The Scary Movie franchise provides the same service American fast food chains do for tourists in foreign countries—it’s not especially rewarding, but the menu is easy to interpret, and you get what you’re accustomed to. Only prior experience with this series makes it satisfactory that Scary Movie 4 is just reasonably OK. A full half of the new film is a comic play on last summer’s War of the Worlds, although it makes a noble attempt at narrative coherence in assembling bits from The Village, The Grudge, Saw and Saw II. Non-scary movies Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain even get the junior-high-level assault. The thing is, Scary Movie 4 adheres to such market-tested formula, it’s more middle-of-the-road than any of the movies it wishes to skewer. Self-aware cameos by celebrities like Dr. Phil, and a failure to say anything about its targets (other than that they’d be sillier with random gay and fart jokes thrown in), doesn’t help its case. Between laughs, interest stems from only two things: the technical challenge of David Zucker attempting to mimic the look of other movies, and the committed sportsmanship of star Anna Faris. She’s mastered the oblivious comic tone Leslie Nielsen reached in the Naked Gun series. All she needs now is a comedy worth her effort.
Thank You for Smoking
“I don’t need to choose a side,” Marilyn Manson growled on Antichrist Superstar. His universal disdain is upheld by Jason Reitman’s feature Thank You for Smoking. The difference is Manson struck a chord by elevating nihilism to outrage, while Reitman is boredly apathetic. “Do you know what BS is?” tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) asks his young son. It’s a moment so shrewd and promising, it’s a letdown that the bulk of this satire is too safe to be as unsettling as its topic requires. But that isn’t to say its battles of corporate America don’t make for a good comedy. The light critique of ethics is focused mainly on Naylor. Played with snake-like charm by Eckhart, he is someone who has spent many hours justifying his career to himself. It’s explained that everybody needs to pay a mortgage—money fuels the morality of not just Naylor, but alcohol and firearm lobbyists (Maria Bello, David Koechner), a cancer-stricken former cigarette model (Sam Elliott), an opportunistic journalist (Katie Holmes) and a Senate chairman (William H. Macy). Reitman keeps things well-rounded and enjoyable, but the movie’s passion is limited by its unwillingness to upset anybody.
Friends with Money
A friend once claimed I dislike all movies about rich people. But that isn’t true. I only resent when privilege and class difference go unacknowledged. Friends with Money focuses on “the problems of rich people,” without being vapid. Nicole Holofcener’s movie treats its wealthy subjects with a critical discernment that still manages to be open-heartedly humane. Jennifer Aniston’s Olivia is down on her luck in love and work, making her the envy of none of her successful, deceptively happy friends (Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand). Resentment between comrades and couples is pulled off by the attentive character detail brought by Holofcener and her all-star cast. Some preoccupations of class stature don’t feel genuine. Holofcener at least observes these people with intimacy and affection.
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