Saturday, February 19, 2011

Self, Suck it Up and Watch These Movies

Following up to the previous post about the prevalence of the immature male hero in our modern cinema, I thought it was a good time to write-up a post on the 2010 films that I've formed an irrational mental block against seeing. This happens to me every year. I end up with one or two critically acclaimed titles that I really ought to watch if I want to make any claim at being comprehensive about my pretentious movie viewing choices, and yet I find myself deeply biased against them for no good reason. Last year, it was "The Road," the post-apocalypse survival film that wasn't nearly as gory or upsetting as I had built it up in my mind to be. This year, I've got two films up for the honor: "Greenberg" and "Cyrus."

"Greenberg" is Noah Baumbach's melancholy indie comedy about a graying Gen-Xer named Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), who has to confront the fact that he is a louse far past his prime. "Cyrus" is about John (John C. Reilly) and Molly (Marisa Tomei) starting a relationship, except that John finds his attempts at romance are constantly hampered by Molly's clingy adult son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who has never left home and is very protective of his mother's affections. Now I like Noah Baumbach's dark comedies and domestic dramas just fine, and I've heard plenty of good things about the Duplass brothers who directed "Cyrus." Both movies have solid, though not spectacular critical notices. Nonetheless, I find myself repelled. Give me the misery of "Blue Valentine" or "Biutiful." Sit me down with the "Carlos" mini-series. Anything but these two films!

But why? My first thought is that it's the actors. I've never been a fan of Ben Stiller's Frat Pack humor, found "Reality Bites" an overrated piece of hooey, and deplore his insistence on playing oblivious morons in movies like "Zoolander" and "Dodgeball." Yet I have to give him full credit for "Tropic Thunder," and he's fine when he's not appearing in his own material. He used to be a dependable romantic comedy lead in the likes of "Keeping the Faith" and "There's Something About Mary." And then there's John C. Reilly, who I like in his dramatic roles, but every time he goes for comedy, it's something like "Step Brothers" or "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." As for Jonah Hill - well let me put it this way. I have a relative who has a lot in common with the guys that Hill usually plays - he's a grown man who seems stuck in adolescence, is socially inept, underacheiving, unmotivated, and self-deluding to the point where his parents are worried he may have mental problems. I feel bad for him every time I see him, and I don't find characters like this funny. I barely find them watchable.

I know that "Greenberg" and "Cyrus" are both indie comedies that won't go for the cheap and easy laughs. They'll take the familiar screen personas of these actors and show the audience how they might actually function (or fail to) in the real world. One of my favorite films of the past decade did this with Adam Sandler, in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love." Suddenly the frustration and repression and bursts of violence typical of a Sandler character became unexpectedly poignant when the cinema world he inhabited was no longer on his side. From the reviews I've read, I know this is what "Greenberg" will be trying with Ben Stiller, offering us a character portrait of a serial sarcastic in decline. The idea of the premise does appeal to me. However, every review I've read emphasizes how difficult it is to sit through the film, and how unrelentingly awkward and uncomfortable it becomes to watch the character of Roger Greenberg struggle to maintain his facade. I don't like watching people humiliate themselves, and it's bad enough when Stiller does it for big laughs in his mainstream comedies. Seeing him do this in a Baumbach film sounds downright painful.

"Cyrus" is a broader comedy that should be easier to get through, though the clips I've seen of John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei singing karaoke together, and Jonah Hill's early confrontation scene with John C. Reilly leave me uneasy. It looks a little too close to other comedies that have gone for the lowest common denominator with similar premises. I can't get the images of "Step Brothers" out of my head, which featured John C. Reilly in full Idiot Manchild mode grappling with an equally lunkheaded Will Ferrell. Reilly and Jonah Hill fighting over the affections of Marissa Tomei could be similarly tedious if not handled right. I haven't seen any of the Duplass brothers' films, so I don't know what to expect. This is the kind of comedy I'd pass up in a second if it weren't for the recommendations I've been hearing.

I've resolved to watch both "Greenberg" and "Cyrus," and they're both on my list of the remaining gotta-see 2010 films I'm steadily working my way through. My worries about both films boil down to guilt by association and fear of the unknown, and I've got to get over this. I've missed too many good films by worrying over similar inconsequential things, and frankly there aren't enough good comedies these days that I can afford to pass up the ones that do come along, no matter how badly their content might make me wince. I might find the next "Punch-Drunk Love." I probably won't. But in any case, it's time to move these titles to the head of my Netflix queue.

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