Review: ‘Friendsgiving,’ starring Malin Akerman, Kat Dennings, Aisha Tyler, Jack Donnelly, Jane Seymour, Chelsea Peretti and Ryan Hansen

October 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Deon Cole, Aisha Tyler, Andrew Santino, Christine Taylor, Kat Dennings, Jack Donnelly, Malin Akerman, Jane Seymour, Ryan Hansen, Mike Rose, Scout Durwood and Rhea Butcher in “Friendsgiving” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Friendsgiving”

Directed by Nicol Paone

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “Friendsgiving” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, one Latino and one Asian) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Hollywood actress and her best friend, who are trying to get over big breakups in their respective love lives, plan to spend a quiet Thanksgiving together, but those plans are disrupted by several unexpected guests.  

Culture Audience: “Friendsgiving” will appeal primarily to people who like lowbrow comedies that think any jokes about sex, drugs and selfish antics are automatically supposed to be funny.

Pictured clockwise from bottom left: Serenity Reign Brown, Kat Dennings, Christine Taylor, Aisha Tyler, Deon Cole, Everly or Savannah Sucher, Malin Akerman and Jack Donnelly in “Friendsgiving” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

When there’s a comedy film about a large, chaotic holiday gathering, how much you might enjoy the film really comes down to one thing: Would you want to spend time with any of these people in real life? “Friendsgiving” swings hard and aims low in this vulgar comedy about mostly self-absorbed people at a Thanksgiving dinner, where the majority of the people weren’t even invited by the host. There are some mildly amusing moments, but “Friendsgiving” is really just a series of crude jokes, as the movie’s characters preen, make mischief, and whine about something that eludes almost everyone in this movie: a happy, long-term, monogamous relationship.

“Friendsgiving” is the first feature film directed by Nicol Paone, who wrote the movie’s vapid screenplay. Paone has a background in stand-up comedy, as an actress and as a writer for Funny or Die. Unfortunately, this movie is written as if everyone is a caricature waiting to spout some foul-mouthed lines that someone would write for a mediocre stand-up comedy act. The good news is that the characters’ personalities are distinctive and you can tell them apart from each other. The bad news is that their personalities are also very shallow.

Set in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day, the two central characters of “Friendsgiving” are longtime best friends Abby Barrone (played by Kat Dennings) and Molly (played by Malin Akerman), who have had very different reactions to painful breakups in their love lives. Abby is still recovering from being dumped in January by her ex-girlfriend Maeve, who is a single mother. Molly is a semi-famous Hollywood actress who’s raising a baby son named Eden (played by twins Everly and Savannah Sucher) on her own. Molly’s businessman husband Michael left her because he said he didn’t want to be married to her anymore.

Molly’s impending divorce hasn’t reached the stage of signing divorce papers yet, but she considers herself to be single and available. And she’s already found a new lover: a Brit who’s a cheerful, New Age type of philanthropist named Jeff (played by Jack Donnelly, who’s married to Akerman in real life), whom she’s been dating for only about two weeks. They met when Molly was in London for a press tour for a movie called “Pluto Raiders,” which is described as a basic sci-fi action flick.

Meanwhile, Abby is still wallowing in her breakup misery and has a hard time getting back into the dating pool. Abby doesn’t label her sexuality in the movie, but she mentions that Maeve was the first woman she ever dated, after Abby previously dated only men. In one of several video chats that Abby has with her nosy and opinionated family members—including Abby’s mother (Rose Abdoo) and Abby’s younger sister Barbara (played by Dana DeLorenzo)—Abby is given unsolicited advice on her love life. She is “out of the closet” with her family members, who are a traditional Italian clan on the East Coast, and they seem to think it’s best if Abby settles down and marries a man.

According to the production notes for “Friendsgiving,” the movie is loosely based on Paone’s real-life experiences during one Thanksgiving, when she was mourning a breakup from an ex-girlfriend, while Paone’s best friend was raising a baby after her husband had left her. This shared loneliness and breakup blues sparked the idea for the movie. Paone is openly gay, and she describes Abby as a “gay lady” in the movie.

Although the heart of the movie is about the friendship between Molly and Abby, the story is more focused on Molly. It’s at Molly’s home where the Thanksgiving dinner is held, and Molly is the one whom people seem to want to be around, probably because she’s a fairly successful actress. She lives in a spacious house, but it’s clear that she’s not an A-list actress who can afford any live-in staff.  (There’s no nanny in sight.)

The opening scene of “Friendsgiving” gets right to the raunchiness, as Molly is dressed as a dominatrix while she and Jeff are engaged in some light BDSM play. Their sex session is interrupted by a phone call from Molly’s friend Lauren (played by Aisha Tyler), who asks Molly if she, her husband and two kids can come over to Molly’s place for Thanksgiving. Lauren gives a vague explanation that she’s going a little stir-crazy in the home and wants to spend Thanksgiving at Molly’s place, and she offers to bring some food. Molly is too polite to say no.

Meanwhile, Abby is chatting by phone with her mother and sister while doing some last-minute Thanksgiving shopping in a grocery store. There are clues to how obnoxious Abby can be, such as when she guzzles a bottle of wine while shopping. When a store manager tells her that drinking alcohol in an open container is not allowed in the store, Abby refuses his request to stop, and she gets thrown out by security. Before Abby leaves the store, she makes sure to do some damage to the Christmas tree on display.

Abby plans to spend a quiet Thanksgiving with just Molly and Eden. But there would be no “Friendsgiving” movie if that happened. Needless to say, Abby isn’t too pleased when she hears that there will be more people at the Thanksgiving dinner than originally planned. In fact, Abby is furious, and she starts whining about it like a bratty teenager.

Jeff is invited to stay for Thanksgiving dinner too, since Molly figures out that he’s lonely and has nowhere else to go. And of course, since this is a movie that wants to cram in as many jokes as possible about sex and penis sizes, the first time that Jeff and Abby meet, he accidentally walks into the room completely naked. As an embarrassed Jeff covers his genital area, Abby quips, “It’s no big deal. I have one just like it in my top drawer, except mine is bigger.”

It turns out that Lauren invited several people over to Molly’s place for Thanksgiving without checking with Molly first. And then, Molly’s sex-crazed Swedish mother Helen (played by Jane Seymour), who’s on her fifth marriage, shows up unannounced without her current husband. And, much to Molly’s embarrassment, Helen acts exactly how you would think a no-filter “cougar” would act.

In addition to Molly, Abby and Helen, the people who are at this larger-than-expected Thanksgiving dinner include:

  • Jeff, Molly’s new lover whom Abby begins to compete with in the kitchen and for Molly’s attention.
  • Lauren, who brings some low-dosage psychedelic mushrooms to share with Abby and Molly. (Molly declines to take any mushrooms, but Lauren and Abby do.)
  • Dan (played by Deon Cole), Lauren’s husband who is loving and attentive, but Lauren seems bored and restless in their marriage.
  • Lauren and Dan’s children Lily (played by Serenity Reign Brown), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, and Jack (played by Kenneth Sims), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. The children have no purpose in the movie but to look cute, sit at the kiddie table, and possibly walk in on something “adult” happening.
  • Gunnar (played by Ryan Hansen), a vain actor who is an ex-boyfriend of Molly’s and whom she broke up with years ago because he cheated on her. Gunnar was invited to the Thanksgiving dinner by Molly’s mother Helen, who thinks Molly and Gunnar should get back together, but Helen didn’t know about Jeff when she invited Gunnar.
  • Gus (played by Mike Rose), who’s openly gay, single, and lets it be known that he has a brother who’s been missing for years, which has no bearing on this movie at all, but it’s an attempt to give Gus some kind of backstory.
  • Rick (played by Andrew Santino) and Brianne (played by Christine Taylor), an image-obsessed, materialistic newlywed couple from Orange County who met each other four months ago and have been married for one month. A running gag in the movie is Brianne has recently had some kind of plastic surgery on her mouth, which she can’t move properly.
  • Claire (played by Chelsea Peretti), a New Age hipster who’s recently become a shaman (or a “shawoman,” as she would prefer to be called) and who can’t stop spouting platitudes about people being in touch with their feelings. And maybe she’s a part-time drug dealer too, because Claire sold the mushrooms that Lauren brought to the party.

There are also three lesbians whom Lauren invited to the party in an attempt to match any of them up with Abby. The lesbians don’t have names in the movie, but they have nicknames in the end credits. The lesbians each give brief monologues to the camera explaining their likes and fetishes when it comes to dating.

The first lesbian to arrive at the dinner is nicknamed Denim (played by Rhea Butcher), and she likes to wear denim and gives off a Tig Notaro vibe. The second lesbian to arrive at the dinner is nicknamed named Palo (played by Scout Durwood), and she’s a neo-hippie who seem likes the type to go to the Burning Man Festival. The third lesbian is nicknamed Civil (played by Brianna Baker), and she’s a left-wing militant feminist.

In addition, comedians Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and Fortune Feimster make cameo appearances as Fairy Gay Mothers, in a scene where Abby is having a psychedelic hallucination. The Fairy Gay Mothers give Abby some “Wizard of Oz”-inspired advice, since she is recently out of the closet as a queer woman: “All you have to do is tap your wing-tipped Oxfords three times and say, ‘There’s no place like Home Depot.'”

It’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, which doesn’t have a lot of very funny scenes. By the way, Sykes is shown on the movie poster for “Friendsgiving.” But it’s misleading to think that she’s in the movie as one of the main stars. She’s barely in the film. Sykes, Cho, and Feimster are only in the Fairy Gay Mother scene, which lasts for only about five minutes. Unfortunately, the characters that are annoying in “Friendsgiving” get much more screen time than this hilarious trio.

Seymour, who’s British in real life, has a questionable Swedish accent for her character of Helen, who is one of the worst people in this group of mostly spoiled and obnoxious egomaniacs. When Molly makes it clear to Helen that she’s not interested in getting back together with Gunnar, Helen declares, “If you won’t have him, I will.” And then Helen proceeds to make a fool out of herself in trying to seduce Gunnar.

Molly is actually one of the more tolerable people in this group, but she shows a lot of bad judgment in quickly letting this group take over her household. Some of these guests thoughtfully brought potluck dishes, but others didn’t. And there’s a scene later in the movie that involves the baby and some irresponsible actions that send Molly and some other people into panic mode. It’s one thing for the adults in this story to act dumb, but it’s not that funny to make it a joke that an innocent child’s safety is put at risk because of some the shenanigans at this party.

Because there are so many guests at this dinner, “Friendsgiving” doesn’t spend a lot of time on character development. Therefore, everything in the movie is as superficial as the characters, which is why the movie has nothing to fall back on except more crude jokes and predictable gags. The overwhelming attitude that all the adults have at this Thanksgiving dinner is: “I’m going to do whatever makes me feel good, even if it hurts other people.”

And it’s why there’s an ill-conceived scene in the movie where Lauren and Abby make out with each other (this isn’t spoiler information, since it’s in the movie’s trailer), and Lauren’s husband Dan finds out and naturally feels hurt by this infidelity. And it’s just so cringeworthy to see Helen try to be sexy with the ex-boyfriend of her daughter. It should come as no surprise later when Helen admits to Molly that her latest marriage is on the rocks, but it’s still no excuse for Helen’s selfish and predatory actions. Someone of Seymour’s talent deserves better than this tacky role, even if she doesn’t exactly master the Swedish accent that she’s supposed to have in the movie.

Dennings has a lot of very good comedic timing, but it’s too bad that a lot of lines she has to deliver make Abby insufferable. Akerman (who is one of the producers of “Friendsgiving”) is solid in her role as Molly, while the supporting actors do an adequate job with their very limited characters. Peretti can bring some chuckles as the spacey-yet-pretentious Claire, but those laughs are few and far in between, since Claire is a one-note character.

A better movie would’ve had less people at this Thanksgiving dinner. For example, the characters of Gus, Rick and Brianne don’t really add anything to the story except stereotypes that aren’t very funny. And speaking of stereotypes that aren’t very funny, here’s an example of some dialogue between the lesbian nicknamed Denim and the lesbian nicknamed Palo. Demin asks Palo, “Do you like basketball?” Palo replies, “I don’t like balls of any kind.” 

You get the idea. If “Friendsgiving” were a meal, then it would be a meal that should be skipped because of all the stale cheese that’s being offered.

Saban Films released “Friendsgiving” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 23, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is October 27, 2020.

Review: ‘The War With Grandpa,’ starring Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Rob Riggle, Oakes Fegley, Laura Marano, Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken

October 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Robert De Niro and Oakes Fegley in “The War With Grandpa” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

“The War With Grandpa”

Directed by Tim Hill

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

Culture Clash: A sixth-grade boy declares war on his grandfather, because the grandfather has moved into the family home and has been given the boy’s room, while the boy has been forced to live in the attic.

Culture Audience: “The War With Grandpa” will appeal primarily to people who like silly family comedies that have a lot of predictable slapstick gags.

Cheech Marin, Robert De Niro, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken in “The War With Grandpa” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

Robert De Niro is an Oscar-winning actor who has influenced countless of other actors and worked with many of the best and most talented people in the movie business. His work with director Martin Scorsese has been highly lauded and always anticipated. But when it comes to the types of comedy films that De Niro makes, for whatever reason, he usually chooses bottom-of-the-barrel dreck. “The War With Grandpa” is one in a long list of De Niro comedy films that are downright demeaning for an actor of his talent.

De Niro hasn’t really made a good comedy film since 2000’s “Meet the Parents.” And the types of characters he’s been playing in comedies fit the same mind-numbing cliché: He’s a grumpy retiree (usually a widower) who annoys someone younger. And the movie almost always revolves around this flimsy “generation gap” premise that is poorly executed in the movie.

Such is the moldy concept presented in “The War With Grandpa,” directed by Tim Hill as if it’s a cheesy made-for-TV movie. Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember wrote “The War With Grandpa’s” awful screenplay, which is adapted from the Robert Kimmel Smith novel of the same name. The quality of this movie is so low that unknown actors could’ve played the roles and it wouldn’t have made a difference in the cheap and mostly unfunny gags and jokes in the movie.

The essential story is that De Niro plays a widower named Ed Marino, whose daughter Sally Decker (played by Uma Thurman) is worried about him being depressed and living alone. Ed is a two-hour drive away, so Sally insists that he move in with her and her family. Ed is given the bedroom of Sally’s only son Peter (played by Oakes Fegley), who is forced to live in the house’s run-down and leaky attic. Peter hates being displaced from the comfort of his bedroom, so he declares “war” on his grandfather.

Sally works at a car dealership. Her husband Arthur Decker (whom Ed likes to call Artie) works in a corporate desk job that Ed calls “soul-sucking.” Ed, who is a retired construction worker who built homes, doesn’t respect Arthur, who was an aspiring architect, but Arthur abandoned those dreams to work in a boring office job.

Sally and Arthur’s three children are Mia (played by Laura Marano), who’s about 16 years old; Peter, who’s about 11 years old; and Jennifer, or Jenny (played by Poppy Gagnon), who’s about 6 years old. Mia is a typical sarcastic teenager, while Jenny is a typical cute kid who’s the “innocent and sweet” child in the family. Peter is a typical middle child who often feels ignored and underappreciated.

Mia is at an age where she wants more independence, but Sally is paranoid about Mia’s dating activities and won’t allow Mia to be alone in the house with any teenage boys. Mia and a fellow student named Russell (played by Colin Ford) have some romantic sparks between them and they inevitably begin dating. Sally can’t even stand the thought of Mia kissing a boyfriend, which leads to an over-the-top scene later in the movie when Sally goes on a rampage and attacks Russell.

Peter begins sixth grade at around the same time that his grandfather Ed has moved into the family home and gets Peter’s bedroom. Peter complains about it to his three closest friends, who are all in the same class with him at school: anxious Steve (played by Isaac Kragten), wisecracking Billy (played by Juliocesar Chavez) and practical Emma (played by T.J. McGibbon).

In yet another cliché in movies like this, Peter is the target of a school bully (played by Drew Scheid), an older student who does things like dump chili in Peter’s backpack while Peter and his friends are seated at a table in the school cafeteria. The movie also has a running joke that Steve’s older teenage sister Lisa (played by Lydia Styslinger) frequently interrupts the friends’ conversation to mention something embarrassing about Steve, which he usually denies.

Among the problems that Peter encounters by living in the attic are a leaky roof that drips water onto one side of his bed; a mouse that chews an electrical cord, causing interruptions in the attic’s electricity; and a bat that randomly appears out of nowhere, which causes Peter to get so scared that he accidentally bumps his head on a ceiling beam. Instead of telling his parents so they could handle these problems (for starters, they could get a mousetrap), Peter blames his discomfort on his grandfather. Ed didn’t really want to live in the home in the first place, but he only agreed to live there to please his daughter Sally.

One night, Ed finds a note slipped underneath his door. The note is titled “Declaration of War,” with a demand that Ed has 24 hours to “give me back what’s mine.” The note is anonymously signed with the alias Secret Warrior, but of course Ed knows exactly who wrote this hostile missive. Ed is slightly amused and ignores the note.

After the 24 hours have passed and Ed hasn’t given up his place in Peter’s former bedroom, the war is on. After midnight, Peter sends another note, this time, by a remote-controlled noisy toy car, which wakes up Ed. The note reads, “People who steal each other’s rooms should not sleep well.”

The next morning, Ed has a heart-to-heart talk with Peter and tells him, “I’m not your enemy.” Peter remains unmoved, so Ed tells him that if they’re going to war with each other, they have to establish rules of engagement. Ed and Peter agree to two rules: (1) They won’t do anything that would involve other family members during the “war” and (2) They won’t tell anyone else in the family about the “war” while it’s still going on. Easier said than done.

What follows is a series of slapstick scenes that are mostly juvenile and unimaginative. Ed, wearing nothing but a towel in the bathroom, finds out that the shaving cream on his face is really foam sealant that was placed in the shaving can by you-know-who. Ed makes a ruckus that alarms Arthur, who goes in the bathroom to see what’s going on.

Arthur’s sudden presence startles Ed, who accidentally drops his towel in front of a mortified Arthur, who screams at the sight of his naked father-in-law. It won’t be the last time that Arthur sees Ed’s naked genitals and has the same high-pitched screaming reaction. (This is a family movie, so there’s no nudity.)

There are also numerous scenes showing Ed (in other words, De Niro’s obvious stunt double) falling down hard from tripping or losing his grip somewhere, because this movie wants people to think that it’s supposed to be funny that old people fall down in a way that could break bones or cause head injuries. Ed has a sentimental collection of marbles that he keeps in a jar. You can easily predict what happens and who’s responsible.

Ed’s pranks on Peter aren’t as harsh. At school, Peter is asked to read an essay out loud to his class about what he did for his summer vacation. As Peter starts to read the essay, he finds out that it’s been replaced with an essay that he didn’t write, which says things like, “I stopped showering until I smelled like a monkey’s butt” and “I sealed my own farts in a baggie.”

Ed decides to spy on Peter, so he buys surveillance equipment at a Best Buy type of store, where he has problems using the self-checkout machine. A store clerk named Diane (played by Jane Seymour) offers to help him use the machine. They make small talk, she asks why he’s purchasing a lot of spying equipment, and Ed tells Diane about the “war” that he’s having with his grandson Peter. Diane is sympathetic, because she says that she has a granddaughter who drives her crazy. It’s easy to see that Diane will eventually become Ed’s love interest in the movie.

Peter also does things like put hot pepper in coffee that’s intended for Ed, but Peter’s mother Sally ends up drinking the coffee instead while she’s in her car and stopped at a street intersection. She spits out the coffee, and the cup with the remaining coffee goes flying out the car window onto a cop on a motorcycle that’s right next to her car. Things escalate to a point where Peter pays Billy to borrow Billy’s pet snake, but there’s a mishap where the snake doesn’t go where it was intended. (Hint: The gag with the motorcycle cop is used more than once in the movie.)

There’s another slapstick scene where Ed is attending the funeral of a close friend, and his phone starts ringing loudly while he’s standing next to the open casket. Of course, it’s Peter who’s calling. When Ed gets the phone to turn it off, he accidentally drops the phone on top of the body and makes things worse when he tries to retrieve it. The phone slides further down the corpse in an area where Ed definitely doesn’t want to touch. Because this is a dumb movie, it’s never explained how Peter could know the exact moment to call to engineer this humiliating funeral mishap.

Ed has two close friends whom he eventually recruits to help him get revenge on Peter. Jerry (played by Christopher Walken, another Oscar winner who’s slumming it in this movie) is like a teenager in a senior citizen’s body, because he lives in a loft that’s decked out with games like pinball machines and foosball and the latest technology. Danny (played by Cheech Marin) sees himself as a ladies’ man and he flirts with younger women as much as he can.

When Ed and Peter decide to face off in a game of dodgeball with their respective friends, Ed enlists the help of store clerk Diane to join his team. Ed, Jerry, Danny and Diane then compete against Peter, Steve, Billy and Emma in a fairly long dodgeball scene that once again uses male genitals as fodder for a joke, when Steve gets brutally hit in his genitals by a dodgeball during the game. It’s a predictable gag that doesn’t work as well as the gag of Danny’s dentures flying out of his mouth during the game.

All of these gags and slapstick humor would work better if the movie’s dialogue and acting had some level of unique spark or creativity. But almost everything in “The War With Grandpa” is tiresome and formulaic. The experienced actors in the movie look like they only did this film for the money. Fegley does his best to be funny, but his Peter character (who turns into quite the annoying brat) is written in such a generic way (there are similar annoying brats in too many other movies) that “The War With Grandpa” will not be a breakout role for him.

The “war” culminates at a big Christmas-themed birthday party for youngest child Jennifer. It goes as badly as one would expect, with a lot of over-the-top and unrealistic antics and mishaps. “The War With Grandpa” isn’t the worst comedy ever, but it’s another unnecessary embarrassment that’s tainted De Niro’s illustrious career. The man who starred in the classic 1982 film “The King of Comedy” has now become the king of bad senior-citizen comedy.

101 Studios released “The War With Grandpa” in U.S. cinemas on October 9, 2020.