Tagged: Jenny Slate

Box Office Democracy: Gifted

I feel like I never see movies like Gifted anymore.  Gifted is a smaller movie, almost completely devoid of the spectacle that snobs complain about in modern cinema.  It’s as anonymous a movie as one can get from the director of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise, the star of Captain America and Octavia Spencer.  It’s funny when it wants to be, touching when it tries it’s absolute hardest, and if you’re willing to suspend an ample amount of disbelief there’s a heartwarming message to be found here.

There’s a reasonably famous book on screenwriting called Save the Cat.  It’s a guide to crafting marketable scripts, there’s good advice in there, and it sold a ton of copies.  The title refers to the need to have your main character do something early in the film to get the audience on their side; something like saving a cat.  I’m telling you this because in the first scene of Gifted we are introduced to Fred, the one-eyed cat who was adopted by Frank the protagonist of this film (Chris Evans).  He assures his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) that while he doesn’t generally like cats, he likes this one.  It’s such a transparent use of this trope that was the title for this wildly successful screenwriting book that this is either an insane coincidence or a stunning lack of self-awareness on the part of the writer. (I know this probably won’t occur to 95% of the viewing audience who have never read any books on how to write a screenplay but it was distracting for me.)

Other than the whole cat bit (which also comes back in the third act for extra emotional stakes but I said I was moving on) the story is suitably interesting.  Mary goes to her first day of school and is clearly a prodigy, and through her being a precocious scamp who is good at math and beating the hell out of children twice her age she gets the attention of her grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) who does not like Frank.  A custody battle ensues, and the crux of the film is if Mary should be allowed to have a “normal” life or if she should be pushed to be the mathematical whiz her mother was and that she seems to have the potential to be.  It’s kind of interesting that this film just assumes that mathematical aptitude is some kind of hereditary trait that was passed through three generations.  I could see that an overbearing mother like Evelyn could make her daughter in to a mathematician through constant effort but I’m not sure how Mary, orphaned as a young child and raised by smart but not genius Frank, is on the same level.  I suppose it isn’t exactly the point but it’s a weird universe to assume.

A lot of the movie is tied up in this custody battle and I like a good courtroom scene as much as the next person, but the real joy in the movie is away from all of that.  The scenes with Octavia Spencer as Roberta, the next-door neighbor, and Jenny Slate as Bonnie, Mary’s first grade teacher, are universally the best ones.  Chris Evans is great at trading barbs with his inexplicably British mother but I’d much rather see him having quasi-meaningful conversations with Jenny Slate.  This is the first dramatic role I can remember for Slate, and while she might not be the second coming of Meryl Streep she’s fun and interesting— and most importantly, a breath of fresh air for a part that sometimes feels like it cycles between the same six actresses over and over again.  Octavia Spencer is a delight in everything she does; I don’t feel compelled to sell anyone on her.  Spencer has a small part here, but she talks the most like a real person and that’s worth a lot.

Gifted is a fun movie.  It’s nice to see Evans and Slate playing against type.  It’s a heartwarming story that never twists itself in to being a downer.  I sort of wish that the end result of all of Frank’s handwringing about whether he’s going to screw up Mary’s life was answered by someone telling him that he will definitely screw up and it will definitely be okay because that’s what parenting is.  That isn’t what this movie is though, and it’s okay.  I liked watching Gifted and I would be absolutely thrilled to stumble upon it again on cable on a slow afternoon or on an airplane, it’s the perfect movie for those contexts.

Box Office Democracy: The Secret Life of Pets

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how at this point in my life I’m through being cool.

I’m 32 years old, I’m engaged to the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, and I just closed on a house. I don’t need to do things anymore because I think they make me look cool. I’m going to use clip-on sunglasses, wear flip-flops despite my giant feet looking goofy in them, and I’ll wear shorts after dark if it’s a warm evening and I feel like it. If something I like happens to be cool then that’s a great coincidence, but otherwise I’m willing to wear wrestling shirts and play needlessly complicated board games.

By the same token I’m willing to say that I wholeheartedly enjoyed The Secret Life of Pets despite it being a bit shallow from a narrative perspective, and despite the fact that at this point in Minion-mania Illumination Entertainment might be the least cool movie studio on the planet.

The Secret Life of Pets is a pretty standard hero’s journey story, plucky everydog Max (Louis C.K.) has his idyllic life disrupted by newcomer Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the two eventually get lost in New York and a ragtag group of other pets come together to save them. It’s not the most original story in the world, but it’s a perfectly strong framework to hang 90 minutes of reliable pet humor. Dogs are earnest and dumb, cats are aloof and egotistical, and birds are surprisingly clever. I suppose a megalomaniacal rabbit and an army of neglected pets bent on the subjugation of human life is a little new, but no one strained under the narrative weight here. What shines is the jokes and more importantly, the execution.

The casting for Secret Life of Pets is impeccable, and while I usually want to resist the trend of hiring mainstream actors to do voice work (is it even a trend at this point? It’s basically a cultural norm) I can’t deny that the performances here are top notch. C.K. and Stonestreet are good enough, the former is doing a generic enough good guy persona and the latter a performance that’s 98% bumbling goofball the supporting cast is where the real gems are. Jenny Slate is a revelation as the lovesick Pomeranian who live across the street from Mac and leads the effort to return him home. She’s spunky and funny but most importantly really genuine. Slate has been bubbling just below the audience consciousness line for a while, and I hope that she can finally start breaking through with efforts like this. Albert Brooks is a legend for good reason, but I never knew I always wanted him to play a hawk with an honesty problem. He steals every scene he’s in and, most importantly, sounds nothing like Marlin from when I saw him a couple weeks back. Kevin Hart has spent the last couple years slowly winning my heart and he deserves all of that love here. It’s his trademark big over-the-top character I’ll probably see four times this year but it consistently got the biggest laughs in the theater.

There’s a moment in the second act where I thought Secret Life of Pets was finally going to try for a big emotional moment, to step above what I expect from Illumination and join the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks upper echelon in animated storytelling. They start talking about Duke’s original owner and the life they had together and when they return to find said owner, the current occupant of the house (a cat) tells Duke that his owner has passed away. They are clearly trying to pull at the heartstrings with this revelation but the moment gets no time to breathe, feels a little out of nowhere when it comes up, and is never even referenced again. I wanted a bigger moment, I wanted to know what Duke’s original owner called him, I wanted something bigger. If you’re going to go for it commit all the way and if you aren’t going to make a real effort maybe that time would be better served with a couple more good jokes.