A slate of mediocre films, headlined by "Bully," which is a shameless piece of emotional propaganda. I will be writing more about this soon--I promise. "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" was easily the highlight.
Also, two notes: "Bully" is now unrated; it was rated R when I filed this piece, and "Jeff" should have gotten four stars. Dissecting stars is a tricky business, sometimes.
As always, these reviews appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)
Darling Companion (Dir: Lawrence Kasdan). Starring: Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Ayelet Zurer, Sam Shepard. Keaton and Kline, those old, well-preserved pros, play a long-married couple whose strength gets tested when he loses her beloved dog in the High Rockies. This prompts a days-long search by their family and friends that allows for relationships to be born and renewed. Writer-director Kasdan (The Big Chill, Grand Canyon) employs earnestness and folksy touches—Zurer as a psychic Gypsy, Shepard as a laconic sheriff who'd rather be fishing—and little else. Consequently, Darling Companion is pleasant and easygoing to the point of somnolence. (At the very least, show us the dog enduring the elements or have Kline and Keaton spar more.) Resembling the featureless middle of a larger narrative, the film never commits to offering an honest look at getting older. How that happens considering Kasdan's introspective resume and the talented cast qualifies as one of 2012's biggest movie mysteries. Even dog lovers may have a tough time sitting through this one: the lovable mutt is barely on screen. Jenkins, as usual, is terrific. [PG-13] **
Free Men (Dir: Ismaël Ferroukhi). Starring: Tahar Rahim, Mahmoud Shalaby, Michael Lonsdale, Lubna Azabal, Farid Larbi. Paris in 1942 is a tough place for an Algerian immigrant. The Nazis either eye you suspiciously or the French want to send you packing. Younes (Rahim, A Prophet) makes money selling black market items until he's arrested. The French authorities grant his freedom in exchange for spying on the Paris mosque. In this new assignment, he becomes friends with Jewish Algerian singer Salim Halali (Shalaby), which compels Younes to reconsider his motives. Soon, he comes clean to the mosque's crafty rector (Lonsdale) and inches closer toward becoming a freedom fighter. This "fictional story freely inspired by actual people and events" aspires to portray an everyday hero. A bland protagonist makes that impossible: Younes stumbles into his new mission, and we never buy his transformation into a fearless patriot. Historical significance cannot replace vitality. And Free Men, with its sluggish plot that doesn't twist as much as stroll amiably in a straight line, desperately needs an infusion. [NR] **
Bully (Dir: Lee Hirsch). Documentary covers the kids and parents affected by bullying over the 2009-10 school year. At the center of the film is Alex, a shy 12-year-old from Sioux City, IA, who is tormented by his peers daily. We also meet Oklahoman Kelby, a 16-year-old whose life has unraveled since she came out, and 14-year-old Ja'Meya, who was so fed up with being bullied that she pulled out a gun on the school bus. As for the adults, two sets of parents who lost children to bullying-related suicides struggle to raise awareness. Though dramatically compelling in spots, Bully feels like a PR campaign—there's even a URL listed at the end for "The Bully Project." No one endorses such ignorant acts, but, geez, let's get some perspective. Why do kids bully? Why, as evidenced by Alex's daft assistant principal, Kim Lockwood, are schools indifferent? The film's self-righteousness doesn't allow for a deeper understanding; it's too busy pounding its own drum. Hirsch uses good intentions as a shield. You can't hate Bully for fear of being dismissed as a locker-stuffing troglodyte. Bully doesn't inspire us; it badgers us into accepting its campaign. [R] ** Note: A petition is out to grant Bully a deserved PG-13 rating.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Dir: Mark and Jay Duplass). Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Rae Dawn Chong. Jeff (Segel) is a 30-year-old slacker convinced that everything in the universe is connected, a theory he refines between bong hits and viewings of Signs. When his harried, widowed mother (Sarandon, her best role in years) sends him out to get glue, Jeff puts his life philosophy into practice. Eventually, Jeff encounters his older brother (Helms), who is at odds with his increasingly impatient wife (Greer). Then things get interesting. Smart, poignant character study benefits from the Duplass brothers' refusal to get cutesy or meta with the concept. A look at three lost souls who get a shot at redemption—if they can only recognize the signs—Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a rarity: an emotionally satisfying film that never panders. Helms is outstanding as the blowhard know-it-all who's too busy being right to see how wrong he is, and Segel settles into his role with beguiling ease. He shows us Jeff's sweet, accepting soul, never allowing the character to become a caricature. [R] ***1/2