Sunday, December 23, 2012

This Is 40 and Jack Reacher

          Knocked Up …and Down… Again

                                   Review by Ken Burke     This Is 40

Judd Apatow puts his own wife and kids into a seriocomic look at marriage and family relations on the verge of meltdown that finally lurch toward hope of reconnection.    

                                                                            Jack Reacher

Tom Cruise is effective once again as an action hero, playing an ex-Army MP determined to see justice done in a brutal homicide case with more than meets the eye.

When I posted my previous review (Dec. 20, 2012, on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit) I didn’t think I’d be back until the last round of end-of-season heavyweights had premiered, but both viewing and writing options have opened up a bit this week so let’s bide the time before Les Misérables (Tom Hooper), Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino), and Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) come along (other likely Oscar nominees of some sort The Impossible [Juan Antonio Bayona] and Rust and Bone [Jacques Audiard] have already opened in San Francisco, but we peons in the East Bay still await their arrival) exploring some middleweights that feature a lot of well-known names.

If I were to win a really big Mega-Lottery which would allow me to buy weekly broadcast time on NBC (chosen because their ratings are still suffering a bit so that even with big bucks on my side I’d still save some cash and they may be desperate enough to sell me the time even if the audience doesn’t pan out) and then sit there clumsily in front of a camera speaking these rambling reviews rather than forcing you to read them, then we’d have a situation somewhat similar to what’s going on in this posting’s pair of vanity-press movies, neither of which are awful (in my opinion, but maybe they each just offer something attractive to me whereas the critical consensus for both—as you can explore in detail in the links noted below—is pretty miserable) but each are produced by either their director (This Is 40, Judd Apatow) or main actor (Jack Reacher, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, starring Tom Cruise) so that there’s a clear sense of ownership here that potentially may not be the best choice for the on-screen vehicle, but, appropriate or not, the intrusion comes off better for Cruise than Apatow. Director-screenwriter Apatow revisits the secondary narrative of his Knocked Up (2007) to focus on the deteriorating marriage of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), with the toll it’s taking on their kids, 13 year-old hormonally-raging Sadie (Maude Apatow) and 8 year-old frustrated-by-all-the-anger-around-her Charlotte (Iris Apatow), with all of these female roles played by the director’s real wife and daughters.  Of course, this bit of cinematic nepotism isn’t unique for this Apatow movie because Leslie, Maude, and Iris have also been in the other movies that Judd’s most famous for directing:  all 3 of them in Funny People (2009) and Knocked Up (2007), just Mann in The 40 Year Virgin (2005).  But other familiar faces are here too as Rudd was in both Knocked Up—along with Jason Segal, who plays Debbie’s trainer (named Jason, I guess so he wouldn’t have to waste too much time in rehearsal) in This Is 40—and Virgin, plus we get Chris O’Doud and Melissa McCarthy from Apatow’s producing of Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011), who, respectively, play Pete’s record-label employee, Ronnie, and Catherine, a very angry mother from Sadie's school, in the current production (I guess Seth Rogen was too far down the road with Barbra Streisand on their Guilt Trip [Anne Fletcher] to be called back for an Apatow encore—and do we really want to see Katherine Heigl again? [more on her in the Jack Reacher comments]).

However, to relieve you of the idea that This Is 40 is just an Apatow home movie (with a hefty budget, a gorgeous family home location, and a very generous 134 min. running time), there are plenty of other familiar (but non-Apatow-related) faces here as well:  Megan Fox as Debbie’s boutique employee Desi; Albert Brooks as Pete’s constantly-in-financial-need father, Larry; John Lithgow as Debbie’s extremely-absentee father, Oliver; Graham Parker and Ryan Adams as their musician selves; and even Tatum O’Neal as a realtor (but, unlike the others, not in a role so big that you’d necessarily notice).  With all of this talent swarming around and Apatow as sole writer you’d have every reason to expect a knockout off-kilter romantic comedy, but the dysfunctional family situations just pile up to the point of immunizing you against their relevance as you wonder—at best—what else could go wrong for this constantly bickering family with the parents both at wits’ end regarding their malfunctioning careers and the kids desperate for something to stabilize, even as both of their grandfathers are overwhelmed by younger wives and unwanted younger kids.

As if there’s not enough trauma swirling around here, the main focus that keeps asserting itself is Debbie’s refusal to accept that, like Paul, she’s also turning 40 (just a few days before him), so she tells the world that she’s only 38.  In eloquent terms she explains her situation as “F*** 40!  40 can suck my d***!” (the movie’s R-rated, but I’m trying to stay in the PG-13 zone, although few of the characters do, including Sadie and both of her parents, but that’s an expectation point for an Apatow movie and one that rings true to life for the traumatic situations being exploited explored here).  There are a good number of other hesitation moments in This Is 40 including Pete’s constant escape to the toilet with his iPad (shown with a casualness that would choke the censors in Hitchcock [Sacha Gervasi]), Pete’s constant biking in his LIVESTRONG clothes (despite the doping controversy surrounding founder Lance Armstrong—but that’s probably intentional), Pete’s bedroom-disruptive farting, Debbie’s health-disruptive smoking addiction complicated by her unexpected pregnancy later in the narrative, Pete insisting that Debbie verify what’s wrong with his butt (a hemorrhoid but, surprisingly, we don’t get a peek at it), and such touching moments as Pete telling his wife and daughters “Sometimes I wish that just one of you had a d***!” (which, just to clear up any confusion from Debbie’s anti-40 tirade above, none of them do) or the parents admitting to themselves that their kids are “selfish assholes” just as they also admit that had Sadie not suddenly arrived 14 years ago they might not even be married now.  Nothing seems to be working generationally here, as evidenced by Sadie’s obsession with watching every episode of Lost on her iPhone while blasting the irrelevance of Dad’s Mad Men or by the impossibility of either Paul or Debbie making a real connection with either of their fathers until the latter scenes of this very long family slugfest (both mothers are long gone, replaced by uncomfortably younger wives who wanted their own families, adding further to the sense of generational estrangement).  Given all of the Apatow heritage that’s engrained into this film, I can’t help but wonder—for a minute at least—what hidden family truths are being revealed (even if fictionalized) for the world at large to spy on.  But in this age of Facebook and Twitter, such revelations become expectations about anyone with even a hint of celebrity so if they want to do their laundry at the public Washateria instead of at home then what business is that of mine?  I’ll leave it to you if you want to give them your business by buying a ticket to this episode of The Real Neurotics of Somewhere Close to Beverly Hills, although there are some aspects to recommend it along with others to warn you away from.

Certainly the off-screen family connections enhance the sense of authenticity between mother and daughters on-screen, with Rudd also managing to connect appropriately to this sense of “staged reality”; the girls seem a bit forced in the early scenes, but as the family fires begin to heat up they fall into place in their roles very smoothly, yet we have so much else going on with the grandfathers, the failing businesses’ employees, the unexplored hints that Jason wants to do more with Debbie’s butt than pound it into shape, the silly “ambiguously gay duo” skit with Jason, Ronnie, and Desi (sounds like a short-lived pop group from the ‘60s featuring musician offspring of famous parents—if you have no idea what I’m talking about here, take a listen [if you can stand it] to this:, and the various crises at Pete’s birthday party from hell that it’s hard to maintain a sense of investment in these struggling middle-aged adults (yeah, I know that no one wants to claim middle-age until they’re about 80, but the haunting feeling that the second of life’s inarguable 3 stages truly has arrived fuels the serious trauma in the minds of our main characters [and likely many of their target audience] that might add a little gravitas to this tale if we weren’t so distracted with bathroom breaks and a marijuana-cookie-overdose scene [shown above] seemingly stuck in to provide raucous laughs for the trailer, in that we've already seen practically all of it in previews).  The real-life challenges that modern Americans face when confronting that mythical age barrier of 40 is obviously the horror that this movie wants to plaster over with guffaws, just as we so often "bravely" laugh away our nervousness in more blatant horror stories of monsters and slasher psychopaths.  Maybe I’m just being smug because turning 40 was such a long-ago challenge for me (and one much better than my younger days because it sent me into the most stable period of my life, with a solid, loving marriage to Nina Kindblad and a successful career at Mills College; the age barrier that I next have to confront comes in 5 years when I stare 70 in the face, but you don’t find many movies about that, comic or otherwise, now that Ingmar Bergman’s no longer with us).  As This Is 40 fades to black Brian Adams is singing a parting lyric, “Are we really who we used to be?” (from his song “Lucky Now”; take a listen if you like at; this is the question that Pete and Debbie try desperately to avoid answering throughout their big, bad birthday week, leaving us with the hope that some part of that “used to be” still awaits when they “grow up to be a[n adult].”  (Pete doesn’t want someone as trendy as Lady Gaga on his music label, but I’ll take him back much further than Graham Parker with this parting-shot song from the Beach Boys:  first, an original version from the mid-60s at, then, appropriately, from the fabulous concert I attended in Berkeley last June [sadly without the deceased Carl and Dennis Wilson], at [video not shot by me, so cease and desist, copyright lawyers]).

Some would say that Jack Reacher hasn’t grown up yet either, as he rejects the obligations of adulthood and settled society to just drift, off the grid, with virtually no way for even the best recordkeeping organizations to find him.  Tom Cruise tracked him down, though, and took ownership of this modern-day Paladin, whether referring to warriors in service to the Emperor Charlemagne and the ideals of justice in late Medieval times or the 1957-1963 TV series starring Richard Boone (a descendent of Daniel Boone’s brother and a distant relative of my long-gone grandmother, Lena Bell “Babe” Boone Courtney Stevenson Wise [buried 3 husbands as she lived to almost 100]) in which a hired gun also brought justice to late 19th century U.S.A.  As one of several producers of this (presumably) first episode about a modern-day justice-seeker who lives by the general philosophy of “It doesn’t matter what’s legal, it matters what’s right” in his quest to not be restricted by society's lies and inconsistencies, Cruise has brought the hero of British writer Lee Child’s many Reacher books (I’ve actually read 2 of them, which is relatively amazing for my so-far-sadly-lacking indulgence in the literary arts [Oh, retirement, where is thy hammock?]), into the cinema and imprinted himself on this character (in a manner no less obvious than what Apatow continues to do by inserting his family into his variations on the romantic comedy genre) simply by transforming him from the tall, blond, brick house of the print version into the shorter, more wiry, but just as intense presence that he now brings to the screen with this Reacher incarnation.  (Just as Humphrey Bogart claimed forever the filmic image of private eye Sam Spade with his appearance in The Maltese Falcon [John Huston, 1941], despite writer Dashiell Hammett’s original version being blond and square-jawed, while Katherine Heigl miserably attempted to do the same with Janet Evanovich’s bounty-hunter Stephanie Plum in One for the Money [Julie Anne Robinson, review in this blog posted on Feb. 11, 2012, with a 1 ½ star rating, the lowest I’ve yet given] but in reverse with her blonde [but dyed brunette], German-Irish features replacing the original Stephanie of Italian-Hungarian descent and brown, curly hair, likely dooming any hopes this character has of returning unless another actress takes the lead.)  Cruise has confiscated the character of menacing Jack Reacher, but possibly to the betterment of someone more obvious like Dolph Lundgren or Rutger Hauer in the role (better yet, younger versions of these actors, given their advancing ages—although that doesn’t seem to have stopped Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger) because while the brawny literary Reacher may be more plausible taking down 5 attackers at once, bare-handed, as he is depicted doing in this story, it’s even more impactful when a much smaller guy is able to do this via his martial-arts mastery or dead aim with a firearm even when the odds seem overwhelmingly against him.  Besides, Cruise has already established himself as a physical presence in action movies from Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) to the Mission: Impossible series (various directors, 1996-2011, most recent episode reviewed in this blog, posted almost a year ago on Dec 27, 2011), so it’s not such a “reach” (sorry, couldn’t resist) to turn him into a bad-ass loner whose extensive combat and investigative skills with the Military Police turn him into a lethal weapon (sounds like a great title for another crime series; I should get my own copyright lawyers … oh, wait ... Mel Gibson … never mind) with a bulldog’s determination to discover what’s wrong in a given situation and put it right before disappearing again from places where people are getting to know him too well.

This particular situation (based on Child’s One Shot) deals with a former military marksman who’s apparently killed 5 random victims on the river walk just outside of Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, home of baseball’s Pirates.  The shooter was easily tracked down with a fingerprint, then beaten into coma conditions while in police custody but not before writing a note asking for Reacher. Despite his anonymity, Jack apparently keeps track of just about anything that might interest him, so he shows up unannounced at the police station with a story about how the shooter, James Barr (Joseph Sikora), dodged a multiple-murder charge while in the army in Iraq and deserves to die for this latest grotesque crime (a marketing situation which may face an unintended challenge with this movie being released so close to the date of the recent tragedy in Connecticut, but so far it’s #2 at the box office on this opening weekend [with a bit less than half the take of The Hobbit (Peter Jackson) but ahead of This Is 40] so maybe this story is playing into the thirst for justice [or just revenge], displacing our real-world initial call for more stringent gun control—and inadvertently playing into the NRA mindset of more weapons in the hands of armed guards rather than fewer overall in distribution, but don’t get me started on this very hot topic).  Through a series of plot twists that I won’t try to explain (but if you don’t press the issue too much they seem plausible enough), Reacher ends up as an investigator for Barr’s defense lawyer, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike, praised by some but feels clumsy in the role to me; maybe it's because she looks too much like Jenna Elfman from the old TV series Dharma and Greg [1997-2002] and other comedies since then; stupid reason, I know, but sometimes those are the hardest ones to shake), increasingly becomes convinced of Barr’s innocence in the shootings, dodges other attackers up close and through an extremely long car chase, helps uncover the real killers as a vicious mob run by a crazed Russian known as The Zec (played by famed German director Werner Herzog) who take Helen captive, then Reacher goes on a final assault against Zec’s forces (aided by only a knife [which he loses while dodging bullets] and a backup Marine sharpshooter, Cash [Robert Duval, looking old enough to have stormed the World War II beaches of Normandy in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan).  If you think it’s a Spoiler (Beware! Beware!) that Reacher survives to bus out of town to another destination unknown, leaving Helen to clean up the mess of dead bodies and motives, then you have no comprehension of my earlier comments of Cruise turning this guy’s life into another ongoing series and I take no responsibility for your reaction (and don’t act too smug around Reacher or you’ll likely end up with a broken bone or six).

Audience reaction to this tale of yet another tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners (literally, as you’ll find out if you decide to watch this) vigilante hero has been better than the general critical response, so don’t be surprised if momentum builds for more Jack Reacher stories because his combination of survival skills, disregard for the letter of the law if the spirit needs to served with pragmatic action, and his self-controlled manliness (much to Helen’s disappointment this time around, but from what I’ve read in other novels this guy’s all red-meat hetero—when he has time for such distractions) certainly speak to viewers who want to see swift justice delivered in a time of increasing deadly chaos and prefer to see some pecs once in awhile rather than just hairy hobbits and dwarves triumphing over evil—as evidenced by the marketing of this film, where I’ve had to use photo after photo of Tom Cruise because that’s all they’re making available; now let’s see, who was the producer of this movie? Oh, yeah, now I remember.  (Based on that audience satisfaction factor, I predict an even greater positive public response to Zero Dark Thirty—likely matched by consistent critical praise, based on what I’ve already read—despite the misgivings of some of our Senators that methods of torture will be praised as effective counter-terrorism tools [But I haven’t heard Rick Perry complaining yet.]). Compared to Bigelow’s upcoming film, Jack Reacher is pure fiction, more from the catalogue of World Wrestling Entertainment “atrocity” attack and payback scenarios than the complexities of claiming a bounty on Osama bin Laden, but that’s what makes Reacher’s world so much easier to navigate.  Like the Fox TV series 24 (2001-2010, with content more in keeping with the worldview of that network than most of their more anti-Establishment satirical hits), in which counter-terrorist government agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) constantly justified the ends over the means, Jack Reacher is all about result, an attraction very appealing to a country divided in its direction and battered by its less-than-robust Recession recovery, yet still determined to triumph over all of the natural disasters and crazed gunmen that fate can throw at us.  Like Agent Bauer, this Jack is often at the wrong place at the right time, at least in terms of Reacher being confronted with injustices not of his own making yet making it right for the rest of us as an example of undiluted principle.  I think we’ll be seeing him again.

 You’ll be seeing me again soon as well, after I recover from the Christmas Day onslaught of the Oscar contenders and get some perspective on their merits.  Until then, Happy Holidays to you all!

If you’d like to know more about This Is 40 here are some suggested links: (a Reelz video review by Richard Roeper, just because I haven’t seen him since some years ago with Roger Ebert)

If you’d like to know more about Jack Reacher here are some suggested links: (a 9 min. interview with Tom Cruise, with automatic option links to more at the end of his comments)

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  1. Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher

    Honestly I was not expecting much from this film but I found it to be better than expected. It's about time Cruise lets Mission Impossible rest or at least hand over the reins to the Navy Seals (not that I expect to like Zero Dark Thirty; however I do appreciate the real life sacrifices of our men and women in uniform).

    Rosamund Pike as a buxom but wholesome lawyer seemed slightly out of place in Cruise's latest action flick, but she definitely grew on me as her character danced a Tango with Cruise while evil tensions escalate and unseen clues are decoded by the sharp and always cool Jack Reacher. Overall the tone is somewhat reminiscent of Nicholson and Dunaway in Chinatown or Nicholson and Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice. One grows to appreciate the chemistry of Cruise and Pike in this clever if occasionally formalistic mystery.

    Jack Reacher is a guy who needs no guns, takes no notes, warns his opponents, borrows his getaway cars (even from withering opponents), and gently pushes away entranced ladies when the crime has yet to be solved.

    Cruise's Jack Reacher is something of a stem cell clone of Rathbone's Sherlock with equal portions of Beatty's Dick Tracy and Eastwood's Dirty Harry. Add a dash of humor that whispers "don't take this too seriously", aka Connery's Bond, James Bond, and you end up with a decent story, combined with a well toned Cruise for the ladies and a wholesome but appealing Rosamund Pike for the rest of us.

    It was certainly worth my $3.50 for a Central Texas matinee on a warm December afternoon (...a new release for less than the price of a gallon of gas in California. One advantage to living in Central Texas). I might have paid $7 for this one.

  2. Hey rj, Nice comments on "Jack Reacher." (How do you get your typing in this damn Google blogspot feedback box to accept italics? I even tried pasting it in from an MSW document but no luck; I should farm my postings out to you as Technical Director of this blog.)

    Great references to "Chinatown" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice," two excellent examples of true film noir with great performances all around. You really nail what works with Cruise as Reacher (and I do hope we see him again in this role), plus you make me envious of your matinee price (it hasn't gone up that much since I moved away close to 30 years ago, but that's still not quite enough to get me to move back to Central Texas, to some degree because I couldn't afford the price of the gas to drive there and also because Rick Perry hasn't left to become the new ambassador to Libya yet--that comment will probably keep me west of El Paso for another 10 years; apologies if I offended anyone with it but I guess that Judd Apatow humor is rubbing off on me).

    Keep the comments flowing. It's always great to hear from you. Ken

  3. Italics? Elementary my dear Watson, old school HTML code.

    <i>Elementary my dear Watson</i>
    <b>any bold text</b>
    <i>any italic text</i>

    There are probably some options in your blogspot setup that would allow a comment to include links to other websites. ...and you have to get it right the first time you "publish" or else you have to delete. The blog owner can eliminate the remnants

  4. So, now I know how to tell everyone in proper italics fashion that the next review will likely be of Les Misérables (I learned how to put symbols/accented letters in these replies as well) and Django Unchained, which hopefully will be posted by roughly New Year's Eve. I'm proud to say that, with proper help, I've once again learned something new about the wonderful, mysterious (for me) world of computers (maybe by the time I'm 70 I won't need to ask for help every 5 minutes).

    I'm also sure that because of my new posting process (using Mac textedit rather than MSWord to compose) the RSS feed is taking the entire amount of each of my new reviews (except for these comments) and displaying them in proper chronological order. However, one thing I haven't been able to correct is that the RSS feed still shows Flight as the latest posting even though there have been several since then, so anyone depending on the RSS feed headline on your iGoogle page for notification will just have to keep clicking into the full feed accumulation to see what's actually there.

    But at least I've conquered these minor comment problems, so thanks again, rj for your help and contributions. Ken

  5. Your welcome. Now for creating a link to another site from within a comment.

  6. Once again rj has made me a little more versatile, so to cap off the endless comments to the review above as well as round out the holiday season with one last tune that's appropriate for these movies I'll recommend that you take a listen to "Granma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" and I'll try to be back just before New Years with some new reviews for you.