Tag Archives: Comedy

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): Snark and Sentimentality

To prevent her daughter’s murder from falling out of the public eye and increase the chance of finding the culprit, Mildred (Frances McDormand; Fargo), a jumpsuit-wearing, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed mom, buys the titular billboards. She details the horrific crime and simultaneously places the blame for the lack of justice on the shoulders of the beloved local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson; Zombieland). Chaos follows as local policeman try to save face, local townspeople retaliate, and Mildred doubles down on her cause. Many will compare this film to Fargo because of McDormand and the small-town murder, but this is writer-director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) signature brand of humor, distinct from the Coens. Mildred’s caustic behavior and McDonagh’s penchant for finding comedy in the macabre put it in a category of its own.

Without a doubt, this is McDormand’s film. There are few people who would be brash enough to knowingly anger and take on their entire town, but McDormand shows the tenacity and blatant disregard needed to make Mildred believable. As she faces the fallout from her actions, Mildred’s relentless pursuit of her goal and her choice, delectably obscene retorts are a joy to watch. At same time, she is still a mother suffering from the loss of her child and McDormand is able to display the subtle cracks of pain in Mildred’s otherwise thorny demeanor.

Mildred can stare down anyone that gets in her way.

For the first time in his film career, McDonagh tries to infuse some of the emotion from his best plays (read The Pillowman if you haven’t). In his previous films, the snarky, almost crass language, while often hilarious, prevented his stories from having a greater emotional impact. In Three Billboards, he supplements his humor with grief. The pain of a mother losing her daughter softens Mildred’s abrasiveness and prevents her aggressive, often militant actions from turning her into an outright unlikable character, but McDonagh finds most success in Willoughby’s story. Despite his setup as an incompetent police chief, Willoughby’s true nature is much more caring. As the terminally ill town leader and, more importantly, a father and husband, his inescapable fate becomes synonymous with the outcome of Mildred’s case. Willoughby has been searching for the killer, but, like with his cancer, his efforts haven’t made a difference. A short interlude where he ponders his demise will draw tears from most viewers. His gradual accretion of depth in the midst of the film’s otherwise eccentric antics is an unexpected, but welcome punch to the gut.

The effect of this gravitas is hindered by McDonagh’s control of tone. Rather than mixing the humor with the heart, these two emotions exist within separate spheres of influence. They don’t actively clash, but the disparate tones almost seem like different takes on the same story. Some scenes feature Mildred cursing like a sailor while others show the open wounds created by her daughter’s passing, but almost never both in the same scene. This is ultimately what prevents Three Billboards from reaching greatness. The humor of the film is still enjoyable and the grief shown has an impact, but without blending the two, McDonagh can’t achieve the complexity and balance needed to tackle the subject matter.

3/5 stars.

The Square (2017): High Art Satire

The Cannes film festival is the epitome of high art filmmaking which makes this year’s Palme d’Or winner an unusual pick. Winners tend to be serious dramas, genre-film homages, or more experimental art films – not comedies. And definitely not comedies that make fun of art. Following up another Cannes-prize winning film, Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure) takes aim at the upper end of society with The Square. Chief museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) has his day ruined when his phone and wallet are stolen on the way to work. This incident is the first of many steps towards a gradual disruption of his life.

The world of high art is a polarizing setting. Artists and museum curators are constantly trying to challenge the status quo and push their work into new arenas while others remain absolutely baffled at how anyone could spend time or money on what seems like everyday objects. As Christian explains to an eager reporter named Anne (Elizabeth Moss; The Handmaiden’s Tale), “if we took your bag and placed it here, would that make it art?” Östlund understands the borderline lunacy and pompousness that comes with post-modern art and creates scenes where the veneer of sophistication is broken by simple questions. This culminates in an extended performance art exhibit where motion capture actor Terry Notary (War for the Planet of the Apes) enters a black-tie dinner at the museum and terrorizes the guests by acting like an ape. Ever-committed to his art, he refuses to break character assaulting and later being assaulted angry guests.

Östlund makes each museum exhibit to parody post-modern art.

Östlund also stages scenes of incredible awkwardness. He places his characters in seemingly minor situations that become pits of inescapable embarrassment. After Anne and Christian have a one-night stand, their intimate moment makes a shift into escalating mistrust and Moss gives her character the slight edge needed to turn things uncomfortable, yet funny. Her exaggerated expressions hint at insanity lurking underneath her professional appearance. Another scene features a small child somehow intimidating Christian after feeling that he has been wronged. Without any sort of leverage, he still manages to become a major pain. The scenarios onscreen would be ridiculous when read on paper or explained to anyone and it’s the preposterousness of each dispute that makes the scenes as hilarious as they are awkward.

The central conflict is Christian being yanked out of his haute lifestyle. As a “semi-public figure” of high society, he carries an air of refinement. His sharp suits and styled hair are characteristic of his upper-class milieu, but, despite his position, his life unravels because of minor events. Östlund makes a point to emphasize numerous beggars that Christian walks by every day. With each new plot beat, the director brings Christian closer and closer to those beggars. His desires and his comic, but stupid actions are as “low class” as anyone else’s. It never overwhelms the comedy, but encasing the story in a backdrop of class differences gives the film an unexpected edge. The combination of hilariously cringe-worthy encounters, high art mockery, and a hint of social commentary make The Square an odd mix, but nevertheless a deftly executed satire.

4/5 stars.

Dave Made a Maze (2017): Cardboard Sets and Cardboard Acting

With a weekend all to himself, Dave (Nick Thune), a struggling artist, creates an elaborate cardboard maze in his living room. When his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) returns, he tells her that he has been inside for three days and is unable to get out. Confused, she calls his friends over and they enter the maze only to get lost themselves.

The film’s most distinguishing trait is the look of the maze. It’s a twisting, handmade structure. First time director Bill Waterson created elaborate sets that are completely unified in their aesthetic. Inside the maze, everything is made from art supplies, including animals, monsters, and, occasionally, human parts. Characters bleed confetti and silly string instead of blood. The inventiveness and commitment to the aesthetic are the highlight of the film as each additional leg of their journey brings new designs. Watterson is able to get a surprising amount of variety from a limited set of materials by using different colors and patterns that prevent the maze from becoming plain. The standard obstacles, including booby traps and even a minotaur are present, but the corrugated look provides a fresh spin on each element.

The maze isn’t the only thing that appears to be built out of cardboard: the acting is just as stiff. Thune and Kumbhani have stilted, sometimes cringe-inducing, delivery and lack any noticeable chemistry. They seem like amateur actors in front of the camera for the first time. The script is no help either. Most characters are underwritten and the director relies on exaggerated reaction shots for development. The supporting cast is mostly one note. They are supposed to provide comic relief but are but each only has a single discernable, usually self-consciously quirky, trait that leaves them either forgettable or annoying.

The film is filled with overdone reactions like these.

The central metaphor is that of art being an all-consuming endeavor. Dave is described as someone who has never been able to finish any of his artistic goals and is still being supported by his parents despite being in his 30s. The maze is both his greatest creation and his burden. He doesn’t want to leave the maze because he hasn’t finished it yet and it is the only thing he feels he has come close to completing. The conclusions here are obvious, that an artist’s work envelops their life and that of their loved ones, and the film never goes beyond commentary that has already been done before. There are many, better films that have examined the psychology behind the tortured artist trope. By devoting its focus on the maze itself, the film is never able to develop Dave and his artistic struggles.

Watterson’s clear influence is the art-and-craft visuals of Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but he lacks the ability to match Gondry’s emotion. In Gondry’s films, his elaborate designs are always reflections of a character’s creativity and mental state. They reveal as much about the character as any line of dialogue. The maze and its inhabitants don’t have this connection to Dave. As creative as they may be, the designs in the maze are used as pure spectacle which leaves the film feeling hollow. The poor emotional development of Dave’s struggle and the stiff performances leave the film more like a maze found on the back of a daily newspaper: quick, obvious, and unsatisfying.

2/5 stars.

Brigsby Bear (2017): “Dope as Shit, Man”

This a movie to watch with no prior information. If you’re willing to do that, suffice it to say that the film is a strange, hilarious, and heartfelt comedy.

If you need more than that, please read on. Minor plot details follow that tiptoe around spoilers.

Brigsby Bear is a story of a young man named James (Kyle Mooney) who is obsessed with a TV show about an intergalactic bear that fights an evil talking star in what seems to be a low budget 80s style production. James’s entire life has revolved around Brigsby (the titular bear) so when the show abruptly ends, he must adjust to normal living. He has no other context for regular human reactions and the film becomes both a coming of age and a fish out of water story of him learning about the real world while proving to it that his passion is worthwhile. To demonstrate what he has learned from his favorite show, he decides to make the film sequel. With no experience, money, or even, initially, friends, he writes a script, draws a storyboard, and starts his journey anyways.

James’s integration into modern society is a limitless supply of laughs. He has never had friends or been exposed to any type of media other than Brigsby so he frames everyone’s behavior in terms of plotlines from the show. Brigsby reacted in a certain way, so he assumes that he should too. The trouble comes in the many scenarios that Brigsby did not cover, namely parties, slang, and drugs and alcohol. In these cases, James makes the exact wrong choice and imitates others…poorly. His (mis)use of slang around the wrong people and the way he copies other people’s mannerisms to try to be normal are endearingly awkward. His good-natured spirit makes every faux pas equal parts hilarious and sweet.

James’s unbreakable spirit is magnetic.

The film’s success rests on Mooney’s pitch perfect performance. With even a trace of knowing satire or cynicism, the entire film would have fallen apart. Mooney instead plays James with the most childlike earnestness. Every interaction he has is free from judgement, ulterior motives, or ego. Mooney creates a genuine innocence that becomes the heart of the film. He approaches luxuries we take for granted with a contagious wonder and enthusiasm. In a world of forgotten dreams and suffocating realities, James is a dreamer with nothing but hope. His passion, dedication, and conviction are absolutely infectious, even if the project in question is ridiculous.

Director Dave McCary strikes a tone that precisely complement’s Mooney’s performance. The film never looks at its subjects with any sense of ridicule. His camera comes from a place of pure compassion and every character’s flaws or desires are treated with respect. For example, there is a detective who wanted to be a Shakespearean actor, but gave up when life got in the way and McCary gives his hopes the deepest sympathy. Like James, the film views the world as an open book, with each individual as an aspiring writer. They just need the belief in their own ability to say something. The tenderness of McCrary’s direction and Mooney’s sincere screenplay and performance create a film that reminds us of the passions we neglect and celebrates the desire to create that exists in all of us. It’s an offbeat, heartfelt, and hilarious counterpoint to cynicism and apathy.

five stars

5/5 stars.

Landline (2017)

Gillian Robespierre’s (Obvious Child) sophomore effort is an unfortunate disappointment. Her stellar debut mixed awkward humor, real dilemmas, and a gentle romance, but Landline features very little of what made that film great. The new movie again stars Jenny Slate as Dana, a 30ish engaged woman, and her dysfunctional family, each member on the verge of a supposed crisis. She has caring but divided parents played by John Turturro (Barton Fink) and Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie) and an obnoxious teenaged sister Ali (Abby Quinn) who acts out at every turn.

This may be one of the first films to feature 90s nostalgia. We’ve seen many movies with bell-bottomed characters in the 70s, the big hair of the 80s, but few have recreated the 1990s. The denim-heavy clothes, cassette tapes, and titular landlines all reference the decade but what is surprising is how little the time period matters. Beyond the absence of cell phones and social media, the characters talk and behave in such a modern way that it is easy to forget when the film actually takes place. This makes the choice of setting a confusing one. It doesn’t add any particular nuance to the story. It’s not something that could have only happened in the 90s, so the setting was likely chosen to match Robespierre’s own experiences growing up. It’s nice to see a different choice for a period piece, but the not-quite-retro setting is only worth a few pop culture references and nothing more.

The constant, and usually unfounded, whining of the daughters becomes irritating.

While her previous film was about one woman coping with the upheaval of her already scattered lifestyle, Landline centers on a family unit. The relationships and the mistakes one person makes are reflected through each family member. The parents, while physically together, are emotionally separated with the father having an affair with an unknown woman. The daughters are also distant and constantly argue with each other. Ali sneaks out at night, curses nonstop, and is completely opposed to anything her parents say. Dana, engaged to a loving fiancé, is having second thoughts about where her life is headed and takes out her frustration in arguments with her parents and Ali. The dialogue is realistic, but the sheer abrasiveness makes the characters unlikable. The way the family, particularly the daughters, cut into each other with their words is downright mean. The insults aren’t played for humor, so the film becomes an incessant display of verbal abuse to people that they supposedly care about. It’s an unwelcome look at the cruelty people can show to those closest to them.

Furthermore, the mistakes they make are unprovoked. Characters risk loving relationships for momentary pleasures and mistreat each other for no apparent reason. These are relatively affluent people with no physical, mental, or financial issues to speak of, but they still create problems for themselves as if they have been through some kind of trauma. In Moonlight, the main character had to deal with growing up with a poor, crack-addicted single mom in a crime-ridden neighborhood intolerant of his orientation, yet he complained less than these people do. Their pleasant, upper-middle class lifestyle is apparently too easy so they make unnecessary conflict. Ali screams at her mom for asking about her college applications and Dana gets upset with her fiancé for calling her after she abruptly moves back to her parent’s house. These aren’t relatable or even meaningful problems and without that, the film remains a showcase of unpleasant, self-destructive characters oblivious of their own privilege.

2/5 stars.

The Little Hours (2017)

What could be funnier than nuns in a convent? That’s a phrase never spoken before. Jeff Baena (Life After Beth) directs a comedy about 14th century nuns. Sisters Alessandra (Alison Brie), Genevra (Kate Micucci) and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) live a routine life of prayer and chores until Massetto (Dave Franco), a young, handsome man, becomes their new gardener. Massetto poses as a deaf-mute to avoid contact with the sisters, but his presence creates impure thoughts in all of them. Having never been in this situation before, the women each approach Massetto, and their newfound urges, in their own ill-conceived ways.

The cast is stacked with talented comedians. Every role, even minor ones, is filled by an actor from a Seth Rogen or Judd Apatow film. Most of them stick to their typical roles with Plaza leading as an unhinged maniac. She repeatedly threatens people with violence and doesn’t appear capable of feeling any kind of sympathy. Her character is a stark contrast to Brie who plays an innocent woman that wants to get married and leave the convent but, due to her family’s financial situation, can’t afford her dowry. Brie’s initial sweetness doesn’t last long under Plaza’s influence and her progression into delinquency is an absurd and entertaining descent.

Plaza is borderline maniacal with her violent outbursts

Anachronism is the name of the game when it comes to the film’s humor. First and foremost, who can picture Aubrey Plaza as a nun? Nobody who has seen her in anything and Baena knows that. He makes his intentions clear from the opening scene where Plaza and Micucci attack and berate the church gardener for smiling at them and wishing them a good morning. They swear like sailors using modern curses and not even the slightest hint of an era-appropriate accent with Franco still maintaining his surfer-bro drawl. The only attempts at recreating the period are restricted to the on-location shooting and the attire. Other than that, the film plays like a raunchy sex comedy.

The Little Hours eclipses its peers by its use of the setting. Vulgarity and toilet humor can very quickly become irritating and, initially, it seems like the film will follow that same path, but things change as we learn more about the characters. These aren’t the typical filthy minded cast. These are nuns in the medieval age which means they haven’t actually had any real-life experiences. They have been raised in the convent since they were young so all of their behavior comes from a place of extreme sheltering. This makes even the alarmingly aggressive behavior somehow charming. As the characters throw themselves at Franco, their complete naivete is endearing. They are inexperienced to the point of stupidity so their attempts to win Franco’s attention, while hiding their transgressions, are exercises in hilarious ineptitude. These actions are their baby steps toward understanding themselves as adult women with adult feelings. The competition between the nuns creates misunderstandings that compound into a completely ridiculous climax that reveals how little they know about the world and how comically hypocritical they are. Expressed through a lens of complete and foolish naivete, Baena imbues an anachronistic sex comedy with a charming innocence.

4/5 stars.

The Big Sick (2017)

Earlier this year Get Out was described as a horror/thriller take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but The Big Sick might be a more apt comparison. Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and based on their real courtship, The Big Sick is about an interracial relationship between Emily (Zoe Kazan; Ruby Sparks) and Kumail (playing himself). Their coupling starts off as a one night stand, but as it develops into a long-term relationship the differences in their backgrounds become apparent. Kumail is from a Pakistani Muslim family and Emily is a White American. His family believes in arranged marriages and is actively trying to set him up with potential brides. Because of their traditional beliefs, Kumail chooses to hide his relationship with Emily from them which leads to a falling out. Later when Emily is diagnosed with a serious infection, Kumail is forced to re-evaluate his feelings and meet Emily’s parents.

While many of the details about the potential difficulties of interracial relationships ring true, the social commentary aspect of the film is in conflict with its romantic comedy aspirations. The script lampoons the extended families, particularly Nanjiani’s, but doesn’t ever examine their perspective. That is not to say that their orthodox, often antiquated, ideas are correct or should be supported, but rather that they deserve to be understood. Instead, the film treats Nanjiani’s family like cartoonish villains that are played for comedy. They are painted in the broadest strokes. Perhaps that is to be expected of a Judd Apatow production, but my hope was its autobiographical nature would elevate the writing. The script never allows them to develop into multidimensional characters and in doing so is disrespectful to their culture and the themes the film claims to be interested in.

Kazan and Nanjiani have chemistry, but the majority of the film doesn’t actually feature them together.

Not all interracial relationships are the same. The couple depicted here isn’t facing the same difficulties that a Black American and a White American would face when dating. This is about problems caused by intercultural relationships. There are different expectations and different goals for each culture, but none of that nuance is ever featured in The Big Sick. Like mediocre standup comics, Nanjiani and Gordon are more interested in using cultural differences as punchlines than offering anything beyond surface-level observations.

Contrast this with the great documentary Meet the Patels. It also tackled the complex issues faced by the children of immigrants merging their family’s culture with the one they encounter every day. It was equally, and often more, funny but also sought to actually understand each viewpoint and the disconnect between generations. It showed that, while restrictive, these rules being imposed were done with good intentions and from a place of love. The difference was that their affection was being filtered through a completely different set of cultural norms and the film even explored what it can take to bridge the gap between disparate cultures.

The Big Sick lacks most of that depth. Nanjiani’s family is shown as backwards and while Gordon’s family has some growth as they come to accept Nanjiani, the script doesn’t effectively evaluate the beliefs or assumptions that created their initial stances. It is more interested in exaggerating awkward moments for fairly simple, obvious jokes. The humor is sometimes successful, but is typically limited to surface-level observations. By choosing to be a safe rom-com featuring an interracial relationship rather than a bold rom-com about interracial relationships, Nanjiani and Gordon’s film produces some laughs but without providing real insights into the situation at hand.

2/5 stars.

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

There’s nothing like a dinner party gone awry. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and potentially friendship ending. This is the scenario Miguel Arteta (Cedar Rapids) has brought to life. Salma Hayek stars as Beatriz, a masseuse and homeopathic healer that works in a cancer clinic by day and does work for private clients on the side. After her car breaks down at the house of one of her long-time customers, she is invited to stay for their dinner party until help can arrive. However, she is not their typical house guest. The dinner forces her to come into contact with a local real-estate mogul, played by John Lithgow, who couldn’t be more different from her.

Beatriz immediately stands out from the other dinnergoers. She is plainly dressed and unadorned. She is dwarfed by the other dolled-up, statuesque women and can’t relate to their superficial discussions. It takes several minutes before anyone else even acknowledges her presence. Initially, she is fairly reticent. It’s not until she has had a few glasses of white wine that we get to see her opinions come out. She quickly establishes herself as strong-minded and willing to call out others on their behavior, even to the dismay of her hosts.

Beatriz is completely out of place with the elite, ultra-wealthy guests.

Hayek is completely convincing as Beatriz. Despite being an actress known for her looks, she inhabits the role. Her Beatriz is unpretentious and caring. She bonds with animals and claims to literally feel the pain of others. Even as she starts to disrupt the evening, her intentions are selfless and her heart is kind. Hayek’s greatest triumph is that she is able to portray the character without ever becoming preachy. She doesn’t have a holier-than-thou attitude. She only wants to heal and prevent others from being hurt.

The timing of the release brings new, potentially unplanned, meaning to the premise. With the current political climate of the U.S. divided on immigration, what services may or may not constitute a redistribution of wealth, and an ever-growing income disparity, the characters could easily be seen as symbolic with Lithgow’s character representing the far right and Beatriz as the left. However, Arteta leaves most of the allegory up to the viewer, choosing instead to focus on Beatriz’s reaction when confronted with someone who leads a drastically different life with a polar opposite moral compass (if any).

The allegory becomes less about the rich and the poor and more about those that heal versus those that cause suffering. Beatriz sees healing as not only the most noble, but the most difficult occupation and she has devoted her entire life to that cause. Eventually, she wonders if prevention is better than healing. What if she could stop a source of suffering rather than deal with its aftermath? This becomes her albatross. How does she deal with this man whose actions are entirely damaging? By examining how to stay true to your beliefs when faced with your literal antithesis-made-flesh, Arteta lifts Beatriz at Dinner from a simple comedy of manners to an introspective crisis of morality.

4/5 stars.

Band Aid (2017)

There are few things as uncomfortable as being in the middle of a couple’s fight. The deep-seeded differences and inescapable feeling that the argument is just one of many can be agonizing. Zoe Lister-Jones (New Girl) has used this difficult scenario as the foundation of a comedy-drama. Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) are a 30-something married couple stuck in a rut. Their friends are having children and rewarding careers while they have dead-end jobs and are constantly at each other’s throats. Instead of repeating the same fight over and over again, they decide to start a band and use their quarrels to write music.

As ridiculous as it may seem, the act of singing their frustrations is rooted in psychotherapy. Famous marriage counselors like Esther Perel use similar techniques like blind folding and roleplaying in couple’s therapy to deal with recurring issues. The use of song here abstracts their conflicts from their deeply personal roots and allows the leads to express themselves without descending into damaging attacks. It’s amazing to see how these makeshift therapy sessions allow the couple to address their marital problems.

The songs themselves won’t hold up to repeated listens. They have a very deliberate garage band crudeness without the benefit of a music producer. These aren’t the playlist-worthy tracks of a John Carney movie. While the singing talents of Lister-Jones and Pally are surprisingly adequate, the songs only work in the context of the film to provide humor and healing. The live performances and amateur lyrics are sometimes clumsy but always evocative of the irritating minutiae of a relationship and the positive effect the band has on their marriage is heartwarming.

Lister-Jones is able to balance the pain and humor of a failing marriage.

The sheer amount of humor is joyous. Lister-Jones turns everyday arguments into comedic commentary on relationships and the differences that divide men and women. She is acutely aware of the minor mannerisms that escalate into larger fights and her chemistry with Pally is perfect. They have the familiarity needed to make both their affections and insults feel authentic. Fred Armisen (Portlandia) as their strange neighbor and drummer kills every scene he is in. His unnervingly agreeable nature is a delight in the midst of Anna and Ben’s often explosive interactions and leads to plenty of awkward laughter.

Lister-Jones has stated that her goal was to make “a [John] Cassavetes comedy” and she has mostly been successful. She effectively examines both the male and female perspective in the central relationship without favoring either side. She impressively handles emotional scenes, but does make some larger generalizations about each gender. She posits that most men have a certain type of thinking process whereas most women have a completely different method, going as far as saying that they should be considered different species. The nuances of this comparison are well thought out, but it neglects the similarities that join the genders. Lister-Jones never considers the common ground between men and women which can sometimes make her assertions feel slightly reductive and incomplete. Still, Band-Aid remains an absorbing and consistently hilarious directorial debut.

4/5 stars.

Microbe & Gasoline (2016)

Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is back for another tale of misfits making their way through a normative society. The titular characters feel out of place at school and at home until they meet and befriend each other. Microbe (Ange Dargent), named for his small size and often mistaken by others for a girl because of his hair, and Gasoline (Théophile Baquet; War of the Buttons), named for his scent at school after helping his dad work on cars, decide they’ve had enough of their town and that they will go away together for the summer. They start to build a lawnmower engine-powered car together only to learn they can’t to afford the required registration fees so they come up with a diversionary tactic. Design the outside of the car to look like a house and stop on the side of the road if the police show up. Houses don’t need to be registered with the DMV.

The old saying goes that it’s about the journey, not the destination. The trouble is that it takes too long for the journey to begin. Gondry spends an inordinate amount of time with the boys in school, around their classmates, and with their parents. While this is likely done to establish their need to escape from home, none of the surrounding characters are interesting. They don’t add depth to the leads and are either unsympathetic or make the boys seem unsympathetic for not listening to their parents. If anything, the early section of the film makes their departure more confusing because their families are perfectly reasonable. Instead these scenes weigh down the pacing and unnecessarily distract from the more exciting trip ahead.

Their improvised transportation is one of the most enjoyable parts of the film

When the journey finally begins, we get the Gondry experience his fans appreciate, albeit in a more muted fashion. The director is known for his makeshift arts and crafts aesthetic and that inclination is best exemplified in the car the boys build. They go to the scrapyard and pull bits and pieces of other vehicles, doors, windows, and whatever else they can find to make their escape vehicle. It is Gondry’s little touches that make this process so winning. They add shutters for their windows and even a droppable board to hide their wheels from authorities. These details showcase the director’s acute imagination, but to a lesser degree than his previous films. There are a few examples, but the film would have benefited from more of the zany contraptions, like the olfactory instruments of Mood Indigo, that he is known for.

As their car is assembled we see glimpses of Gondry’s greatest strength. His elaborate production design is the most visible aspect of his style but is actually second to the innocent spirit of his films. To anyone else, disguising a car as a house is a ridiculous idea, but to Gondry characters it is perfectly reasonable – as long as they add some flowers under the window. This sweetness was especially evident in his film Be Kind Rewind where normal people shoot their own no-budget versions of Hollywood classics, but isn’t as prevalent here. The endearing nature of two kids building their own car to get away for the summer is marred by their conflict. When the boys deceive each other it detracts from their appeal. They appear less innocent than we originally thought and it breaks the believability of their whole escapade. If they are capable of lying to even their best friend to get what they want, why would they not be able handle themselves at school or with their families? With characters that eventually lose their endearing nature and early pacing issues, Gondry’s latest effort only charms in passing.

3/5 stars.