In his Academy Award-winning feature debut Crazy Heart, actor-turned-director Scott Cooper found real soul in the clichéd story of a haggard country singer who falls into a romance that forces him to reassess his troubled past. Four years later, Cooper returns to tell another tale you may have heard before — that of a brother seeking revenge for his sibling’s senseless and brutal murder — but fails to harness its most compelling themes in a way that gives the movie true meaning. This oversight would make Out of the Furnace an easy film to dismiss, had Cooper not managed to elicit some genuinely powerful performances from his talented cast.
The glimmer of a better life always just out of reach, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) dreams of starting a family with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana), and resolves to earn an honest living working in the same mill where his dying father did. Meanwhile, Russell’s volatile younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) decides to serve his country by fighting in Iraq. Despite Russell’s best intentions, however, his future starts to look grim when he is sent to prison following a deadly drunk-driving accident; at the same time, Rodney begins competing in illegal fights for local bar owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe), who owes a sizable debt to the very dangerous Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a fight organizer/meth dealer who’s way too into his own product. Later, after Russell is released from prison having missed his father’s funeral, he is heartbroken to learn that Lena has become seriously involved with the local police chief, Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). But heartache turns to anger when the desperate Rodney also gets mixed up with DeGroat, and winds up dead along with John Petty. Informed by Chief Barnes that Rodney’s body has been found by a hunter, Russell, believing he has nothing to lose, recruits his loyal uncle Red (Sam Shepard) to help him seek revenge.
Out of the Furnace is a positively gorgeous-looking film with top-tier performances by some of the biggest names in cinema. Although it would be easy to overlook the emerging director when praising his cast, Cooper’s ability to work with actors to find the emotional heart of their characters is readily apparent — especially in a scene that finds Bale torn between despair and happiness during a pivotal conversation with Saldana. Finding the emotional core of this story, however, is a different matter altogether, and in revising the original screenplay by Brad Inglesby (who also receives a writing credit on the film), Cooper seems to stumble; not only are compelling themes like the erosion of the middle class left to rot on the vine, but the riveting dynamic between Russell and Rodney — both processed and unceremoniously spat out by different systems — goes virtually nowhere, and the unique tension between Russell and his romantic rival Chief Barnes is ultimately jettisoned in favor of a fairly standard eye-for-an-eye climax. Likewise, despite Out of the Furnace’s heavy theme of family loyalty, Red’s mysterious disappearance as the slow-burn story finally reaches a climax suggests that some crucial aspects of the screenplay were at some point excised.
Yet while Out of the Furnace fails to resonate on a clear and meaningful level, the performances by Bale, Harrelson, Affleck, and Saldana do not. Coming off of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Bale expresses a wide range of powerful emotions with a sincerity that quickly makes us forget the cape and the cowl; Affleck’s damaged veteran offers a haunting reflection of the fate that awaits returning soldiers; Saldana portrays the torn woman with an anguish that’s genuinely affecting; and Harrelson is positively terrifying as the meth-dealing fight organizer whose underworld empire is shielded by the Appalachian code of silence. Even Dafoe, typically a go-to villain, manages to bring out John Petty’s paternal instincts as he attempts to protect young scrapper Rodney — unfortunately, his refreshingly nuanced characterization only highlights the conflict between the universally strong performances and deeply flawed screenplay, making Out of the Furnace strictly for fans of these gifted actors.
The Coen brothers’ Oscar triumph No Country for Old Men was, in many ways, a revisiting of Fargo that purposefully left out the humanity embodied by Marge’s final speech to the killer. If the Coens are now at a stage where they are revisiting their old material in order to express a darker sensibility, it’s tempting to think of Inside Llewyn Davis as their update of the already bleak Barton Fink — an exploration of an artist deluding himself into thinking he’s a better person than he is.
Oscar Isaac stars as the title character, a talented folk singer and guitarist whose career has grown stagnant after his former performing partner committed suicide. The prickly Llewyn crashes with various friends on different nights, struggles to get paying gigs, and deals with the news that he’s impregnated a female friend (Carey Mulligan) who is involved with another man. After landing some quick cash by doing a recording session, Llewyn takes a road trip to Chicago in the hope of winning over a music impresario (F. Murray Abraham) who might be able to give him his big break (or at least a little more money).
As always with Joel and Ethan, the movie works well as a dark comedy. As the universe conspires to make Davis miserable, we’re encouraged to laugh because he does so little to alleviate that condition. He’s unlikable, but in a different way than Barton Fink turned out to be unlikable. Barton revealed himself to be a poseur who only had one good idea, whereas Llewyn doesn’t even sing his own words but just interprets the works of others. He simply doesn’t have anything to say, and that may be the biggest reason why the Coens leave him to a cruel fate.
Isaac, given so little to make his character sympathetic, delivers a performance that humanizes Llewyn in ways the script doesn’t make obvious. Sure, he uses people and he’s a congenital screwup, but he’s also trying to get his life together to the best of his ability — it’s just that his skill in this regard is pointedly lacking. While it’s certainly an emotionally downbeat film, Inside Llewyn Davis is often terrifically funny. Mulligan has a series of foulmouthed diatribes aimed at Llewyn that give the movie a hard comedic edge, Coen regular John Goodman turns in a memorable cameo as a voodoo-practicing jazz performer during the road trip to the Midwest, and the song Davis records in the studio — “Please Mr. Kennedy” — is a pitch-perfect homage to the tunes of the time period. For that matter, all of the music finds a balance between sounding authentic and being lyrically witty. Joel and Ethan certainly sweeten the bitter pill they want you to swallow.
As they’ve evolved as filmmakers and writers, the Coens’ worldview — never all that rosy to begin with — has grown more pessimistic and melancholy. After the despairing three-movie run of No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man, it appeared as if they had lost any hope for humanity. They seemed to be finding a new course with True Grit, their biggest box-office success, but with its disquieting finale and clear-eyed appraisal of human failing and weakness, Inside Llewyn Davis feels much more like their genuine follow-up to A Serious Man.
It was two old-fashioned musicals — The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast — that put Disney animation back on top in the late ’80s and ’90s. While they’ve maintained their dominance in this field ever since, the Mouse House hasn’t come close to matching the quality of those masterpieces. However, thanks to a number of sweet and lyrically deft songs, Frozen is a giant step in the right direction.
The plot hinges on the relationship between Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell). They are the daughters of a king and queen in Norway, and Elsa actually possesses magical powers. She can create snow and ice out of thin air, and as a child she nearly kills Anna by mistake. This leads their parents to keep the siblings physically separated much of the time, which is painful for Anna because she doesn’t know why her big sister suddenly wants nothing to do with her.
After the king and queen die — as is the fate of seemingly all of the parents of Disney main characters — Elsa inherits the throne, reveals her powers at a celebratory ball, and then runs away from her village fearing she will do harm to everyone; in the process, she accidentally ices over most of the surrounding area. Anna sets off to find her big sis, leaving her hometown under the care of a strapping young man with whom she’s smitten. She soon teams up with a kindhearted ice salesman and a talking snowman in order to locate and reconcile with her sister and save their town.
What makes Frozen far and away the most entertaining Disney musical in quite some time is that the married songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have put together a set of reasonably ambitious songs that not only have pleasant melodies, but are matched with lyrics that are humorous while revealing character. Menzel is the kind of Broadway belter who can absolutely sell numbers like these, and the whole cast wring the humor and pathos out of the tunes. There are a large number of songs throughout Frozen, and they aren’t superfluous: This is a traditional musical. So much so that it won’t be surprising if they announce a Broadway production based on the movie — or at the very least, a touring ice show.
While Menzel certainly has the best voice of the lot, Bell is heartbreaking with the poignant “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” And Broadway veteran Josh Gad not only provides a ton of welcome comic relief as a snowman named Olaf, but gets a funny and touching song of his own, “In Summer,” in which his character dreams of what the warm sun will feel like.
The movie never quite gels entirely: The complicated relationship between the sisters isn’t so much explored as treated as a contrivance to set the story in motion, and the animation, while certainly colorful, lacks a certain polish — Pixar this is not, even with John Lasseter serving as the executive producer. However, anyone with an appreciation for old-school musical numbers will find something pleasantly familiar and cozy about Frozen.
“Freedom. It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” says 44-year-old Nelson Mandela just before he is sentenced to life in prison for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the South African government in Justin Chadwick’s reverent but rousing Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The facts of Mandela’s influential work to end apartheid, from his early days as a lawyer in Johannesburg to his rise in the African National Congress, as well as his 27-year imprisonment and ultimate release and election as South African president, are well-known, and Chadwick’s straightforward retelling of his story doesn’t offer any new insights into the man. But that’s OK. Mandela’s trials and triumphs, personal and political, are more than enough to keep this crowded but never overstuffed biopic clicking.
Idris Elba, perhaps best known in the U.S. for his riveting work on HBO’s The Wire and BBC America’s Luther, vividly embodies Mandela’s pride and passion — and flaws. While the film is certainly respectful toward Mandela, it isn’t hagiographic. Early on, we see Mandela’s flirtations with women, his ill treatment of his first wife, and his decision to jettison his nonviolent ways and authorize bombings on government targets. In the early stages of the movie that trace his youthful zeal and rise to power in the ANC, Elba imbues Mandela with undeniable charisma and unbridled passion. It is clear why so many listened to his speeches and followed his lead. But as the film progresses and he ages in prison, Elba matures in the role and doesn’t need words to convey Mandela’s authority, unquestioned character, and gentle spirit. Just as Daniel Day-Lewis inhabited Abraham Lincoln and made viewers forget that they were watching an actor in a role, Elba achieves a similar effect. He becomes Mandela. It’s an understated, convincing, and powerful performance.
And as good as Elba is, he is matched by Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela in a harrowing, towering tour de force. Mandela is immediately smitten with the winsome Winnie, calling her “the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.” They soon marry and have children, but their life is anything but ideal. When the two are eventually separated due to Nelson’s imprisonment, Winnie continues to live in her husband’s shadow and is subjected to threats, torture, and 18 months in solitary confinement. The person who emerges from that dank prison cell is no longer winsome but angry, determined, and absolutely fearless. She is a woman to be reckoned with, a fierce force of nature. She wants the white oppressors to pay, while Nelson forgives them and seeks peace. Upon his release, their conflicting outlooks lead to their separation.
Chadwick doesn’t shy away from showing the harsh realities of apartheid or the cruel treatment Mandela and Winnie received in prison, but his approach is restrained. His camera doesn’t linger over dead bodies or focus at length on beatings or torture. This is a story hurtling towards a triumphant ending, where grace and peace overpower evil and violence.
If there is a negative to Chadwick’s film, it’s that it is a bit overlong and takes a half hour or so to really get going. But that is a minor quibble. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom may be long but it is never boring, and the journey it takes is essential viewing for anyone interested in Mandela, the history of apartheid, South Africa, or social justice. Or great acting.
A haunted stranger searching for a new life arrives in a small town, and keeps incurring the wrath of the locals until he is forced to become a one-man army to survive: If the plot of Homefront sounds strangely familiar, you may not be surprised to learn that the film was written by Sylvester Stallone, whose 1982 action classic First Blood contains many of the same core elements. Originally written as the final chapter in the John Rambo saga, this could have been a fascinating bookend to that iconic series following 2008’s brutal, belated Rambo, but instead what we get is a fairly direct Jason Statham vehicle with a fair amount of crowd-pleasing action and some creative casting that gives the impression of something slightly more substantive than your standard meathead shoot-’em-up.
Undercover DEA agent Phil Broker (Statham) has just busted a meth ring run by a ruthless motorcycle club when, in the heat of the moment, police gun down the son of the gang’s ruthless president, Danny T. (Chuck Zito). Soon after, Broker loses his wife and leaves his career behind in favor of moving to his late spouse’s remote Louisiana hometown with their 9-year old daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic). When Maddy uses the self-defense skills she’s learned from her dad to school a playground bully, her young tormentor’s meth-smoking mom Cassie (Kate Bosworth) convinces her meth-cooking brother “Gator” (James Franco) to “mess with their heads like you do with everyone else.”
That messing leads to trouble for Phil and his daughter when the snooping Gator finds the file detailing the deadly bust, which he gives to the vengeful, incarcerated Danny T. in the hope of getting greater distribution for his product. Meanwhile, Gator’s girlfriend Sheryl (Winona Ryder) finds herself on the losing end of a bargain with Danny T.’s cold-blooded right-hand man Cyrus (Frank Grillo) and his murderous henchmen, who roll into town with a small armory and a plan to ambush Broker at his secluded home. Broker is ready for them, but when Maddie gets abducted by Sheryl in the heat of the fight, her enraged father will defy even the town’s corrupt sheriff (Clancy Brown) in order to rescue his daughter from the dangerously unpredictable Gator.
While the echoes of the original idea can still be felt throughout Homefront, what you see is mostly what you get; in this case, that means an action movie that aspires to pack an emotional punch, but primarily relies on the characters’ fists for that. There’s some genuine heart to Stallone’s screenplay, and it’s played surprisingly well not just by talented youngster Vidovic, but also by Statham in an emotionally raw scene dealing with the young girl’s lingering grief over the loss of her mother. Outside of that, the plot mechanics feel like they could have been cranked out at an assembly plant for action-film screenplays. His face as rough as a chiseled chunk of granite, retired Hell’s Angel Chuck Zito brings some welcome authenticity to the picture as the biker-club president obsessed with avenging his son’s death, while Franco’s Gator is a ferociously territorial yet bizarrely rational villain — at least, until the glass pipe comes out and all bets are off. It’s an oddly effective power balance that’s constantly shifting thanks to the inclusion of psychotic wild card Cyrus, whom we never doubt is capable of killing young Maddy (even though we know this movie plays by the rules that reassure us that will never happen).
Likewise, seasoned film and television director Gary Fleder approaches the endeavor from a workmanlike perspective, and indulges our bloodlust with the help of editor Padraic McKinley, here discovering his untapped talent for cutting viscerally satisfying fight scenes. For a movie like Homefront that aims to hit all the required action beats, a good editor is a necessity, and despite his background in lighter fare, McKinley proves an adept celluloid percussionist. Watching the film is like listening to a new song that we’re somehow able to tap our toes along to. It could be rock, hip-hop, country, or even classical. The genre isn’t important, it’s the comfort of the tradition that counts.
While T.D. Jakes has found much success as the best-selling author of inspirational books based on Christian teachings, as well as the popular pastor of a Dallas megachurch, his work as the executive producer of the faith-inspired holiday film Black Nativity suggests that his decision to get into movies was, perhaps, misguided.
Clumsily placed song-and-dance interludes give the impression that there was a debate over whether or not the film would double as a musical — and nobody won. As Jennifer Hudson walks the streets and sings about the struggles of single motherhood, some of the crowd spontaneously decide to act as backup performers, while others remain seated and appear oblivious to the musical number in front of them.
The story itself pulls no punches: A Baltimore teenager named Langston (Jacob Latimore) is sent to live with his estranged grandparents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) when financial troubles leave his mother (Hudson) temporarily unable to provide for him. However, there is little doubt that the troubled family will right itself in the end with a little push from the Almighty. Hudson, as always, is a musical powerhouse; although the plot may be thin, she commands an attentive audience. Bassett has little to work with in the role of an adoring grandmother and wife, yet she communicates a genuine warmth and love of the Christian faith.
However, the film belongs to Langston and his grandfather, Rev. Cornell Cobbs, and that’s where it really goes wrong. It’s difficult to root for either character, as Langston is a mopey, sullen teen who, despite his implied intelligence, hatches two extraordinary stupid plans — one to sell a priceless family heirloom, the other to stage a holdup — in the hope of getting his family out of debt The reverend, who will doubtless straighten out this troubled youth, puts forth an air of cold self-righteousness that makes it easy to understand why his daughter went incommunicado as soon as she was old enough to leave. Of course, Rev. Cobbs abandons his gruff veneer to lead a lavish, Afro-inspired church production depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. Though Langston falls asleep during the service, the message comes to him in an elaborate dream sequence. Once awake, the pieces fall into place, the broken family come together, and the magic of the holidays is delivered to the surprise of absolutely no one. With that said, Black Nativity is a pleasant enough inspirational tale and more than suitable light family viewing during the holiday season.
Francis Lawrence may not have had to fight for his life while directing the second installment in The Hunger Games series, but his task, metaphorically speaking, was not entirely unlike entering the dreaded arena: He had to appease the series’ passionate fan base without alienating those unfamiliar with the story, depict a wide variety of environments, and avoid the trappings of adapting a middle book. Frankly, the odds sucked. The good news is that he prevailed anyway.
The key to the success of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is its steadfast adherence to the novel’s central theme: Surviving the Games and leaving the arena are not mutually exclusive. The film once again begins in the dreary District 12, where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have literally and figuratively been set apart from the rest of the community. Their newfound wealth and luxurious new homes in the “Victor’s Village” leave them physically isolated from those who continue to starve under the Capitol’s brutal regime; more importantly, their experiences in the Games have left them both with acute post-traumatic stress disorder. The once steely Katniss cries frequently and suffers from nightmares and hallucinations. Peeta is solemn and depressed. Their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) continues to anesthetize himself with alcohol. While the victors continue to fight the wars in their minds, a very real spark of revolution is spreading throughout the impoverished districts.
The film transitions seamlessly to the Victory Tour, wherein Katniss and Peeta are forced to sing the praises of the Capitol in each of the districts in front of an audience that includes the families of those killed in the Games. Prior to the tour, Katniss was addressed by President Snow himself (played to perfection by Donald Sutherland), who challenged her to quash all thoughts of revolution lest her district be razed and family murdered. Initially, his intent was to make Katniss a pariah by forcing her to act as a tool of the Capitol; however, the oppressed masses remain emboldened, forcing Snow to introduce what is referred to as a “wrinkle.” The tributes for the 75th Hunger Games will be reaped from a pool of existing victors in a power move that he hopes will reinforce the iron fist of the Capitol.
Catching Fire’s tone evolves smoothly from barely contained anxiety to foreboding to betrayal to grim acceptance with very little exposition — a difficult feat for a film that is driven by action rather than dialogue. There is virtually no dead weight among the cast. Lawrence continues to shine as the reluctant hero Katniss, while Hutcherson imparts a level of depth to his character that was missing in the first movie. Sassy Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), who uses her TV spot to curse at the Capitol audience, is a welcome foil for serious Katniss, and fan favorite Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) wields a trident like nobody’s business. Francis Lawrence made a wise decision in emphasizing the camaraderie that takes place inside the arena: It would have been a much more difficult feat to distinguish this film from a watery version of the last had Katniss played the game alone.
Catching Fire is tightly paced with very little filler. No line or character is wasted. Even the eccentric, Capitol-born Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has evolved from the first movie and has become attached to “her” tributes, albeit in a touchingly clueless kind of way. Philip Seymour Hoffman is flawless as the new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (you can all but see the chess pieces moving with his every word), and Donald Sutherland plays President Snow as though he were the love child of Hannibal Lecter and Voldemort. The film’s greatest achievement, however, is its refusal to whitewash the material, condescend to its audience, or perpetuate the myth that the good guys always win, grow up, get married, have babies, and live happily ever after. Despite moments of levity, this is a brutal movie (a success in and of itself given the PG-13 rating) that comes in like a hurricane and provides a needed ass kicking to the schmaltzy, supernatural love triangles that have plagued young-adult fiction in a post-Harry Potter world.
Michel Gondry's Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky constitutes a cinematic attempt to bridge left- and right-brained modes of film language into something transcendent, an onscreen syntax greater than the sum of its parts. On the soundtrack, we get the dry, analytical, heady musings of Chomsky, avuncular but controversial professor, philosopher, linguist, and political protestor. Much of the discourse alternates between biographical reflections and Chomsky’s complex, divisive philosophies about human cognizance and how we learn to interpret the world around us. Gondry pairs this with his own 85-minute series of aesthetic depictions of Chomsky’s conclusions — the preponderance of them done with hand-drawn animations. It’s an instinctive choice on Gondry’s part (and, as we know from his prior films, an extension of his own id) to push these visuals into the realm of the highly abstract, connotative, and symbolic.
The results are strange, beguiling, and unsettling. Many viewers will find themselves rapt by Chomsky’s words, for he is as consistently mesmerizing to listen to as his reputation suggests. But — at least during an initial viewing — it’s virtually impossible to take in the full meaning of what Chomsky is articulating and consciously sift through (or interpret) Gondry’s multilayered images at the same time. As a result, the experience is an emotionally and neurologically exhausting one; you walk away from the movie not exhilarated, but totally worn out and ready for external stimuli of almost childlike simplicity.
This is a fascinating and admirable film for what it attempts on a formalist level, but you sit watching it and wonder if Gondry’s additions weren’t something of a miscalculation. The picture comes off as dictatorial and presumptuous in the sense that the filmmaker is holding our imaginative capacities hostage. As arresting as the movie is, Gondry doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “restraint.” It might have been even better if he had trusted the audience more, reducing the visual element to a series of haunting singular images with multiplicative connotations — as Quebecois director François Delisle did with his ingenious Le météore. Or perhaps Gondry should have freed the film from the visual plane altogether, relying exclusively on the complexities of the narration as Derek Jarman did with his 1993 Blue. Either one would have liberated our subconscious minds, enabling us to build an internal mental carnival from Chomsky’s words sans the degree of assistance employed here. One thing is readily apparent, though: The combination of hallucinatory, trippy visuals and cerebral soundtrack dissertation could make this the ultimate head movie; marijuana-induced academics with a love of introspection will be in heaven while watching it.
Director Brian Percival’s adaptation of the international best-seller The Book Thief is the kind of earnest, handsomely produced, well-meaning, tearjerking historical drama that brings to mind the lament voiced by the character of Clarence in Quentin Tarantino’s script for True Romance — that there are too many unwatchable movies made from unreadable books. While that sentence is assuredly too harsh for this picture, the sentiment behind it rings true.
The film stars Sophie Nelisse as Liesel, who, as the story opens, is an 11-year-old girl living in Germany just before the start of World War II. Her mother is giving both Liesel and her younger brother up for adoption, but her sibling dies en route. As they perform a makeshift funeral, a small book drops from the pocket of one of the men and the young girl quickly pockets it — letting us know that she is the title character.
She arrives in a small German town and meets her new stepparents, the severe Rosa (Emily Watson) and the playful Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who have chosen to care for unfamiliar children because of the monthly allowance it brings into their poor household. Liesel soon begins getting reading lessons from Hans and befriends a neighborhood boy named Rudy.
Although her new family is German, they do not belong to the Nazi party, which makes them objects of suspicion in the town. That paranoia grows even sharper when a teenage Jew named Max (Ben Schnetzer), who has a connection to Hans, shows up at their home and needs to be hidden from authorities. Liesel is forced to keep their secret, and Max turns out to be an excellent friend for the young girl.
The Holocaust is, understandably, a subject that primes an audience to cry, and when The Book Thief reveals in its opening minute that its disembodied narrator is the voice of Death itself, either your defenses go up immediately and you harden to stone or you settle in with a truck full of tissues. The movie so obviously wants to put you through the wringer that it’s impossible to let yourself enjoy Liesel’s fleeting moments of happiness, since you know they only exist so they can be crushed.
Having Death provide the narration for Liesel’s life is an obvious literary conceit, and if it were the only one, it might not grate as much as it does here. Sadly, books, reading, and storytelling are all central themes of the movie — even if you didn’t know going in that it was a literary adaptation, it would be obvious almost immediately. Even with Florian Ballhaus’ exquisite cinematography, which recalls the great Gordon Willis in its expressive use of darkness, The Book Thief is frustratingly uncinematic — you can appreciate the artful visuals, but it ends up feeling like a checklist of scenes from a book, not a natural narrative that flows from one scene to the next.
The actors are uniformly strong, with Geoffrey Rush walking away with the movie as the gentle-hearted Hans. The character is no less of a contrivance than anything else in this overly designed story, but Rush gives him an undeniable humanity that makes the audience empathize with the toll that being a good man in a bad world takes on kind souls.
When the film finally reaches an ending that strains to maximize both tears of sadness and heartwarming uplift, some viewers will be a total emotional mess. Yet many others will feel like they just sat through a well-intentioned but ultimately empty book report.
Just two years after his sophomore feature Starbuck, French-Canadian writer/director Ken Scott returns with this remake of his previous film, starring Vince Vaughn as a sperm donator at the center of a class-action lawsuit to reveal his identity. A welcome change of pace from the painfully obvious and unfunny The Internship, Delivery Man mercifully finds its star forgoing his typical motormouthed shtick in favor of something that actually resembles a thinking, feeling human being. In addition, the director genuinely seems to have something relevant to say about our evolving definition of “family” in an era when that word can have a multitude of meanings.
Aside from the fact that he was a regular visitor at a fertility clinic 20 years ago, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn): He drives a meat-delivery truck for his father’s butcher business, he can’t seem to hold down a relationship, and lately he’s taken to growing marijuana as a means of paying off an $80,000 debt. He’s so inept at even the simplest things that his girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders) can’t stand the sight of him after she reveals that she’s pregnant with his child. When an attorney tracks David down and reveals that he is the biological father of 533 children, and that 142 of them have filed a lawsuit to learn his true identity, the former donor panics, recruiting his lawyer friend Brett (Chris Pratt) to defend the privacy agreements he signed at the clinic. When Brett returns with an envelope containing profiles of all 142 children named in the lawsuit, however, David can’t help but look, and before long he’s surreptitiously injecting himself into the lives of his unsuspecting offspring. Meanwhile, as he begins to grow excited at the prospect of having his own child, he finds that sometimes the best fathers are the men who seem the least fit for parenting.
A warmhearted comedy that takes full advantage of its unique high concept (well, relatively unique), Delivery Man occasionally dabbles in such tired stereotypes as the bumbling, brainless prospective father, but the difference is that screenwriter Scott actually uses them as a means to an end, not an end itself. In Delivery Man, David’s inability to grow up serves as a launching pad to asking some pretty fascinating questions about what it means to take responsibility not just for your own life, but for the lives of those you helped bring into this world. Of course, given that it’s first and foremost a comedy, Scott devotes plenty of time to exploring the absurdity of the situation (and, in the case of Pratt’s character, the energy-sapping trials of fatherhood), but it’s the film’s more poignant plot points that resonate most — David’s emotional first encounter with a troubled daughter, his discovery of a child with severe cerebral palsy, and his time spent with a philosophy-spouting son who knows his secret all prove essential to his growth, and are all handled with a sincerity that add a welcome depth to the script’s broader comedic conceits.
Sure, there’s the occasional plot hole — it’s difficult to believe that no one would have found out David’s identity after the story goes international (especially after a hilarious slipup late in the film), and an early indicator that one of his children knows his secret is forgotten almost as soon as it’s spoken — but while those simple oversights may prevent the movie from achieving perfection, they rarely undermine its earnest endeavor to explore shifting family dynamics and their impact on our ability to connect with others. Meanwhile, even when it starts to feel as if Scott may be fumbling in his attempt to juggle multiple story lines, his ability to continually bring the story back to its center results in an overall satisfying balance of comedy and drama.
Vaughn deserves as much credit as anyone for walking that fine line, and though it’s easy to imagine that Scott had his fair share of trials when it came to reigning in his leading man, the actor manages to alter his over-the-top personality just enough to make it work within the context of the story. It’s the perfect role for Vaughn and his performance here is genuinely nuanced, though his thunder is frequently stolen by Pratt as the hapless father of four who’s desperate to prove his worth as a lawyer. Not only does Pratt get some of the film’s best lines, but he delivers them with expert comic timing, whether addressing the press or practicing his closing arguments before a roomful of skeptical children. Much like David, Brett may appear incompetent on the surface, but he also manages to come through when the chips are down.
In the end, that’s what Delivery Man is all about — accepting the people we care about, warts and all, and trusting that they’ll always stand by us when we need them the most. For those who find themselves alone in this world, that defines “family” just as much as sharing our genes with someone who, by choice or by fate, has fallen out of our lives.