Consider this my back-to-school essay, "What I Saw on My Summer Hiatus."
I may not have been writing over the past five months, but I did see a lot movies. And the best way I've got to sum up those months of moviegoing is to shoot out a whole bunch of capsule reviews. Here goes!
THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT: Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel may well save the romantic comedy. The pair have already given us Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a friendly, funny blend of Apatow-esque raunchiness and old-fashioned sweetness with enough genuine emotional resonance to bring you back for repeat viewings. They rebooted a beloved franchise with The Muppets, inserting an appealingly innocent human romance into the lovingly rendered Muppet zaniness. Now with The Five-Year Engagement, the duo (Stoller directs, Segel acts, both write) explores new territory; the question here isn't "Will the boy get the girl?" but rather "The boy and girl love each other, but they can they figure out to fit their competing career paths into the same marriage?" Segel and Emily Blunt are extremely likable and there's plenty of funny to help us through painfully honest depictions of the couple's negotiations, frustrations, and Segel's increasingly passive-aggressive "supportiveness" of Blunt's move from San Francisco to graduate school in Michigan. It hits authentic emotional notes, and still manages to be a feel-good film. That's no small accomplishment.
CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER: Although I laughed a lot during this film, I don't know that I'd call it a comedy. Rather, it's a very bittersweet story about two people who love each other dearly but aren't really suited to be a couple, and the very long letting-go that proceeds that realization. Rashida Jones (who co-wrote with Will McCorack) and Andy Samberg are married high-school sweethearts whose divorce is in progress as the film opens, yet Samberg's Jesse still lives in Celeste's guest house and the pair continues to hang out and even double-date with friends. Their opening scene together as Celeste drives them to dinner is a beautifully calibrated summation of everything that is right and wrong about their relationship, from the playful goofing and banter to the offhand yet determined way that Celeste gets rid of Jesse's cigarette as soon as he lights it. When free-spirited Jesse gets another woman pregnant and decides to move in with her and take on fatherhood, Celeste - the hyper-competent control freak, - comes unglued. Jones' delicate performance keeps the entire film on balance; she gives a potentially very unlikable character some heart and unexpected low-key fragility.
HOPE SPRINGS: Here's another film that's been pitched as a comedy, but really isn't. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play a long-married couple who've settled into a cold routine of separate bedrooms and unromantic anniversary gifts (they get an expanded cable package for their 31st, which results in more golf channels for Jones to fall asleep to). Streep decides she wants more and packs a very reluctant Jones off to a marriage renewal retreat in a bucolic, seaside Maine village, where a counselor (played by a straight-faced Steve Carell) helps them try to recover their passion. There are some funny moments - and way too many montages set to intrusive, weepy pop songs like Annie Lennox's "Why" - but most of this film is about two steps away from Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage in its depiction of the loneliness and long-harbored hurts of two people who have have drifted away from one another. I tend to be tough on Streep because I get tired of seeing her hog all the good parts for actresses in late middle-age, but I was thrilled by her performance here. She plays a sweet, unsophisticated woman, unaccustomed to fighting for herself, without the slightest trace of condescension or caricature, and she's perfectly matched by a predictably grouchy but ultimately tender and vulnerable Jones. Get over any queasiness you have about "old people doing it" - this is a good movie.
THE DEEP BLUE SEA: Terrence Davies' adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's play is like a Douglas Sirk melodrama that's been filtered through the foggy grayness of postwar England and drenched in the achingly beautiful symphonic music of Samuel Barber. As he did in The House Of Mirth, Davies' creates a heartbreaking portrait of a woman whose passions and longings are all wrong for the time and society in which she lives. Rachel Weisz plays the unsatisfied wife of a much-older judge who is not an unkind man, but does little to inspire her passion and brings her to tea all-too-frequently with his stern, emotionally cruel mother. When Weisz falls in love with a handsome, if somewhat reckless and emotionally immature RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston), she leaves her husband and and moves in with him. Their love is doomed, of course, but watching Weisz' transfixed by her lover, her eyes alert and almost unbelieving as she takes in his face and his attractive, life-of-the-party spirit is by itself a wondrous thing to experience.
BUTTER: Watching this film was not unlike watching the women's gymnastics competition at this summer's Olympics: there were some memorable moments, but also a lot of disappointment in seeing very talented people failing to perform feats that were well within their ability. Despite all the comedic talent thrown at it (including Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Hugh Jackman, Kristen Schaal, Rob Corddry, Alicia Silverstone and Olivia Wilde,) this satirical tale of an Iowa butter-carving competition coming down to a stand-off between a tightly-wound, perfectly coiffed conservative darling (Garner) and an African-American child (Yara Shahidi), doesn't have much bite or even many good laughs. At a slight 81 minutes, the film gives the distinct impression of having been chopped down to size from something far richer and more pointedly evocative of the 2008 presidential election; I strongly suspect that a significant number of expository scenes were left on whatever is the digital equivalent of the cutting room floor.
BACHELORETTE: If you didn't like Bridesmaids, perhaps Leslye Headland's adaptation of her off-Broadway play will be more to your liking. You'll certainly be in the company of many critics who seem to prefer its corrosive nastiness. Myself, I like my bridal comedies with a lot of heart and an absence of mean fat-girl jokes. Headland's trio of bridesmaids (Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher) are nightmares and they weren't redeemed for me by their backstories of bulimia, cutting and romantic disappointments. I couldn't even stay engaged in this till the end.
ARBITRAGE: Richard Gere looks good and his billionaire environs are sumptuous and seductively lit in Nicholas Jarecki's gorgeous thriller about misbehavior in the world of high finance. Gere is a manipulative, philandering hedge fund manager trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities until he can sell off the company he's kept afloat through shady accounting practices, and following his long, evasive trail is fairly engaging throughout most of the film. But ultimately, it feels no more ingenious or engrossing than an average good episode of TV's The Mentalist or The Good Wife.
THE MASTER: The late Robert Altman once said he'd like to make a movie that spoke so directly to the viewers' emotions - as opposed to their intellect - that no one would be able talk about it afterwards. I don't think Altman ever succeeded in making that film, but as far as I'm concerned, his acolyte/disciple P. T. Anderson has. I haven't been able to put two coherent sentences together about the mesmerizing, confounding panorama that is The Master, but I know it's important and ingenious. You should see it, even if I can't tell you why.