Friday, May 9, 2008
A Las Vegas marriage and Brazilian jiu-jitsu
ROMANTIC COMEDY VERDICT: INTERMITTENT LAUGHS
Summary: Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz join forces in the romantic comedy "What Happens in Vegas." Although the movie has some laughs, it also scrapes gracelessly over dry patches. Diaz knows how to do the romantic comedy rumble, and Kutcher keeps pace, but the material doesn't go anywhere unexpected. and watching Kutcher and Diaz claw at one another can seem more rote than funny.
Talk about predictable. Kutcher's character has an unprincipled best friend (Ron Corddry); Diaz' character has an acerbic best bud (Lake Bell). Kutcher's character is another immature boy/man; Diaz' character is efficient but tightly wound. Of course these two shouldn't be together, which means that they ultimately will wind up taking a joint leap into the happily-ever-after.
"What Happens in Vegas" isn't so much a movie as a series of contrivances. Begin with this: Kutcher (fired from his job) and Diaz (dumped by her boyfriend) wind up in Las Vegas where they meet, get stinking drunk and marry -- all in a night. Upon returning to New York, they try to get the marriage annulled, but a devious judge (Dennis Miller) orders them to make a go of it for six months. Ready for another contrivance? Our mismatched couple happily would risk contempt of court, but for one complication: He won $3 million in a slot machine using her quarter. The judge rules that whoever abandons the marriage first will forfeit the money.
Heavy on slapstick, "What Happens in Vegas" develops a "War of the Roses" mean streak before Kutcher and Diaz are allowed to make nice. The goal: to make you laugh and then warm your heart, but you'd have to be crazy about either one of the two principal actors to see "What Happens in Vegas" as anything more than a lukewarm comedy with a few welcome moments of heat.
DAVID MAMET FIGHTS TO THE FINISH
Summary: In "Redbelt" -- a departure from the usual David Mamet movie -- the playwright enters the world of martial arts. What he finds there are the echoes (some dim, some louder) of previous interests: the way commercialism thrives on con games and the need for the pure of heart to walk a narrow moral line. Transporting the tropes of boxing movies to the world of full-contact fighting, Mamet earns a split decision. I'm not sure the movie will satisfy either Mamet loyalists or martial-arts fans.
If there's a clear victor in Mamet's "Redbelt," it's actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Mike Terry, a master of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The plot draws Terry -- who spends most of his time instructing cops -- into a world of temptation. From the start, it's pretty clear that Ejiofor's Terry won't capitulate. He mistakenly believes, though, that he's dealing with men who are honorable.
The movie builds toward a big fight, a showdown in which Terry must decide whether to sell out his principles for the sake of expedience. He believes that fighting is about upholding values and escaping from difficult situations. He refuses to participate in competitive fighting.
Mamet directs in his usually efficient style. He creates airless worlds in which the characters deal with their problems in concentrated form. Little seems casual as Terry moves through the plot, and a variety of colorful and potentially duplicitous characters are introduced: Terry's wife (Alice Braga), a troubled lawyer (Emily Mortimer), an action movie star (Tim Allen in a welcome serious turn), and the star's manager (Joe Mantegna). The playwright also makes room for appearances by such Mamet stalwarts as Ricky Jay and David Paymer.
The dialogue in "Redbelt" is less inclined toward Mamet-speak than usual, but there's no mistaking Mamet's hand. I guess the point of all this is that Terry's fight has metaphoric punch: Defense beats offense, and pure intentions and skill can lead to victory over crass commercial interests. Think of it as fantasy for hard-core cases or -- if you want to stretch the point -- for lone artists who know something about battling Hollywood foes who fight dirty and are proud of it. A statement about Mamet's movie career? Draw your own conclusions.