April 8, 2008

Film Reviews for 4-9 (Snow Angels, Leatherheads)

‘Snow Angels’ is hard to swallow(Starring Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Thirlby, Amy Sedaris and Michael Angarano. Directed by David Gordon Green. Rated R; 1:46. LEO Report Card: C+)David Gordon Green scored a minor success a few years back with “All the Real Girls,” a folksy coming-of-age drama set in the rural South. It was a beautiful film, although emblematic of what I’d call (for lack of a better term) “mill-town movies,” that sub-genre of earnest indie dramas about quirky, well-meaning people living in dying towns.Recent examples are easy to find: “Waitress,” “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Sweet Land,” “The Good Girl.” One can think of them as the movie equivalent of alt-country bands like Wilco and Iron and Wine: They value simplicity and honesty, strive for purity, but sometimes lose all credibility by resorting to clichés.  Green’s new film, “Snow Angels,” sadly lacks credibility. Maybe it’s because he chose to adapt somebody else’s work (Stewart O’Nan’s novel); maybe it’s just that the source material is somewhat hackneyed; or maybe it’s just hard to picture smoking-hot British starlet Kate Beckinsale as a girl-next-door single mother and waitress. Whatever the problem, “Snow Angels” is hard to swallow. Taking place in an unnamed Northern town (in the novel, it’s Butler, Pa.) during the early spring, the movie follows three couples at different stages: one is finding love for the first time in their mid-teens, another is in their 20s and struggling with mental illness and an ugly divorce, and the last are in middle age and experimenting with a separation. As is often the case with mill-town movies, the town is itself a character. It’s a stark, tired place that offers few surprises. Either you make the best of what you got or give up entirely, because you don’t have the money or education to move somewhere else. And, with the town steadily shrinking, it’s not like Mr. Right is going to move in next door.Beckinsale’s character, Annie, is hot-tempered and more than a bit self-destructive. Her ex, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), is simpering and suicidal. It’s a predictably dangerous combination that Artie (Michael Angarano), the film’s protagonist, watches as his parents’ marriage falls apart. With so few positive examples out there, it takes a great leap of faith for Artie to embark on his first love affair.While it begins sweetly enough, the film gets ham-fisted pretty quickly. Rockwell’s bumbling insecurity is cute for about two seconds before the audience, too, wants to break up with him. When he goes from overly-sensitive to batshit crazy, the overacting is downright painful to watch.And while there are moments of real tenderness, too much of the film relies upon rural clichés: the kid who’s too smart for small-town life, the sass-talking waitress (Amy Sedaris), the egotistical professor, the ramblin’ redneck. These failings undermine what this film gets right: its gentle humor, Angarano’s fine acting, the captivating town setting. —Alan Abbott•••‘Leatherheads’ comes up short(Starring George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski and Jonathan Pryce. Directed by George Clooney. Rated PG-13; 1:54. LEO Report Card: B-)When it comes to witty banter, modern Hollywood movies are at a loss for words. Monologues are a different story. Tom Wilkinson’s opening diatribe in “Michael Clayton” and Daniel Day Lewis’ “I drink your milkshake” speech in “There Will Be Blood” are exemplars of masterful dialogue. But what about rapid-fire verbal sparring? “Chasing Amy” and the underrated “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” are the rare exceptions of movies over the past decade that borrow a page from the screwball comedies of the 1930s. George Clooney’s “Leatherheads” fashions itself after one of those Golden Age comedies, patterning its ambitions on the verbal bravura of such classics as “It Happened One Night” and every Billy Wilder movie. The film’s fast-talking characters are appropriately named Dodge (that’s Clooney) and Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger). The film is set in 1925, when college football draws 40,000 fans but pro football is a sport without rules played in cow pastures as a smattering of people watch. Middle-aged Dodge is desperate to keep his team afloat economically. He hatches a plan to cajole college star and war hero Carter (John Krasinski) into playing in the pros. Chicago Tribune reporter Lexie tags along with the hidden agenda of exposing Carter as a phony war hero. But like Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can,” “Leatherheads” isn’t as light and jaunty as it thinks it is. The movie is too long-winded when it comes to the war subplot, and the romantic subplot takes the back burner for too long. Clooney’s movie doesn’t reach the giddy high of the films it so overtly admires. But pit “Leatherheads” in a battle of wits against every other movie at the multiplex, and you’ll find that the competition is unarmed. —Jamie Peters