’s a pack rat, while some people might describe her collecting habit as hoarding, because she keeps things such as toenail clippings. Her hoarding isn’t at a dangerous level, but it’s odd and more than a little creepy.

Eight years after graduating from high school, Lucy’s life seems to be going fairly well for her. She’s been dating a 35-year-old co-worker named Max Vora (played by Utkarsh Ambudkar), who is the gallery’s recently promoted director. Max and Lucy have been keeping their romance somewhat hidden from their colleagues because they don’t want it to be a distraction at work. Lucy gushes about Max to Nadine and Amanda, by describing him as such a perfect romantic boyfriend that he cooks dinner for her. Meanwhile, Nadine and Amanda secretly take bets on how long Lucy’s most recent romance will last.

Lucy idolizes her boss Eva Woolf (played by Bernadette Peters), the gallery owner who named the art gallery after herself. Eva doesn’t have much tolerance for people she thinks are flaky and dumb. You know where this is going, of course. Lucy will make a fool out of herself at work because of something to do with Max. This embarrassing incident happens during a big exhibit opening at the gallery, where Eva, all of the gallery’s employees and many important clients are attendance.

Lucy has been asked to get up on stage in front of the assembled crowd and introduce Max as the gallery’s new director. As she’s about to give her introductory speech, Lucy sees Max canoodling in the audience with a woman whom she recognizes as Dr. Amelia Black (played by Tattiawna Jones), Max’s most recent ex-girlfriend. Lucy has already had too much to drink because she was nervous about making this speech. And so, when Lucy sees Max getting too close this other woman, Lucy goes into a tailspin and has an epic, jealous meltdown in front of the entire audience. As if that weren’t enough, drunken Lucy ends up tripping and falling flat on her face.

As Lucy runs out of the gallery in a humiliated daze, Max follows her outside and explains that Amelia was living in Paris but has recently moved back to New York City. And now, Max tells Lucy that he wants to get back together with Amelia. And there’s more bad news for Lucy: Eva was so mortified by Lucy’s public meltdown that she’s also sent Max to tell Lucy that she’s been fired.

As she’s reeling from this extremely bad night, Lucy just wants to go home, so she gets into a car that she thinks is the rideshare that she had booked. As she starts the tell the driver about her “worst night ever,” the driver repeatedly tells her that he’s not her rideshare driver, but Lucy is so absorbed in her misery that she won’t listen. Finally, the driver, whose name is Nick (played by Dacre Montgomery), decides to placate Lucy and drives her home.

When she gets home, Lucy realizes the man who drove her home isn’t the rideshare driver she booked. She’s once again embarrassed, but she tries to turn it around and make Nick look bad by accusing him of being a creep. She also comments that for all she knows, he could be a serial killer, and now he knows where she lives. Will this be the last time that Lucy sees Nick? Of course not.

In several very contrived situations, Nick just happens to be nearby at the exact moment that a lovelorn Lucy sees Max and makes a pathetic attempt to get Max’s attention. One of those moments is the next time that Lucy and Nick see each other. Lucy has followed Max into a restaurant, where he’s having a dinner date with Amelia. The restaurant hostess tries to block Lucy from going over to the table because Lucy doesn’t have a reservation. And right at that moment, when Amelia is about to act like a psycho ex-girlfriend and charge toward Max, Nick shows up and prevents Lucy from approaching Max, who sees Lucy anyway.

As Nick steers Lucy away from this potentially embarrassing situation for her, she gets very irritated with him and asks Nick if he’s been stalking her. Oh, the irony. Lucy and Nick get to talking, and he tells her a little bit more about himself. He’s trying to fulfill his dream of opening a boutique hotel called the Chloe Hotel. However, what he doesn’t tell her right away and what very few people in his life know is that Nick is almost broke and headed for a possible financial disaster since he poured his life savings into the hotel, which is nowhere near being completed.

One person who knows about Nick’s money problems is his best friend/business partner Marcos (played by Arturo Castro), who hasn’t been paid for a while and has decided to take another job because his wife Randy (played by Megan Ferguson) is pregnant, and they need the money. Marcos has a wry sense of humor, which goes a long way in being a counterbalance to some of the sappier moments of the movie.

Nick shows Lucy the unfinished hotel, which used to be a YMCA building. Lucy has a garbage bag with her that contains several old mementos from her ex-boyfriends, including Max. Nick, who calls her a hoarder, tells Lucy that his style is the complete opposite of hers, because he’s a minimalist. Meanwhile, there’s a large empty picture frame in the hotel that Lucy spontaneously uses to hang up one of the items in the garbage bag: a necktie that used to belong to Max.

And because Lucy is a wannabe art gallery owner. she calls this room in the hotel the Broken Heart Gallery, because of this “art display.” She scrawls a note next to the frame that explains why this necktie is from an ex-love and why it’s being discarded. Not long after that day, Nick tells her that an anonymous person came into the hotel and must have seen this necktie display because the person hung up an item with a note that it’s also from an ex-love.

Lucy takes a photo of this burgeoning art exhibit and posts it on social media. It becomes a such a viral hit that she gets the fundraising idea that can people can start stop by the unfinished hotel to drop off mementos from ex-lovers and leave messages that can be displayed in the Broken Heart Gallery. Visitors can to give donations as part of the gallery exhibit. The idea is the people who contribute to the gallery can get closure from painful breakups, because the gallery displays will be cathartic enough to help them move on.

And when Nick mentions to Lucy that Marcos got another job and the hotel’s interior designer quit, Lucy volunteers to be the hotel’s interior designer. Nick says no, but after much persistence from Lucy and much hemming and hawing from Nick, she ends up being the hotel’s interior designer. Nick and Lucy don’t really discuss payment for this job, but even if they did, it’s very easy to see how this movie is going to end.

Before that happens, there are the usual shenanigans in romantic comedies that have this type of would-be couple. “The Broken Hearts Gallery” uses the old “opposite attract” trope as much as possible to show how Lucy and Nick get on each other’s nerves, but they also can’t seem to stay away from each other. Lucy is high-strung and kooky, while Nick is laid-back and analytical. The character of Nick is somewhat generic, and his main purpose in the movie is to play the straight man to Lucy’s wackiness.

Nick and Lucy become platonic friends, but have conflicts with each other, while Lucy puts herself in more embarrassing situations in an effort to get back together with Max. Nick’s and Lucy’s friends (and viewers who’ve seen enough romantic comedies) know where this is all headed. But, of course, the two people who are supposed to end up together are the last people to admit it.

The target audience for “The Broken Hearts Gallery” is underage teenage girls, so things don’t get too raunchy in the movie. Adults watching this film will probably wish that the movie had more mature humor, since too many of the so-called adults in this movie act like they’re still in high school. (To see Viswanathan in a rowdier comedy film, check out 2018’s “Blockers,” where she was a standout in the movie too.)

Lucy is proud of her eccentricities, but some of her irrationally jealous behavior panders to some awful stereotypes about how pathetic and catty women can be when it comes to fighting over an ex-love. Lucy handles love in an uncomfortable and awkward manner that’s sometimes realistic and sometimes too over-the-top. This movie is a romantic comedy, so it isn’t supposed to be about realism all the time.

However, some of the dialogue is absolutely cringeworthy. In a scene where Lucy and Nick have some alone time and open up to each other, Lucy says to him: “We’re good together, you and me. The monster and the human. Humans need monsters to stir things up. And monsters need humans to fix everything they break. It’s just simple science.”

One of the more charming qualities of Lucy is that she’s more optimistic than Nick is about life and how to deal with problems. When more problems start to pile on Nick, he wants to abandon his dream to build the hotel, but Lucy gives him a pep talk and encourages him not to give up so easily. Meanwhile, Nick slowly starts to show that he has a romantic side, which is refreshing to Lucy, who says she’s used to men not being supportive of her and her dreams.

“The Broken Hearts Club” also has a very good supporting cast that makes the material a lot more engaging than it should be. Gordon, Soo and Castro all have moments when they somewhat steal scenes. (Gordon’s comedic timing is the most natural-looking and funniest of the supporting characters.)

And there are a few other supporting characters who are in Nick and Lucy’s world, including an Eva Woolf Gallery co-worker who’s nicknamed Harvard (played by Ego Nwodim), because she’s a know-it-all who likes to brag that she went to Harvard University, and she constantly chastises Lucy about being clueless about life. Celebrity chef Roy Choi has a cameo as himself. Suki Waterhouse plays someone who a past connection to someone in the movie.

“The Broken Hearts Gallery” has the obligatory karaoke scene, which seems to be a staple of every other predictable romantic comedy. There’s also the “big argument” scene, where the would-be couple have an estrangement. There’s absolutely no suspense over whether or not they’ll kiss and make up by the end of the story.

There are a few “surprise” twists to the movie that aren’t shocking because it all just adds up to more schmaltz. “The Broken Hearts Gallery” is not for hardcore cynics, but it’s a predictable and harmless movie that’s made enjoyable mainly because of the winning performance by Viswanathan.

TriStar Pictures released “The Broken Hearts Gallery” in U.S. cinemas on September 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Get Duked!,’ starring Rian Gordon, Viraj Juneja, Lewis Gribben, Samuel Bottomley, Eddie Izzard, Georgie Glen and Katie Dickey

September 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rian Gordon, Viraj Juneja, Lewis Gribben and Samuel Bottomley in “Get Duked!” (Photo by Brian Sweeney/Amazon Studios)

“Get Duked!”

Directed by Ninian Doff

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Scottish Highlands, the comedy “Get Duked!” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one person of Indian descent) representing the working-class, middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Four teenage boys are sent on a wilderness-styled camping trip, where they are hunted by middle-aged aristocrats who think young people are pests that need to be eliminated.

Culture Audience: “Get Duked!” will appeal primarily to people who like wacky and slapstick-heavy comedies that have underling social commentary.

Eddie Izzard and Georgie Glen star in “Get Duked!” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The generation gap between underage teenagers and adults has been fodder for a lot of movies and TV shows. But the absurdist comedy “Get Duked!” makes some biting social commentary about how mass shootings, terrorism and alarming predictions about the environment have created a feeling among many teenagers that the adults of the world have screwed up everyone’s futures, while adults think that teenagers are spoiled, lazy and selfish. This generational animosity is the basis for most of what happens in “Get Duked!,” which cloaks its social messages in a lot of unrealistic, slapstick humor that might seem goofy on the surface. But by the end of the film, it’s clear that it’s a satire of a very real malaise in society.

Written and directed by Ninian Doff (who makes his feature-film debut with this movie), “Get Duked!” was formerly titled “Boyz in the Wood,” in a cheeky nod to writer/director John Singleton’s 1991 South Central Los Angeles drama “Boyz n the Hood.” In the production notes for “Get Duked!,” Doff said that the movie title was changed from “Boyz in the Wood” because of “the passing of director John Singleton and the awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, using the title ‘Boyz in the Wood’ didn’t feel respectful to John’s legacy or the Black community, especially as ‘Boyz [n] the Hood’ was such a meaningful Black cultural moment in cinema. ‘Get Duked!’ was always our working title, and we felt it was better to return to that.”

The four British teenage boys (who are about 15 or 16 years old) at the center of “Get Duked!” don’t come from a gang-ridden environment, but they’ve been sent to the remote Scottish Highlands by authority figures to try out for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, a real-life prize that has been spoofed in this movie. Getting the award consists of successfully completing a wilderness camping trip without much supervision, modern comforts or safety precautions.

Three of the four teenagers on this trip are delinquent schoolmates who’ve been sent unwillingly by their school headmaster. Dean Gibson (played by Rian Gordon) is a working-class, cynical guy who’s the delinquent group’s unofficial leader and who believes that going to college is a waste of time. Duncan McDonald (played by Lewis Gribben) is the one who’s the least “book smart,” the most unpredictable and the one most likely to come up with off-the-wall ideas. DJ Beatroot (played by Viraj Juneja) is a wannabe rapper originally from London who keeps pretending that he comes from a “ghetto” background to make it seem like he has “street cred,” but he really grew up in a comfortably upper-class family and his real name is William Debeauvois.

What kinds of trouble have these three boys gotten into that’s prompted them to go on this disciplinary trip? The usual teen delinquency problems: skipping school, vandalism, doing drugs. Duncan, who’s the “wild card” wacko of the group, also blew up a toilet in a bathroom at their school. He brags about it in the beginning of the trip, before they find out that their “toughness” will definitely be tested.

Joining this tight-knit trio of friends at the beginning of the trip is someone who’s around their same age but who’s almost the opposite of these three rebels: Ian Harris (played by Samuel Bottomley) is a straight-laced, homeschooled kid who was volunteered for the trip by his mother “so he can make friends and thrive,” according to Mr. Carlyle (played by Jonathan Aris), the adult who’s been tasked with giving orders and supervising the teenagers on this trip. Mr. Carlyle’s supervision is minimal though, since his only job is to drive them to the place where the teens begin their hiking, meet them at a couple of destination points, decide if any of them is worthy of getting the Duke of Edinburgh Award, and then drive them home.

The four teens are given instructions to hike through the woods, meet at a campsite, (where they are supposed to sleep overnight), and then complete the rest of the trip through the woods until they reach the coastal site that’s the end of their destination. They aren’t given anything except a large foldout map, which they have a difficult time reading because it’s a paper map, not a map they can look at on their phones. And it’s not as if they can really use their phones anyway, since phone reception is almost non-existent where they are in the Scottish Highlands.

Before Mr. Carlyle leaves the boys to fend for themselves, he warns them that their journey could be fraught with danger. He doesn’t go into details, but Dean, Duncan and DJ Beatroot aren’t too worried, since they don’t take the trip seriously at all. By contrast, worrywart Ian, who comes from a very sheltered environment, is paranoid about things that could go wrong. He also insists that they do things by the rules, because he’s serious about winning the award.

At first, nothing out of the ordinary happens as they begin hiking, except that they encounter a low electrical fence. They persuade Duncan to be the one to test the fence’s wiring, and he predictably gets electrocuted. Dean has brought some hashish on the trip, but Ian objects to the boys doing illegal drugs.

That doesn’t stop the other boys from giving Ian some of the hash to eat, without telling him it’s hash until after Ian ingested it. Ian is very upset by being tricked into taking hash, and the other boys mock Ian’s horrified reaction. Dean tells Ian that this trip is well-known as a way for stoners to get high in a remote area: “The Duke of Edinburgh Award is all about getting shit-faced.”

Because Dean is the de facto leader, his opinion means a lot to DJ Beatroot, who asks Dean what he thinks of DJ Beatroot as a stage name. Dean admits that the name will make people think of the vegetable beetroot and that it doesn’t sound like a tough street name at all. DJ Beatroot is crushed by this criticism. When he’s alone, DJ Beatroot pulls up his shirt and looks in dismay at the DJ Beatroot name that he had newly tattooed on his torso.

During their wayward hiking, the four teens encounter an elderly farmer (played by James Cosmo), who is driving a tractor. DJ Beatroot takes the opportunity to promote his music by giving the farmer a postcard-sized DJ Beatroot promotional card. DJ Beatroot has also brought along a CD of his music, which comes in handy later on in the story.

Unbeknownst to the four boys, someone has been stalking them with a gun. And it isn’t long before they find out that this won’t be an ordinary hiking trip. The gunman shows himself when he fires his rifle at the boys, whose main defense “weapons” are eating utensils. And it’s obvious that he’s shooting to kill, as the chase begins throughout the rest of the movie.

Who is this psycho on the loose? His name is The Duke (played by Eddie Izzard), and he’s later joined by his wife The Duchess (played by Georgie Glen), who’s literally his partner in crime. They are aristocrats who are hunting teenagers for no other reason than they think the teenagers who are on this trip must be the type of delinquents who deserve to die. The Duke keeps repeating this mantra: “We’ve got to cull the weakest animals for the good of the herd.”

Not all of the action in “Get Duked!” takes place in the woods where the boys are being hunted. There’s also a subplot showing two bungling local police officers—Sergeant Morag (played by Katie Dickie) and PC Hamish (played by Kevin Guthrie)—who are so country bumpkin-ish and bored that they jump at the chance to investigate anything that might be a crime. They usually make wrong assumptions and blow things out of proportion, based on broad stereotypes. Morag’s judgment is also clouded because she’s desperate to get promoted.

For example, when Morag and Hamish find the four teens’ hash and DJ Beatroot’s CD in the woods, Morag jumps to this conclusion: “Drugs and hip-hop. We’re dealing with a London gang.” And then Hamish calls in a racist report to the department by saying: “We’re on the lookout for 15 to 20 young black males in hoodie tops.” It’s the movie’s obvious satire of real-life racial profiling done by police.

There’s also some other racial commentary in the film. When the boys are being hunted, Dean says to blonde, blue-eyed Duncan that Duncan is in the least danger because “You’re the whitest guy here” and that Duncan is “practically albino.” And when the bumbling cops at the police station get a call about delinquent Duncan being in their area and get a mug-shot-styled photo of him, the cops have his name misspelled as if it’s an Arabic name (Doonkhan Mach D’Naald) and they label him as a “suspected terrorist.”

As The Duke and Duchess are hunting down their prey, he comments to her about the teenagers, who aren’t giving up easily and are fighting back: “We are old. That’s why they’re not scared of us.” The Duchess replies: “When did that happen? We used to be invincible.” Later on, Dean gives a semi-epic rant about how older generations have ruined things for future generations because they’re short-sighted and greedy.

Izzard plays The Duke as fairly calm and calculating, but it’s clear that the actor is having fun with the role in a way that doesn’t become too camp. Glen’s portrayal of The Duchess is more unhinged. Even with their contrasting styles, it’s hilarious to see these two villains’ reactions in some of the scenes where they don’t have the upper hand like they thought they would. All of the movie’s actors are well-cast in their roles and have a great sense of comedic timing. And it will come as no surprise that Bottomley’s Ian character is the one who goes through the biggest metamorphosis.

Many of the characters in “Get Duked!” (usually the adults) are presented as clueless buffoons who are out of touch with the real world and rely on racist stereotypes to automatically judge people. The obvious metaphor of The Duke and Duchess’ deadly hunt is that older generations are callously killing off young people—maybe not by going around and shooting them on camping trips but by destroying the environment that will make the world a much more unstable and dangerous place to live environmentally for future generations.

It’s a message that’s undoubtedly sympathetic to the teenagers, but at times it rings a little hollow because someone like Dean (who’s the most vocal about his disdain for older authority figures) isn’t exactly doing anything to make his life better either. His self-defeatist attitude that he’s doomed to a life of bleak despair can’t all be blamed on older generations, because he should take responsibility for how he lives his life. That’s not to say that Dean should become a political activist, but he actually does have a lot of the “lazy” and self-centered characteristics that The Duke and The Duchess say they abhor in young people.

However sympathetic that “Get Duked!” might be toward the plight of young people, the movie, under Doff’s mostly well-paced direction, doesn’t lose its sense of humor as it takes viewers on a madcap ride in the teens’ fight for survival. The adults aren’t the only ones to make bad decisions, which is another point made by the movie. In all the finger pointing about which generation is worse, the fact is that no generation is immune from people who embody the worst of humanity. It might be conveyed with over-the-top and raunchy comedy, but the overall message of “Get Duked!” is that the strongest who survive in life are the ones who are not complacent.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Get Duked!” on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield,’ starring Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar and Morfydd Clark

August 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dev Patel in “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (Photo by Dean Rogers/Searchlight Pictures)

“The Personal History of David Copperfield”

Directed by Armando Iannucci

Culture Representation: Taking place in Victorian-era England, the comedy/drama “The Personal History of David Copperfield” has a racially diverse cast (Asian, white and black) portraying the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An upwardly mobile young man named David Copperfield reflects on his life, which includes a rough childhood and discrimination over his social class. 

Culture Audience: “The Personal History of David Copperfield will appeal primarily to fans of the Charles Dickens book, on which the movie is based, as well to people who like modern twists on classic stories.

Tilda Swinton, Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie and Rosalind Eleazar in “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (Photo by Dean Rogers/Searchlight Pictures)

Writer/director Armando Iannucci brings his brand of sly and witty humor to his movie adaptation “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (based on Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel “David Copperfield”) and updates the film to have a multiracial cast in way that is neither self-congratulatory nor self-conscious. The essence of the story, which is set in Victorian-era England, remains the same in the movie as it is in the book. But this unusual and inspired casting is one of the film’s more modern takes on the “David Copperfield” story. Let’s face it: Most filmmakers casting a movie version of “David Copperfield” would follow the predictable convention and stick to casting only white people in the main roles to reflect how the characters are described in the novel.

In “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” the title character (played by Dev Patel in the movie) looks back on his life and describes how he felt during crucial points in his journey from childhood to adulthood. That flashback concept remains intact in the movie, without an over-reliance on voiceover narration. Instead, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” has fun playing with time and space, by having the adult David appearing in the flashback scenes with the child version of David (played by Jairaj Varsani), as if the adult David has gone back in time and can see his younger self.

People who’ve read the book already know how the story is going to end. But for anyone unfamiliar with the book, the movie creates a world that is both whimsical and bleak, depending on which part of David’s life that viewers are experiencing through his memories. Some of the characters border on parody, but that’s because the movie is meant to be a snappy satire on the rigid social class system that causes much of David’s worst misery throughout his life.

The movie portrays David’s dysfunctional childhood, in which he bounces from one home to another, and he experiences many insecurities over his identity and social acceptance. David was born into a family that didn’t fully accept him as a child. This rejection is demonstrated in the movie’s opening scene that shows his mother Clara (played by Morfydd Clark) giving birth to him in Blunderstone, Suffolk, and her husband’s domineering, unmarried sister Betsey Trotwood (played by Tilda Swinton) leaving in an angry huff when she finds out that the baby is a boy, not a girl. In an Oedipal twist in this movie’s casting, actress Clark, who plays David’s mother Clara, also plays someone who becomes one of David’s love interests when he’s an adult: ditsy Dora Spendlow, who treats her Maltese dog like an inseparable child.

David’s mother Clara becomes a widow when he’s still a baby, which is a slight departure from the book, when Clara became a widow before David was born. Even though Clara has help from an optimistic maid named Clara Peggotty, also known as Peggotty (played by Daisy May Cooper), David’s mother wants a more stable home for her child (whom she calls Davy), so she sends him away more than once to live with another family.

The first time he’s sent away, it’s to live in Yarmouth with Peggotty’s brother Daniel Pegotty (played by Paul Whitehouse), a fisherman who lives in an upside-down boat parked on the sand. Daniel lives with three other people: two teenage orphans named Ham (played by Anthony Welsh) and Emily (played by Aimée Kelly) and an elderly woman named Mrs. Gummidge (played by Rosaleen Linehan). Ham and Emily become fast friends with David. It’s one of the happiest times in David’s childhood, as he finds complete acceptance in this family, which calls him Master Copperfield.

When his mother sends for David to come back to live with her, he finds out that his mother has married a cruel tyrant named Edward Murdstone (played by Darren Boyd), who has an equally horrible sister named Jane Murdstone (played Gwendoline Christie), and the siblings both treat young David as if he’s a wretched nuisance. Jane is so hateful toward David that she calls him “it,” while Edward get physically abusive if David doesn’t obey his orders.

During an incident in which Edward begins to beat up David because David couldn’t show that he had completed his education lessons. David bites Edward’s hand and almost gets away from him. David mother’s Clara just passively does nothing but cry while her son is being beaten. Soon after this incident, David is, in his words “banished to London,” where he is forced to work in a wine bottling factory that is partially owned by the Murdstone family.

David finds out that his boss knows about the abuse incident in which David bit Edward Murdstone’s hand in self-defense, because when David defies his boss’ orders, David is forced to wear a sign on the job that says, “He bites.” It’s another way that David is humiliated and made to feel like an outsider. David is also given a different first name at almost every place he lives, which also add to his insecurities over his identity and sense of not really belonging anywhere.

A series of incidents lead David to some more homes until he reaches adulthood. He lives for awhile with debt-ridden married father Mr. Wilkins Micawber (played by Peter Capaldi), who rescues David from a street altercation. Estranged aunt Betsey Trotwood lets then lets David live with her, on the condition that David change his first name to Trotwood. David is also sent to live in a boarding school, where he meets James Steerforth (played by Aneurin Barnard), a popular and privileged older student who insists on calling David the nickname Daisy. It’s an obvious way for Steerforth to show his dominance and emasculate David, who greatly admires Steerforth and wants to be accepted into Steerforth’s clique.

While living with his aunt Betsey, David meets some other people who have a major impact on his life. They include the eccentric Mr. Dick (played by Hugh Laurie), who has deep admiration for Betsey; an alcoholic lawyer named Mr. Wickfield (played by Benedict Wong); Mr. Wickfield’s daughter Agnes (played by Rosalind Eleazar), who becomes a close friend/adviser to David; Uriah Heep (played by Ben Whishaw), Mr. Wickfield’s nervous-tempered clerk; and the aforementioned Dora Spendlow, whom David becomes infatuated with immediately upon meeting her.

After being treated as an inconvenience for most of his childhood, David starts to gain confidence and a sense of his true self. He develops an unexpected friendship with Mr. Dick, who seems like an antisocial grouch (and probably mentally ill, since Mr. Dick hears voices no one else can hear) until David makes a kite and he flies the kite with Mr. Dick. This carefree activity lifts Mr. Dick’s spirits and he begins to trust and open up to David.

And as David becomes more educated at the boarding school, his job prospects improve. He decides to become a proctor because Dora’s father is a proctor. David becomes so enamored with Dora that all he can think about is eventually marrying her. There’s an amusing montage in the movie demonstrating David’s amorous obsession for Dora, by showing that he imagines seeing Dora in the faces of several people in his life.

Although “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is nearly two hours long (116 minutes, to be exact), the movie has a brisk and energetic pace that Iannucci is known for, as seen in his previous films 2009’s “In the Loop” and 2017’s “The Death of Stalin.” Characters are often quirky and/or sarcastic, with Swinton (as Betsey Trotwood) and Laurie (as Mr. Dick), standing out as the kookiest personalities of the bunch. Their eccentric nature is ironic because Betsey and Mr. Dick are the ones, not the more sympathetic characters, who set David on a path to having a stable home life. Patel and Whishaw also do quite well in their respective roles, as their personalities go through a metamorphosis.

The movie’s production design by Cristina Casali and the cinematography by Zac Nicholson wonderfully bring to life David’s memories that are a reflection of his emotions and maturity level at the time of his memories. The brightly colored Boat of Peggotty house from his childhood is shown as almost like a fantasy playhouse on the inside. The bottle factory is dark and oppressive. And the scenery around David becomes warmer and more sophisticated as he starts to grow up and becomes more educated, independent and self-assured.

On the surface, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” doesn’t seem to have much appeal to people who have no interest in seeing a movie that takes place in 1800s England. However, much of the themes and social commentary in the story remain relevant to modern audiences. And if people want to see a witty version of a Dickens classic in a movie that doesn’t follow all the predictable ways of telling the story, then “The Personal History of David Copperfield” delivers this experience in a frequently amusing way.

Searchlight Pictures released “The Personal History of David Copperfield” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020. The movie was released in the United Kingdom in January 2020.

Review: ‘The Binge,’ starring Skyler Gisondo, Dexter Darden, Eduardo Franco, Grace Van Dien, Zainne Saleh and Vince Vaughn

August 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dexter Darden, Skyler Gisondo and Eduardo Franco in “The Binge” (Photo by Paul Viggiano/Hulu)

“The Binge” 

Directed by Jeremy Garelick

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “The Binge” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three friends who are seniors in high school want to win a drug-fueled contest called The Gauntlet, which happens on the one day of the year when all drugs are legal to use for people ages 18 and over.

Culture Audience: “The Binge” will appeal mostly to people who like watching mindless teen comedies.

Skyler Gisondo and Grace Van Dien in “The Binge” (Photo by Paul Viggiano/Hulu)

It seems like “The Binge” was a movie that was inspired at least partially by “The Purge” franchise, and the filmmakers decided to use the same gimmick of “one day of the year that certain crimes are legal” and put it in a very derivative and not-very-funny teen comedy. “The Purge” horror franchise (which includes movies and a TV series spinoff) is all about showing what happens in the U.S. on the one day of the year that all crimes are legal. “The Binge,” which is far from a horror story, instead shows what happens in an unnamed U.S. city, specifically among a group of high schoolers, on the one day of the year that all drugs become legal to use by anyone who’s at least 18 years old.

Besides the obvious “binge and purge” analogy, “The Binge” takes a lot of its cues from “The Purge,” by having the same concept that the reason for this “one day it’s legal to commit certain crimes” is to act as a deterrent to commit the crimes in the future. The idea is that when people get to release these pent-up criminal urges out of their system and are allowed to commit these crimes for one day out of the year, they’ll be so repelled by the horrible results, that it will make them less likely to commit the crimes during the other days of the year when the crimes are illegal.

In the world of “The Binge” (which was directed by Jeremy Garelick and written by Jordan VanDina), alcohol and nicotine are among the drugs that are illegal except for on Binge Day. It’s explained in the beginning of the movie that the reason for this modern-day Prohibition is because America’s drug problem got so out-of-control that lawmakers decided to ban all drugs that have been medically proven to cause diseases (such as cancer) and deaths.

The high schoolers who are at the center of this story sometimes talk about their parents reminiscing about the “good old days” when they could get drunk and it wouldn’t be a crime. (The school in the movie is called American High, which is a cheeky nod to the American High production company that made this film.) Binge Day is therefore a big deal to the teens, especially those who are old enough to participate.

In addition to “The Purge” ripoff idea, “The Binge” recycles most of the over-used tropes that are found in teen movies, including the average-looking, not-very-popular guy who has a secret crush on a good-looking, popular girl. The “average guy” is the story’s protagonist whom the audience is supposed to root for when he keeps bungling his changes to impress the girl he wants to date. In “The Binge,” this guy is Griffin Friedlander (played by Skyler Gisondo), who spends almost the whole movie trying to work up the nerve to ask his dream girl out on a date.

Griffin’s crush is Lena (played by Grace Van Dien), and she’s a student at the same high school, where they are both seniors. And, of course, Griffin wants to ask her to the school’s prom, but he’s too shy. Lena is nice to Griffin, because they’ve known each other for several years, but she seems to want to put him in the casual “friend zone.” 

The average guy/protagonist usually isn’t a complete loner, because he usually has a sidekick/best friend, who’s more confident/wacky/extroverted than he is. In “The Binge,” that character is Hags (played by Dexter Darden), who has his own secret crush who goes to the same school. Hags wants to date bratty troublemaker Sarah Martin (played by Zainne Saleh), who predictably wants nothing to do with him.

And often, in formulaic teen movies like this one, there’s a third person who ends up in the “underdog” group of friends who spend most of the movie trying to achieve the same goal. The “third wheel/weirdo” in the story is Andrew (played by Eduardo Franco), who’s not very close to Griffin and Hags, but Andrew ends up hanging out with them and becoming their friend by default because he wants to be their “wingman” during Binge Day.

Andrew wants to help Hags and Griffin win The Gauntlet, a Binge Day endurance contest to see who can take the most hard drugs and drink the most alcohol without overdosing and ending up in a hospital or dead. There’s no real prize for this contest, except bragging rights and a photo that hangs on a wall in some random place that’s never explained in the movie. The participants in this contest are mostly people in their teens and 20s.

Griffin is the type of student who’s obedient and doesn’t like taking risks, so he’s very reluctant to participate in The Gauntlet. Hags convinces Griffin that they should enter the contest because it will impress the girls they want to impress. When Lena tells Griffin that she’s thinking of binging on Binge Day, he decides to enter The Gauntlet.

Griffin is also motivated to impress Lena when he finds out that a mystery admirer has asked her to the school’s prom by giving her a series of riddle-filled notes that the admirer leaves as clues to his identity. Lena hasn’t given an answer yet because she doesn’t know who her mystery admirer is, but she assumes it’s a very popular student whom she has a crush on but she thinks he might be out of her league. Part of the movie’s plot is a “race against time” for Griffin to impress Lena and ask her to be his prom date before she can find out the identity of her mystery admirer.

And let’s not forget about the parents in the movie, which makes these authority figures into the same tired stereotypes that have been seen before in dozens of other teen comedies. The head of the school is Principal Carlsen (played by Vince Vaughn), who is tyrannical and takes pleasure in punishing students who break the rules. Therefore, he’s always on the lookout for the students to do something wrong so he can bust them. And what a coincidence: Principal Carlsen also happens to be Lena’s father, making it even more nerve-wracking for Griffin to ask Lena out on a date.

Griffin’s parents Karyn and Chester (played by Jessica Kirson and Elon Gold) and Hags’ parents (played Deanna McKinney and Godfrey) are somewhat generic characters that are briefly shown in the movie. Something happens in the movie to explain why these parents don’t interfere in their kids’ Binge Day plans.

Every teen movie usually has at least one parent who behaves inappropriately. And in “The Binge,” that character is Andrew’s single mother Diedre (played by Eileen Galindo), who inflicts abuse on him one minute (she puts out her cigar on his tongue during an argument) and then acts lovey-dovey the next minute, by sweetly telling him, “I love you … Give me a kiss.”

During a school assembly, Principal Carlsen lectures the students about the dangers of Binge Day and tells the students who are 18 years old that they shouldn’t participate in Binge Day, even though it would be legal. As a scare tactic, Principal Carlsen shows examples of some people who died or were permanently disabled because of drug-fueled antics they indulged in on Binge Day. Of course, it’s a scare tactic that doesn’t work because plenty of the legal-age students are planning to participate in Binge Day.

Participants and attendees of The Gauntlet are given a wristband to enter the place where The Gauntlet is being held. While showing up unannounced in the boys’ locker room, Principal Carlsen sees that Griffin has one of these wristbands. A nervous Griffin makes up a lie that the wristband isn’t his and that he accidentally found the wristband. Principal Carlsen then confiscates the wristband and warns Griffin that he better not participate in Binge Day.

How obnoxious is Principal Carlsen? In his conversation with Griffin in the locker room, Principal Carlsen speaks of troublemaking partier student Sarah in these derogatory terms: “That bitch has chaotic energy. She’s like a scorpion in a toaster.” And when Principal Carlsen sees Hags in the locker room, he tells Hags: “Try to find a nickname that’s a little more normal, like Lucas or Kwan.” These are lines that are supposed to pass as jokes in the movie.

After Principal Carlsen has taken Griffin’s wristband, misfit student Andrew ends up hanging out with Griffin and Hags because Andrew has the type of wristband that Griffin needs to get into The Gauntlet event. Instead of selling the wristband to Griffin, Andrew bargains with Griffin and Hags to be their “wingman” pal during Binge Day and to help them win The Gauntlet. Andrew’s bullying fraternal twin brother Seb (played by Esteban Benito) is also a contestant in The Gauntlet, so it’s clear that Andrew has another reason to want to win the contest.

“The Binge” has a lot of typical “teens who want to party” shenanigans in the scenes leading up to The Gauntlet. Most of these scenes aren’t really funny and have been done much better in other similar movies. It comes as no surprise that an animal (in this case, a cow) ends up being an unwilling part of these partying antics, which leads to the inevitable “No animals were harmed” disclaimer in the movie’s end credits.

One of the problems with “The Binge” is that so much of it is repetitive filler. And the cast members do nothing outstanding in their performances, although Franco has a few scene-stealing moments. “The Binge” is supposed to be raunchy, but it holds back on showing a lot of adult-oriented debauchery during the first two-thirds of the movie. Most of “The Binge” is about straight-laced Griffin acting horrified at some of the silly scenarios that happen on the way to The Gauntlet.

The one truly original moment in the movie is actually a little bizarre and out-of-place: The cast members break into a song-and-dance number called “We’re Gonna Get High.” It’s not supposed to be a drug-induced hallucination, but something that spontaneously happens while they’re all under various degrees of intoxication. The idea is that they’ve lost their inhibitions together and somehow magically came up with this song-and-dance number together.

This “We’re Gonna Get High” musical number looks and sounds like something that would have been in an episode of “Glee” if the episode was about getting stoned at a party. The song is very much in the mold of a high-school musical. In other words, there’s nothing really edgy about it, even if the lyrics mention cocaine, heroin and PCP. The song was written by “The Binge” director Garelick, screenwriter VanDina, Christopher Lennertz and Matt Bowen. It seems as if this random musical scene in “The Binge” was concocted as a sugary-sweet way to deflect any criticism the movie might get for glorifying drug binges. What’s actually more offensive is that “The Binge” just isn’t funny.

As for the idea that people would willingly ingest as many drugs as possible in order to win a stupid contest, “The Binge” makes no attempt to show that the main characters could put themselves in danger by doing this medically dangerous stunt. It should come as no surprise that no one in this group dies or ends up in a hospital, because that would ruin the limited comedy of this mindless film. “The Binge” wants to be a teen version of “The Hangover” meets “The Purge,” but almost all the jokes and scenarios fall flat. Instead of “The Binge,” this movie should be called “The Cringe.”

Hulu premiered “The Binge” on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘Bill & Ted Face the Music,’ starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter

August 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” (Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures)

“Bill & Ted Face the Music”

Directed by Dean Parisot

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Earth (particularly in the fictional San Dimas, California) and in outer space, the comedy film “Bill & Ted Face the Music” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two middle-aged men who used to be rock stars face several obstacles when they try one last time to find a song that will save the world.

Culture Audience: “Bill & Ted Face the Music” will appeal primarily to fans of star Keanu Reeves and the previous “Bill & Ted” movies, but most people will be disappointed by this incoherent, not-very-funny sequel.

Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” (Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures)

After years of discussions, false starts and pre-production problems, the long-awaited comedy sequel “Bill & Ted Face the Music” has arrived—and it lands with the kind of clumsy thud that happens when the movie’s title characters use their time-traveling phone booth to crash-land in a different era. The movie is overstuffed with too many bad ideas that are sloppily executed. And the end result is an uninspired mess that brings few laughs.

The movie is the follow-up to 1989’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and 1991’s inferior “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” “Bill & Ted Face the Music” is by far the worst of the three movies, which all star Keanu Reeves as Ted Theodore Logan and Alex Winter as Bill S. Preston. You’d think that with all the years that have passed between the second and third movies that it would be enough time to come up with a great concept for the third film. But no. “Bill & Ted Face the Music” writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, who also wrote the first two “Bill & Ted” movies, have added several new characters and unnecessary subplots as a way to distract from the story’s very weak plot.

In “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” the dimwitted duo Bill and Ted were high-school students in the fictional Sam Dimas, California, with dreams of making it big as a two-man rock band called Wyld Stallyns. Bill and Ted were on the verge of flunking out of school unless they got an A+ grade on their final history exam. Through a series of bizarre circumstances, they’re visited from another planet by someone named Rufus (played by George Carlin), who gave Bill and Ted a time-travel phone booth.

Bill and Ted used the time-traveling booth to collect real-life historical people (Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Ludwig van Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud and Joan of Arc), in order to bring them back to San Dimas as part of Bill and Ted’s school presentation for their history exam. Two British princesses from another century named Elizabeth and Joanna ended up as Bill and Ted’s girlfriends and decided to stay in San Dimas with Bill and Ted.

In “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” Bill and Ted fought evil robot replicas of themselves that were sent from the future to alter Bill and Ted’s destiny of becoming rock stars who can save the world. Along the way, the real Bill and Ted also battled with Death (played by William Sadler) by playing a series of games. Bill married Joanna, Ted married Elizabeth, and each couple had a child born in the same year. And (this won’t be a spoiler if you see “Bill & Ted Face the Music”) Wyld Stallyns also became a superstar act.

In “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” it’s explained in the beginning of the film that Wyld Stallyns’ success was short-lived. In the subsequent years, Bill and Ted made many failed attempts at a comeback. They are now unemployed musicians who are trying not to be bitter over their lost fame and fortune. But their wives are starting to get fed up with Bill and Ted’s irresponsible lifestyle.

Joanna (played by Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (played by Erinn Hayes) are the family breadwinners because Bill and Ted blew all their rock-star money and don’t have steady incomes. Bill and Joanna’s daughter Wilhelmina “Billie” S. Logan (played by Samara Weaving) and Ted and Elizabeth’s daughter Thea Theadora Preston (played by Brigette Lundy-Paine) are both 24 years old and take after their fathers, in that they are both unemployed and not very smart but they are passionate about music.

The movie’s poorly written screenplay assumes that many viewers have already seen the first “Bill & Ted” movies to understand some of the jokes. But even people who saw the first two movies might have seen the movies so long ago that these jokes won’t land very well anyway. Some of the jokes in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” have a little better context if you saw the first two “Bill & Ted” movies, but references to the first two movies make the most sense in the scenes with the wives of Bill and Ted.

In the beginning of “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” a wedding reception is taking place where Bill and Ted give a toast to the newlyweds and then inevitably give a terrible music performance. The newlyweds are Ted’s younger brother Deacon (played by Beck Bennett) and Missy (played by Amy Stoch, reprising her role from the first two “Bill & Ted” movies), who was married to Bill’s father in the first movie in a May-December romance. Missy is not that much older than Bill, and in the first “Bill & Ted” movie, there’s a running joke that Bill lusts after his stepmother Missy.

In “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” it’s mentioned in a voiceover that in the years since the second movie took place, Missy divorced Bill’s father (who is not seen in “Bill & Ted Face the Music”), and then married and divorced Ted’s policeman father (played by Hal Landon Jr., who reprises his role as Ted’s stern father), who is now chief of the local police. And now, Missy is married to Ted’s younger brother Deacon, who is also a cop. These awkward family dynamics could have been mined for hilarious situations and more jokes in the movie, but they fall by the wayside because the movie gets caught up in some messy subplots that get tangled up with each other.

Bill, Ted, Joanna and Elizabeth are in couples counseling with Dr. Taylor Wood (played by Jillian Bell), who is baffled over why both couples want to be in counseling sessions with her at the same time, as if it’s a double date. Bell is a terrific comedic actress, but the dull lines she’s given in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” are so listless and unimaginative, that her talent is wasted in this film. It’s eventually revealed that unless Bill and Ted change their destiny, their wives will leave them and their children will be estranged from Bill and Ted.

How do Bill and Ted find out that they can change their destiny? It’s because someone from outer space comes to San Dimas to tell them the world is ending and can only be saved if Bill and Ted find the song that will not only unite the world but also restore reality as they know it. The visitor from outer space is named Kelly (played by Kristen Schaal), who is sympathetic to Bill and Ted and wants to help them. She has arrived on Earth at the behest of her mother called the Great Leader (played by Holland Taylor), a jaded matriarch who doesn’t have much faith that Bill and Ted can deliver the song that can save the world.

Bill and Ted’s time-traveling phone booth is brought back from outer space (with a hologram of Rufus, using brief archival footage of the late Carlin), so Bill and Ted jump back and forth to different times and places in their quest to find the song. Dave Grohl (of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame) has a cameo as himself in one of these scenes. Meanwhile, the “world is ending” scenes include historical figures ending up in the wrong places or people suddenly disappearing, as if to show that history and reality are being warped into an irreversible void.

The movie also spends a lot of screen time showing Bill and Ted encountering different versions of themselves in future and/or alternate realities. These scenarios include Bill and Ted as old men in a nursing home; Bill and Ted with bodybuilder physiques in prison; and Bill and Ted as successful rock stars with fake British accents. All of these scenes mostly serve the purpose to show Reeves and Winter acting silly in various hairstyles, costumes and prosthetic makeup. However, almost none of these scenes are genuinely funny

And if all of that weren’t enough to overstuff the movie, there’s a simultaneous storyline with Billie and Thea doing their own time traveling. While in San Dimas, space alien Kelly met the two daughters and explained the urgency of how Bill and Ted have to save the world. In order to help their fathers, Billie and Thea decide they want to create the ultimate band that can accompany the Wyld Stallyns when they play the song that will save the world. Kelly provides Billie and Thea with their own time-traveling spacecraft, and so off Thea and Billie go to recruit top musicians to join the band.

They end up recruiting Jimi Hendrix (played by DazMann Still, doing a barely passable impersonation) and Louis Armstrong (played by Jeremiah Craft, doing an awful, mugging impersonation), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (played by Daniel Dorr, doing an average impersonation), plus two fictional musicians: Chinese violinist Ling Lum (played by Sharon Gee) from 2600 B.C. and North African drummer Grom (played by Patty Anne Miller) from 11,500 B.C. And because apparently no A-list superstars rapper wanted to be in this train-wreck movie, Kid Cudi (playing himself) is also in this makeshift band.

Meanwhile, the Great Leader grows impatient with the bungling Bill and Ted, so she sends a robot named Dennis Caleb McCoy (played by Anthony Carrigan) to assassinate Bill and Ted. The robot keeps announcing that his name is Dennis Caleb McCoy and that’s supposed to be a joke—but it’s a joke that gets old by the second time it’s said. And it comes as no surprise that Death (with Sadler reprising the role) is in this “Bill & Ted” movie too, which recycles some plot elements of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.”

A huge part of the appeal of the first two “Bill & Ted” movies is that these characters were young and dumb. Their “party on, dude” attitude and antics were meant to be laughed at because it was a parody of how a lot of young people act when they have the freedom to be reckless. But now that Bill and Ted are middle-aged, their doltish mindset isn’t so funny anymore, which is why the filmmakers came up with the gimmick of having Bill and Ted’s children take up the mantle of being the “young and dumb” characters in this movie.

Lundy-Paine as Thea gives the better progeny performance, since she’s believable as Ted’s daughter. And even though her body language seems a bit forced and awkward at times, Lundy-Paine shows a knack for comedic timing. Unfortunately, Weaving is miscast as Bill’s daughter Billie, because Billie doesn’t look like she inherited any of the mannerisms that would make her recognizable as Bill’s daughter. In other words, her “dimwit” act is not credible at all. And it might be a compliment to say that Weaving is just too smart for this movie.

Reeves and Winter do exactly what you expect them to do: act like middle-aged versions of Bill and Ted. But the movie looks like it was thrown together haphazardly instead of being a great and original idea that writers Matheson and Solomon had the time to work on for all these years. You don’t have to see the first two “Bill & Ted” movies to understand what’s going on in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” because so much of the story is lazily written dreck that will confuse some people anyway. Seeing the first two “Bill & Ted” movies right before seeing “Bill & Ted Face the Music” might also underscore how much better the first two movies were.

And for a movie that’s supposed to center on music, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” has original songs that are utterly generic and forgettable. There used to be a time when a “Bill &Ted” soundtrack was sort of a big deal in the music business. Not anymore.

Just like the misguided “Dumb and Dumber” and “Zoolander” sequels that had the original comedic duo stars but came decades after the original movies, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” arrives too late and falls very short of expectations that weren’t very high anyway. Whereas the first “Bill & Ted” movie sparingly used the idea of Bill and Ted confronting their alternate-reality selves, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” over-uses this concept as filler for a shambolic, insipid plot that is the very definition of “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.” “Bill & Ted Face the Music” is like the equivalent of loud, screeching feedback from an amped guitar that is grossly out of tune and ends up creating a lot of unnecessary and irritating noise.

Orion Pictures will release “Bill & Ted Face the Music” in U.S. cinemas and on VOD on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘5 Years Apart,’ starring Chloe Bennet, Michael Vlamis, Ally Maki, Scott Michael Foster and Craig Low

August 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chloe Bennet, Craig Low, Michael Vlamis, Scott Michael Foster and Ally Maki in “5 Years Apart” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“5 Years Apart”

Directed by Joe Angelo Menconi

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Arizona, the romantic comedy “5 Years Apart” features a predominantly white cast (with some Asians and African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two estranged brothers, who are five years apart in age but share the same birthday, have an awkward and tension-filled reunion on a weekend of their birthday.

Culture Audience: “5 Years Apart” will appeal primarily to people who like realistically written adult comedies with low-key humor.

Craig Low and Chloe Bennet in “5 Years Apart” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

 

The title of the romantic comedy “5 Years Apart” has a double meaning: The two feuding brothers who are the center of the story were born five years apart, and they’ve been estranged for the past five years. How estranged are they? They haven’t seen or spoken to each other in that five-year period. But that’s all about to change when they unexpectedly see each other again and find out that their love lives have become entangled in an unusual way.

“5 Years Apart,” directed by Joe Angelo Menconi (who wrote the screenplay with Zac Krause), is written in such a way that the characters are realistic and relatable because many adults know people who are just like the ones in this story. The two estranged brothers whose relationship is the catalyst for much of the story’s tension have almost completely opposite personalities and lifestyles. The movie takes places in Arizona during a weekend when the brothers end up in the same place for a birthday celebration.

Older brother Andrew (played by Scott Michael Foster) is the responsible one who’s the type of person who likes to meticulously plan out his life. Younger brother Sammy (played by Michael Vlamis) is the irresponsible one who’s the type of person who likes to be impulsive and “go with the flow.” Andrew and Sammy live in Chicago, but (unbeknownst to the other) they’re both in Arizona, to stay at their parents’ house to celebrate their birthday on the weekend that Andrew turns 30 and Sammy turns 25. Their parents (who are not seen or heard in the movie) are on vacation for a month in Italy, so the brothers know that the house will be empty.

Andrew is married to Olivia (played by Ally Maki), who shares Andrew’s penchant for scheduling their lives. The beginning of the movie shows Andrew and Olivia planning for and worrying about when they’ll start a family. They have a slight disagreement because Andrew says he’s willing to take a second job if Olivia wants to take as much time as she can for a maternity leave. Olivia doesn’t want him to take a second job because she thinks he’ll be overworked.

Sammy is carefree and single. As Andrew and Olivia are seen settling into the house, Sammy is flirting with a woman he’s just met outside a bar. Her name is Emma (played by Chloe Bennet), and he immediately charms her by joking that the bar is his “house,” so she needs to take her shoes off before she goes inside. Over drinks, the flirtation continues between Sammy and Emma, who are obviously attracted to each other.

Emma and Sammy find out that they both live in Chicago, but Sammy says that he spends a lot of time in Arizona because he went to college at Arizona State University. (The movie doesn’t name the Arizona city were this story take place, but it’s safe to assume they’re in or near Tempe, which is where ASU is located.) Sammy works for a bounce house company called Sir Bounce-A-Lot. Emma works for a 3-D printing company. It’s a job she doesn’t particularly like, but she says it would be somewhat complicated for her to leave the job because her sister is her boss.

Because they both live in Chicago, Sammy asks Emma if she prefers the Cubs or the White Sox. When she says she’s a Cubs fan, he pretends to be offended because he’s a die-hard White Sox fan, and he jokingly moves to the other side of the bar counter. The banter between Sammy and Emma in this scene (as well as their chemistry together) is entirely believable. They both like to poke fun at each other in a way where you know that it’s a rapport they’ll keep having if they end up as a couple.

It’s not much of a surprise that Sammy and Emma go to his parents’ house for a sexual hookup. Andrew and Olivia are upstairs having their own (scheduled) sex, when they hear noises downstairs and go to investigate. Andrew and Olivia catch Sammy and Emma having sex on the living room couch. And that’s how Andrew and Sammy find out that they both want to stay at their parents’ house that weekend.

It’s also how Sammy meets Olivia in person for the first time and finds out that Emma is Olivia’s younger half-sister. (Sammy never went to Andrew and Olivia’s wedding, but he saw photos of Olivia before they met in person.) Olivia is also Emma’s boss, so Andrew already knows Emma. Stranger things have happened in real life. It’s made clear in the movie that Andrew cut Sammy out of his life, which is why Andrew probably never talked about Sammy to Emma and why she probably never saw any photos of him during the time that she’s known Andrew.

Sammy thinks it’s hilarious that the two brothers are romantically involved with the two sisters, but Andrew is not amused. There’s some back-and-forth tension between the two brothers, as they argue over who will get to stay in the house that weekend. In the end, they both agree to share the house, as long as they “do their own thing.”

Andrew is more determined to keep his activities separate from Sammy, but Sammy wants to be included in Andrew’s upcoming golf game. Andrew and Olivia are both golfing enthusiasts, but Sammy could care less about golf. He just wants to tag along because he knows it will annoy Andrew and because Emma will be there.

Why are Andrew and Sammy estranged? It’s revealed later in the story what caused the fight that led to their estrangement. The last time they saw each other before this trip, it was during a family get-together at Christmas when Andrew and Sammy argued about something, and Andrew punched Sammy in the face. There’s been bad blood between Sammy and Andrew ever since.

The sibling tension isn’t just between Andrew and Sammy. Olivia and Emma  (who have the same mother) also have opposite personalities and have their share of squabbles. Olivia, who has a tendency to be a judgmental control freak, is estranged from her mother, who has a long history of being promiscuous and irresponsible. Emma is more forgiving of their mother, probably because Emma (just like Sammy) hasn’t quite figured out what to do with her life.

Emma and Olivia’s mother has been evicted from her apartment, and Emma has let their mother move in with Emma. When Olivia finds out, she’s furious with Emma, whom she calls an “enabler.” However, Emma sees things differently. She thinks that Olivia has lost her compassion and should be more understanding over why Emma wants to help their mother.

At the golf game, Sammy meets a guy who will be a rival for Emma’s affections. His name is Mark (played by Craig Low), a socially awkward Australian, who sees himself as a macho “jack of all trades,” but he’s actually more of a jackass. Andrew and Olivia know Mark through their job, and they’ve been playing matchmaker because they think Mark would be an ideal boyfriend for Emma. Mark is attracted to Emma, but the feeling isn’t mutual.

And when Mark sees Sammy on the golf course with Emma, the two men instinctively seem to know that they both want to end up with Emma. Therefore, Mark immediately insults Sammy by deriding the shirt he’s wearing and calling Sammy the childish name “Cookie Monster,” after the messy “Sesame Street” character. Mark’s insufferable attitude and constant jabs at Sammy get even worse as the story unfolds, and it culminates in one of the best scenes in the movie.

Meanwhile, it should come as no surprise that Sammy has invited some friends that he knows from his ASU days over to the house for some loud partying. Andrew and Olivia, who were expecting a quiet night at the house, are unhappy about this turn of events. They try to check into nearby hotels and find out that they’re all booked up because of an event happening in the area that weekend. And so, Andrew and Olivia have no choice but to stay in the house during Sammy’s party.

It’s pretty clear that Andrew and Olivia are the uptight “boring” couple, while Sammy and Emma are the open-minded “fun” couple. However, director/co-writer Menconi never veers into caricature territory with any of the characters, thanks to a lot of the movie’s snappy and authentic-sounding dialogue. A lot of credit also goes to the actors, since they all handle the material in a way that looks natural and effortless.

Bennet and Vlamis portray the more interesting couple, and they do such a good job of making Sammy and Emma believable together that people watching “5 Years Apart” might want Sammy and Emma to get their own movie. And although Sammy’s diverse group of friends aren’t in “5 Years Apart” for very long (they’re only in the party scene), they are also written as realistic people. (Malcolm Hatchett as Sammy’s friend Percy is kind of a scene-stealer, with his hilarious facial expressions and the way he delivers his lines.)

“5 Years Apart” isn’t the type of comedy where there are laughs every few minutes because of slapstick moments or raunchy jokes. Most of the humor is subtle and derived from situations that can realistically occur when stubborn and opposite personalities clash. The movie also has some emotionally touching moments that make this comedy worth watching if you want to see a “slice of life” story with people who come across as authentic human beings instead of joke machines or parodies.

Gravitas Ventures released “5 Years Apart” on digital and VOD on August 21, 2020.