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Posts Tagged ‘Justin Theroux’

There was a time when I used to complain on a fairly regular basis about films either using misleading titles or making insufficiently good use of promising ones. I was really thinking of movies like Tyrannosaur, Planet of Dinosaurs (a pattern develops), and Lesbian Vampire Killers. I haven’t done it for a bit, but I am almost minded to revive the tradition now that cinemas up and down the land are showing Mimi Leder’s new film On the Basis of Sex.

What is the passing punter supposed to make of a title like this? It suggests much, perhaps even promises much, but at the same time it is almost entirely obscure should you not actually be in the know. If you were to ask me I might suggest it was a film about bad reasons for getting married. Needless to say, it is not: it is the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsberg which I believe I alluded to when discussing the documentary about the Notorious RBG.

You may think I’m dwelling at bit too much on the title thing – but it’s not as if the film can claim innocence on this front. There is a whole actual scene where someone observes that the word ‘sex’ comes with a load of baggage and it might really be better to use a less provocative synonym like ‘gender’. But are we in a theatre watching a film entitled On the Basis of Gender? We are not. It is Sex all the way (except in the film itself, that is).

The film gets underway at Harvard Law School in 1956, and the director loses no time in subtly trowelling in the subtext of the movie: martial music places, a male voice choir sings, and endless ranks of white dudes in suits stroll about, revelling in their entitlement. Marching through this scene, however, is Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones), one of only nine women in her year. It is dismayingly like the way that The Iron Lady tried to suggest Margaret Thatcher should be hailed as some kind of feminist icon, but the film does discover subtlety of a sort as it continues.

There’s not a great deal of Harvard stuff here, as it is mainly scene-setting and character-establishing material – Ruth and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) are both students at Harvard, the place is horrendously sexist (there’s a scene where the Dean invites all the female students to dinner and then requires them to explain just what the hell they think they’re doing there), and Ruth is possessed of the sort of determination and resolve that would be unbelievable if you gave it to a fictional character: at one point she’s aceing her classes, raising their child effectively single-handed, and attending Marty’s classes too (he’s undergoing medical treatment).

Despite coming top of her year at both Harvard and Columbia, Ruth can’t land a job at an actual law firm, and ends up becoming a professor of law specialising in gender discrimination.  Ten years later, the world is showing signs of changing, with a rebellious new generation challenging the old assumptions and standards – even Ruth’s own daughter (Cailee Spaeny) gives her a hard time for being all talk and no action. But this changes when Marty’s tax work uncovers the case of a man being discriminated against for staying at home to care for his elderly mother (the law assuming that only women will do this). Could this be the opening they need to have legal gender discrimination declared unconstitutional?

One of the problems with On the Basis of Thingy, such as it is, is right there at the end of that paragraph – nothing wrong with a good courtroom drama, it’s a great framework for a narrative, providing the case is involving anyway. Now, while the principles involved in the main case here may be immensely important, and the historical context startling – this is 1970, and the US legal system is accepting that sexist legislation is constitutionally valid – but the actual case itself is honestly not that interesting or exciting. It’s about tax codes. Most of the drama is really peripheral to it – can Ruth persuade the ACLU to back them? Is participating in this going to damage Marty’s career as a top-flight tax attorney? Should they abandon a case in the state appeal court in case it sets a bad precedent for an upcoming federal supreme court appearance?

See, even here all the legal jargon starts creeping in. Now, respect is due to the movie for crediting the audience with intelligence, and I’m not adverse to a few intellectually chewy bits, but they need to be paired with genuine moments of narrative energy and excitement, and this film never honestly delivers enough of this.

Part of this is because it is always exactly the film you would expect it to be: men in ties conspire to preserve a society rigged in their favour, determined young women refuse to be dissuaded, Felicity Jones is told ‘You’ve been ready for this your whole life!’ and gets lines like ‘You don’t get to tell me when to quit!’; there is also the exchange where she declares that the word ‘freedom’ does not appear in the US Constitution (which is indeed true, if you ignore the amendments). Obviously the film is telling an important story, and its heart is in the right place, but do all the movies with this kind of theme have to be quite so po-faced? It’s like watching The Lives of the Saints more than an actual drama.

This certainly seems to be reflected in Felicity Jones’ performance, which carefully mixes steely earnestness with earnest steeliness: there’s not much sign of the mischievous sense of humour the real RBG displays in the documentary. At least the film reflects her love of opera and reportedly dreadful cooking abilities. To be honest, Jones isn’t that bad, considering the constrictions she’s operating under; Armie Hammer does very good work in a supporting role (in more senses than one). Some energy is provided by Justin Theroux (who, as regular readers will know, is not the Prime Minister of Canada but the Iron Man 2 guy) as an ACLU lawyer RBG teams up with, not entirely amicably; Cailee Spaeny’s turn as a younger Ginsberg will doubtless do her burgeoning career no harm.

I feel a bit like I’m kicking a dog by not praising On the Basis  of Thingy more fulsomely; a big toothy dog that could probably take my leg off at the knee, at that. This is a handsomely made film with decent performances, that manages to make some important ideas and events accessible. There are lots of people who would probably benefit a lot from watching it. I just wish it was a bit more interesting and exciting as an actual piece of entertainment.

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‘Do you have any idea what this film is about?’ I asked Olinka as we settled into our places in a slightly rowdy city-centre theatre (having turfed out the kids who had chosen to ignore the allocated seating system and taken our spots).

‘No.’

(One of the many things I like about Olinka is that she will happily go and watch just about anything without the slightest demur, which she claims is because she simply enjoys going to the cinema with me. Hence her desire for one more trip before I disappeared for a while.)

‘Well, it’s a sort of comedy thriller.’

I was gratified to see her face light up. ‘Well, that’s good, because everything we go to see together -‘

‘- you either approach or come away from in the belief that it’s a comedy thriller, yes, I know. So I thought it would be appropriate.’

The film in question was Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me, which – as the title suggests – ventures into fairly well-travelled territory as, well, not quite a spy spoof, but an espionage movie with some funny bits in it. This is one of those mid-budget genre movies for which expectations were originally quite modest, but following test screenings which apparently got ‘phenomenal’ reactions from the audience, it has been moved up to a more auspicious slot.

Mila Kunis plays Audrey, an ordinary shop assistant from Los Angeles with a slightly turbulent love life, having just been chucked by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux – if, like me, you’re one of the people who has trouble keeping track of these things, this is the dude who wrote Iron Man 2, not the prime minister of Canada). Luckily, perhaps, Mila’s slightly unhinged best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) is around to cheer her up.

But then, as the title might have led you to expect, Drew crashes back into Audrey’s life, revealing that he is in fact a CIA agent being pursued by some Bad People, and that he has hidden a top-secret spy McGuffin in the stuff he left at Audrey’s apartment! It turns out that it is Audrey’s civic duty to go to Europe and deliver the McGuffin to the Right People, or at least stop the Bad People from getting their hands on it. Morgan ends up going along as well, because it’s important to have your friends around you at moments like these…

Well, from that synopsis, you would have to say that it doesn’t sound tremendously like the premise for a hilarious comedy experience. And there is a sense in which this is true, for this is one of those films which tries its hardest to hop genres. In a way it very much reminded me of the Melinda McCarthy-Jason Statham vehicle Spy, in that the spy movie bits are played very nearly straight, with some quite graphic violence, while the funny bits could have wandered in from any commercial American comedy of recent years (which is to say that they are profane, possibly to the point of actual obscenity, and fixated on bodily fluids and so forth).

The main thing I took away from this was an increased realisation of just how formulaic American genre movies have become: with The Spy Who Dumped Me, it’s like a comedy and a thriller have been deconstructed and an entirely new film has been assembled from the key elements of both. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that this is a film with some tonal problems, as is often the case with this sort of thing – there’s something very odd about going from a moment where the main characters are beaten and tortured, into a wacky comedy bit within the same scene. Charade this is not.

On the other hand, I suppose the whole confection works as well as it does because the espionage genre (or the more escapist end of it, anyway) has become such an absurd proposition anyway. There’s a plot line in this film about the girls being hunted by a model-like eastern European gymnast turned gun-toting assassin, and while this is so outrageously silly it sounds like something out of a spoof, it’s also exactly the kind of plot element that turns up in Luc Besson movies or films like Atomic Blonde. I know I complain about the Bond franchise being stuck in ultra-glum mode at the moment, but I suppose there’s a sense in which they’re well out of the glossy, silly end of the genre. You could argue that, in a slightly clumsy way, films like Spy and The Spy Who Dumped Me are trying to fill the gap left by Bond in the way they combine action and humour in a wholly preposterous context.

As an actual thriller, The Spy Who Dumped Me is forgettable stuff, with a plot that barely hangs together: it’s also so stuffed with cliches that it must be intentional. As a comedy, however, it is rather more effective. It’s hard to shake the sense that Mila Kunis owes a significant element of her career to the fact she is, well, easy on the eye sockets, but she’s also quite an effective lead for this kind of light comedy. It is just unfortunate for her, then, that she has wound up sharing this film with Kate McKinnon, who is a ferociously talented comic performer.

The wacky best friend is a stock figure in this kind of film; not long ago I was fairly critical of the sub-par work done by Chelsea Handler in This Means War (a film which is almost like a weird mirror image of The Spy Who Dumped Me in some ways). Kate McKinnon is not sub-par in this film: in fact, she is so good that it almost unbalances the whole thing, as she is the person you are always wanting to see more of. She has an ability to steal scenes which almost defies belief, in addition to being able to deliver a killer one-liner and also do bizarre physical comedy. She was the funniest thing (possibly the only really funny thing) in the All-Female Ghostbusters remake; she is the funniest thing here, too. If she can find herself the right vehicle to star in in her own right, global stardom surely beckons.

I said about This Means War that it felt like a rom-com aimed at jocks, which presumably explains why it was such a lousy film. The very least that you can say about The Spy Who Dumped Me is that it feels like an action comedy genuinely made for a female audience. Naturally, this puts me out of the target audience in a fairly definitive way, but I still had a good time watching it. The supposed plot is negligible, but there’s McKinnon doing her thing, and there are also lots of very good jokes, many of them about the culture clash between the US and Europe. There’s also a typical adroit cameo from Gillian Anderson, whom it is always nice to see.

In the end we rather enjoyed this bona fide comedy thriller; we weren’t hooting and gasping and shrieking like many other members of the audience at our screening, but we had fun. It’s not what you could honestly call a great film, by any measure, nor does it really break new ground. But in terms of the odd little intersection of genres where it finds itself, it is an entertaining and quite likeable movie.

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