Review: ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ (2024), starring Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum

July 5, 2024

by Carla Hay

Scarlett Johannson and Channing Tatum in “Fly Me to the Moon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures)

“Fly Me to the Moon” (2024)

Directed by Greg Berlanti

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1969, in Florida and briefly in New York and Louisiana, the comedy/drama film “Fly Me to the Moon” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An ambitious advertising executive and a patriotic NASA flight director have conflicts over how to handle marketing and media coverage of the historic Apollo 11 spaceflight that was the first to send people to the moon. 

Culture Audience: “Fly Me to the Moon” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, movies about NASA, and dramedies that present revisionist versions of real history.

Scarlett Johannson and Channing Tatum in “Fly Me to the Moon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films  and Columbia Pictures)

“Fly Me to the Moon” is a breezy and charming comedy/drama that tells an alternate and often-satirical version of planning media coverage of NASA’s historic Apollo 11 spaceflight. Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum carry this movie over some of its bumpier parts. It’s the type of movie that will have the most appeal with people who have good knowledge of American history (especially when it comes to NASA) and can appreciate movies that poke fun at how easily the media can be manipulated.

Directed by Greg Berlanti and written by Rose Gilroy, “Fly Me to the Moon” is based on a story by Bill Kirstein and Keenan Flynn. The movie takes place during an untold number of weeks leading up to and including July 20, 1969, the date that the Apollo 11 spaceflight put the first people on the moon. The movie has a little bit of something for everyone: scientific adventure, emotional drama, suspenseful thrills, lighthearted comedy and entertaining romance.

“Fly Me to the Moon” begins with a voiceover from a character who is later introduced as Moe Berkus (played by Woody Harrelson), who says he works in the office of the U.S. president. (Richard Nixon was president of the U.S. at the time. And although his name is mentioned a few times in the movie, he’s not a character in the film.) Moe is a government official who acts more like a spy than someone who has a typical administrative job.

An opening montage sequence explains how the Space Race competition between the Untied States and Russia (which was then known as the U.S.S.R.) heated up in the 1960s, as both countries competed to be the first to send people to the moon. In a 1962 speech at Rice University, then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy stated that the U.S. would accomplish this goal before the end of the 1960s.

In 1969, Cole Davis (played by Tatum), a bachelor with no children, is NASA’s launch director at Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. He is confident and has the respect of his team. It’s later revealed that Cole is a Vietnam War veteran who used to be a military pilot. He had trained to be a NASA astronaut but had to leave the astronaut training program when it was discovered that his heart had a fibroid. Cole also has some emotional baggage, including remorse and guilt, over his involvement in the tragic Apollo 1 spaceflight where three astronauts died.

Kelly Jones (played by Johansson), a bachelorette with no children, is also an assertive achiever who sees herself as highly motivated. She works for a New York City-based advertising agency called Hoover. Kelly knows she’s in a male-dominated profession, so she uses her wit and charm to impress people who underestimate her. An early scene in the movie shows Kelly (who’s wearing a fake baby bump to appear pregnant) astounding an all-male group of executives working for a car company client during a conference room meeting. She tells all of the executives in the meeting what types of cars they drive and what types of cars they should be driving.

These weren’t lucky guesses from Kelly. She did her homework in researching these executives. An unethical reason for her success in business is that she has a long history of presenting fake stories, images situations as being real. More of Kelly’s past is revealed in the story. Why did she fake a pregnancy in a business meeting? It’s an example of how far Kelly is willing to go to manipulate people into thinking that she’s more vulnerable than she really is, in order to get what she wants.

Someone who has noticed Kelly’s “smoke and mirrors” skills is Moe, who can be either stern and smirking in the way that he interacts with people. He approaches Kelly in a bar, introduces himself as someone who works for the U.S. president, and shows her proof that he knows a lot of secrets from her past, including Kelly having a history of creating false identities for herself. Moe tells Kelly that he can make her shady past go away if she takes NASA as a client to market the Apollo 11 spaceflight to the public.

Moe explains that Apollo 11 has a public relations crisis because many people, including several influential politicians, think that the U.S. government is spending too much money to try to send people to the moon. At the time, sending people to the moon was still considered an improbable science fiction fantasy. Kelly’s job would be to “sell” Apollo 11 as not only patriotic but also an opportunity for capitalists to make a lot of money. Kelly feels she has no choice but to take this job, and she sees it as a challenge that she can conquer.

And so, Kelly goes to Kennedy Space Center with her trusted assistant Ruby Martin (played by Anna Garcia), who is openly a liberal feminist. Ruby says she has a problem with the job if it means they’re working for politically conservative Richard Nixon, but Kelly assures Ruby that their client is really NASA. The budget for this job is much lower than what Kelly usally gets. She and Ruby have to stay at a motel. And to their dismay, their office at NASA is cluttered and small.

Soon after arriving in Florida, Kelly is by herself in a diner when Cole walks in and looks at her as if he’s immediately attracted to her. Kelly notices Cole staring and her, and they both try to play it cool. He finally approaches her.

They have their “meet cute” moment when he notices that a candle on her table has accidentally lit a book on fire. Cole quickly puts out the fire, and she offers to buy him a drink. He tells her that he doesn’t drink alcohol. Later, it’s revealed that Cole is also very religious. In other words, Cole and Kelly have opposite lifestyles.

Kelly notices that Cole is wearing a NASA pin. They have some casually flirtatious conversation where she plays coy about who she is and exactly what she’s doing in this part of Florida. Before Cole leaves, he is somewhat bashful and a little awkward when he tells her that she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Cole thinks he’ll probably never see her again, but there would be no “Fly Me to the Moon” movie if this was just a one-time encounter between Cole and Kelly.

Cole inevitably finds out who Kelly is and what she’s doing at Kennedy Space Center. When they see each other again, she’s giving orders on his turf. And he doesn’t like it one bit. When two people who are accustomed to getting their own way have to work together and disagree, arguments and other conflicts predictably ensue. And when those two people have sexual tension with each other, the conflicts get even more complicated and personal.

“Fly Me to the Moon” takes a while before it gets the parts of the movie that are the most interesting. A lot of screen time is taken up by somewhat repetitive scenes of Cole disliking almost every idea that Kelly has in order for her to make the Apollo 11 spaceflight more appealing to skeptics. Soon after finding out that he has to work with Kelly, Cole tells her to forget about what he told her about how he thinks she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen because he wants their relationship to be strictly platonic. (And we all know that’s a lie because they’re obviously attracted to each other)

Kelly’s ideas involve things such as product placement and marketing the Apollo 11 astronauts as product spokespeople; hiring actors to pretend to be NASA officials (including Cole) who don’t want to do media interviews; and creating fake personal histories about herself, in order to make herself more relatable to politically conservative U.S. Senators whose votes are needed to get more funding for Apollo 11. In very unrealistic-looking scenes, Kelly suddenly acts like a political lobbyist and has separate meetings with U.S. Senator Hopp from Georgia (played by Gene Jones) and U.S. Senator Cook from South Carolina (played by Colin Jost, who’s married in real life to Johansson). And then, Cole gets in on the lobbying too when he and Kelly have dinner with Senator Vanning from Louisiana (played by Joe Chrest) and his wife Jolene Vanning (played by Stephanie Kurtzuba) in the Vanning family home.

Some of the other NASA people at Kennedy Space Center who work closely with Cole include executive launch director Henry Smalls (played by Ray Romano) and two engineers in their 20s: resourceful Stu Bryce (played by Donald Elise Watkins) and nerdy Don Harper (played by Noah Robbins), who becomes Ruby’s love interest. The three Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong (played by Nick Dillenburg), Buzz Aldrin (played by Colin Woodell) and Michael Collins (played by Christian Zuber)—are given somewhat generic personalities and are not the focus of the story. There’s also a stray black cat hanging out at Kennedy Space Center, much to the annoyance of Cole, who doesn’t like this cat because he thinks the cat is bad luck.

Moe isn’t at Kennedy Space Center all the time to see how Kelly is doing her job, but he has ways of monitoring what she’s doing. He orders her to do something that is highly unethical, which is already revealed in the “Fly Me to the Moon” trailers: Film an alternative version of the Apollo 11 moon landing where everything goes perfectly, and pretend that this recording is a live telecast of the real moon landing.

Moe has a name for this massive lie about Apollo 11: He calls it Project Artemis. Moe pressures a reluctant Kelly to carry out this scam because he says it’s a matter of national security. “This isn’t just a race for the moon,” Moe says in a lecturing tone to Kelly. “This is a race for the ideology that gets to run things.”

Kelly recruits her longtime director colleague Lance Vespertine (played by Jim Rash) to be a part of the scheme. Lance, who is a very fussy and flamboyant prima donna, directs commercials (he has the nickname “the [Stanley] Kubrick of commercials”), but he really wants to direct prestigious movies. Rash is a hilarious scene stealer and gets some of the best lines in the movie, although some viewers might find the Lance character kind of irritating.

When it comes to recreating 1969, “Fly Me to the Moon” is at its best with the movie’s production design, costume design, makeup and hairstyling. Some of the dialogue and mannerisms aren’t quite convincing because they seem too influenced by later decades. Tatum in particular has some scenes where he comes across as too 21st century. (And there are some sleek, lingering shots of him staring into the distance as if he’s in a fashion ad.)

Johansson (who is one of the producers of this movie) is more believable as a retro character who is living on the cusp of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Kelly often blurs the lines between being a coquettish sex symbol and being fiercely independent feminist. Some of the scenarios in the movie go a little overboard in making it look like Kelly can get anyone to do anything she wants just because she’s a beautiful blonde.

Tatum and Johansson together have crackling chemistry in their scenes together. Cole and Kelly don’t really seem like soul mates because a lot of their attraction to each other has to do with their physical looks and the way they like to compete with each other. For most of the movie Cole doesn’t ask Kelly very much about herself because he’s too busy arguing with her and trying to assert his authority. Kelly has many secrets and has no qualms about being a habitual liar, so it’s questionable if she’s capable of having a truly honest relationship.

All of those questions are put on the back burner when the last third of the movie takes a “race against time” turn concerning the big fraudulent Project Artemis plan that Moe wants Kelly to carry out on behalf of the U.S. government. Kelly is also ordered to keep this scheme a secret from almost everyone at NASA, including Cole. “Fly Me to the Moon” has a heightened sense of glossy movie glamour that shows it’s not intended to be a historically accurate movie. It’s pure escapist fantasy that mixes some parts of real-life history with fictional main characters and 1960s nostalgia. It all results in an entertaining movie experience whose best moments outshine any flaws.

Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures will release “Fly Me to the Moon” in U.S. cinemas on July 12, 2024. Sneak previews of the movie took place in U.S. cinemas on July 1 and July 5, 2024.

Review: ‘Bros’ (2022), starring Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane

September 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane in “Bros” (Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures)

“Bros” (2022)

Directed by Nicholas Stoller

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York and briefly in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the comedy film “Bros” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An openly gay podcaster/writer, who is very cynical about finding love, begins a new job as executive director of a museum for LGBTQ+ history and culture, around the same time that he finds himself falling in love with a man whom he thinks isn’t his “type.” 

Culture Audience: “Bros” will appeal primarily to people interested in well-written, adult-oriented romantic comedies from a gay, cisgender male perspective.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Ts Madison, Billy Eichner, Miss Lawrence, Eve Lindley, Jim Rash and Dot-Marie Jones in “Bros” (Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures)

Blending real talk about relationships, some hilarious sex scenes, and a sweet-natured romance at the heart of the story, “Bros” is a romantic comedy that has Billy Eichner’s boldly sarcastic style written all over it. It’s made for open-minded adults. It also helps if people know a lot of about pop culture and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) history to understand many of the jokes in the movie. “Bros” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Nicholas Stoller (who co-wrote the “Bros” screenplay with Eichner), “Bros” is a history-making film because it’s the first major studio movie in wide release with a majority LGBTQ+ cast and co-written by an openly gay man. Considering that it took this long for this cinematic milestone to happen, “Bros” is a triumph and an instant classic LGBTQ movie. Just because the movie centers on a gay man and his love life, that doesn’t mean this movie is only for LGBTQ people. However, “Bros” definitely earns its Motion Pictures of America Association rating recommendation for people ages 17 and up, because of the movie’s sexual content, adult language and drug use. As the saying goes, “Viewer discretion is advised.”

In “Bros,” Eichner portrays 40-year-old Bobby Leiber, an openly gay podcaster/writer who is famous enough to be on the cover of The Advocate magazine. Bobby has an unapologetically activist attitude when it comes to advocating for LGBTQ rights and speaking out against homophobia. Eichner has said in interviews that some of Bobby’s personality and life are inspired by Eichner’s own real-life experiences, but “Bros” is not an autobiographical film.

Bobby is also very aware that as a cisgender white man, he gets more privileges than LGBTQ people who aren’t cisgender white men. The movie opens with Bobby making an episode of his podcast “The 11th Brick at Stonewall.” It’s in reference to the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City that is considered a turning point in the LGBTQ civil rights movement. The uprising happened as a way for LGBTQ people to show that they were fed up with homophobic arrests and harassment from police, and they fought back in groups against the police. Throwing bricks was part of this Stonewall uprising.

It’s an example of why “Bros” viewers need to know about this brick throwing and Stonewall to understand why Bobby makes this comment about why he named his podcast “The 11th Brick at Stonewall,” and why Bobby knows how LGBTQ history, just like heterosexual-oriented history, tends to erase the contributions of people who aren’t white men: “Because we all know a butch lesbian or a trans woman of color probably threw the first brick at Stonewall, but it was a cis white gay man who threw the 11th brick,” Bobby says. Later in the movie, Bobby points out how transgender female activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were the real heroes of the Stonewall uprising but often don’t get the credit for it because Johnson and Rivera were transgender women of color.

Bobby is a bachelor who says he’s never been in love and has never dated anyone for more than three months. He’s very cynical about the possibility of ending up with a soul mate, and he doesn’t really believe that monogamy works for him. Other than feeling unlucky when it comes to romantic love, Bobby is happy with his life because he’s healthy, and his friends and his work keep him fulfilled.

Bobby, who has no siblings, was born and raised in New York City. He was raised Jewish, but he is not particularly religious or spiritual. His mother died when Bobby was in college, and his father died when Bobby was 10 years old. In “Bros,” no other biological family members of Bobby are shown. Like many gay people, Bobby has a “chosen family” that is a tight-knit circle of friends, most of whom are also LGBTQ.

The first 15 minutes of “Bros” show that Bobby has been trying to branch out in his career besides doing his podcast. During his podcast, when a caller asks Bobby, if he’s going to write any more books, Bobby talks about his failed career as a children’s book author. His children’s book “Are You There, God? It’s Martina Navratilova” was a flop. Bobby sarcastically says, “Hey, parents, thanks for teaching kids about Santa Claus—a straight man who doesn’t exist—and not about Martina Navratilova, a lesbian who does.”

Bobby also tells his audience that on his social media, he uploaded an outtake from his failed “Queer Eye” audition, where he was trying out to be one of the co-hosts of this Emmy-winning Netflix series about gay men who give life makeovers to people whose lives are stuck in a rut. “Bros” shows this “outtake” clip of Bobby looking unimpressed, while the “Queer Eye” hosts (actors portraying the real hosts) are nearby crying over the makeover they’ve just completed for a man with a sob story. Bobby deadpans, “I’m sorry, this isn’t sad. You gave him a haircut and a pair of pants.”

Bobby has also tried to become a movie screenwriter, with mixed results. “Bros” shows a brief flashback of Bobby in a meeting with an unnamed Hollywood executive (played by Doug Trapp), who wants Bobby to write a gay romantic comedy movie. The executive says, “We just want to make a movie that shows the world that gay relationships are the same [as straight relationships]. Love is love is love.”

An offended Bobby then goes on a rant and says that “Love is love is love” was a “lie” invented by LGBTQ people just to get more acceptance from heterosexual people. Bobby then lectures the executive by saying that dating for LGBTQ people is very different from dating for heterosexual people. And before Bobby ends the meeting by storming out, Bobby says that not all gay people are smart or nice.

To his podcast audience, Bobby opens up about how lonely his love life can be and how he usually has meaningless sexual encounters with men he meets on dating apps such as Grindr. Although Bobby says it doesn’t really bother him that he’s perpetually single and often alone, you can tell it really does bother him. He sighs with an air of resignation, “I’m not the right person to write a rom-com anyway.”

Things are looking up for Bobby in his career though. At the LGBTQ+ Pride Awards (where Bobby is a presenter, and which features actress/LGBTQ ally Kristin Chenoweth as herself in a cameo), Bobby announces that he’s been named executive director of the National Museum of LGBTQ+ History and Culture. Bobby will be the first executive director of this non-profit museum, which will open in New York City sometime in less than a year, after the museum’s grand opening was postponed multiple times already. His job includes fundraising and making decisions about the museum’s exhibits. Bobby will continue to be a podcaster, but the museum is now his main job.

Not long after sharing this big news, Bobby attends a launch party for a gay dating app called Zellweger, which is for men who want to sexually hook up with each other and talk about famous actresses. Bobby’s friend Henry (played by Guy Branum) works for Zellweger and has invited Bobby to this party, which is at a nightclub filled with shirtless and good-looking men dancing with each other. It’s at this party that Bobby meets Aaron Shepard (played by Luke Macfarlane), who is one of the shirtless, good-looking men.

Bobby and Aaron (who is in his early 40s) strike up a casual and mildly flirtatious conversation. Within the first few minutes, it’s obvious that Aaron is not the type of guy whom Bobby is usually attracted to on an intellectual or emotional level. For starters, Bobby is disappointed that Aaron doesn’t recognize a Mariah Carey remix song that’s playing at the party. Aaron says he prefers country music, and his favorite artist is Garth Brooks. Bobby is not a fan of country music.

Aaron also works in probate law as an estate planner. In other words, he helps people write their wills. Bobby thinks it’s a stuffy and boring corporate job. Bobby prefers to date men whom he thinks has more exciting lives than the type of life that Aaron seems to have. Bobby is a motormouth, while Aaron is a lot less talkative. Still, Bobby and Aaron seem to share the same sarcastic sense of humor, and they make each other laugh.

Bobby also finds out that Aaron isn’t quite as dull and uptight as Bobby thought he was on first impression. Aaron points out two shirtless men (played by Keith Milkie and Alex Ringler) on the dance floor. Aaron tells Bobby that the two men are a couple, and Aaron has a date to have sex with both of them after the party.

In “Bros,” hookup culture (which includes a lot of group sex) is explicitly depicted as a fact of life for many single (and sometimes married) gay/queer men. It’s the type of reality that Bobby says should be discussed more openly and honestly when people talk about the LGBTQ community to heterosexual people. “Bros” also has a scene of poppers (a drug that’s inhaled) being used during sexual activity. If you don’t know how common it is for gay men to use poppers, then “Bros” aims to enlighten viewers.

As much as Bobby doesn’t think he’s attracted to Aaron, Bobby gets annoyed when Aaron seems to give him the brushoff at the party. Bobby and Aaron tell each other that they’re not looking for a serious relationship, but Bobby is less willing than Aaron to play it cool. Bobby also sends mixed messages to Aaron. During their first meeting, Bobby insults Aaron by telling him that he heard that Aaron is “boring,” but Bobby still expects Aaron to be charmed enough by Bobby to pursue a romantic relationship with Bobby.

Of course, Bobby and Aaron end up dating each other, but they both struggle with trying to define their relationship and how “committed” they should be to each other. Describing each other as a “boyfriend” would be a big step for them. Throughout their relationship, Bobby is insecure that Aaron won’t find Bobby physically attractive enough, while Aaron is insecure that Bobby won’t find Aaron exciting enough.

“Bros” hits a lot of familiar beats that are often in heterosexual romantic comedies, where two single people start dating each other and try to figure out if the relationship is meant to last. There are jealousy issues, commitment issues and family acceptance issues. And there’s at least one big argument that leads to a turning point where the couple has to decide to break up or stay together. Thankfully, “Bros” does not have the treacly and over-used cliché of someone racing to an airport to confess true feelings, in order for the couple to be together.

“Bros” has a snappy and often-breezy tone that points out the nuances and diversity in the LGBTQ community. Bobby oversees a staff that exemplifies this diversity and how different agendas in the LGBTQ community often compete for priorities and have other conflicts. Staff meetings often turn into arguments where the staffers fight for museum exhibits that represent their particular sexual or gender identity.

The museum staffers include gender-fluid/gender-nonconforming Tamara (played by Miss Lawrence), butch lesbian Cherry (played by Dot-Marie Jones), bisexual man Robert (played by Jim Rash) and trangsender women Angela (played by Ts Madison) and Tamara (played by Eve Lindley). One of the staff arguments is about how to present a museum exhibit of 16th U.S. president Abraham Lincoln and his close companion Captain David Derickson, who wrote love letters to each other and slept in the same bed when first lady Mary Lincoln was away. Bobby feels strongly that the museum should describe Abraham Lincoln as a closeted gay man, while Robert insists that Abraham Lincoln was bisexual.

In addition to the drama about the museum exhibits, Bobby also has to contend with raising enough money to open the museum, which needs about $5 million in order to launch. These fundraising efforts lead to laugh-out-loud scenes with actress Debra Messing (playing a version of herself) and Bowen Yang (playing a gay and wealthy TV producer named Lawrence “Larry” Grape) as potentially major donors to the museum. Messing has a cameo in “Bros,” but it’s a truth-telling appearance where she lashes out about gay men thinking she’s the same as the Grace Adler character (a straight woman with a gay male best friend) that she portrayed in the sitcom “Will & Grace.”

Somehow, all of the scenes of Bobby and his job challenges aren’t a distraction from the main plot about Bobby and Aaron’s relationship. The movie is written in a way to show that what Bobby learns from his mistakes on the job and in his love life are intertwined and affect each other. Bobby is far from perfect: He can be stubborn, selfish and mean-spirited. But he’s also kind, generous and open to improving himself.

Aaron learns from Bobby about what it’s like to take bold risks in life, since Aaron tends to make decisions where he doesn’t have to go outside of his comfort zone. Aaron confides in Bobby that Aaron hates his job and has had a secret childhood dream to have another job, which is detailed in the movie. It’s at this point in the movie where you know what’s going to happen to Aaron’s childhood dream. Bobby also has a childhood dream that “Bros” handles in a heartwarming and sentimental way.

Aaron comes from a completely different world and upbringing than what Bobby has experienced. Aaron grew up in upstate New York with his married parents, including his schoolteacher mother Anne (played by Amanda Bearse), and older brother Jason (played by Jai Rodriguez), who know he is gay but don’t really like to discuss it openly. Bobby has been openly gay since he was an underage kid. Aaron came out as gay later in life, when Aaron was an adult. Aaron also grew up in a suburban area that is a lot more politically conservative than New York City.

But wait, there’s more: “Bros” has a love triangle subplot that doesn’t get too messy, even though this subplot wasn’t that necessary to put in the movie. The love triangle happens when Bobby and Aaron are on a date at a movie theater, and they happen to have a conversation with a former high school classmate of Aaron’s named Josh Evans (played by Ryan Faucett), who was on the school’s hockey team with Aaron. When they were students, Aaron was still in the closet about his sexuality, and he used to have a secret crush on Josh.

As the movie’s central couple, Eichner and Macfarlane have believable chemistry as two people in an “opposites attract” romance. Eichner gives a better and more natural-looking performance, in large part because he created the role for himself. Macfarlane has a few moments where his acting is stilted and seems forced, but overall his performance has a lot of affable charm. Macfarlane has previously starred in Hallmark Channel romantic movies. “Bros” pokes fun at a TV network called Hallheart (which is an obvious spoof of the real-life Hallmark Channel), which is depicted as being culturally late in having movies centered on LGBTQ people and trying to make up for it by having more LGBTQ-themed movies than ever before.

“Bros” has numerous supporting characters without overstuffing the movie and confusing viewers. Many of these supporting characters are in Bobby’s circle of friends, such as elderly Louis (played by Harvey Fierstein), who lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts (a popular vacation city for gay men). Louis lets Bobby and Aaron stay at his place when Bobby and Aaron are in Provincetown for Pride festivities. Bobby is also close with a gay couple named Peter (played by Peter Kim) and Paul (played by Justin Covington), who are dating a man named Marty (played by Symone), in a “throuple” relationship.

Other friends of Bobby’s are straight married couple Tina (played by Monica Raymund) and Edgar (played by Guillermo Diaz), who are progressive liberals. Tina and Edgar have two children named Hannah (played by Dahlia Rodriguez), who’s about 5 years old, and Brian (played by Derrick Delgado), who’s abut 8 years old. Tina and Edgar think that Brian might be gay, and they have no problem with it, but Tina and Edgar occasionally ask Bobby for thoughts on what he thinks a gay child needs from supportive parents. Bobby often confides in Tina about his love life.

With all of these characters and subplots, “Bros” has a total running time (115 minutes) that’s longer than a typical romantic comedy. The movie isn’t perfect, because it tends to ramble and get a little repetitive about how commitment-phobic Bobby and Aaron are. Still, the nearly two-hour runtime of “Bros” is worth it if people want to see a highly entertaining and witty romantic comedy, where the adult relationships aren’t toned down to present an unrealistic and sappy story.

Universal Pictures released “Bros” in U.S. cinemas on September 30, 2022.

Review: ‘Long Weekend’ (2021), starring Finn Wittrock and Zoë Chao

March 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Finn Wittrock and Zoë Chao in “Long Weekend” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)

“Long Weekend”

Directed by Steve Basilone

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the romantic drama “Long Weekend” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Asian and a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A depressed man meets a mysterious and fun-loving woman, but their budding romance is threatened by secrets.

Culture Audience: “Long Weekend” will appeal primarily to people who like fantastical elements to romantic stories and are willing to tolerate a movie that can be cliché-ridden and doesn’t live up to its ambitious potential.

Damon Wayans Jr. and Casey Wilson in “Long Weekend” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)

The romantic drama “Long Weekend” makes a fairly well-intentioned attempt to be a deep, philosophical movie about the meaning of life, but the results are a shallow and very stereotypical movie about two people who meet and quickly fall in love. Even with a talented and appealing cast, “Long Weekend” is filled with too many plot holes and cloying moments to be anything but a lightweight and forgettable movie. There’s a sci-fi element of the film that’s also badly mishandled.

“Long Weekend” writer/director Steve Basilone says in the movie’s production notes that the film is loosely inspired by events he experienced in real life, when he went through a divorce and his mother had cancer around the same time. It’s too bad that so much of the movie feels very contrived, from the flimsy plot twists to the too-cutesy dialogue between people in their 30s. There’s nothing wrong with bringing some science fiction into a romantic drama, as long as the characters are believable and the sci-fi works well for the plot overall. (The 2004 classic “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is one example of a sci-fi romantic drama that was done right.)

The beginning of “Long Weekend” starts out by showing how a Los Angeles writer named Bart Waters (played by Finn Wittrock) is experiencing a major slump in his life. A series of voicemail messages from a psychiatric facility are heard in voiceovers in the opening scenes. The messages indicate that Ben recently spent some time as a patient in the facility, but he’s been avoiding making a follow-up appointment so his doctor can evaluate his out-patient progress.

It’s revealed a little later in the movie that Bart is recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. His beloved mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he had problems coping with this crisis. His emotional distress caused his fiancée Whit (played by Jess Jacobs) to leave him. And that’s when Bart really had a meltdown, which led to his stay in the psychiatric facility. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t show any of this trauma in flashbacks, because it would ruin the optimistic tone that this film is trying to convey.

Sometime during this psychiatric breakdown, Bart lost his job and could no longer afford his apartment rent. And so, in the beginning of the film, he’s shown already packed up and ready to move, as the apartment building’s no-nonsense manager Patricia (played by Wendi McLendon-Covey) tells Bart that she’s about to show his apartment to a prospective tenant. The role of Patricia is very small, underwritten and actually unnecessary. It’s a waste of McLendon-Covey’s talent.

It’s unclear how long Bart was in the psychiatric facility, but his mother is now dead, and Bart apparently has no other family to turn to in this personal crisis. And so, Bart ends up moving into the garage of his best friend Doug (played by Damon Wayans Jr.), who was the person who recommended that Bart get psychiatric help. Doug lives with his wife Rachel (played by Casey Wilson) and their two kids. Doug and Rachel have a toddler daughter named Eve (played by Ellison Randell) and an energetic son named Teddy (played by Carter Morgan), who’s about 5 or 6 years old and likes to dress up as imaginary superheroes.

When Bart arrives at the house to move in, Doug generously tells Bart, “You can stay here forever.” Bart insists that his stay will be temporary, because he has a potential job lined up, and he plans to get his own place as soon as he can afford it. Bart gets the job, but it’s not his ideal gig.

Before his meltdown, Bart was a screenwriter. The first job that he gets after checking out of the psychiatric facility is writing for a medical supply catalogue. The interview is a blandly written scene showing the office manager named Larry (played by Jim Rash) reading a sample of a screenplay that Bart wrote about a man who has a nervous breakdown after his fiancée left him.

Larry remarks that although the screenplay is impressively realistic, catalogue writing is very different because it’s a form of advertising/marketing. Larry asks Bart if he’s up for this type of work, since catalogue writing isn’t as creatively exciting as writing a screenplay. Bart assures Larry that he wants the job. And then, Larry shows Bart a catheter and tells Bart that the job includes describing how to use a catheter. If this movie were a sitcom, that’s about the moment the fake-sounding laugh track would play.

One day, Bart decides to go by himself to a local arthouse movie theater that’s playing his favorite film: the 1979 satire “Being There,” starring Peter Sellers. Bart falls asleep during the movie. And when the movie ends, he is woken up by a woman named Vienna (played by Zoë Chao), another customer who was in the room. As he leaves the theater, Vienna runs after him because Bart left behind his denim jacket and a half-empty bottle of liquor. She returns these items to him. He thanks her, and they begin talking.

Now that Bart and Vienna have had this “meet cute” moment, it’s only a matter of time before they go through all the clichés that so many other romantic dramas like this tend to have when two young and attractive people inevitably get together. Someone in the would-be couple is socially awkward and introverted, while the other is bold and extroverted. These opposites attract and fall for each other, but then someone is reluctant to make a commitment. In this case, it’s because there’s a “big secret” that could ruin the relationship.

Immediately after returning Bart’s jacket and liquor bottle to him, Vienna tells him that she’s visiting Los Angeles. She asks Bart where she can get some of the liquor he has, because Vienna tells Bart that he looks like he could be fun. Judging by the way she’s smiling and flirting with him, it’s obvious she’s giving him a chance to ask her out on a date.

But gloomy Bart is too oblivious to these signals and tells Vienna about two nearby bars. She then says enthusiastically, “Let’s go!” And that’s when it dawns on Bart that Vienna is attracted to him. She laughs at all of his cheesy jokes and celebrity impersonations too. (Bart does lukewarm imitations of Al Pacino and Jimmy Stewart.)

The corny situations continue when they walk through a park and see some kids running past them with some sparklers. Vienna is fascinated by this sight, as if she’s never seen sparklers before. Bart is a little surprised that Vienna is acting as if sparklers are incredible inventions, and he starts to wonder if Vienna has led a very sheltered life.

During their walk through the park, he buys two sparklers from the kids and gives the sparklers to Vienna. And then, Bart and Vienna run around the park with the sparklers. How old are these people again? Twelve?

Vienna and Bart then go bar-hopping and discuss their favorite pop culture and guilty pleasures. Bart confesses that he’s watched “Being There” about 100 times since he first saw it a few years ago. However, Bart can’t really explain why he loves the movie so much, other than that seeing it makes him feel better about his life. Vienna does a terrible impersonation of Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver,” for no other reason than to show Bart that she can do celebrity impersonations too.

Bart then tells Vienna about his mother dying of cancer the year before and how he’s still grieving. He also tells Vienna about the painful breakup with his ex-fiancée and how it’s left him in a dark emotional place. Vienna shows some sympathy, as an indication that she and Bart are starting to have an emotional connection other than doing bad mimicry of celebrities in movie scenes.

“Long Weekend” has a very self-aware moment when Bart, who’s starting to think that Vienna is too good to be true, asks her: “Are you for real? Are you one of those Manic Pixie Dream Girls?” Well, yes, in fact she is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a well-known movie stereotype of a quirky, upbeat female character who comes along to cheer up the male protagonist while he’s going through a tough time in his life. Just because “Long Weekend” brings up this Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype in a line of self-referencing dialogue, that doesn’t make the glib way that this stereotype is handled in the movie any better.

Bart notices that Vienna has some unusual quirks: She doesn’t own a cell phone, she says she left her ID at home, and she’s carrying around a huge wad of cash. Vienna explains to Bart that she has a lot of cash with her because her bank card isn’t working. Some more alcohol is consumed, Vienna and Bart play some pool, and they take pictures together in a photo booth. And when Bart walks Vienna back to the motel where she’s staying, he gives her his phone number, and they end up sleeping together.

What’s very contradictory about “Long Weekend” is that it wants people to believe that Vienna and Bart are a perfect match and it’s “love at first date.” But during their first date, Bart is very self-absorbed and doesn’t ask Vienna hardly anything about herself. It isn’t until the next day, when Bart happily tells Doug about Vienna, that Bart realizes that he doesn’t know basic things about Vienna.

Bart doesn’t know where she’s from, what she does for a living, and what she likes to do in her free time besides watching movies and drinking at bars. These are the kinds of things that two strangers should talk about on a first date if they’re interested in a romance beyond sexual attraction. It makes you wonder why this movie is trying so hard to convince viewers that this is supposed to be some grand love story when, by all indications, this was an impulsive hookup.

The day after Bart and Vienna first have sex, Bart describes Vienna to Doug as if Vienna isn’t just a one-night stand but could possibly be his next big love. Therefore, it’s odd that Bart doesn’t really ask her how long she’ll be in town after their first night together. If this relationship is supposed to blossom, Bart isn’t curious enough about Vienna to ask her how far away she lives. It’s an example of how there needed to be significant improvements to this movie’s screenplay.

Of course, Bart does see Vienna again. He goes back to the motel and asks her the questions that he should have asked before, including why she’s visiting Los Angeles. But she’s deliberately vague. In answer to Bart’s questions, Vienna says, “I work for this government agency. I work up north. I came to town to escape … work, everything, my mom.”

Vienna says that her mother has cancer, and the stress of taking care of her is what motivated Vienna to take this getaway trip. Just as Bart and Vienna start to form an emotional bond over their knowing what it’s like to have a mother with cancer, he freaks out when he sees that Vienna has thousands of dollars of cash in her purse. He demands to know if Vienna is hiding from the law or is up to something illegal. And that’s when Vienna tells Bart her big secret.

The rest of “Long Weekend” is a bit of a slog, as this secret affects the relationship between Bart and Vienna. There’s also a couple of more plot twists, with one more predictable than the other. Because Bart and Vienna got together so quickly after barely knowing each other, there are many parts of the movie that make the relationship look like it’s based more on lust than true love. For example, instead of dealing with the problems caused by Vienna’s secret, she just suggests to Bart that they have sex.

The movie is fairly problematic in how Bart and Doug constantly describe Vienna as a “girl.” They do not use the word “woman” to describe her. The couples in this movie are supposed to be in their mid-to-late 30s, but they act like Vienna is straight out of a sorority party and her purpose in life is to lift Bart out of his depression.

There’s very little thought in this story about Vienna’s problems (and she has quite a few), because it’s mostly about Bart’s wants and needs. Bart does an act of kindness to help Vienna with one of her problems. But then, the movie goes back to trying to make the audience believe that Bart’s wants and needs should matter more than Vienna’s, instead of them being equal partners.

And there’s a very strange scene of Doug and Rachel in their kitchen, shortly after they found out that Bart and Vienna hooked up. Bart is there too, when Rachel tells her kindergarten-age son Teddy, “Uncle Bart got laid!” And then Doug repeats it to Teddy, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to blab about a family friend’s sex life to a child of that age. The scene is supposed to be funny, but the comedy falls flat.

Fans of the ABC comedy series “Happy Endings” (which was on the air from 2011 to 2013) might be delighted to see “Happy Endings” co-stars Wayans and Wilson on screen together again. But their Doug and Rachel characters in “Long Weekend” are underdeveloped and written as a sitcom couple in a movie that’s supposed to be a romantic drama. And almost all of Doug and Rachel’s conversations in the movie are either stale one-liners or talking to Bart about his love life.

As for Wittrock and Chao, they certainly make an attractive-looking couple, and there’s some chemistry between them, but not enough to make it convincing that Vienna and Bart have fallen madly and passionately in love with each other. Chao has a lot of on-screen charisma (and Vienna is supposed to be more exuberant than Bart), but there’s a level of immaturity that Vienna and Bart have that makes their romance look very “only in a movie” phony. Maybe if their characters were in their teens or 20s, it might be more believable. But Vienna and Bart both look like they’ve experienced too much of life to act so willfully naïve about love, dating and romance.

And since Bart and Vienna got together so quickly in the movie, there’s no “will they or won’t they” suspense. And that means the movie drags out in very uninteresting ways, as Bart and Vienna go on some very stereotypical dates in the limited time that they have together. These dates could have been opportunities to bring more depth to the characters of Bart and Vienna, but these dates are superficial and actually quite monotonous.

The dialogue throughout “Long Weekend” is very trite, and the story skips over a lot of details that would make certain plot developments believable. The direction of the movie is pedestrian at best. Vienna and Bart barely know each other before they jump into a love relationship. By the end of this hackneyed and derivative movie, viewers will feel like they barely know these characters too.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Stage 6 Films released “Long Weekend” in U.S. cinemas on March 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Downhill,’ starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell

February 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Downhill” (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk)

“Downhill”

Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Austrian Alps, “Downhill” is the story of a middle-class, middle-aged married American couple who go on a disastrous ski trip with their two teenage sons.

Culture Clash: The bickering spouses not only have conflicts with each other, but they’re also annoyed by a younger couple who wants to tag along, and they experience some uncomfortable moments with the Austrian locals.

Culture Audience: This comedy film that isn’t very funny will appeal mainly to fans of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, whose comedic talents are stifled in a story filled with tension and misery.

Zach Woods and Zoë Chao in “Downhill” (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk)

“Downhill” is a perfect word to describe the steep slide into disappointment that your expectations will take when you think about how this movie wastes the talents of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. The pacing of this film, which follows an American couple whose marriage has hit a rough patch, is like slogging through the snow-covered Austrian Alps, where the story takes place. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, “Downhill” is supposed to be inspired by the 2014 Swedish avalanche disaster comedy “Force Majeure,” but that film had loads more humorous moments and compelling dialogue than what “Downhill” has to offer.

Ferrell has been in plenty of stinker movies before, but Louis-Dreyfus usually chooses quality over quantity when it comes to the movies that she makes. She’s one of the producers of “Downhill,” so this is a rare misstep for her. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play Pete and Billie Stanton, a long-married couple who’ve reached a point in their relationship where almost everything one of them does gets on the other’s nerves. They’ve taken this ski vacation to Austria with their teenage fraternal-twin sons, Finn and Emerson (played by Julian Grey and Ammon Ford), to have some family bonding time, with a small glimmer of hope that maybe the trip will bring positive feelings back into their marriage.

Hovering somewhere near the Stantons throughout the trip is an American couple in their 20s named Zach (played by Zach Woods) and Rosie (played Zoë Chao), who have an eager-to-impress vibe to them, as they try to latch on to Pete and Billie on awkward double dates. Pete knows Zach because they’re real-estate co-workers. Billie really doesn’t like being around Rosie and Zach, but Pete is more willing to tolerate them, even though the Stantons can’t relate to Rosie and Zach’s penchant for taking psychedelic mushrooms and Instagram selfies. Unbeknownst to Billie at first, Pete has invited Zach and Rosie to hang out with them. Pete will soon find out that the younger couple will wear out their welcome, as Rosie and Zach witness all the tension in the Stantons’ marriage.

One of the first people the Stantons meet upon arriving at the ski resort is the overly effusive Charlotte (played by Miranda Ott), who acts as if she works at the resort as some sort of concierge, but as the story goes on, it’s questionable if she really works there at all. At any rate, Charlotte is the kind of person who shares too much information about her sex life with total strangers, and she expects everyone she first meets to immediately become her confidant.

She fancies herself to be quite the seductress, but she’s so crude and annoying (such as when she brags, “I can catch a dick whenever I want”), that she’s not one of those quirky characters who ends up being endearing. She’s just unpleasant to watch, and Otto (who’s usually a great actress) isn’t helping matters by trying too hard with an unconvincing Austrian accent. This is not a droll comedy with eccentric and fascinating characters, such as in Wes Anderson’s 2014 movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

When the Stantons arrive at the resort, there are sounds of explosive rumblings off in the distance, which are ominous signs of what’s to come. That fateful moment comes when the family is outside on a café patio with several other people, and they notice that a large amount of snow is tumbling down from the mountains. As it quickly turns into an avalanche, there isn’t enough time for the café patrons to take shelter, and the avalanche goes barreling down and engulfs them.

The avalanche scene itself is very unrealistic, because the massive weight and force of all that snow would have injured and possibly killed several people. But the movie just fades to black after the avalanche hits. And then, the next scene is of the people who were on the café patio, looking dazed and getting up and brushing some of the snow off of their clothes. There’s also hardly any damage done to the café and surrounding buildings.

Billie and Pete have very different reactions to the avalanche. Billie is completely unnerved, while Pete takes it in stride and tries to enjoy the rest of the trip. In a meeting that Billie and Pete have with the resort’s manager (played by Kristofer Hivju), Billie demands that the resort make an apology for handling the disaster poorly. The manager points out that there were signs around the resort warning that there was a possibility of an avalanche. “It was handled perfectly,” the manager tells Billie, who ends up leaving the meeting in a huff, while Pete looks embarrassed over her anger.

Later, in attempt to lift Billie’s spirits, Pete arranges for everyone in the family to take a helicopter trip around the Alps. But when the time comes for them to go on the helicopter, one of the kids is missing a glove. Billie then has a mini-meltdown and refuses to get on the helicopter until the son has two gloves to wear. Pete yells that he’s paid $2,000 for the trip and he doesn’t want the money to go to waste. Billie yells back that their son’s comfort is more important and he needs to wear two gloves. The helicopter ends up leaving without them.

Push-and-pull scenes like that keep getting repeated in the movie. Pete tries to take his mind off of the avalanche and have a good time with Billie and the family. Meanwhile, Billie keeps obsessing over the avalanche and sees Pete’s post-avalanche behavior as flippant and uncaring about the family’s safety. Louis-Dreyfus tends to play neurotic characters, but Billie is a shrew who seems hell-bent on making everyone around her as miserable as she is.

One of the problems with “Downhill” (and it’s really noticeable if you see this movie with an audience) is that there are so many times when Ferrell or Louis-Dreyfus utters a line in such a way that viewers will expect it to turn into a joke. There’s a slight pause of anticipation, as if something that will make people laugh is coming next.  But that humorous moment never happens in scenes where people think they’ll happen.

People aren’t expecting this movie to be a slapstick or broad comedy, but during the course of the movie, it becomes very clear that Billie and Pete really are just wretched to watch. There’s no clever satire here, as this movie expects viewers to be stuck in this repetitive hell of arguments and resentment with very unlikable people. It almost makes the tension of “Force Majeure” look like an amusement-park ride compared to the slow-moving train wreck of “Downhill.”

Searchlight Pictures will release “Downhill” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, 20th Century Home Entertainment has moved up the digital release of “Downhill” to March 27, 2020.

 

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