16 February 2011

JUST DON'T

I'm not sure that I've ever specifically liked Jennifer Aniston in anything: she has a pleasant enough demeanor, true, and she's quite attractive, and there's a prickly-soft thing she has going on that makes her a solid foil for just about every actor she's been stacked against in any movie, and she has machine-precise comic timing honed by her decade-long stint on a sitcom. But none of these things naturally lead to, "...and that's how you can tell she's a great actress!" for after all she isn't: just a really good sport that the camera absolutely loves. So I wasn't expecting to be quite as charmed as I was by Aniston's performance in Just Go with It, which isn't really any more technically proficient than any other thing she's ever done, but has a sort of warm magnetism that invariably left me longing for her to come back when she was offscreen.

This is probably not due to Aniston's thespianic talents, admittedly, but to the fact that Just Go with It is a wheezing, broken carcass of a romantic comedy that needs every last inch of help it can get, and Aniston simply happens to be the unlucky soul tasked with staring down an inordinately disengaged Adam Sandler for nearly two hours. By God, she does it, too: it's obvious enough that the actress knows she's better than the material, but rather than therefore looking down on it she instead just cuts loose and has as much fun as she can, at least in the first two-thirds of the film, before it goes all soulful and sweet and loses whatever strained thread of watchability had been holding it together.

The story, adapted from the play and movie Cactus Flower, ultimately derived from a French stage farce (I must confess myself completely unfamiliar with every previous iteration of the story, but I understand that it's fairly loose in its adaptation; at any rate, the much-diluted DNA of French farce is still just barely visible), finds Sandler playing Dr. Danny Maccabee, a Los Angeles plastic surgeon with a grudge against the entire female sex: after learning minutes before his wedding that his fiancée was cheating on him, he's spent 23 years wearing a wedding ring to trick women into thinking that he's married, finding that this makes him irresistible to sex goddesses who would otherwise find him a reprehensible slimeball. What would make them think that.

In short: Danny falls in love with a hot schoolteacher, Palmer (Brooklyn Decker), and wants to put his skeevy days behind him, but she finds his ring and he makes up a fake wife he's about to divorce, and this forces him to conscript his receptionist and longsuffering Girl Friday, Katherine (Aniston), to pose as his estranged wife "Devlin"; further complications result in him pretending to be the father of Katherine's children Maggie (Bailee Madison) and Michael (Griffin Bluck). Then the whole lot of them go to Hawai'i, along with Danny's hideous douchebag cousin Eddie (Nick Swardson), posing as "Devlin's" love "Dolph Lundgren". In Hawai'i, they stumble across Katherine's much-hated sorority sister, the real Devlin (Nicole Kidman), and her watery millionaire husband Ian Maxtone Jones (Dave Matthews. Yes, that one), and in a panic, Katherine tells her own lie, that Danny is her husband.

There is, objectively, the stuff of a good farce in here, though some of the connecting tissue is a bit strained, and the plot as it stands here can only work if Palmer is stupid to the point of dysfunction. And that's just the tip of why the film entirely fails to turn into anything remotely akin to a good farce. It's at once too lazy and too angry to be very much fun at all: Allan Loeb and Timothy Dowling's script is filled with obvious, tired jokes, a great many of which are scatological in a way that film comedy as a whole, even at its worst, seems to have largely gotten away from in the last few years. More than that, though, the film is mean-spirited in a jarringly unselfconscious way: it's one thing to make jokes to the effect that women are of value only when they are thin, white, and well-dressed (an argument that the film makes pretty much constantly), and quite another to make those jokes from such a savagely banal place, where it's clear that the filmmakers weren't even aware of how pointedly nasty they were being.

That's really, what's hardest to get over in the film: the nastiness. There's not a single likable person onscreen, which isn't a total dealbreaker, of course - think of the jolly misanthropy of Billy Wilder, whose late-career writing partner I.A.L. Diamond wrote the original Cactus Flower - but in Just Go with It, the flimsy gags are too feeble to counterbalance the cruelty of the characterisations: Danny is a coarse bully, the apotheosis of everything bad in Sandler's persona with nothing good to stand against it, while the actor's friend and frequent director Dennis Dugan is wholly unable (or uninterested, more likely) to reign in his performance from its screaming, mean excesses. Katherine and both of her children are shockingly mercenary, and indeed the film's emphasis on lifestyle porn and acquisition - on the thousands and thousands of dollars worth of clothes Danny buys to make Katherine look like a better trophy, or the criminally luxurious hotel where they all stay on Hawai'i - is as distasteful as any of the hugely amoral characters, so utterly divorced from any kind of reality that anyone in the audience is likely to have experienced (Danny's bank account seems limitless: he spends what must be around $100,000 over the course of the movie and barely views it as an inconvenience) that it almost becomes comic just from the absurdity of it all.

I would not want to forget to mention Swardson, a longstanding Sandler sidekick, whose performance in the early part of the film is grating and douchey (though it's supposed to be, I think); his performance in the latter part, when he's pretending to be German, is one of the most toxic comedy vacuums I have seen in years. Maybe ever.

Aniston, like I said, has a kind of sweetness that keeps her afloat; Kidman seems to be completely unaware of where she is or what she's doing, and throws herself into the role with the eagerness to be totally energetic and dazzling and comic that a sane actress would reserve for Rosalind in As You Like It or Viola in Twelfth Night, and as a result is fairly enjoyable to watch, if only as a reminder that she's much better at comedy than just about anyone is willing to give her credit for. And some of the lines, honestly, are amusing: about one in every fifteen or twenty, let's say, a poor ratio but not a barbaric one. But that's about the nicest I can say for the movie. It's long, and sour, and peopled by the most opaque, inscrutable, unendurable cast of a comedy imaginable. By the end I couldn't help but think that Katherine's ex, the kid's absent dad, the one that Danny ends up replacing in the inevitable "the two biggest stars pair up" ending that is not otherwise motivated by anything in either Sandler or Aniston's performances... that is to say, Katherine's ex is the only character who worked and made sense. If my family was as shockingly awful as his, I'd do whatever I could to run away, too.

3/10

2 comments:

franklinshepard said...

You should really see the original Cactus Flower film. It's pretty terrific.

Mr. K said...

Aniston was rather good on that episode of 30 ROCK where she played Tina Fey's psychotic former roommate.

I'm not sure if that's a recommendation or not.