Thursday, April 30, 2015

Lost David O. Russell Film Surfaces As "Accidental Love" And Underwhelms

Those expressions sum up my response to Nailed Accidental Love.
Nowadays, David O. Russell is big shit in Hollywood. Releasing three straight films that collectively amass 25 Oscar nominations and $375 million will do that for you.

It's a pretty impressive turnaround when you consider where the writer-director's career was when Mark Wahlberg decided to bring him aboard The Fighter six years ago. At that time, he'd released just one film in the past 10 years (2004's poorly received I Heart Huckabees) and had garnered quite a reputation for his on-set feuds with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin.

Perceived as a bullying hothead, Russell's options became limited after the financial failure of Huckabees (which, to be fair, is a pretty fun, underrated flick). He was clearly talented -- Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings were proof of that -- but his films didn't make money and he was a pain in the ass.

It was in this time-frame that Russell began working on Nailed, a pre-Obamacare satire about public healthcare staring Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal. The production included another on-set disagreement with an actor, this time the legendary James Cann who actually left mid-production due to "creative differences." The film also had some dubious financiers and shut down production multiple times in 2008, ultimately halting permanently before filming was complete.

For years, Nailed held a certain allure, the lost Russell picture that never was. The filmmaker officially washed his hands of the film in 2010, and yet you'd still hear about it every now and then with word of a test screening here or submission to the MPAA there. Hoping to recoup something on their investment, the producers threw together an unapproved cut and got the film released on video earlier this year, albeit with Russell's name off the film and a title change to Accidental Love.

As evidenced by my effusive praise for American Hustle, I'm a big fan of Russell's work, so I rented Accidental Love the other day mostly as a form of completism. Given all I'd read over the years, I expected a half-assed, maybe even incoherent curiosity, but I also hoped to catch glimmers of inspiration hiding in the margins.

Unfortunately, there's really nothing to see here. Although I do think there's something to the notion that Russell's films really find their footing in the editing bay, the raw product here seems generally complete and it's all so goddamn pedestrian that it's hard to imagine how any sort of decent film could've been assembled from any of this.

I never expected the film to compare to Russell's other works, but the whole thing -- the writing, the character development, the pacing, the musical cues, the cinematography -- is on par with one of those straight-to-video National Lampoon comedies. It's that bad.

The film focuses on Alice (Biel), a waitress who is shot in the head by a nail gun, but is unable to have the nail removed because she doesn't have insurance. As a result of her newfound emotional volatility, wild thoughts and random diversions into speaking Portuguese, Alice is fired from her job and dumped by her plays-the-odds fiancé (a best-in-show James Marsden).

In an effort to have the nail removed and get her life back, Alice journeys to Washington, D.C. with two bizarrely injured sidekicks (Kurt Fuller, Tracy Morgan) in the hopes of convincing their weasley Congressman (Gyllenhaal) to push a bill that would provide health coverage for people with accidental injuries. Zany political bickering, slapstick hijinks and an unconvincing love triangle ensue.

The film is meant to be a farce with increasing levels of absurdity, but it feels like a slapdash piece of work put together by a snarky teenager. It's tempting to blame that on the unfinished nature of the endeavor, but given how much material is actually here, it's much more likely to be a script problem. The film aspires to the tone of something like 30 Rock, but despite the presence of Morgan (who seems like he's acting in another movie altogether), the film doesn't even come close to having that kind of comedic bite or control.

Watching the film, I was reminded of Mike Judge's Idiocracy, another zany satire that's not nearly as funny as it could be. But, the key difference is that Idiocracy works, while Accidental Love just doesn't. A lot of that has to do with how the films treat their topics and characters -- Idiocracy corrals that dumb sharpness that Judge is a master of, and, for all it's lunacy, makes its characters feel organic to the plot and somewhat dimensional. Meanwhile Accidental Love feels like it's not even trying at all, with whole characters, scenes and arcs seemingly grafted onto the film because, well, why not?

In my review of American Hustle, I wrote abut Russell's general approach, saying "Russell is playing connect the dots but refusing to draw straight lines. He’s working within the confines of convention, and yet his script is so zippy and filled with grace notes that there’s a real specificity to what he’s doing. It’s rare that Russell tries to wow with some story innovation; instead, he concentrates on character, putting effort not on this or that plot mechanic but on a palpable sense of depth, heart and humanity."

Unfortunately with Accidental Love, it seems the dots were randomly placed and that the broadness of the project was so unwieldy that Russell just decided to scribble on top of the whole thing. D

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Disney Takes a Step Backward with the Nevertheless Adorable "Big Hero 6"

Big Hero 6 is about a kid coping with the death of his brother via
the help of a robot said brother invented.
In my review of Frozen, I mentioned how far Walt Disney Animation Studios has come over the last decade, steadily improving its output to the point that it arguably has become the premier animation house in Hollywood.

I still feel that way after having seen Big Hero 6, but on the heels of the studio's recent successes, Disney's adaptation of this obscure Marvel property is a bit of a let down. It's solid and occasionally inspired entertainment, but it's a lot more Meet the Robinsons or Bolt than Wreck-It Ralph or Frozen.

That's totally fine -- not every attempt needs to be a classic, which is something I've discussed at length in my coverage of Pixar's output over the years. I'd never argue Big Hero 6 is a bad film -- it's a cute, eye-popping heart-tugger that deftly addresses coping with tragedy and features an absolutely adorable break-out character (that would be Baymax, the inflatable health care robot voiced by 30 Rock's Scott Adsit).

But it's also pretty pedestrian in the way it plays like a vastly inferior version of the similar Guardians of the Galaxy (my review here). Both are obscure Marvel properties focused on a hero with a tragic past who leads a group a misfits in battling a vengeance-seeking villain. But whereas Guardians had a lot of flavor and personality, especially among it's deep supporting cast, Big Hero 6 is woefully undefined. The four teens who make up the back two-thirds of the superhero team are basically window dressing and the villain's descent into callous violence carries little weight and makes even less sense.

Thank goodness then for Baymax, who's as cute as Wall-E or Groot, but about 10 times more huggable and 100 times more articulate. His awkward physicality and matter-of-fact pronouncements are the undisputed highlight of the film, which is ultimately a solid, if unspectacular, offering from Disney. B

This is adorable.