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Cute, but not charming: (l-r) Parker and McConaughey in Failure to Launch.

Hollywood, We Have a Problem
By Laura Leon

Failure to Launch

Directed by Tom Dey

In the sparkly new romantic comedy Failure to Launch, Sarah Jessica Parker plays Paula, a transition specialist whose métier is getting grown children out of their parents’ houses. If Paula resembles Carrie Bradshaw in more than a few ways, it can be excused, as writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember use the similarities to humorous effect. Another homage to Parker’s other work references her many ads for hair-care specialists Garnier Nutrisse; it’s amusing parody when many of the characters, including romantic interest Tripp (Matthew McConaughey), note, “Great hair!”

That said, Failure to Launch isn’t so much all about Parker or her famed television counterpart, but a fair-to-middling stab at re-creating the ’30s screwball comedy. Paula is hired to “launch” their son by Tripp’s parents, Al (Terry Bradshaw) and Sue (Kathy Bates), who love their boy but have grown tired of his care and feeding. For his part, Tripp enjoys the obvious benefits of living at home, including packed lunches and laundry services courtesy of Mom, but also uses the situation as a crutch to get him out of relationships that are veering toward the serious. “You live with your parents?” intones more than one incredulous, soon-to-be-history gal pal.

Of course, Paula and Tripp develop real feelings for each other, which complicates her professional ethics and his avowed bachelor status. A series of sometimes amusing, often outrageous (killer chipmunks?) vignettes illustrating Paula’s ability to mesh with Tripp’s boyhood friends—Ace (Justin Bartha) and Demo (Bradley Cooper)—indicate just how difficult it will be for him to give her the heave-ho. A comic subplot involving Paula’s cantankerous roommate Kit (Zooey Deschanel) adds a little grit to the overall bubbly nature of this easy concoction.

Still, numerous questions linger. How exactly do 30-something playboys finance their expensive and usually extreme hobbies? Why, exactly, are Paula and the much younger Kit roommates, let alone friends? And why, oh why, must the filmmakers give Tripp a sob backstory, instead of just letting him be a charming moocher? Parker and McConaughey have an easy, sexy rapport, which makes one wish all the more that this were a better movie—perhaps one that used the naturally comic material, rather than countless farfetched set pieces, to garner laughs.

Restoration Hijinx

The Libertine

Directed by Laurence Dunmore

Early in his life—at least earlier than he’s presented in The Libertine—John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, must’ve been a boon companion indeed. His abduction and ravishment of a beautiful heiress got him sent to the tower, but she later accepted his proposal of marriage. Rochester was also a gallant naval officer, a notorious seducer, and most famously, a sharp-tongued wit with a taste for the shockingly profane.

The nihilistic wreck of The Libertine, however, is just past his glory days and beginning to rot from alcoholism and syphilis. Johnny (Johnny Depp), as he’s called by high- and low-born alike, returns to London after being exiled to his country manor by his friend and sometime nemesis, King Charles II (John Malkovich). Johnny soon grows bored of his circle of London degenerates, especially George Etherege (Tom Hollander), who is writing a comedic play based on Johnny’s daring impertinence.

Unable to maintain his passion for his devoted wife (Rosamund Pike), Johnny comes down with a feverish attraction for the actress Lizzie Barry (Samantha Morton). Be cause he feels detached from life, he explains to her, her artifice on the stage will be his substitute for real emotion. In the film’s most improbable bit of business, Lizzie becomes the reigning deity of the theater due to Johnny’s overwrought tutelage.

Adapted by Stephen Jeffries from his stage play, The Libertine is stagy in a way that puts its characters in constant high dudgeon. And despite its shades of political and philosophical in trigue, the film is an unexpurgated downer. However scintillating the real Roch ester may have been, the verse he spouts here makes him sound like a Restoration frat boy on spring break to Bath. And the Earl’s biting disdain for his privileged existence is hard to sympathize with, though he does show a populist streak by hiring a ruffian, Alcock (an amusing Richard Coyle), as his manservant. Alcock—and yes, the name is punned to the last letter—is a breath of fresh air amid the film’s spoiled-rotten dandies and opulent bawdy houses. The Libertine does its heavy lifting through the reactions of the other characters to Johnny’s supposedly liberating attitude.

There are great and pithy speeches from his despairing wife, devout mother, treacherous friends, and most memorably, from the astute king (in contrast to Rupert Everett’s amusingly foppish Charles in Stage Beauty, Malkovich nails the king’s shrewdness and forbearance). But there’s nothing noble or rebellious about Johnny’s self-destruction, and the film dwells for a depressingly long time on his slide into ruin and degradation. Filmed in grainy textures and sickly tints meant to mimic candlelight, the visual funk becomes equally dispiriting. Taking his cue from the noble mind overthrown in Hamlet, Depp plays Johnny with admirable conviction, but this sodden Libertine is mostly much ado about nothing.

—Ann Morrow

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