Paradise

Plane crash odds

paradiseI’m still stewing over the movie I really want to write about, but Paradise was worth looking at for a single scene, which I’ll get to.  It’s a story centered around one night in the Hollywood version of Las Vegas (or rather, Paradise, Nevada), involving characters who play out archetypes and contrivance to the point that they sometimes seem to realize that they’re in a movie.  If nothing else, it has this wonderful line: “You’re a magical prostitute!”

Diablo Cody’s directorial debut follows Lamb (Julianne Hough), a sheltered churchgoer who has an epiphany after her body is scorched in a plane crash that kills her fiance’.  First bit of contrivance: the jet fuel managed to disfigure every part of her body except her face and hair, so we’re still left with a leading lady that any appearance-obsessed movie studio would approve of.  The kicker about the accident is that the church expects Lamb to donate her settlement money to them, and on the day she is to give a moving speech about how the accident strengthened her faith, she instead goes on a tirade that upsets every stock character within earshot (“Devil’s lies!”  “You’ve lost your way!”), including Lamb’s parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman).  Lamb decides that the best way to come out of the shell she’s been in for 21 years is to spend a few days in Las Vegas, experiencing all of the “sins” she’s been warned about.

In Vegas, Lamb meets the seemingly-sweet-but-obviously-opportunistic William (Russell Brand) and talented “bar-tainer” Loray (Octavia Spencer), who agree to take care of her for the night.  None of the Superbad-style antics you’d expect to occur actually do, which would be a good thing if the film concentrated on Lamb’s growth as a person.  Really, though, the chief concern seems to be whether Lamb will abandon this idea and apologize to her parents, or have some anti-epiphany and find her way back to religion.  William and Loray give Lamb her first drink, take her dancing, show her adult magazines, help her renew a prescription for medicine that keeps her skin grafts in check, and other things that you’d probably go to the movies to avoid doing/thinking about.  But neither character happens to be around when bad things almost happen to Lamb: she gets drunk and stumbles into the laps of some ill-intentioned sleazeballs (“Hey cutie!  Come sit with us!”), tears one of her skin grafts, and ends up vomiting into a garbage can on the floor of a very scary bathroom.

Diablo Cody’s sharp writing made Juno what it was, but Paradise is not as concise and character-driven.  We still receive the inner-monologue voiceover of the main female character, which works well in both films and is actually a pretty charming way to get to know Lamb, but this film’s jokes don’t land quite as well as Ellen Page’s.  There’s a certain “out of practice” feel to the whole thing.  Juno also ended with the convenient tying of narrative bows, but the care that went into that film excused the contrivance.  Here, the things you expect to happen – but wish wouldn’t – happen.  William’s lines are sometimes funny, but later you realize that it’s only because Russell Brand is saying them (see Island Syndrome).  Loray fears that she’s playing the “magical negro” trope in this story, which leads to a funny exchange with Lamb and William, but really only drives in the fact that she’s the only non-white character with anything to do, and what she’s doing is playing a stock character.  Holly Hunter is hilarious and plays with her dialogue well, even inserting some maybe-improvised physical comedy that lands every time, and Nick Offerman’s father character delivers one line that captures the essence of every conservative parent you’ll ever meet: “We’re open to hearing about your new beliefs, as long as they are still very conservative.”

But there’s one scene that works better than anything with any of the famous actors in the film, and also functions as more than just the best scene in this movie.  Early on, Lamb is given a card with a photo of a girl on it by a random street hustler, unaware of what happens when you call the girl’s number.  Later, while Lamb vomits in a public bathroom, the girl on the card, Amber (Kathleen Rose Perkins), who has aged ten years, wanders in and expresses annoyance at the fact that someone looks like she’s about to OD in front of her (again!).  Lamb, people-oriented and still not quite believing in coincidence whether or not she believes in religion anymore, immediately recognizes Amber and attempts, despite the fact that she’s crying and addled by both medicine and alcohol, to get Amber to stay and talk to her, as this must be a fated meeting.  The scene features the best acting and writing in the film, a truly touching conversation (and hug), and the story’s best tension, as Lamb does everything to get Amber to stay in the bathroom (and to take her seriously).  The scene portrays Amber as just a person doing a job, despite her profession, and it doesn’t seem to encompass everything about her identity, which is a trap many movies fall into, depicting prostitutes as either self-despising victims, complacent machines, or glamorized porn stars.

This film actually did not need the star power.  That one scene alone could be an entire short film, and a good one.  In fact, were they developed more naturally, any of the other characters would be worth spending time alone with.  But the intention is there, and I can’t begrudge anyone who tries to make something great on their own.

Paradise (2013); written and directed by Diablo Cody; starring Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, and Kathleen Rose Perkins.

In a World…

Sister Code!

in a worldAdd Lake Bell’s name to your film vocab list.  If you’re looking at films as art, her name holds more weight than any Cameron or Bay.  In a World…, Bell’s feature-length debut, provides a feminist reading of the movie voiceover industry, and subverts certain expectations by shooting a female-centric romantic comedy as though it’s a drama (look at the shots!).

The story’s protagonist, Carol Solomon (Bell herself), is the daughter of voiceover king Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), who has published an autobiography and is about to receive a lifetime achievement award in the wake of Don LaFontaine’s passing.  He’s also dating a much younger woman (Alexandra Holden) around Carol’s age, and is fairly overt concerning his opinions about women maintaining their roles and not trying to do what men do (despite having two daughters).  Excited about living with a woman half his age, he kicks Carol out.  Carol, whose work as an independent voice coach barely provides her with two nickels to clink together, moves in with her sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband, Moe (Rob Corddry).  The two have been together for a long time, and Dani’s long work hours as a concierge have prevented any real intimacy (chances are, the arrival of Carol isn’t going to help).  Carol, however, does her best to mediate: Moe asks her for advice (or rather, freaks out at her) after innocently allowing his young female neighbor to use his and Dani’s shower while the latter is at work.  Dani inevitably calls to say she’s coming home early, and Moe nervously jabbers that he will cook them a “sandwich bar” for dinner.  It’s a great gag, and the banter between these three characters is such a pleasure that I would probably (read: definitely) watch a sitcom starring them.

Through one thing and another, Carol is called by coworker Louis (Demetri Martin in a tolerable performance) to coach Eva Longoria, because her Irish accent sounds, in his words, “like a retarded pirate.”    Carol also provides a temp track for a new movie trailer when Sam Soto’s heir apparent, Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) is sidelined by laryngitis.  The new film (a meta-movie that spoofs The Hunger Games and just about everything The Hunger Games itself rips off) brings back Don LaFontaine’s famous introductory clause, “In a world…”.  Unexpectedly (to Carol, not us) , the film’s executive producer wants Carol for the job.  Carol, of course, does not tell her father, who is so wrapped up in himself and his voiceover legacy that he assures Gustav he will put this unknown woman in her place for trying to take the job.  Simultaneously, Carol asks Dani to record the voice of an Irish client at the hotel for research (Carol has been banned from the hotel for recording people).  When the Irish rogue comes between Dani and Moe, Carol feels obligated to help, even while she has her hands full with potential stardom.  At a family dinner, Carol gives the news to Sam, who shows absolutely no support for her.

In a World… is not racked with surprises and twists.  Who wins the voiceover role is not as important as why.  Films about the film industry do not work when they’re too self-conscious or inside-jokey (see Argo), but that’s just it: this story is not about films or big breaks; it’s about characters.  Carol, not the stuff that surrounds her, is important.  Dani’s relationship with Moe is important – these are things that people are concerned with, things that in real life (and in good films) feel urgent.

Fred Melamed, who appeared as Larry David’s therapist in Curb Your Enthusiasm (another character whose obnoxiousness was begotten by his obliviousness), plays Sam Soto in a way that could convince anyone that this character is based on an actual person (he isn’t).  The film’s great supporting ensemble comes in the form of Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, and Carly Chaikin, all of whom have (and display) plenty of experience with comic timing.  There’s even a cameo by Cameron Diaz as herself playing the lead in The Amazon Games, and I daresay it’s one of her more satisfying recent roles.

There’s a lot of Goldbluming in this film, and I’ve never seen it done so well.  This is one of very few instances in which “improv” actually makes sense in dialogue meant to carry a story: Bell’s characters tend to stutter and stumble over the beginnings of their sentences, digging for the right words when they’re put on the spot.  Human beings do this.  Not a whole lot of film characters do.  But because of that, it feels wonderfully exclusive to this film and its titular “world.”  This is one of the best directing jobs I’ve seen this year.  Its blood is rollicking, but every bone is deliberately placed.  Bell has given us the “nose kiss,” the “sandwich bar,” and “sister code.”  Good comedy, actual improv (i.e. not Will Ferrell rattling off unfunny one-liners in totally unscripted scenes), unsettling commentary about women in male-dominated industries, and best of all, a unique character.  I’m not sure what’s better.

In_a_World_posterIn a World… (2013); written and directed by Lake Bell; starring Lake Bell, Michaela Watkins, Fred Melamed, and Demetri Martin.