The material has promise, but the movie should be much better. That was my instant reaction to The Heartbreak Kid. The Farrelly Brothers' semi-remake of the Neil Simon-scripted 1972 film attempts to get back to the shock-gag approach that made them famous.

The problem is this is no longer who the Farrellys are as filmmakers. Shallow Hal and Stuck on You weren't big hits, but those movies carry a growth and liberalism most critics still haven't recognized. (The seemingly mainstream approach of the great Fever Pitch was the Farrellys' logical next step.) By subverting the gross-out subgenre they helped revive, these comedies only sounded mean-spirited on paper. Despite the squeamish topics, the only real viewer discomfort came from the presence of well-adjusted side characters. The leftfield irony of these films is how they exposed prejudice in audiences who considered themselves too humane to see them.

Every time The Heartbreak Kid includes a shot of ungroomed nudity and freakish bodily function, it stops dead. Eager to reclaim their comedy crowns, the Farrellys stoop to giving viewers what they think they want. It becomes a second-rate effort to reclaim the magic of There's Something About Mary.

Let's make this clear: The Heartbreak Kid is in a league above the vast majority of romantic and shock comedies. To lump it in a category with Good Luck Chuck is to be unobservant of how—even on a bad day—the Farrellys politically engage with genre conventions. Their continued interest in love stories between people whose physical or personality oddities are hurtles to relationships shows a thinking above the usual elitist Hollywood couplings.

For Eddie (Ben Stiller), a San Francisco sports-store owner, the stigma comes from being single at 40. A funny scene has him as the only grownup seated at a wedding singles table, while the kids guess about his sexuality. This adult longing for grownup experiences is also a subject of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited. But The Heartbreak Kid loses its comic angst by refocusing on Eddie's discovery that his wife is crazy. During their Mexican honeymoon, her sunburnt skin breaks into festering boils—her grotesque appearance an externalization of her monstrous personality.

There should be relief when Eddie finds his second chance with a genuinely good girl (Michelle Monaghan), except that it's necessary that we believe in Eddie's basic virtue. As the film progresses, he becomes more deceitful, losing the sympathy on which it depends. The Farrelly Brothers frustrate by over-thinking their own reputation, and then fumbling the formula.

Michael Clayton

Intrigue in Michael Clayton comes in waves. This means the directing debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy is compelling some of the time. The tale of New York law firm "fixer" Clayton (George Clooney), faced with new stress when his co-worker (Tom Wilkinson) threatens the outcome of a class action lawsuit with a major client, is handsomely lit and told with a posterity meant to evoke the in-vogue seriousness of American '70s filmmaking.

Gilroy doesn't view the outcome of greed as dependent on moral justice, but equates it with how well a hand is played in poker. That's a solid backbone, but the movie demands too much viewer assumption in making sense of the importance of supporting characters.

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