Saturday, February 13, 2010

On DVD: "District 9"

I’m incredibly late to the party on Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that my initial reluctance to partake of it had a little something to do with the copious amounts of Peter Jackson all over the promotional materials. It is my lot in life to fight this battle alone, but I do not like Peter Jackson; I couldn’t it make it past the first part of his Lord of the Rings trilogy (that first film felt as long as any three other films), his King Kong remake was bloated, overlong, and the very definition of unnecessary, and the less said about the gooey mess that was The Lovely Bones, the better.

So I guess the good news—for Blomkamp, and for us—is that Jackson is a better producer than he is a director; District 9 is a sharp, well-made science fiction picture that is just as interested in ideas and storytelling as it is in blowing shit up. It is ingeniously told in a faux-documentary fashion, cleverly allowing that handheld, on-the-fly aesthetic to lend some weighty legitimacy to the scores of special effects. As a visualist, Blomkamp is no doubt skilled (Wikus’ trip through the lower depths of the hospital is filled with striking and haunting imagery), but he’s also a mature storyteller who doesn’t let the documentary style allow him to get lazy and obvious, the way some lesser filmmakers do. Freed from conventional exposition, Blomkamp trusts us to figure things out (along with his characters) as they happen, which is much more involving way to tell a story.

The narrative sucks us in so thoroughly, in fact, that we barely notice that by the second half of the picture, they’ve completely abandoned the documentary construct. And while I appreciate the fact that, on top of the filmmaking skill and the allegorical power, it’s also a pretty good barn-burner, I must add that we do feel the film slipping out of Blomkamp’s control at the climax—particularly when we start hearing lines like “I’m not gonna go without you” and “Go before I change my mind!” Those complaints aside, it’s a smart, tightly-crafted movie, and suggests that perhaps Mr. Jackson should consider quitting his day job.

"District 9" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. For a more comprehensive look at the film and the disc, check out my buddy Jeremy's review at DVD Talk.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Today's New in Theaters- 2/12/10

The Wolf Man: This one has some promise, I maintain-- good cast, durable premise, nice R rating instead of the usual bullshit horror cop-out PG-13 (if there's one thing in this world that shouldn't be rated PG-13, it's a remake of The Stepfather). But reviews thus far have been awfully indifferent; I might be holding off for DVD on this one.

Valentine's Day: No, no, we've been over this. Not gonna happen.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief: It's cute, really, watching Hollywood stumble and stammer and try their damndest to find the next Harry Potter series--they failed with The Golden Compass, they failed with Bridge to Terabithia, and the only made it to part two on The Chronicles of Narnia. Now, in the most transparent attempt to date, they went and hired Chris Columbus (you know, the Home Alone guy who helmed the first two Harry Potter movies-- the ones everyone agrees were the weakest) to take a stab at it. Good luck, boys!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New on Blu: "Goodfellas"

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."

The most celebrated shot of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas comes early, when young wiseguy Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) takes Karen (Lorraine Bracco) on a date at the Copacabana. Eyeballing the long line outside, Henry instead ushers her to a back entrance, and the snaking camera follows him down through a private hallway, through the kitchen, and into the club, where the staff places a table for him right down front, in front of Henny Youngman, who tells some jokes. Scorsese and ace cinematographer Michael Ballhaus play the entire scene, from the street into the club through the kitchen to the stage, in one unbroken take. It’s a virtuoso moment.

But it’s not just a gimmicky extravagance, Scorsese showing off his mastery of craft. It’s fluidly active storytelling, a visualization of Henry’s power and access, a thrilling illustration that, for that moment, the world was his oyster. And then it’s a gimmicky extravagance, on top of that. The entire picture works in that way—it’s full of flash and style and razzle-dazzle, but always properly employed at the service of a gripping story. It’s just that Scorsese found a narrative that could support as many snazzy tricks as he wanted to heap upon it.

It’s a tight first-person account of life in the mob, as told by Henry (and occasionally Karen) in voice-over narration that is so packed with information, Scorsese often has to freeze the action on screen so his narrator can catch up. It begins with Henry as a boy, peering through the windows of his family apartment at the wiseguys hanging out at the cab stand across the street, and follows him as he becomes one of those guys, a soldier for family head Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino). His primary partners in crime are charismatic thief Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert DeNiro) and hot-tempered troublemaker Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).

In those nostalgic opening scenes, Goodfellas shares much of the ambience and tone of the other great gangster epic, The Godfather. But Scorsese’s gangsters aren’t the operatic, Shakespearean figures that Coppola’s are; his guys are working stiffs. Early on, Paulie (with Henry’s help) takes over the Bamboo Lounge, a struggling nightclub, and Henry proceeds to explain to us exactly how they ran it into the ground for maximum profit. Sequences like this are Goodfellas’ stock-in-trade; Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi are interested in the minutiae of the organization, the specifics of the day-to-day operation. It is, in this respect, that its influence on The Sopranos is most clear (well, that and the fact that about half of that show’s cast—including Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Frank Vincent, Tony Sirico, and Vincent Pastore—pops up here).

Scorsese and Pileggi’s screenplay (adapted from Pileggi’s nonfiction book Wiseguy) is not without laughs, both the slice-of-life variety (particularly in the scenes involving Scorsese’s mother Catherine as Tommy’s mom) and the gallows humor expected from these unrepentant killers (“Hey, Henry, there’s a wing!”). But their script also has a phenomenal ear for conversational subtleties—the tiny inflections and subtext that separate a put-on (“Tommy, you’re a funny guy!”) and a fatal mistake (“Now go home and get your fuckin’ shine box”). These guys have a good time; they joke around, they laugh, they “break balls.” But they also carry guns, and time and again—particularly in Tommy’s two encounters with poor Spider (Imperioli)—we watch a situation turn on a dime, and observe how quickly a good time can go bad.

Much of the effectiveness of those scenes is due to Pesci, whose finely-tuned performance balances charisma and real danger in a manner seldom seen on the screen. DeNiro is playing, in many ways, the archetypal DeNiro role, but he finds the character’s pulse by honing in on the individual moments (like his scene at the phone booth, or that slow push in to the strains of “Sunshine of Your Love”) and playing them full-tilt. Sorvino, who easily could have overplayed his powerful mob boss, instead chooses a more subtle tack; he sees Paulie as the strong, silent type, and it’s a choice that works (particularly considering what a bunch of yammerers he’s surrounded by). Liotta, all but unknown when the film was made, has a fierce energy that deteriorates convincingly into desperation—this is all he’s ever wanted, and he can’t stomach the notion that it’s all slipping away.

His performance, and the film that it hinges on, comes to a full head of steam in what may very well be the single greatest set piece Scorsese has ever filmed (which is saying something): the “Sunday, May 11, 1980” sequence, a virtuoso piece of cinema that follows a coke-fueled Henry through a long, exhausting day in which he tries to a) put together a major drug deal, b) take care of his brother, c) unload some hot guns, and d) make a huge dinner for his family. The sequence is hyperactive, kinetic, and brilliant, an edgy montage of drug-induced mania that is akin to a hip-hop track, what with its quick hits, breakneck pace, and smash-and-grab music samplings. Thanks to the smoothness of the picture’s construction (from the innocence and nostalgia of the early years to the slow deterioration in the middle era to the jittery loss of control in the third act) and the omnipresence of the first-person narrator, by the time we plunge into the darkness, the movie is Henry—it’s sweaty, messy, paranoid, itchy.

In that section, and throughout the picture, Scorsese calls upon all of his considerable gifts as a technical filmmaker—zip pans, trick zooms, fast dolleys, unbroken takes, slow motion, fast cutting, inventive compositions, circular storytelling—to cast his spell. It pulses with atmosphere, from the non-stop music to the period d├ęcor to the culinary details. Before Goodfellas, Scorsese was certainly a well-respected filmmaker (the previous year, several critics’ polls had chosen his Raging Bull as the best picture of the 1980s), and had spent the years leading up to it proving himself as a commercial filmmaker (The Color of Money) and as a provocateur (The Last Temptation of Christ). But in retrospect, Goodfellas feels like the moment when Scorsese became an icon—the guy that young filmmakers wanted to pattern themselves after. It wasn’t just that he spends the film having a great time playing with his camera (though he certainly does); it’s the supreme confidence and control on display. Right at the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, Scorsese seemed to be bursting open the notions of what was possible in “mainstream” cinema, making up new rules seemingly as he went along. The influence of his resulting work is specifically felt in many of the great films of the ensuing years (it’s impossible to imagine Pulp Fiction or Boogie Nights without Goodfellas), but more than that, it pointed the way for a new era of bold, brash filmmaking. As with all truly great films, Goodfellas sums up what has come before it and suggests what’s to come. And it proves its director, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be a storyteller of unmatched technique and unquestionable skill. It’s an electrifying motion picture.

"Goodfellas: The 20th Anniversary Edition" will be released on Blu-ray on Tuesday, February 16th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

On DVD: "Phantom Punch"

What the hell happened to Robert Townsend? I’m not asking it as a rhetorical flourish—it’s a serious concern. What happened to him? When he burst onto the scene in 1987, as the writer, director, and star of the clever low-budget comedy Hollywood Shuffle, he was discussed in the same breath as Spike Lee; his follow-up, The Five Heartbeats, was a well-reviewed and more ambitious picture, even if it met with pretty limp box office. But somewhere along the way, he went astray (maybe it was The Meteor Man, maybe it was B.A.P.S., maybe it was his five-season family comedy The Parent ‘Hood), and his directorial career as of late has been mostly relegated to made-for-TV and straight-to-DVD efforts like Phantom Punch, a tepid, tin-eared, shallow biopic of boxer Sonny Liston.

It sounds, on paper, like a good idea. Liston—a colorful figure who famously battled Muhammad Ali, was backed by the mob, and died under mysterious circumstances—is ripe for biographical treatment, and Ving Rhames is just about perfectly cast in the role, bringing a toughness and authenticity to the picture. The trouble is, he’s got no materials to work with. The screenplay by Ryan Combs (whose previous credits include such illustrious titles as Straight Out of Compton, Dirty Kopz, and I Accidentally Domed Your Son) is an absolute mess, a painfully underwritten and paper-thin account with less insight than any paragraph of Liston’s Wikipedia page.

Combs’ script is written as a series of short, declarative scenes—someone walks into a room, announces what’s happening now, the other person responds, and then they move on. Sample scene: Liston walks in to the gym of Caesar Novack (Nicholas Turturro), who tells him, “I’m the man who’s going to change your life… Father Lloyd tells me you’re going to be the next heavyweight champ!” Liston nods. That’s pretty much it. Scene after scene just sits there, lifeless on screen—clunky expositional dialogue with no motivation or momentum, just sign-posting, events announced and immediately discarded. Nothing is sustained; I’d be amazed if there’s a single dialogue scene in the film that runs more than two minutes, and there’s not a line in it you haven’t heard before (Liston, when caught cheating: “I love you!” His wife: “Well you’ve got a funny way of showing it!”).

Most of the storytelling is done in the picture’s endless montage sequences, while the structure hits all of the familiar beats—the mob, the dives, the girls—but with no depth, just rote recitations of scenes cribbed from other, better movies (Phantom Punch often plays like a Cliff’s Notes version of Raging Bull). There’s certainly no sense of who Liston was, made what him tick, what made him a great fighter. We also don’t really understand his place, either in the history of boxing (imagine, if you will, a film that features Ali as a character and doesn’t give him any lines) or in American culture; the racial politics of his fighting career are barely hinted at.

Some of that is Townsend’s fault—the picture has no sense of place or time, no inhabitation of its locations. The costumes and sets feel like costumes and sets; nothing seems lived in. It all looks like the paint’s still drying. The film’s (presumably) low budget doesn’t help matters any; everything is shot in tight, as if they could only dress the scenes for medium shots. This becomes a real issue once Sonny becomes a big-time fighter—the venues look awfully shabby, and we can’t help but notice that everyone past the second row of the audience is bathed in total darkness. Between the unfortunate production values and the cheapo black-and-white, slow-motion transitions (what was this cut on, iMovie?), the whole thing has the feel of a shoddy made-for-TV movie.

And the film’s misogyny is worth mentioning. Bridgette Wilson plays a nightclub floozy and girlfriend to Ceasar who later becomes Liston’s mistress; not an opportunity is missed in dialogue to talk, in detail, about her shady past, and when Ceasar finds out about her transgressions, the picture invites us to watch at length as the he beats, rapes, and humiliates her. It’s a long scene about people who are, let’s face it, secondary characters—far much time is spent on that one moment than on our ostensible main character’s entire courtship of his wife. Poor Stacey Dash, in that role, gets (conservatively) about two dozen lines. Turturro and David Proval do the best they can with their wooden roles, but they’re playing cardboard gangster stereotypes. Rhames, again, is the best thing in the movie, but in a movie like this one, that ain’t much.

Ultimately, Phantom Punch is less akin to Ali than it is to those low-budget, straight-to-video biopics of serial killers, like Gacy and B.T.K.--sloppily written, poorly produced, with only the most surface relationship to historical fact. The boxing choreography is passable, and Ving Rhames certainly looks the part. But that screenplay… woe is me.

"Phantom Punch" hits DVD on March 23rd.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Today's New DVDs: 2/9/10

Heading into a weak couple of weeks on DVD. I'm just warning you. Plan accordingly.

Couples Retreat: There's sooooo many people we like in this one that it's a disappointment to find how sloppy and lazy the whole damn thing is. There's laughs, sure, but nothing like we should expect from the collected stars of The Wedding Crashers, Swingers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Arrested Development.

A Serious Man: Boy, do I love the Coen Brothers, and I'm happy that they got some more Oscar nominations. But their latest effort just left me scratching my head--it seems willfully obtuse and bewilderingly peculiar, like a Barton Fink without the payoff. There's still things to like in it (there always are, with the Coens), but it's their first movie in years that I didn't want to see again like, right away.

The Life and Times of Tim- The Complete First Season: My new favorite show--a smart, funny, dirty, low-key animated comedy for grown-ups. It's not for all tastes, but folks who like Dr. Katz and Home Movies (or Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) should cotton to it immediately.

On DVD: "Prom Night in Mississippi"

Morgan Freeman spent his youngest years in the small town of Charleston, Mississippi; now he lives there, when he's not working. The population of the town is a mere 2100, and Charleston High School sports an attendance of 415 students--70% black, 30% white. The school didn't integrate until 1970, but the school's parents refused the have an integrated school prom, so every year thereafter, there was a separate prom for black students and for white students--on through the 1970s, through the 80s, and through the 90s. In 1997, Freeman offered to pay for the school's prom out of his own pocket--if the school board would allow both groups to comingle at the event. They turned him down.

In 2008 the actor made the offer again, and this time the school and the students took him up on it. Paul Saltzman's documentary Prom Night in Mississippi is the story of what happened, how this startlingly anachronistic taboo was broken in a year that race relations were, in fact, at the front of many people's minds. It's a good doc, if not a great one--it seems to ignore potentially compelling larger themes, and some of the technique is peculiar. But it is a fascinating and remarkably candid portrait of this tight-knit community.

The film begins focused squarely on Freeman, who discusses what led him to make the offer; it also follows him to an assembly of the school's seniors, where he talks it over with them. He tells them that when people ask him why the school does what it does, "I can't explain that. But," he adds, "I do want to change it." Once the offer is accepted, the actor moves in the background, and Saltzman turns his camera towards the students and instructors who have to make it happen.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that the event will go off without a hitch--primarily the students themselves, who have mostly chosen to ignore the racist views of older family members to make friends (and even boyfriends and girlfriends) with students of other races. There's Heather and Jeremy, the longtime interracial couple, who still battle the suspicions and concerns of her parents; there is Jessica, whose parents' racism is so intense, she moved out of home early rather than face threats for having black friends; and there's "Billy Joe" (name changed, face obscured) who speaks freely about the attitudes he was brought up with.

Before too long, though, a group of Caucasian parents go about arranging a prom just for their kids (and others "like" them); unsurprisingly, the film crew is not allowed to shoot at the event, or even outside of it. A lawyer explains their argument thusly: "They're just having a party for all the kids who happen to be white, and they want it to be just for them." Happen to be white?

At any rate, in that scene and others where cameras either weren't or couldn't be present, the filmmakers devise an ingenious solution--they create stylized animated sequences as interview subjects explain what they miss. It's an imperfect solution (in an ideal documentary situation, you'd like your cameras to have unfettered access), but a clever one. Less successful is the decision to use "student cams," allowing the subjects to create video diaries; they're used sparsely and ineffectively, veering the film into the kind of reality TV feel that it otherwise manages to artfully avoid.

By the time the film arrives at the big night of April 19, 2008, we're drawn in--these are likable kids, and it's fun to watch them dealing with small issues (the right dress, transportation, and poor John and his two dates) instead of contemplating the weight and gravity of what is happening at their school. That said, those broad themes don't seem fully explored at the picture's end; it comes to a fine enough conclusion, but it feels a bit emotionally incomplete. Still, all things considered, Prom Night in Mississippi is a strong, honest, thought-provoking documentary.

Prom Night in Mississippi is a well-intentioned, good-natured, and smoothly-produced nonfiction picture. It doesn't quite do everything we want it to do, and not all of its stylistic gimmicks land, but it is heartfelt and thoughtful, which isn't always easy to come by these days.

"Prom Night in Mississippi" is currently available on DVD. For A/V and bonus feature information, read this review on DVD Talk.

Monday, February 8, 2010

On DVD: "A Serious Man"

If there's one thing you can't accuse the Coen brothers of, it's selling out. After achieving perhaps their greatest critical success (and multiple Oscars) for No Country for Old Men and boffo box office for their inspired comic follow-up Burn After Reading, they've gone and made their most befuddling picture since Barton Fink. A Serious Man is an oddball period black comedy/drama about Jewish suburban angst, populated by a cast of mostly unknown actors. It's hard to assess whether it works, since what there were going for is anybody's guess. But it certainly keeps your attention.

It begins with a truly peculiar prologue that plays like Fiddler on the Roof by way of Franz Kafka. We then plunge into the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college professor and family man whose life is about to fall apart. His bid for tenure is looking shaky, his kids are indifferent to him, his neighbor is encroaching on his property line, his unemployed brother (Richard Kind) is living on his couch, and his wife (Sari Lennick) is about to leave him for family friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). And then there's the student who seems to be trying to buy a grade. And the angry representative of the Columbia House record club.

I'm not even sure where to begin with this one--it has a puzzling feel, and as a viewer, you're not sure where it's going or what it's all going to lead up to. The Coens have rarely indulged their odd, offbeat comic rhythms more freely, and, to be fair, it's full of the kind of stylized dialogue that they write so beautifully; the first conversation about the divorce is immaculately timed, and that phone call with Columbia House is a masterpiece of circular logic.

Those scenes play. So does Stuhlbarg's frazzled leading performance; he's a wonderfully reactive actor, and his steadily, subtly irritated double-takes and dialogue reactions ("We can't know everything," he is told by one of many rabbis, to which snaps, "It sounds like you don't know anything!") are pitch-perfect. Melamed is also impressive as the insufferable Sy. And its final moments play like a spiteful poke in the eye to those who disliked the ambiguity of No Country's last scene ("You want open-ended?" they all but cackle. "We'll give you open-ended").

And yet... as enjoyable as it is (particularly for a fan of the filmmakers, which I consider myself to be), it doesn't coalesce into a cohesive whole, as the Coens' best films do. The narrative seems at time to be purposefully, spitefully illogical; there's all kinds of scenes that don't seem to have much of a compelling reason to exist, aside from the fact that the Coens made a list of stuff they wanted to put into the script. For example, the appearance by Michael Lerner (Oscar-nominated co-star of Barton Fink) is a great one-scene joke, but looking back on the film, I'm not sure why it's there (aside from providing an easy laugh). Same goes with the subplot about the sultry neighbor, or the scene with Larry and his brother at the beach. It's a spotty picture, hit and miss; sometimes jaw-droppingly audacious, sometimes bewilderingly esoteric. When you see a film described as "personal" (as many have described this one), it usually means that it's intensely intimate and autobiographical in its themes. With a movie like A Serious Man, it's more like the talented, stylish directors don't care if anyone but them is in on the joke.

"A Serious Man" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, February 9th.

On DVD: "Serious Moonlight"

Adrienne Shelly was on the verge of a breakthrough when she was tragically murdered in her Manhattan office apartment in late 2006; long known as an actress in indie films (particularly in the films of Hal Hartley), she had seen her film Waitress, which she wrote, directed, and co-starred in, accepted to the Sundance Film Festival. That film went on to become a sleeper hit the following summer, and would certainly have marked the beginning of an exciting new phase in her career. She did, however, leave an unfilmed screenplay behind. That script, Serious Moonlight, has now been filmed, with Waitress co-star Cheryl Hines making her directorial debut.

With that kind of backstory, you can't help but go in rooting for Serious Moonlight. It's an incredibly likable movie, and it's a slick, professional job. But it's a little too clean and easy, and it doesn't quite manage to pull off the delicate balancing act of off-beat charm with dark undertones that Waitress did. Its opening scenes are not encouraging; the jazz music, upper-class location, and presence of Meg Ryan have us worried that we're entering Nora Ephron territory here (it proves better than that, although that isn't much of an accomplishment).

Meg Ryan stars as Louise, a high-powered attorney who inadvertently catches her husband (Timothy Hutton) as he's about to rendezvous with his mistress (Kristen Bell) and leave Louise. There's some funny business about how he's trying to accomplish this (fearing confrontation, he tries writing a note, which includes a request to feed the fish); they engage in the expected arguing and banter. And then she throws a potted plant at his head, and he wakes up bound with duct tape. I sat up a little. This was getting interesting.

"You won't be untaped until you love me again," she informs him, and so begins their long night of bickering, reminiscing, yelling, pleading, and so on. There is some good material in here, but much of this section of the film is a little too controlled and constructed; it feels theatrical, somehow stagey, and while the best of the dialogue has a nice, natural ring, a lot of it feels written instead of spoken.

None of this is the fault of Ryan, who here gives her most robust performance in years (not a surprise--if you can get past all the weird stuff she's done to her face, she was actually quite good in last year's dreadful remake of The Women). It's a fizzy, spirited piece of work, and her line readings are just sharp as a tack. She also has a moment on their front porch, early in the film, where she completely loses her shit; it's a tough bit of acting to get away with, but she's so raw and unguarded, she pulls it off. However, her big monologue about their wedding day and their marriage is smothered by Andrew Hollander's maudlin score (a complaint I find myself becoming a broken record about these days)--I found myself focusing more intently on her so I could tune that terrible music out.

Timothy Hutton (or "Tim Hutton," as he's inexplicably billed) doesn't quite match up with her. His performance is passable, but Ryan's just acting circles around the guy, and by the midway mark, she's so exhausted that she starts acting down to him. It's not entirely his fault; his role isn't written as well as hers. When his big moment comes, he tries to underplay it, but it comes across as stilted; he's just saying lines here. And no young actress projects fierce intelligence as effortlessly as Kristen Bell does, so it's kind of sad to see her wasted in what's essentially a nothing, young-and-dumb role.

I will confess to being blindsided by what happens when Justin Long pops in (don't read the summaries on imdb if you'd like this surprise preserved), but he certainly gives the picture a jolt of nasty energy. It takes a darker turn, and suddenly there's some spontaneity; the movie's outcome is up in the air, and our interest perks up. Once the ending arrives, it's a little on the corny side (though a cop with a bit part scores one of the biggest laughs in the film), and the epilogue is too nice and neat, though it tries to remedy that with a final beat that doesn't play at all.

Serious Moonlight has a little more flavor than the vanilla chick flicks that Ryan made her name on (and that it probably will be marketed to resemble). Though it has some decent performers and a few solid chuckles, it's too put-together for my taste; it evaporates by the time you're out of the theater.

"Serious Moonlight" arrives Tuesday, Feburary 9th on DVD and Blu-ray.

On DVD: "Couples Retreat"

There have been few recent movies that I wanted to like more than Couples Retreat. It's got a terrific cast (Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Jean Reno), it sports screenwriting credits by Swingers and Made co-stars Favreau and Vaughn (with Dana Fox), and it is directed by their longtime producing partner, Peter Billingsley, who was Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Ralphie, for God's sake!

So it is disappointing indeed to report that, while fitfully funny, Couples Retreat is, for the most part, lazy, sloppily constructed, and crushingly formulaic. It feels like the screenwriters dashed it off in a weekend, realizing that they could get Universal to put up $60 million bucks to finance their vacation in Bora Bora, and ended up filming the first draft, presumably electing to fall back on their gifted cast and their improvisational skills. Not good enough, boys.

It concerns four couples, each with a standard sitcom relationship issue. Dave (Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman) have a comfortable domestic life, but tend to put their kids and work ahead of their relationship. Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) are high-school sweethearts who mostly just cheat on each other (I think--as Movieline reported, those explicit infidelities of the trailer are missing entirely from the finished film, leaving their plotline confused and unclear). Shane (Faizon Love) is still smarting from his divorce, and hoping 20-year-old Trudy (Kali Hawk) will help ease the pain. And Jason (Bateman) and Cynthia (Bell) have been so traumatized by their inability to conceive, they're contemplating divorce.

As a last shot, Jason and Cynthia decide to go to a week-long sun-and-therapy retreat, and talk the others into joining them (playing down the couples counseling and so forth). So wacky hijinks ensue, but maybe, just maybe, everyone will learn valuable lessons about how they can blah blah blah blah blah.

As with last summer's Year One, this is not a laughless movie; there are funny scenes here and there (the yoga class; Vaughn and the sharks; the home improvement store), though most of the good gags are in the trailer. But considering how many tremendously talented people are on board, Couples Retreat should be far, far funnier than it is. It never builds up any real comic energy, clattering from one free-standing set piece to another and breaking down far too often with lapses into twinkly sentimentality. There's a way to do this kind of thing well--as Judd Apatow's comedies (and similar films like Role Models and I Love You, Man) have proven, you can make funny movies about people growing up without slamming between rude comedy and Lifetime movie of the week so hard, you give your audience whiplash.

There are other problems as well--Bateman, playing a rigid, unlikable character, is wasted completely; the kids have that movie disease where they all talk like college-educated adults; in spite of the presence of a female screenwriter, the dialogue of the female scenes is tin-eared and false; and the Guitar Hero sequence is just lame. But they all pale next to the climax, which simultaneously wraps up every thread in manners too choppy, too fast, and too easy--and what they do with Love's storyline is an affront to intelligent screenwriters everywhere.

There is one thing to recommend about Couples Retreat (okay, two, but I should probably keep my Kristen Bell crush in check and not mention how often she ends up in a bikini), and that's Vince Vaughn. Once again, his crackerjack comic timing comes through in the clutch, and he generates most, if not all, of the movie's laughs (when Akerman tells him that their new bathroom tile will run a thousand bucks, he replies, "What is it made of, whale tusks?"). In recent films like Four Christmases and Fred Claus, we could lament that he was wasting his comic gifts with subpar material by lesser talents. This time, he's got nobody to blame but himself.

"Couples Retreat" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, Feburary 9th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.