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Posts Tagged ‘rom-com’

‘I think the title of this film is very off-putting,’ said a stranger behind me in the cinema queue, speaking to her son.

I turned round and frowned at her. ‘What, you don’t like France?’ I asked. (I can be very socially inappropriate sometimes.)

She did an actual double-take at me. ‘I didn’t mean Dunkirk. I was talking about The Big Sick.’

Ohhhh,’ I said, feigning sudden comprehension. Needless to say, we did not speak again.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when cinema screens are ram-jammed with coldly calculated kid’s film franchise extensions and noble British tommies shivering on a beach while trying to work out exactly what’s going on with the chronology. You’re really reliant on some high-quality counter-programming cutting through (if you want to have an even vaguely rewarding time at the cinema, anyway), and luckily just this has arrived in the form of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.

Or should that really be Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick? It’s hard to think of another recent film which is so obviously personal, for all that it is part of that most peculiar of genres, the romantic comedy.

No, seriously – what is the function of romantic comedies? I get the point of full-on comedies, for they are there to lift your spirits and make you laugh. Dramas are there to engage your intellect and emotions, action movies provide a basic adrenaline thrill, horror movies play with the darker end of the emotion spectrum, and proper science fiction stimulates the intellect.  And so on, and so on. But what’s going on with rom-coms? Who sits down to decide what film to watch and says ‘You know what, I wouldn’t mind feeling a bit more romantic tonight’? Either you’re feeling romantic or you’re not, and if you’re not feeling that way, nothing is less likely to kindle the flame of love than watching two beautiful young people play games for ninety minutes before inevitably ending up together. Part of me suspects this is all about reinforcing social and cultural norms, given that our society is largely glued together by the notion of romantic love, and that going to see a rom-com provides a sense of affirmation, that there is some objective truth to this notion. (Which, you know, there may be.)

Some of this kind of gets obliquely addressed in The Big Sick. Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani plays Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani (it will be interesting to see if his performance wins any acting awards), who meets therapist-in-training Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his gigs. Neither of them is looking for a serious commitment, and yet there is a spark between them, and a relationship develops almost without either of them willing it.

However, in Kumail’s case, the aversion to commitment is basically because his family are still deeply attached to the tradition of arranged marriages, with a seemingly-endless string of unattached Pakistani women happening to drop by at family meals. Kumail doesn’t want to get kicked out of the family for admitting to a relationship with a white non-Muslim girl, and this inevitably causes tension between Emily and him.

And then something happens. Does this constitute a spoiler or not? I can’t remember if it’s in the trailer or not, but it’s in all the promotional material that I’ve seen, and the film is called The Big Sick, after all. Emily is admitted to hospital after what seems to be a bout of flu causes her to faint, and ends up in a coma. Despite their relationship being in limbo, Kumail finds himself hanging around the hospital and bonding with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

This is a rom-com, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that this crisis forces Kumail to think hard about what is really important to him – is it keeping his parents happy, even if that means living a lie, or spending his life with Emily? The charm and the achievement of the film, which is the same as that of any watchable romantic comedy, is that you are engaged and entertained even as the story proceeds towards a throroughly predictable conclusion (Nanjiani and the real-life Emily have been married for nearly a decade and co-wrote the script together).

As I get older and become more aware of my neuro-atypicality, trips to watch rom-coms increasingly feel like anthropological expeditions to observe the peculiar behaviour of remote tribespeople, and yet I found The Big Sick to be rather delightful and almost completely winning. Much of the credit for this must go to Nanjiani himself, who gives a brilliant deadpan comedy performance. It probably helped my connection to him that Nanjiani is no stranger to the less-mainstream areas of culture himself, being a noted X Files fan (which resulted in him actually appearing in the good episode of season 10). That said, at various points in the film, Kumail breaks off from watching Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr Phibes to engage in intimate relations, which I can’t imagine ever doing myself, so this is obviously a relative thing. (What kind of person takes a girl home and then suggests they watch an old Vincent Price horror movie together, anyway? Ahem.)

Then again, this is a film with a strong ensemble performance, from the various members of Kumail and Emily’s extended families (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play Kumail’s parents), and also the various other up-and-coming comedians Kumail hangs around with. The film never puts a foot wrong when it comes to its frequent shifts in tone, and never feels self-consciously heavy when dealing with ostensibly serious topics like ‘the Pakistani-American experience’ or ‘coping with a loved one in a coma’ (the movie resists making the obvious Smiths reference).

In fact, although on paper the movie looks like an inventive mash-up of the Cross-Cultural Romance (with Various Attendant Issues) and Medical Crisis Romance story-forms, it doesn’t really feel like either of them – it feels heartfelt and genuine rather than forced and formulaic. None of the major characters is wholly flawless or an irredeemably bad person – they’re just recognisable people, with rather messy lives they are doing their best to cope with.

I laughed a lot all the way through The Big Sick (there was also, admittedly, a sharp intake of breath at the point where someone tells Kumail that ‘The X Files is not a good show’) – but it also snuck in some genuinely moving moments, which took me entirely by surprise. Normally I would be inclined to speculate as to extent to which real life has been rewritten to suit the demands of a standard three-act dramatic structure, but the film is so funny, so warm, and so sincerely truthful that I’m inclined to give it a pass on this. This is a charming and immensely likeable film, however you feel about rom-coms in general; highly recommended.

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Here’s the thing about me and the Bridget Jones movies: it’s never quite as simple as the usual ‘want to see a movie > see the movie’ progression. One day in 2001, my sister, her husband, and I wanted to go and see a movie to cheer ourselves up (we had just been to the funeral of a much-loved relative). I proposed Bridget Jones’s Diary, she said okay, he vetoed it on the grounds that it was ‘a chick flick’. So we ended up going to see Spy Kids instead, most of which my sister ended up sleeping through.

Then three years later the sequel came along, which I confess I was not much interested by, until word came along that this film – for some reason which is utterly beyond me – would be preceded by the first showing of the first trailer for Revenge of the Sith. Friends who know me only in my jaded current incarnation may have a hard time believing it, but this was a Big Deal at the time, and in my usual deftly Machiavellian way I talked my family into going to see it (the Bridget Jones sequel, obviously; I kept quiet about the last Star Wars film being in any way involved).

And that seemed very much to be it, although there is of course no statute of limitations on doing sequels (increasingly it feels like there really should be, though, don’t you think?). Now here comes Bridget Jones’s Baby, which I got talked into going to see (it was not a particularly hard sell as I’ll watch almost anything), and…

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Well, look. Fifteen years is a long time in movies; the life expectancy of a career can be very much less than that (just ask Chris O’Donnell or Alicia Silverstone). In 2001 Renee Zellweger was an up-and-comer and Miramax Pictures were a force to be reckoned with – these days, I imagine most people would struggle to name a recent vehicle for the actress and since the Weinsteins sold the company, Miramax have been making rather fewer waves of late. In short, this film feels a bit like it’s been made simply because it’s likely to be a commercial success for a bunch of people whose careers really need one right now.

The film is directed by Sharon Maguire. The laws of sequeldom demand that nothing has substantially changed for the principals in the 14 years since the last movie, so Bridget Jones (Zellweger) is still working in TV news, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) is still a high-powered barrister, and so on (the plot also requires them to have split up, although of course they still have deep feelings for one another). What, you may be wondering, of Hugh Grant’s character? Well, as Grant has opted not to come back (A Wise Career Move? Discuss), his character is missing, presumed dead – clearly they are still hoping he may be talked into appearing in Bridget Jones’s Menopause or Bridget Jones’s Hip Replacement or whatever the next sequel is called.

Anyway, having just turned 43 (all I will say on this subject is that Renee Zellweger herself is somewhat older) and feeling somewhat forlorn, Bridget allows herself to be talked into going to the Glastonbury Festival (cue mud-splattered slapstick pratfalls) where she ends up having an only moderately contrived one-nighter with passing billionaire Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey). Then, a few days later, she bumps into Darcy again at a christening, and when I say ‘bumps into’, I mean it in the Biblical sense.

Well, as the film is entitled Bridget Jones’s Baby, I’m sure you don’t need me to draw you a diagram as to what happens next. Cue lots of farcical misunderstandings and chaos as Bridget attempts to determine who the father is, while trying to keep the two men from finding out about each other. Zellweger’s main achievement is still her English accent. Emma Thompson appears as Bridget’s obstetrician, and gets most of the best lines, but then this should not come as a major surprise seeing as she co-wrote the script.

And in the end I suppose it all passes the time agreeably enough, though it did feel to me to be a bit too long. There are some very funny set pieces, mostly of the low-comedy variety, although they strike an unexpected vein of comedy gold quite early on when Zellweger starts lip-synching to House of Pain. This is, essentially, very much a standard British mainstream rom-com in the modern idiom, which translates as aspirational lifestyles, just a bit too much graphic sexual talk for you to feel comfortable watching it with your parents, upbeat pop-songs, and a slightly bemusing certainty that people shouting the F-word a lot is still inherently funny. (I mean, it was when Hugh Grant did it in 1994, but nowadays?)

The problem I had with the film is that its central idea just isn’t that funny or easy to identify with – the first two were essentially about whether your life partner should be the exciting, fun, unreliable one, or the dull but solid one (Colin Firth’s main achievement in these films is to make ‘dull but solid’ seem so attractive). Many people have had that kind of dilemma, I would imagine, but the situation of unexpectedly becoming a geriatric single mother while being uncertain who the father is is probably less universal.

Does Grant’s absence hurt the film? I would have to say so, partly because parachuting in a new main character three films in is never very successful, but also because Hugh Grant is simply an extremely accomplished light comedy actor of exactly the kind this sort of film needs. Dempsey isn’t actually bad, but he’s just a bit dull. As a result, Colin Firth really has to take on the job of lifting the film, and to be fair he does a better than decent job of it – but, and this may just be a personal thing, he seemed to me to be surrounded by a strangely mournful aura, as though every fibre of his being had grown accustomed to being a serious leading actor and no longer wanted to just be the male lead in a British rom-com.

The central thrust of the story is therefore just not that funny and the film resorts to a sort of lowest-common-denominator sentimentalism instead; all the bits which really made me laugh were rather peripheral. As I said, a lot of this is very broad comedy, and the rest is an extremely mixed bag – there are some desperate-feeling jokes where people who are middle-aged and feeling it make fun of young people and their beards, a peculiar not-very-topical subplot about Darcy representing a band clearly meant to be Pussy Riot (then again, this film has apparently been in development for six or seven years), and even a gag about Margaret Thatcher which would have been cutting-edge in 1989 (I’m sure it hasn’t been in development for that long).

For me it all felt rather contrived and perhaps a little bit desperate; I mean, I’m not saying I didn’t laugh, but I did sometimes feel like I was perhaps doing the film a favour by doing so. But your mileage may vary; most of the audience at the screening I went to were rolling in the aisles pretty consistently all the way through, and the person whose idea it was that we saw it said she couldn’t remember the last time she had such a good time at the cinema (what, better than West Side Story?, I rather grumpily wanted to say). I still can’t help thinking that this is undemanding stuff which knows its audience and will probably do quite well as a result. But God knows what the next one will be like.

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Frequent visitors may have noticed that I routinely refer to romantic comedy films as belonging to ‘the world’s most predictable genre’, and I occasionally wonder if I’m not doing them a disservice there. Sure, the outcome is never in doubt, but the same is true of virtually every other genre: in fact, you could probably argue that the very notion of genre carries with it a certain degree of predictability.

It may be I’m just letting my own personal prejudices show. Still, I try to keep an open mind, so I went to see Ben Palmer’s new film Man Up, mainly on the strength of a good trailer and the presence of the usually-reliable Simon Pegg. Despite being top-billed in a film which has, shall we say, an androcentric idiom as its title, Pegg is not playing the lead here: that duty goes to Lake Bell. Why is a film about a woman called Man Up? Join me on a strange journey where not all words mean what you might expect them to.

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Bell plays Nancy, a thirtysomething whose disastrous relationship history has left her on the verge of giving up on romance entirely. However, a chance encounter on a train and a misplaced self-help book result in her accidentally purloining a total stranger’s blind date. He is Jack (Pegg), and the two of them hit it off so well that Nancy can’t quite bring herself to own up to the misunderstanding, even though she is technically supposed to be going to her parents’ wedding anniversary party.

Needless to say, all does not go to plan, and unfortunate encounters with obsessive old school friends and embittered ex-spouses lead to more than a few ups and downs in the course of their evening together. It transpires that neither Nancy nor Jack is quite whom they are presenting themselves to be, but should they let that get in the way of the connection they so obviously share?

That’s a rhetorical question, obviously. On paper Man Up does look very much like yet another crack at the same rom-com formula which British production companies have been diligently hammering out variations on for over twenty years now: an appealing, largely metropolitan setting, imported American female lead, supporting cast of well-known faces, many of them off TV (Rory Kinnear, Sharon Horgan, Ken Stott and Harriet Walter do most of the heavy lifting here), a climactic dash to deliver an impassioned emotional declaration, and so on.

This is by no means a perfect movie, but it has more about it than just a tick-list of required components. For one thing, Lake Bell may be American, but not least of her achievements in Man Up is the way she employs an immaculate English accent. I must confess I’d never heard of Bell before this movie, but she seems to be one of those annoyingly talented people who’s good at everything. We are, of course, required to believe that a stunning ex-model should have severe self-doubt and finding-a-boyfriend issues, but this is practically a genre trope, and Bell puts across Nancy’s vulnerability well. I expect Bell has the kind of looks which are routinely described as ‘striking’ or ‘strong’: quite what this is code for I’m not entirely sure, but she is an extremely beautiful woman by any rational standard.

Bell also manages to share the screen with Simon Pegg for most of the movie without finding herself being acted off it, which is also no mean feat. I would say Pegg is part of an honourable tradition of British performers who aren’t just great comedians, but great actors too: all of Pegg’s best roles address the emotional frailty and humanity of his characters, an element he plays absolutely straight, and Man Up continues this. One of the appealing things about the film is that both lead characters are pretty messed up, spending as much time squabbling as they do being, you know, actually romantic. Like all the best films of this kind, it doesn’t operate solely in terms of chocolate-box romance, but explores darker territory as well. As a result, it genuinely earns its climactic emotional pay-off between the two leads. I would say that Pegg hasn’t has such an effective foil since Jessica Stevenson in Spaced, but that might just make Nick Frost annoyed with me (not to mention Tom Cruise).

On the other hand, if Man Up is honestly a ‘romance’, that’s another word the meaning of which seems to have shifted a bit of late. Again, I expect the producers would describe it as ‘frank’ or ‘authentically contemporary’, but what this actually means is that various characters spend a slightly surprising amount of time discussing oral sex in a reasonably detailed way. I couldn’t help thinking back to Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Hugh Grant’s saturation F-bombing in the opening sequence felt genuinely shocking – it now feels like the product of a different and much more innocent world.

But hey ho. Such is the world in which we live. As well as the above, Man Up also has an undeniable ingenious and sharp script with some genuinely witty dialogue, and it manages to juggle all the required genre elements with sufficient skill that they at least feel relatively fresh. Parts of the plot do strain credulity a bit – Rory Kinnear’s character in particular has an absurd, cartoonish quality –  and there is at least one over-laboured sight gag, but I laughed a lot all the way through and found myself genuinely wanting the two leads to get together. That, if nothing else, is the sign of a successful film, in this genre at least.

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Nice to see a sizeable turnout for the latest vintage showing which I went to at the Phoenix in Jericho; almost but not quite cheery enough to offset the news that the current poll on whether or not to retain the trial policy of assigning designated seating at weekends is currently running at more than 50% in favour. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Phoenix is still my favourite cinema in the Oxford area, but it seems like every refurbishment and renovation they’ve had in the last year has had the effect of making it less characterful, less quirky, less welcoming and less like an actual independent cinema, and the switch to allocated seats is only another part of this. Then again, the whole world seems to have accelerated its drift towards a state of consisting entirely of dismayingly irritating pointless faff, so I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised.

Hey ho. At times like this a joyous movie from yesteryear is more cherishable than ever, and on this occasion it was George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, first released at Christmas 1940, long since ascended to timeless classic status. Simply naming the main players – Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart – is almost enough to give you a warm glow inside, and you almost wonder if any film starring these three together can be good enough to live up to expectations.

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Needless to say, the tale unfolds amongst the upper echelons of east coast society. The society wedding of the year looms, with the nuptuals of Tracy Lord (Hepburn) as she marries aspiring politician George Kittredge (John Howard). She was previously married to whiskey-loving shipwright CK Dexter Haven (Grant), and he is still nursing something of a grudge against her. To this end, he agrees to participate in a bit of skulduggery where two reporters are infiltrated into the wedding party, on the pretext that they are old friends of the bride’s absent brother. (Yes, this is a slightly complex set-up, but films back then were prepared to credit the audience with a little intelligence.) The reporters are Mike Connor (Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey).

Connor is initially dismissive of the whole proceedings, affecting to despise people whom he sees as the idle rich, and wanting to get back to being a writer of substance. Nevertheless he find himself making an undeniable connection with the bride to be, somewhat to the chagrin of his own girlfriend, Liz. Meanwhile, Dexter realises that his own feelings towards his ex-wife are not entirely unambiguous, and nor are hers for him. She’s bound to marry someone in the end – but whom?

Not everything in the past is quite what you might expect it to have been. These days, for example, everyone knows that Katherine Hepburn is a bona fide Hollywood legend, unassailable star of peerless popular classics like Bringing Up Baby. Except… at the time, Bringing Up Baby was just one of a string of flops, leading to Hepburn acquiring a reputation as box-office poison, and finding it very hard to get roles. Her response was to pay someone to write a play for her to star in, and then retain the film rights in order to guarantee she would get the lead role when it was adapted for the screen.

This was as shrewd an investment as one might expect from a legendarily smart cookie like Hepburn, and it may explain why there are many scenes of the male characters singing her praises most fulsomely and at great length – and, quite possibly, also why the other characters spend much of their time talking about her even when she isn’t on screen. Not to suggest that this is entirely a vanity project: everyone gets a chance to shine, and Hepburn’s character is as flawed as any of the others.

The opening sequence of the film promises an effervescent farce, with the reporters attempting to pass themselves off as house guests, not realising the family are fully aware of their mission and intent on feeding them an entirely false impression, while – for reasons too bizarre to go into – Tracy Lord’s father and uncle are obliged to impersonate each other. This is as smart and genuinely funny a comedy as anything I’ve seen in the last six months.

However, soon the film becomes more measured and thoughtful, as the deeper personalities of the main characters become more apparent. This really is a romantic comedy, albeit a fairly peculiar one by modern standards: the modern rom-com is almost certainly as predictable a film genre as any in history, but here, for the uninitiated, it is very difficult to predict just who it is that Katherine Hepburn is going to end up marrying in the final reel. Comparisons with the modern rom-com are perhaps a little unwise, as this apparently is one of the defining examples of a very 1930s subgenre entitled the comedy of remarriage, a product of extremely strict regulations curtailing the use of extramarital shenanigans as a plot driver – hence the device where Grant and Hepburn are conveniently divorced after a very brief opening scene, thus leaving her technically available to flirt with all the other male characters.

There are a few other ways in which this is clearly a film of a different era: some jolly jokes about smallpox and domestic abuse strike a somewhat startling note, for instance. But while the film’s sensibility is that of another era, its themes are universal: what it means to be a good person, what someone’s responsibilities are to their loved ones, snobbery, privacy, the thin line between love and hate, and so on. The script alone would be a lovely thing, even if it weren’t brought to life by three of the greatest performers in screen history – to say nothing of some very striking supporting turns, particularly Ruth Hussey’s rather wistful performance as Stewart’s long-suffering girlfriend.

To be honest, it’s very difficult to identify the particular elements which make The Philadelphia Story such an outstanding film, because it genuinely doesn’t seem to have a weak link: every element of it exudes class, polish, wit, and charm. It always seems a bit fatuous to me when someone says they don’t make them like they used to – but then again, as this film shows, they really don’t.

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A sure sign that Autumn is close upon us comes in the form of the cinema shedding its rugged, manly, summer masculinity of tone and becoming altogether rather more feminine in outlook. Well, possibly I exaggerate a bit, but I can’t imagine all those sprawling and bombastic superhero blockbusters being put together with ladies in mind. Romantic comedies of the ilk of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Ruby Sparks are a different beast entirely. Well, this is being marketed as a romantic comedy, but I suspect this is simply the least inaccurate category into which to pop this slightly strange film.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer whose career has been hobbled by his writing a brilliant and hugely successful novel at a very young age. Now he is in thrall to the tyranny of the blank page, seriously struggling with that difficult second novel (the film does bang into that old problem of how to depict somebody writing in a cinematic way – failing to find an answer, we just see Dano’s hands and eyes as he bashes away at his keyboard – presumably for aesthetic reasons, Calvin is the only professional writer in the world still using a manual typewriter). He is finding life quite trying despite the well-meaning assistance of his family and agent. However, as a result of advice given by his analyst (Elliott Gould), Calvin finds himself beset by strange and vivid dreams, all concerning a free-spirited Bohemian young woman (oh, zzzzz), whom he christens Ruby Sparks. She is played by Zoe Kazan.

Calvin’s dreams of Ruby provoke a sudden and welcome burst of creativity, but this is accompanied by odd events around the house: strange and rather intimate feminine items start popping up all over the place, to the bemusement of Calvin and his friends. Then, after a particularly intense writing session, our hero awakes one morning to find the previously completely fictitious Ruby in the house with him, apparently completely corporeal and utterly convinced she is his girlfriend…

Well, it’s a novel opening for a film, I’ll grant you that. I suppose it sounds like the stuff of a wacky, whimsical little comedy film, very mainstream, and quite probably starring someone like Vince Vaughn. But it isn’t. Instead, to begin with it comes across very much like an off-day Woody Allen script brought to the screen by Miranda July. I am aware I am throwing in an obscure cultural reference or two in there, but that’s the territory I’m afraid – the biggest surprise about this film is that it’s got a fairly major mainstream release, because it has ‘indie arthouse cult rave’ written all over it.

This is the kind of film where the central characters float around with no visible means of support, basically surveying their own navels. There are lots of scenes where they agonise at length over their tangled psyches and personal lives with their much more conventional friends and family while having barbecues or playing sports, all in a very naturalistic yet terribly articulate manner. Once you strip out the central fantasy conceit, this is really what you’ve got here.

The previous film from these directors, Little Miss Sunshine, was apparently very well-received, which may explain the presence in this film of a remarkably strong supporting cast – as well as Gould, there is Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, and a particularly good Steve Coogan. Chris Messina also does a good job of wringing a few laughs out of the script. But it’s hampered by incredibly mannered and self-conscious performances by Dano and Kazan: the film soon turns into an examination of a romance between two of the most irritating people you will ever see.

That said, I suppose Zoe Kazan is reasonably good in a fairly demanding part – on the other hand (and given the nature of the story this is sort of ironic) she wrote the script herself, in addition to exec producing the thing, so she must take her share of the blame for a film which I found a rather trying experience.

This film doesn’t really have the ideas to justify its running time and as a result it does feel like it’s dragging on horribly in quite a few places. The poster for it outside the coffeeshop listed the running time as 164 minutes rather than 104, and as a result quite early on I was dismally checking my watch and trying to work out how they were possibly going to sustain the story for that long. Thankfully, they don’t even try: another hour of this film and I might well have run amok in the cinema.

And, quite apart from the general tone and style of the thing, this film is palpably very indie-ish in the way it doesn’t seem to want to settle down and be one particular thing. Okay, so there’s a central romance going on – but there’s also clearly some sort of statement about the creative process and that oft-mentioned moment when your characters achieve a life of their own being made.

(My characters, when I write fiction, show no willingness to do this, which may be yet another reason why my fiction is generally so lousy. Then again, as I’m planning another go at NaNoWriMo this year and the only book idea to achieve any traction in my head is an HP Lovecraft pastiche of such comprehensive unpleasantness I’m slightly repelled to consider it myself, perhaps this is no bad thing. Where were we…?)

Oh, yes: and then beyond this Ruby Sparks tries to get into stuff about the nature of relationships and the control dynamics within them. There’s some quite dark material here. What the film never really manages to be, unfortunately, is either consistently funny or romantically involving. It always seems a bit overwhelmed by its own irky-quirky BoHo indie conceit and style, and constantly a little too pleased with itself. The result is a movie that’s being marketed as a romantic comedy, but didn’t really make me laugh and actively put me off the notion of having a relationship. It’s a competent realisation of a rather unsatisfying script – a distinctive film, but also a deeply peculiar and somewhat annoying one.

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Now, I’ve nothing against low-budget genre movies, especially British ones, and I’m always prepared to give one a chance. But the sad fact remains that sitting down to watch one is on some level the equivalent of loading a single bullet into your revolver, spinning the chamber and putting the barrel to your forehead. If it’s meant to be a comedy, you may as well stick a few more bullets in there from the start.

Possibly I am exaggerating – watching a bad movie is not quite the same thing as suicide, although particularly grim ones might lead one to momentarily contemplate it. Nevertheless this is the kind of unpromising terrain which we enter when we consider Gareth Carrivick’s 2009 low-budget British SF comedy Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel. Many of the films of this type seem to have been made with one eye on Shaun of the Dead, but the shadow of Wright and Pegg’s classic hangs over this film more than most.

Chris O’Dowd plays Ray, Dean Lennox Kelly plays Greg, and Marc Wootton plays Toby, three friends who work at a theme park. Ray and Toby are geeks, Greg is a lad. One night they go down the pub where they bicker as usual – but when Ray goes to the bar he meets Cassie (Anna Faris), a woman claiming to be a time traveller from the future, who expresses delight at meeting someone as destined to be famous as Ray one day will be.

He is cynical, to say nothing of his friends’ reaction when he returns to them and reports what has happened. However, things take a decidedly peculiar turn when Greg discovers a hole in the space-time continuum located in the pub toilets: every time they go into the gents, they emerge at a different point in history. Can they get back to their point of origin before a significant juncture in the web of destiny known as Last Orders?

If Shaun of the Dead is a George Romero movie set in the London suburbs, Attack the Block is an alien invasion horror film set on a sink estate, and Storage 24 is Alien in a self-storage warehouse, then Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is… well, one thing you have to say for this film is that it is original in cinematic terms. The time-travel plot is impressively convoluted and recursive and, up to a point, holds together pretty well, and if I was going to indulge in a lazy comparison – oh, go on, indulge me – I’d say it was an attempt at a comedy version of Primeval set in a pub toilet.

This is obviously a very low-budget movie and this appears to have constrained the production accordingly – the vast majority of it occurs on the same handful of sets and your actual proper visual effects are used very sparingly indeed (probably just as well, as the CGI used in a couple of places is frankly dodgy). This does seem to have spurred the creativity of the film-makers, although they do seem to have fallen into the trap of trying to make three films at the same time – this doesn’t just want to be a SF romp, there are moments aspiring to be proper drama and a somewhat putrid rom-com element too.

Nevertheless, once the time travel stuff got going the story was inventive and pacy enough to keep me interested – this was quite an achievement given the depths of appalled horror the opening sequence instilled in me, for it genuinely led me to anticipate another disaster on the scale of Lesbian Vampire Killers or Sex Lives of the Potato Men. It opens with a main character acting like a moronic tool for no reason other than to facilitate a deeply unfunny gag, then goes on to introduce us to three mates who – based on their personalities and interests – appear to have no reason to be actual friends.

We see them coming out of a cinema, whereupon one of them cries ‘That was a shit movie!’ – at which point I thought the whole undertaking was displaying a dangerous lack of self-awareness. There follows a section where the film appears to attempt to establish its SF credentials – or, to put it another way, suck up to the fanboy audience. There are pat references to Doctor Who, Firefly, role-playing games and so on, but it all feels a bit crowbarred in rather than genuinely felt – and the presence of Greg, who cheerfully mocks all of these things, just suggests the film is trying to cover its bets by appealing to the geek and mundane audiences simultaneously.

I’m not sure either of them will have really enjoyed this film; I thought it was okay but certainly no better than that. There are a handful of reasonable jokes and the performances of the leads are decent (bussed-in American and expat Canadian stars Faris and Meredith MacNeill are a bit more variable), but the internal logic of the story is never quite as rigorous as it really needs to be. The originality and resourcefulness of the time travel plotline makes this film worth watching if you like that sort of thing, but there’s not much else here for a more mainstream audience.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 1st 2003:

Well, look, here’s the deal: I was staring New Year down the throat, sitting there comfortably on a grand total of 42 cinema visits in the whole of 2002 – an auspicious total for a Hootoo Post contributor, I think you’ll agree. And I was happy with that. But then Mpea and Spea came to stay and we thought we’d go out and see a movie (as opposed to sitting watching Speed for the Nth time). Following the usual tough negotiations we decided to risk going to see a new movie rather than watching Bond or the Towers again.

So we went to see Andy Tennant’s Sweet Home Alabama. It should really be called Reese Witherspoon’s Sweet Home Alabama, despite Tennant’s dubious use of the possessive credit at the top of the movie. This isn’t so much a star vehicle for Witherspoon as something that’s been vacuum-moulded around her. Without her there wouldn’t be a movie (something the bus stop posters for this film appear to have owned up to, inasmuch as they consist solely of a grinning headshot of the star).

Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, an up-and-coming New York fashion designer who manages to be a successful go-getter while remaining a sweet and loveable person (the film earnestly tries to impress this upon you). Her loveability is confirmed as she is proposed to by posh bloke Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), a Kennedyish type whose mother (Candice Bergen) is the mayor (that she is the bad guy and that this movie is near-total fantasy are both confirmed by the fact that we’re expected to believe that she, the elected mayor of New York, is a Democrat). Mel accepts the proposal but then realises she’ll have to return home to her white-trash Alabama roots for the first time in seven years – because she still has a husband (Josh Lucas) back there she has to divorce. But has she completely put her past behind her? Or will the old feelings bubble to the surface?

Well, all together now – of course she hasn’t and of course they will. This much should be obvious, because we are in rom-com chick-flick territory where happy endings all round are marginally more certain than the rising of the sun each new day. The real question with this kind of film is, does it lift the spirits, bring forth gaiety and – most importantly – make you laugh?

Now I’m the first to agree that as a curmudgeonly old git I’m not the intended audience for this kind of film, so the fact I found it only sporadically amusing and not at all emotionally involving may not count for much. But I noticed that even in a packed theatre, no-one else was laughing much for the first hour of this film (emotional involvement is of course trickier to judge). As a romantic comedy this isn’t very romantic or very funny, and as a drama it’s too frothy and predictable to work, too often mistaking sentimentality for sentiment. (Not that there aren’t involving moments – one of the film’s big emotional scenes opens with Witherspoon sobbing at the grave of her dead dog, and true enough it would take a heart of stone not to laugh.)

This kind of culture-clash wedding-preparation schtick was done much more successfully earlier this year in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which worked mainly because the ethnic stereotypes in question were presented vibrantly and affectionately. Sweet Home Alabama presents both urban New York and the wilds of Alabama in an equally colourless way (presumably not wanting to alienate its potential audience in either constituency). The same goes for the two male leads, both of whom appear to have been selected for their minimal charisma and screen presence (presumably so as not to risk upstaging Reese Witherspoon). Quite frankly I couldn’t have cared less as to whether she ended up with the spineless socialite or the faintly-creepy backwoods obsessive, and caught myself thinking back fondly to Colin Firth and Hugh Grant in similar roles in Bridget Jones’ Diary.

A star vehicle needs more than just a star to succeed. Witherspoon does her formidable, spunky, perky best, but the rest of the film is too bland and timid. Yes, there are more laughs once Mel’s fiance arrives in Alabama, but it’s really too little too late – the end result is a film that lacks the warmth and charm it needs to hide how mechanical and obvious and trite it really is. For a much better film along vaguely similar lines, watch Grosse Point Blank instead. Awix nixes this hick pic.

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