Saturday, May 30, 2009

On DVD: "Spring Breakdown"

A female-heavy all-out comedy is such a rarely sighted species that you might very well cut Spring Breakdown some slack for the mere fact that it even exists. There’s no bigger fan of the Apatow pictures than this reviewer, but they’re basically a boys’ club; the Farrell/Sandler comedies that begat them don’t have much use for funny ladies either. When the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler-fronted Baby Mama did good business last year, word was that its success would bode well for Breakdown, another reteaming of Pohler with an SNL pal (this time, Rachel Dratch). No such luck; after screening out of competition at the Sundance Film Festival, it has indeed gone straight to disc. Conspiracy theorists have said that Warner Brothers was afraid that a comedy with an all-female cast couldn’t hold its own at the box office. Sad to say, they may have just realized that it was a terribly uneven film that didn’t have enough laughs.

Poehler, Dratch, and Parker Posey play best friends since college, where they were ostracized as outcasts (the opening credit sequence, in which they perform “True Colors” at a senior talent show, is pretty good). They assure each other that they’ll show them all when they get out into the real world, but 15 years later, that’s not the case; the trio have middling jobs and disastrous personal lives. Gayle (Poehler) is a dog trainer who can’t pull a date with a blind client (Poehler’s husband, Will Arnett from Arrested Development, wasted in a walk-on); Judi (Dratch) is about to marry William (SNL’s Seth Meyers), who is clearly gay; and Becky (Posey), a certified cat lady, works as the mousy office manager for ballsy, gun-toting Texas senator Kay Bee Hartman (Jane Lynch, in a role clearly modeled on Kay Bailey Hutchison).

A scandal has removed the Vice President from office, and Hutchison, er, Hartman is at the top of the short list. The only worry is that her college-age daughter Ashley (Amber Tamblyn) will “pull a Bush twins” over spring break and embarrass the Senator, who sends Becky to Padre Island with orders to keep her little girl under the radar. Becky decides to bring her girls along for the kind of booze-and-boys trip they never had when they were nerdy college girls.

The situation is ripe with comic possibilities, and it’s stocked to the gills with talented comic actors. Even the smallest supporting roles have gifted comediennes in them—for God's sake, Ashley’s best friends are played by Anne from Arrested Development and Millie from Freaks and Geeks. Sophie Monk’s performance is about the only one in the film that doesn’t work, and that’s mostly because her British tongue can’t pull off the character’s Texas accent. So they’ve got the right actors, but the entire film plays like a first draft. The story (by Dratch and screenwriter/director Ryan Shiraki) provides a decent framework to hang gags and funny bits on, but the screenplay was in dire need of a punch-up. There are scattered laughs here and there, and it picks up considerably once they get to Padre (the twenty or so minutes of set-up are pretty painful), but it never builds up any kind of comic momentum or transcends its formulaic construction.

It’s tough to blame the film’s spottiness on the performers. I’ve never been a fan of Dratch (she made me laugh exactly once on SNL—with her Harry Potter bit—and her rotating cameos in the first season of 30 Rock were that show’s only drag), but her work here is energetic; she goes all the way for the joke, even if it’s a weak one. On the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed Parker Posey, but there’s a strangely vacant quality to her work here—there’s a fine line between playing a dull character and playing a character dully, and I’m pretty sure she crosses that line. Tamblyn charms in what is surely the film’s most thankless role, and Lynch continues to prove that she’s one of the most valuable utility players in American comedy—you can just bring her in and let her go.

But Poehler owns the movie; she can spin a mediocre line into something laugh-out-loud funny (when they arrive at their dumpy beachfront hotel, she dryly observes, “Yeah, we’re gonna get date-raped in there”) and her timing is sharp as a tack (a college girl flashes them, and Poehler does a perfectly-executed slap across the face). But even she gets hobbled by the mechanics of the weak script. Shiraki’s direction is also pretty pedestrian; the shooting style is as rote and unimaginative as your average single-camera TV comedy, with the flat-footedness of a late John Landis movie. It puts all the responsibility for maintaining the viewer’s interest in the screenplay, and that’s too heavy a burden for a script like this one to carry.

In spite of the promise of the cast and premise, and its occasional, isolated chuckles, Spring Breakdown is an unfortunately thin production. It ekes out a slim 78 minutes (not counting end credits) and runs out of gas before it even gets that far, trotting out a predictable climax that brings back the talent show from the opening sequence (complete with a montage of frantic rehearsal and practice). There are enough flashes of funny people doing funny stuff to give it a glance, but for the talent involved, it’s something of a letdown.

"Spring Breakdown" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 2nd.

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