Review: ‘The Holdovers,’ starring Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa

October 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (Photo by Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

“The Holdovers”

Directed by Alexander Payne

Culture Representation: Taking place in Massachusetts, from December 1970 to January 1971, the comedy/drama film “The Holdovers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A professor, a student and a cook (who all are associated with an elite boarding school for boys) form an unlikely bond over their loneliness and personal problems during a Christmas holiday break.

Culture Audience: “The Holdovers” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Alexander Payne, star Paul Giamatti and above-average movies about unique characters who are find themselves spending time together under unexpected circumstances.

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (Photo by Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

Filled with acerbic wit and superb talent, “The Holdovers” is an engaging comedy/drama about finding personal connections with unexpected people. It’s more than a Christmas movie. It’s an authentic portrait of humanity. “The Holdovers” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and then had its Canadian premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it came in second place for TIFF’s top prize of the People’s Choice Award.

Directed by Alexander Payne and written by David Hemingson, “The Holdovers” takes place in Massachusetts, from December 1970 to January 1971. (The movie was filmed on location in Massachusetts.) “The Holdovers” is a very impressive feature-film debut for screenwriter Hemingson, whose previous experience has been in television, with credits that include the TV series “Whiskey Cavalier” and “Kitchen Confidential.” “The Holdovers” was originally conceived as a pilot (test episode) for a potential TV series.

In “The Holdovers,” the three characters at the center of the story all have a connection to an elite boarding school for boys called Barton Academy, which is located in an unnamed suburb of Boston. Adjunct professor of ancient history Paul Hunham (played by Paul Giamatti), a longtime Barton Academy faculty member, is grouchy, strict and very demanding. Angus Tully (played by Dominic Sessa), a 17-year-old student, excels in Paul’s class, but Angus is a moody and rebellious loner who is often rude and sarcastic to people. Mary Lamb (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the chief chook at Barton Academy, is sassy but compassionate and generous.

Through a series of circumstances, this unlikely trio of misfits find themselves alone for the Christmas holiday season at Barton Academy, while almost everyone else has gone away on vacation. The people who are left behind at Barton Academy during this vacation period have the unflattering nickame of “the holdovers.” It’s considered a stigma to be stuck on campus during this holiday break, because the assumption is that people in this situation don’t have any loved ones or friends who want to be with them for the holiday season.

Paul, Angus and Mary find out that they are all in emotional pain, in different and similar ways. Paul is a very cynical bachelor with a troubled past. Paul lives alone, has never been married, and he has no children. Angus (who is an only child) feels abandoned and neglected by his mother Judy Clotfelter (played by Gillian Vigman), who would rather spend this holiday season on a honeymoon with her new husband Stanley Clotfelter (played by Tate Donovan).

Mary is a single mother who is grieving over the recent death of her college-age son (and only child) Curtis, a Barton Academy alum who was drafted into the Vietnam War and died in combat. Curtis’ father Harold, who was Mary’s fiancé, died in a shipyard job accident when Curtis was very young. Harold and Curtis both died before they were the age of 25. Mary doesn’t want a lot of people to see her suffering, so she’s been somewhat avoiding her loved ones, including her boyfriend Danny (played by Naheem Garcia) and her sister Peggy (played by Juanita Pearl), who lives in Boston.

“The Holdovers” has sharp writing, directing and acting throughout the movie, but it takes a while before the movie gets to the best scenes. The first third of “The Holdovers” is a series of scenes establishing the personalities of the three main characters, while the last two-thirds of the movie unpeel some of the layers of their lives, thereby revealing flaws, secrets and emotional damage that they’ve experienced. As already shown in the trailer for “The Holdovers,” there’s a point in the story where Angus and Paul spend time alone together, and Paul starts to feel like a fatherly mentor to Angus.

Giamatti has played many curmudgeonly and jaded characters before (including in Payne’s Oscar-winning 2004 dramedy “Sideways”), but Giamatti’s performance in “The Holdovers” is probably the best of the bunch. Sessa makes a very admirable feature-film debut as the complicated Angus. Randolph gives a performance that is both amusing and heartbreaking.

The first third of the movie shows these three characters within the context of how they want to present themselves to other people in Barton Academy culture. But as more Barton Academy people go away for the holidays, the vulnerabilities of Paul, Angus and Mary start to become more apparent. And these three characters become more open among themselves in showing these vulnerabilities.

There are some interesting side characters in “The Holdovers,” but their impact on the story isn’t as powerful as the relationship that evolves between Paul, Angus and Mary. Barton Academy employee Miss Lydia Crane (played by Carrie Preston) is one of the few people at the school who likes unpopular Paul. She invites Paul and Angus to her home for a crowded holiday party, where Paul and Angus start to see different sides to each other.

Paul’s boss Dr. Hardy Woodrup (played by Andrew Garman), who is Barton Academy’s headmaster, is often frustrated with stubborn and ill-tempered Paul, who is harsh and tactless in the way he communicates. However, Paul prides himself on having high ethical standards: He is the type of professor who doesn’t give special treatment to his students, based on the clout and income of the students’ parents. An early scene in the movie shows Hardy and Paul having a tense conversation, where Hardy says he disagrees with Paul’s past decision to flunk a student son of a senator, who is one of the school’s biggest donors.

Angus has a contentious or aloof attitude toward his fellow students. The student he clashes with the most is a racist bully named Teddy Kountze (played by Brady Hepner), who is a spoiled and entitled rich kid. Other student characters who are featured in “The Holdovers” include a long-haired star athlete named Jason Smith (played by Michael Provost), an amiable introvert named Alex Ollerman (played by Ian Dolley) and a quiet immigrant named Ye-Joon Park (played by Jim Kaplan). Alex is a holdover because his parents are Mormon missionaries who are busy traveling. Ye-Joon is a holdover because is parents are in Korea, and they think he is too young to travel by himself to Korea.

“The Holdovers” is filmed as if it’s a time capsule from the early 1970s (the opening title card sequence is a tribute to this era of cinema), but the themes explored in this gem of a film are timeless. It’s the type of story that doesn’t need to be made into a TV series, as it was originally conceived. The conclusion of this film is just right the way that it is.

Focus Features will release “The Holdovers” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on November 28, 2023. Peacock will premiere “The Holdovers” on December 29, 2023.

Review: ‘A Mouthful of Air,’ starring Amanda Seyfried and Finn Wittrock

October 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Amanda Seyfried in “A Mouthful of Air” (Photo courtesy of Stage 6 Films/Sony Pictures)

“A Mouthful of Air”

Directed by Amy Koppelman

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City in the mid-1990s and briefly in the early 2020s, the dramatic film “A Mouthful of Air” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A children’s book author/illustrator, who has lifelong issues with depression, tries to fight suicidal thoughts after she has given birth to her first child.

Culture Audience: “A Mouthful of Air” will appeal primarily to people who want to see tearjerking issues about depression from a female perspective, even if those issues are presented through a very privileged and glossy lens.

Amanda Seyfried and Finn Wittrock in “A Mouthful of Air” (Photo courtesy of Stage 6 Films/Sony Pictures)

Amanda Seyfried’s heartbreaking and complex performance is the main reason to see the depressing drama “A Mouthful of Air,” which at times gets a little too trite in this story about a young mother who’s struggling with suicidal thoughts. Although the movie is being described as a story about post-partum depression, viewers learn from watching “A Mouthful of Air” that Seyfried’s Julie Davis character, who’s in her early-to-mid-30s, has been depressed and thinking about committing suicide ever since she was 6 or 7 years old.

“A Mouthful of Air” is the feature-film directorial debut of Amy Koppelman, who is one of the movie’s producers. Koppelman also wrote the screenplay for “A Mouthful of Air,” which is based on her 2003 novel of the same name. In the book, Julie is 26, but Seyfried and Finn Wittrock (who plays Julie’s loving but often-frustrated husband, Ethan Davis) made this movie when they were both in their 30s, and they both look like their real ages. By having actors in their 30s (instead of in their 20s) in these roles, it gives “A Mouthful of Air” a lot more emotional gravitas. People in their mid-20s aren’t expected to have their lives on track and settled as much as people in their mid-30s.

“Settled” might be how someone would describe Julie and Ethan’s domestic life in New York City, where they are living in a comfortably middle-class apartment, sometime in the mid-1990s. “Settled” is not how someone would describe Julie’s state of mind. Julie is a children’s book author/illustrator who works from home, while Ethan works outside the home in an unnamed white-collar business job. The movie never states how long Julie and Ethan have been married, but they’ve recently welcomed their first child into the world: a son named Teddy (played by Olivia Kutz and Christian Kutz), who’s 9 months old when he’s first seen on screen.

Julie seems to be a blissful and loving mother to Teddy in the movie’s opening scene, until it becomes apparent that she’s actually very unhappy. Julie starts off cheerfully feeding her baby and telling Teddy that his cousin Ellie will be coming over soon for a playdate. Gradually, Julie’s sadness begins to show, until she can barely hold back her tears. While Teddy is placed safely in a baby chair, in the living room, with the TV on to distract him, a sorrowful-looking Julie goes into the bathroom and takes out a syringe and begins crying. Does she have a drug problem? Is she about to shoot up with the needle?

The movie doesn’t actually show what happened in the bathroom, but it does reveal that Julie ended up in a hospital because she tried commit suicide by cutting her wrists. A flashback reveals that Julie’s sister-in-law/Ethan’s sister Lucy (played by Jennifer Carpenter) was the one who discovered Julie after this suicide attempt when Lucy came over to visit with her toddler daughter Ellie. Because Julie had been expecting this visit, Julie knew that Lucy would find her soon after making this suicide attempt.

The hospital psychiatrist who meets with Julie is named Dr. Sylvester (played Paul Giamatti), who is compassionate but firm in his ongoing treatment of her. During this first meeting, Dr. Sylvester asks Julie how long she’s been having suicidal thoughts. She tells him that she’s had these on-again/off-again suicidal thoughts since she was in the first grade. This suicide attempt was her first.

It’s soon revealed that Julie has been diagnosed with having anxiety and depression, but she stopped taking her medication for an unspecified period of time before her suicide attempt. It’s a frustrating cycle experienced by people who take medication for mental illnesses. The medication can work, but that leads to the patient thinking that the disease is under control, so the patient often stops taking the medication, which leads to the disease being aggravated all over again.

Julie confides in Dr. Sylvester that part of her anxiety has to do with feeling that she’s a horrible mother. She’s also constantly worried about Teddy getting hurt. This leads Dr. Sylvester to tell her a story about when he was a kid, he heard a widespread false rumor that Bubble Yum bubblegum had spider eggs in it.

Even though he says the rational side of him knows this rumor was debunked years ago, Dr. Sylvester said he had an irrational, knee-jerk reaction to not let his young daughter get Bubble Yum when she picked up a packet of the gum at a store. Dr. Sylvester uses a metaphor when he tells her, “I guess we all need to learn where the spider eggs are. And, perhaps more importantly, where they are not.”

The aftermath of Julie’s suicide attempt is felt and expressed in different ways by her adult family members. Ethan is more determined than ever not to let Julie go off her medication, even though she tries to persuade him that therapy is all she needs to handle her mental illness. Ethan is careful not to scold her or blame her, but the stress of worrying about Julie has taken a toll on their marriage. Julie is very insecure and sometimes accuses Ethan of being disinterested and being emotionally distant with her. In actuality, this could be Ethan’s way of coping with having a paranoid and moody spouse.

Meanwhile, Julie’s mother Bobbi (played by Amy Irving) tries to avoid talking about the suicide attempt when she visits Julie, who is her only child. Bobbi is an upbeat and doting grandmother, but she’s got her own personal issues. Bobbi has never quite gotten over her divorce from her ex-husband Ron (played by Michael Gaston), whom she hopes will reunite with her someday. When Bobbi mentions to Julie that they should have a birthday party for Teddy when he turns a year old, Bobbi also blurts out an ulterior motive for why she wants to have this party: “It would be easier for your father to come back.”

It seems that mental illness runs in Julie’s family. Through conversations and Julie’s flashbacks to when Julie was 8 years old (played by Cate Elefante), it’s revealed that Ron was physically and emotionally abusive to her. In one harrowing flashback, Ron angrily yells and chases after Julie as if he’s about to physically attack her, while Bobbi stands by and says and does nothing. It explains why an adult Julie seems to have a somewhat uneasy relationship with her mother. Bobbi also mentions to an adult Julie that Ron frequently disappears and is unreachable, while Julie somewhat coldly answers, “Maybe he doesn’t want to be found.”

Julie’s unhappy childhood has been haunting her in ways other than her low self-esteem. One of the things that Julie has an irrational fear of is living in a house, probably because houses remind her of her childhood. Ethan has been wanting to move out of their New York City apartment to a house with more space in upstate New York. However, Julie doesn’t like the idea. It’s one of the things that she and Ethan argue about.

One night, after Julie has been discharged from the hospital, she and Ethan decide to spend time at a bar with his sister Lucy and Lucy’s husband Kevin (played by Darren Goldstein), who is a good friend of Ethan’s. It’s one of Julie’s first nights out since the suicide attempt. Julie tries to make pleasant small talk at the table, but Lucy is fuming because Lucy thinks everyone is avoiding talking about the problems caused by Julie’s suicide attempt.

Lucy starts off expressing her irritation that Julie’s problems have to be the center of the family’s attention. Lucy then unleashes her anger at how Julie didn’t properly acknowledge how traumatic it would be for anyone to find her dying after a suicide attempt. It’s a reference to how Julie tried to kill herself with the knowledge that Lucy would be coming over soon to visit. Lucy also bitterly tells Julie that Ethan had to continue to clean up Julie’s blood in the apartment when Julie was recovering in the hospital.

Ethan and Kevin, who were expecting a relaxing night out, don’t think it’s appropriate for Lucy to bring all of these issues up in the conversation, and they try to get her to stop. However, Lucy won’t be silenced. Carpenter’s role as Lucy in “A Mouthful of Air” doesn’t get much screen time, but it’s a pivotal and well-acted performance. Lucy’s rant is the first time that a family member other than Ethan is shown expressing anger at how a family member’s mental illness can cause resentment because of all the time, energy and heartbreak involved in taking care of and worrying about the person with the mental illness.

Julie’s empathetic response to Lucy’s tirade is an indication that Julie isn’t completely self-absorbed. However, because Julie is deeply unhappy and paranoid, she goes back to her familiar patterns of thinking that she’s a loser and that her family would be better off without her. Meanwhile, a visit to her obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Salzman (played by Josh Hamilton), who knows about her suicide attempt, results in another turn of events for Julie and Ethan.

Julie’s claim to fame as a children’s book author/illustrator is creating a fairy-tale character called Pinky Tinkerbink, a girl who copes with challenges while learning some life lessons. “A Mouthful of Air” has some of Julie’s whimsical drawings (which have a lot of rainbows and clouds) that come to life in animation. When Julie does a book reading to some kindergarten-age kids at their school, she essentially admits that she created the Pinky Tinkerbink character to be the kind of heroic friend that she never had as a child.

Seyfried gives a very emotionally nuanced performance as someone who realistically shows the gamut of what people with mental health struggles often experience. She’s stubborn when she resists taking her medication, but she flip-flops on how much attention (including pity) that she wants from her loved ones for her problems. Julie is neither a saint nor a villain but someone who finds it difficult to get outside of her own head.

Wittrock also gives a believable performance as a spouse whose patience is tested by his wife’s struggles with her mental health. As much as Julie feels inadequate about being a good wife and mother, Ethan feels his own angst about his role in the family, since husbands and fathers often feel like they have to be the biggest protectors of their families. Ethan feels powerless to help Julie in boosting her self-esteem, which can be very difficult for a suicidal person. The power to change must come from within that person, and it’s a lot easier said than done.

And that’s why “A Mouthful of Air” can sometimes veer into superficial platitudes when depicting these serious problems. For example, in a scene where Julie is getting an exam from Dr. Salzman, she tells him how she’s been doing since her suicide attempt. She says, “I was walking through a world that was black and white, and now I’m just starting to see color again.” Who talks like in such a hokey way when discussing their mental illness? It might be excused that Julie talks like that because she’s a children’s book writer, but it’s still a cringworthy line of dialogue.

“A Mouthful of Air” also falls into very familiar tropes of movies about women with post-partum depression issues: These movies are almost always about middle-class or wealthy white women with supportive spouses/partners, thereby ignoring the fact that women from all walks of life can have the same issues too. The focus on this specific demographic of white women who are middle-class or wealthy is probably because filmmakers want to show that even women who seem to have a lot of advantages in life (white privilege, financial stabilty, access to good health care) can still be miserable.

However, it’s a huge blind spot when any movie fails to acknowledge that women from all races and social classes have these mental health struggles too. Julie is never shown doing any group therapy, nor is group therapy is ever suggested to her. And if she has any friends who are not family members, these friends are not shown in the movie at all. “A Mouthful of Air” tacks on a short public-service-announcement type of statement as an epilogue to encourage anyone with these struggles to get help. But it completely ignores that “getting help” and the quality of that help are often determined by someone’s socioeconomic status.

There’s also a “trigger warning” briefly flashed at the beginning of the movie, to let viewers know that the movie might be upsetting to people with the same issues. The filmmakers seem to have the right intentions. “A Mouthful of Air” fortunately does not exploit these issues with explicit scenes of what Julie does to harm herself.

Seyfried’s admirable performance elevates the material, which at times feels overly polished in how it glosses over these very messy issues. The movie’s biggest flaw is that it takes for granted that Julie is someone who has the time, the health insurance and the ideal support system to get the treatment that she needs. “A Mouthful of Air” could have used more of a reality check that depression issues that are worth making a movie about don’t just affect people who have the advantages to get the proper treatment for their depression.

Stage 6 Films released “A Mouthful of Air” in select U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021.

Review: ‘Jungle Cruise,’ starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti

July 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dwyane Johnson and Emily Blunt in “Jungle Cruise” (Photo by Frank Masi/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Jungle Cruise”

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 1912, in Brazil and England, the action-adventure film “Jungle Cruise” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American Asian and Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A sassy researcher and her fussy botanist brother, who are both from England, enlist the help of a wisecracking American skipper of a ramshackle cruise boat to go to a Brazilian jungle to find a magical tree which has a petal with the power to save lives.

Culture Audience: “Jungle Cruise” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of any Disney adventure films, but might not hold much interest to people who’ve seen better family-friendly adventure films that take place mostly in a jungle.

Jack Whitehall, Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson in “Jungle Cruise” (Photo by Frank Masi/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Overstuffed with generic villains and too rambling for its own good, “Jungle Cruise” offers nothing new or exciting to people who’ve seen higher-quality and more unique adventure films with a jungle at the center of the action. It’s a bland misfire that borrows heavily from 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and 1951’s “The African Queen.” Viewers already know how a movie like “Jungle Cruise” is going to end, so “Jungle Cruise” needed to have other elements to make it stand out from similar movies that have a wisecracking male hero and his adventurous love interest who wants to be treated as his equal. Unfortunately, “Jungle Cruise” is stuck in a rut of mediocrity that will make this movie forgettable soon after watching it.

At a total running time of 127 minutes, “Jungle Cruise” over-indulges in characters and scenes that weren’t needed for the movie. Children under the age of 8 and people with very short attention spans might get bored or irritated by the unnecessary convolutions to the plot, which just weigh the story down more than stagnant muck in a jungle swamp. Don’t be surprised if some parts of the movie will make you want to go to sleep.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Jungle Cruise” was written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa and Michael Green. The extraneous plot contrivances seem entirely designed to stretch out the movie’s running time, as if the writers were afraid that that sticking to a simple concept wouldn’t work. In addition, too many parts of the movie seem forced and very fake, such as the romance between the male and female protagonists.

There are also some heavy-handed references to sexism and feminism that are repeated to irksome levels, as if the “Jungle Cruise” filmmakers think viewers are too dimwitted to notice the first three times these same references are in the movie. A running commentary in “Jungle Cruise” is that some of the men can’t believe that the female protagonist is wearing pants. The male protagonist even starts calling her “Pants” as a nickname. It’s a tired joke that wears very thin quickly. And the “feminism” messages in “Jungle Cruise” come across as extremely phony when this movie’s cast members who get top billing are several men but only one woman.

“Jungle Cruise” takes place in 1912, but there are flashbacks throughout the story to previous centuries. The movie opens with a voiceover explanation about the ancient legend that serves as the catalyst for this story. (The musical score during this intro uses an instrumental version of Metallica’s 1991 ballad “Nothing Else Matters,” which is kind of distracting for viewers who know this song.)

In the Legend of the Tears of the Moon, a magical tree called Tears of the Moon exists in the Amazon jungle. This tree has a petal that can cure any illness and break any curse. Over centuries, many explorers sought to find this petal. One of these explorers was a Spanish conquistador from the 1500s named Don Lope de Aguirre (played by Edgar Ramírez), also known as Aguirre, who got injured during his exploration and was found by the guardians of the tree.

After these guardians nursed Aguirre back to health, he demanded that the guardians give him a sacred arrowhead, which is believed to be the key to finding the Tears of the Moon. Aguirre and his conquistadors attacked the guardians, and the jungle fought back. (And yes, there are predictable scenes of trees coming to life and using their branches to tie up people.) As a result, Aguirre was cursed and held captive by the jungle trees for eternity.

In London in 1912, botanist MacGregor Houghton (played by Jack Whitehall) is making a presentation pitch to an all-male group of high-society members in a museum lecture hall. He’s reading a speech from index cards that were written by his much-smarter sister Dr. Lily Houghton (played by Emily Blunt), a researcher who is watching nervously from the balcony. MacGregor wants to convince this group of elites that the Legend of the Tears of the Moon is real, so that they can invest in a trip that MacGregor and Lily want to take to the Amazon jungle to find this magical tree.

MacGregor is fairly unskilled at public speaking (or he didn’t take the time to rehearse his speech), because on the index cards, where Lily wrote in parentheses “pause for dramatic effect,” he actually reads out loud the words “pause for dramatic effect.” MacGregor’s speech is not well-received, to put it mildly. He gets a resounding “no” from the group when requesting funding for the exploration trip.

As McGregor verbally flounders and gets flustered on stage, Lily sneaks off into an off-limits room to find the sacred arrowhead that supposedly will lead whoever possesses it to the Tears of the Moon tree. She pries open a crate, sees the arrowhead and steals it. But before Lily can leave undetected, she runs into a museum official named Sir James Hobbs-Coddington (played by Andy Nyman), a stern and greedy bureaucrat.

He’s about to secretly sell the arrowhead to a visiting German royal called Prince Joachim (played by Jesse Plemons), who sees that Lily has the arrowhead and demands that she hand it over. A predictable chase ensues in the room with some unrealistic choreography involving a ladder that leads to Lily hanging out of a window where she could fall and die. Prince Joachim has her cornered and tells Lily that if she hands over the arrowhead, he will rescue her.

Lily gives Prince Joachim a small box that she says has the arrowhead, but he pushes her off the building anyway. Just then, a double-decker bus with an open top drives by, and Lily lands in the bus. Inside the building, Prince Joachim sees that what’s inside the box isn’t the arrowhead but a duck-hunting decoy shaped like a toucan. Meanwhile, MacGregor gets kicked out of the lecture hall with perfect timing to be outside in the same place as Lily when she landed. MacGregor and Lily make their getaway on the bus. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

You know the rest: Lily and MacGregor find a boat navigator who can take them to the Porto Vehlo, Brazil, where their Amazon jungle adventure will begin. He’s a skipper named Frank Wolff (played by Dwayne Johnson), who makes a meager living as a tour guide to visitors on his run-down steamer boat La Quila. One of Frank’s identifying qualities is that he constantly likes to tell jokes with bad puns. People will either find it charming or annoying.

For example, while ferrying a group of unlucky tourists who have to listen to his bad jokes, Frank points out a pair of toucans and says, “Only two can play.” Frank’s “wink and nudge” tone is: “Get it? The words ‘two can’ rhyme with ‘toucan.'”

He tells another groan-inducing pun joke to the people on his boat: “I used to work in an orange juice factory, but I got canned. I couldn’t concentrate. Yeah, they put the squeeze on me too.” A young girl on the boat tour voices what a lot of viewers will be thinking about Frank and his cheesy jokes: “Make him stop!”

“Jungle Cruise” is very self-aware that the jokes are silly, but after a while it does get very tiresome and comes across as lazy screenwriting not to have anything else about Frank’s personality that’s memorable. In fact, one of the reasons why “Jungle Cruise” is so disappointing is that none of the characters in this movie has an outstanding personality. You know a movie is bad when it has three villains/antagonists, and they’re just watered-down versions of many other movie villains.

The most obvious villain is Prince Joachim, who spouts cliché lines and does everything a stereotypical villain does but twirl his moustache. Plemons struggles with having a believable German accent in this role. It’s like he’s trying to do a parody of a Christoph Waltz villain, but it doesn’t land very well because Prince Joachim’s dialogue is so witless. Prince Joachim doesn’t come across as cunning or dangerous as much as he comes across as a spoiled and stupid royal who wants his way.

Another villain is Aguirre, who shows up later in the movie. The “Jungle Cruise” filmmakers wouldn’t have taken all that time in the beginning of the movie to tell viewers who Aguirre is without him making an appearance. Aguirre could’ve had an interesting personality and story arc, but he mostly just growls his words and gets into fights.

A third villain, who’s in the movie for less than 10 minutes, is Nilo (played by Paul Giamatti, speaking in a questionable Italian accent), a rival riverboat tour operator who is after Frank for debts that Frank owes to Nilo. If Frank doesn’t pay up, Nilo will get Frank’s boat. Nilo is probably the movie’s most useless character that has a well-known actor in the role. Most people who see “Jungle Cruise” won’t remember who the Nilo character is and what he does for a living.

There’s a time-wasting sequence where Frank impersonates Nilo when he first meets Lily, who’s looking to hire a boat navigator. She soon finds out who the real Nilo is, so her first impression of Frank is that he’s a liar and a con artist. The expected bickering between Lily and Frank ensues, which we all know will eventually lead to them feeling romantically attracted to each other.

MacGregor is a high-maintenance dandy who’s upset that he can’t take many of his possessions—such as a large wardrobe of clothes and tennis rackets—with him on Frank’s boat. Frank’s way of dealing with this issue of MacGregor’s extra luggage is to throw away the luggage in the water. How rude. Later in the movie, it’s implied but not said directly that MacGregor is a semi-closeted gay man. MacGregor talks about how grateful he is that Lily is his sister, because she protects him from being persecuted.

Frank has a pet leopard named Proxima, which is introduced in the movie in a very dubious way: Frank has trained the leopard to scare people away in a restaurant. How is that supposed to be funny? The visual effects for this CGI leopard are not very convincing. It looks every inch like the computer-generated animal that it is.

In fact, all of the visual effects in “Jungle Cruise” are very ho-hum or look bogus enough to be distracting to the movie. The hair and makeup are overdone for Lily, who looks too polished in certain action scenes, where realistically her makeup would’ve sweated off of her face, and her hair would be lot more disheveled.

As for the “jungle adventure,” Frank, Lily and MacGregor have the predictable experiences with jungle tribes, as well as chase scenes with Prince Joachim and his henchmen. There’s also the “eccentric exotic person” who seems to be in every jungle movie. In “Jungle Cruise,” this character is a tribe leader named Trader Sam (played by Veronica Falcón), who becomes an ally to these adventurers. And there are more bad pun jokes from Frank.

But when it’s revealed that Frank has a secret identity, that makes the movie go off the rails. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Frank’s secret identity meant that he grew up in a country where English is not the primary language. However, Frank has a very American accent throughout the movie. This discrepancy can be explained by Frank living enough of his adult life in the U.S. that he now has an American accent.

But the movie’s tone gets a little too dark for a family film when Frank says that he wants to die. (And it’s not a joke.) It puts a weird damper on the rest of the “adventure,” because it’s an unnecessary death wish for the hero of the story to have, after it’s made obvious that he has romantic feelings for Lily. (And yes, they’ve already kissed each other at this point.) Apparently, no one told Frank that telling a potential lover that you want to die is not the way to romance someone.

Anyway, we all know that this “death wish” is a very manipulative part of the story just to create unnecessary drama. After all, why kill off the hero when there are potential “Jungle Cruise” sequels to be made? Do the filmmakers really think viewers are that stupid?

The chemistry between Johnson and Blunt isn’t convincing enough to make Frank and Lily look like they could be in a real long-lasting relationship. Sparring partners in arguments? Yes. But as romantic partners? No. “Jungle Cruise” tries very hard to make it look like Frank and Lily are a great couple. But after this trip is over, it’s hard to imagine that Frank and Lily would enjoy each other’s company and have a lot to talk about in their everyday lives.

In “Jungle Cruise,” Johnson and Blunt do versions of characters that they’ve already played in other movies. There’s nothing fresh or intriguing about their “Jungle Cruise” performances. Johnson just isn’t very good at portraying someone from an era that happened before he was born. The way he talks and his mannerisms are better suited for roles that take place in his contemporary time period.

Everything about “Jungle Cruise” (which is inspired by the Jungle Cruise theme park ride at Disneyland and Disney World) is supposed to be fun, original and adventurous. Instead, too much of it looks and sounds over-calculated and ripped off from other movies. (And the hackneyed “Jungle Cruise” musical score by James Newton Howard is overbearing at times.)

There’s a pivotal scene in “Jungle Cruise” where an entire jungle lights up in purple, but it looks like it was copied from a pivotal scene in Pixar’s 2017 Oscar-winning film “Coco.” Simply put: “Jungle Cruise” takes no bold or creative risks when it could have. “Jungle Cruise” is more like “Jungle Snooze.”

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Jungle Cruise” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on July 30, 2021. 

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix