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Shtick without sweetness: (l-r) Stiller and Monaghan in The Heartbreak Kid.

Unloved

By Laura Leon

The Heartbreak Kid

Directed by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly

I try not to judge movies based on what they could or, god forbid, should have been—really I do. As with life, what’s the point of bemoaning what didn’t happen, when what you’ve got to do is deal with the reality in front of you? So, when I’m reviewing a movie, I might refer to how a movie could have been stronger had the director focused more on, say, the plot than special effects, but I try to refrain from going on and on about what could have been. Really, I do.

But when I see a movie like the Farrelly brothers’ loose remake of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, all bets are off. I saw the original, starring Charles Grodin and a very dewy Cybill Shepherd, when I was just a child, and I absolutely hated it. Grodin’s character and his lifestyle were so foreign to me that I couldn’t understand what made him tick. Worse, I got the distinct impression that this guy was just plain repugnant, and for a 7-year-old weaned on Old Hollywood, that was a little too much to bear.

Older and hopefully more mature, I now get what May was saying about guys—in particular, Jewish bachelors of a certain age and background—and I sort of looked forward to seeing how Ben Stiller, inheriting the Grodin role, would play this, as he seems infinitely capable of playing the comedic, the pathetic and the highly neurotic. His Eddie, the owner of a San Francisco sporting goods store, spends the early stages of the movie pondering his apparent fate to be single, as old girlfriends marry, his friend Mac (Rob Corddry) waxes poetic about the marital state, and even his elderly father (Jerry Stiller) fondly remembers marriage, even as he heads to Vegas for a geriatric threesome. These scenes evoke a vulnerability and sense of wondering that really speak to the question of whether or not we are all meant to pair off and be fruitful.

Then, Eddie meets beautiful Lila (Malin Akerman), and all bets are off. Within weeks, they’ve wed and are off on a blissful honeymoon. Unfortunately, Lila goes from too-good-to-be-true to absolutely maniacal, and the bonkers behavior the Farrellys play for shock value serves solely to make Eddie’s subsequent play for Miranda (Michelle Monaghan) palatable. What could have been a poignant tale of missed opportunities is instead a ridiculously complicated romp in which Eddie’s boorish behavior is excused because, well, Lila is nuttier than a fruitcake and wears tacky beachwear . . . and Miranda is just so darn cute.

The Farrellys mine their Something About Mary vein again, right down to apparently having instructed Akerman to channel Cameron Diaz (in lieu of character development), and including sight gags involving a deviated septum, beef fajitas and guacamole. (Don’t ask.) Carlos Mencia is also on hand as a randy hotel clerk whose real purpose is, again, to make Eddie’s chicanery seem quaint.

The Farrellys specialize in the gross-out factor, but in their last movie, Fever Pitch, they did a much better job of letting us into the life of a longtime bachelor and allowing us to feel empathy for both his fear of commitment and his girlfriend’s desire for it. None of that matters here: The only purpose is to make Eddie seem like the funniest guy in the room, which is extremely difficult to accomplish when everybody else in the room recognizes in him as a completely self-centered, self-loathing jerk. I tried, really tried, not to make this a rant about what could have been, but with The Heartbreak Kid, the Farrelly brothers missed a golden opportunity and, in the process, made me long for Charles Grodin.

How creepy is that?

Witless

The Jane Austen Book Club

Directed by Robin Swicord

Tepidly adapted from the Karen Joy Fowler novel, The Jane Austen Book Club belongs on the Lifetime channel instead of the big screen. The repartee is predictable, the humor bland. The film’s motto, spoken by Bernadette (Kathy Baker) while standing in line for a Jane Austen movie, is “A little Jane Austen is better than none.” She says it to Prudie (Emily Blunt), a glum French teacher who is in line by herself because her jock husband canceled their vacation to Paris. Bernadette is friends with Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), a housewife and mother, who is friends with Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a single dog breeder. Bernadette, who is in between husbands, forms a book club devoted to Austen as a form of support for Sylvia after Sylvia’s husband (Jimmy Smits) leaves her for a woman of the same age and zip code.

Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a tech-industry geek, is invited to join to add “a little testosterone” after Jocelyn meets him in an elevator while he’s on his way to a Sci-Fi convention. Bernadette’s motto thus becomes “All Jane Austen all the time,” and the women’s lives begin to resemble the plots of Austen novels—minus the perspicacious wit and originality of character.

The setting is California, with sunny coffee shops and beaches replacing Austeniana parlors and croquet lawns, to little dramatic effect, aside from contrasting Grigg’s high-tech geekwear with the faux-hippie duds of the women. Dancy, whose usual fare is costume-drama adaptations, is slightly miscast as Grigg (written younger than the character in the novel), a clumsy but appealingly unpretentious Silicon Valley boy more likely to be living a Most Eligible Bachelor lifestyle than joining a book club to get know a stand-offish, slightly older woman. But since the woman is played by the lovely Bello, his pursuit is one of the livelier strands of conversation in the club, though that’s not saying much (and there should always be plenty to say about any courtship in a movie with Jane Austen in the title).

Complications of the routinely domestic variety develop, with nary a surprise or hairpin turn. This chick-lit modernization couldn’t get so much as a titter, scowl, or tsk-tsk from a 19th-century dowager.

—Ann Morrow

Not Illuminating

In the Shadow of the Moon

Directed by David Sington

If you weren’t around then, it’s almost impossible to convey now how exciting the Apollo 11 moon landing was. I was 5 years old, and can still vaguely remember staring at the family GE color console, waiting anxiously for the damn door on the lunar module to open. (I fell asleep and missed it.) People hung their flags out the following day, just like it was Memorial Day or July 4. On TV, the news showed people from all over the world celebrating this American achievement; for the lunar astronauts, there were ticker-tape parades.

As one of the Apollo astronauts interviewed in this so-so documentary remembers, his elderly father could barely believe that man traveled to the moon, while his young son thought it was no big deal. I was hoping that In the Shadow of the Moon would bring back the excitement of July 1969. It failed. In fact, the film seemed to be trying to make viewers feel ashamed that no one’s been back to the moon in 30-plus years.

This is too bad, as the interviews with now-elderly astronauts are interesting, and the vintage color NASA footage is often riveting. The story of the Apollo space program is fitfully told, jumping from mission to mission in an often confusing fashion. The filmmakers couldn’t resist using the usual stock footage of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam bombings and dirty hippies to make a Statement about the ’60s; they should have.

Still, it’s almost worth sitting through this arch, Ron Howard-produced failure to see the astronauts cruising along in the lunar rover—a kind of geeked-out dune buggy—across the relentlessly gray moonscape, or Neil Armstrong, again, taking that “giant leap for mankind.”

There are any number of questions raised in this documentary, but no answers. For example, the speed with which this amazing event went from front-page news to footnote is still shocking. (Current events didn’t help: As the Mekons later sang, “It’s just a small step for him/It’s a nice break from Vietnam.”) It’s as if the filmmakers were content to try to shame us back into space—“in the shadow of the moon,” indeed—instead of explaining why we’re not there.

—Shawn Stone


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