Saturday, March 21, 2009


Duplicity, with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, is a fun thriller masquerading as a romantic comedy. With such smart dialogue, amazing plot twists, and real chemistry between the leads, this is better than anything starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Throw in corporate intrigue and steal-the-show supporting acting by Paul Giamatti, and you have one of the best date movies in a long while.

Together with a truly unpredictable story line, there is the unforeseeable romantic dilemma: international spies have troubled relationships. One of the nice little surprises in Duplicity is seeing how secret agents manage being a dual career couple. Just like the typical ambitious couple, they have to commute between New York and...Cleveland. Those marital negotiations, along the lines of, "but I thought we would discuss it before you took the job," are mixed right in with the champagne and espionage. All of the trust issues normal couples have are magnified here, since this man and woman are trained in deception and charm. None of it would work, however, if Clive Owen and Julia Roberts fell flat. They don't. Their flirting and playfulness generate real heat, which is strangely rare in many romantic movies.

Another surprise in this film is the peek into corporate intrigue, with ex-CIA agents and hackers filling out the security staff. The business here is the personal care industry, with secret toothpaste recipes and guarded shampoo formulas. Do you know the difference between hand lotion and hand cream? Because they're really very different, according to the CEO played by Paul Giamatti. This apparently cut-throat industry requires not only anti-perspirant conferences and lipstick presentations, but bodyguards, doubles, and moles. Giamatti's glee in this role is obvious, and his portrayal of this confrontational executive is lots of fun to watch.

After dragging your guy to recent date movies, he may refuse to ever go again. Ask him to give you one more chance. Take him to see Duplicity, a romantic comedy that guys can bear to watch.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The New Ferris Bueller

This is the way it works: parents are always such a mess, the kids are raising themselves and there's no one to help when you feel depressed, get pounded by the school bully, become suicidal, sexually active, and need help to quit smoking, too. Considering how dreadful life is as a teen, how fraught with disaster family life is, how miserable school culture is, it's no wonder teens need Prozac, Ritalin, Xanax, Paxil, or even a few beers now and then. Along comes Charlie Bartlett, kicked out of most of New England's prep schools, to the local public high school. Charlie's wealthy family has a psychiatrist on call, so Charlie knows more than most about your general psychological troubles and is willing to prescribe drugs from his own medicine chest, well-supplied by his own doctors.

More than anything Charlie wants to be popular, to fit in, to be accepted. And apparently this is just one scheme in a long line of schemes to be well-liked by his peers. This one only lasts until the first overdose. But it does get Charlie the popularity he's dreamed of. The young and appealing actor, Anton Yelchin, plays Charlie quite well, just a touch short of annoying child star. Whether Yelchin was a child star, I don't know. But he is very talented here, and it's refreshing to see this generation-next Ferris Bueller played by an obvious teenager, not a 22-year-old. Robert Downey, Jr., plays the principal you really feel pity for, especially as Charlie does him the favor of keeping his school in order. For the first time I can remember, this film makes the teenager's worst enemy, the high school principal, one of the most sympathetic characters you'll ever meet.

Now that we've mentioned the famous Mr. Bueller, we might as well go into the parallels here. Although the original had a great deal of style and whimsy, we were all in on the joke. Charlie Bartlett comes across as a more realistic Ferris Bueller, with more realistic problems than just wanting a nicer car to drive. And real life is never so clean as suburban Ferris was: on occasion, real kids have divorced parents with alcoholism. Remember now how sweet Ferris and his family were? I remember the adults hating Ferris Bueller, because let's face it, he was an annoying snot of a kid. And his Day Off made parents look like idiots, teachers like droning bores, and turned principals into sadistic fools. But think of how innocent it was: no booze, no drugs, no sex. Ferris had a happy family life with two happily married parents who adored him. And what did Ferris do when he skipped school? He went to an art museum, a baseball game, and joined a parade.

Charlie Bartlett is in many ways the typical American high school-themed movie. The misfit teenager desperate to find popularity, clueless parents, bullies, jocks, the sexy smart girl as the love interest - how to sort them all out? But this funny movie manages to make it through, manages to make sense of it a little bit.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Life and Loss in the Suburbs

Henry Poole decides to give up. He moves into his old neighborhood and drinks himself unconscious. Even though it seems that Henry has no reason left to try, God is not finished with Henry yet. One of Henry's neighbors, a devout woman named Esperanza, discovers the face of Christ in a water stain on Henry's stucco wall.

At first, this is just exasperating to Henry, played by Luke Wilson. But this is just the crack God needs to squeeze back into Henry's world. First Henry meets the little girl next door, Millie, who suffers from abandonment and has stopped speaking. The parallels drawn between Henry and Millie reveal the crux of Henry's problem. He, too, suffered loss as a child and has never been quite whole since. You feel that the diagnosis that causes him to withdraw is just part of the same story of life letting him down, of God forgetting about him. Henry even has a safe space he created as a child, just like little Millie with the same kind of childish scribblings. But you find out that God hasn't forgotten about Henry, as much as Henry has tried to deny God and His power. Henry was drawn back to this neighborhood for a reason: here he meets people who care more about him than he cares about himself.

While a bit slow-moving and uneven, the subtle sweetness of this movie along with the charming cast save it. I enjoyed the sun-drenched California suburban location. It added to the reality of the characters and the story. Real lives are like this, with stories of loss and healing. The soundtrack is great, too, being rather alternative and folksy. I think there's even a new Bob Dylan recording in this film.

This film wasn't a big release and would never have been a big money-maker. Still, with a little help, it could have found a receptive audience, an audience that knows faith makes a difference and God leads us to healing.