Grown Ups 2: Nothing Will Ever Be Funny Again

Originally published at TelevisionWithoutPity.com

I just want to make it clear I have never voluntarily seen a Kevin James movie before I watched Grown Ups. I feel it’s important that I disclose this in order to maintain my integrity as a movie buff and as a human being.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: How could I have missed Paul Blart: Mall Cop, or that historically important gay rights film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry? Unfortunately, digging through James’ past oeuvre is a bit above my pay grade, so let’s get right to Grown Ups 2, a film that made me want to shoot myself in the face.

In the first Grown Ups, five middle-aged men (James, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider) reunite at the funeral of their old basketball coach, and decide to spend a weekend reconnecting at Lenny Feder’s (Sandler) lake house. They all bring along their wives and children, and various lame gags and general poor taste ensues. The sequel takes place three years later. All the characters — except for Schneider, who apparently had the decency not to inflict himself on the poor souls who already had to watch him in the original — have now moved back to their home town to spend even more time being not funny together.

Read the full review at TelevisionWithoutPity.com

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Josh Gondelman comedy album

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Nov. 8, 2011

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The 2007 graduate jokes about baldness and being a male preschool teacher on his first comedy album.

Brandeis is a pretty funny campus. It seems as though at least one of our five improv-comedy groups (Bad Grammer, False Advertising, Crowd Control, To Be Announced and Brandeis’ Premiere Improv Comedy Club) or two sketch-comedy groups (Boris’ Kitchen and Little Hands) always has a performance coming up, and the Blowfish and Gravity Magazine publish regularly. For a small school, we seem to have more than our fair share of people willing to make fools of themselves for a laugh. So it should come as no surprise that a Brandeis alumnus is making waves as a professional comedian.

Josh Gondelman ’07 started performing stand-up at comedy clubs in Boston while he was still a Brandeis undergrad. Now he has released his first album, titled Everything’s the Best.

Everything’s the Best‘s 20 tracks showcase Gondelman’s skill as a humorist and an entertainer as he describes his life as a former preschool teacher, a Jew and an all-around nerd.

Gondelman considers “Everything’s the Best” his capstone project celebrating his time doing standup in Boston.

In an interview with justArts, the comedian described where he gets his material. “I try to reflect the things that are happening in my life on stage. I talk about the kids that I taught, I talk about relationships that I’m in. I talk about stuff that I like, like minor league baseball and Encyclopedia Brown.” Gondelman elaborated on his love for the boy detective, a bit that he also performs on the CD. “Encyclopedia Brown could have turned out in one of two ways: He either could have become a tights-wearing vigilante weirdo with a name like The Librarian and a catchphrase like ‘Justice is Overdue!’ … Or, worst-case scenario, which I think is far more likely, Encyclopedia Brown grows up to be Dexter,” referring to the serial-killer Showtime show. He adds that this is a “high-brow” joke because not everyone in his audience could afford the premium cable channel.

Bits about nerd culture pop up throughout Everything’s the Best. After all, Gondelman honed his routine while he attended Brandeis. He performed at bars and comedy clubs off-campus, he was a member of TBA for four years, and he also formed a sketch-comedy group, Friends Like These, with several roommates his junior year. They weren’t an official university club, but rather a self-contained group that performed original sketches weekly. Gondelman recalled one eventful evening on campus: “Once [mashup DJ] Girl Talk played at Brandeis, and our show was scheduled to go on after his. So, we thereafter claimed that Girl Talk opened for us, even though the two shows were completely separate events.”

Since graduating, Gondelman has seen his career grow. He has performed throughout New England and recently moved to New York to pursue his career. He has also appeared on G4’s Attack of the Show. Everything’s the Best came about when, after performing at the Aspen Comedy Festival, representatives from Rooftop Comedy Productions approached him about recording a CD of his routine. Gondelman considers it his “capstone project” to “capture the material [he] had performed in Boston.”

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“When you’re in Brandeis, things like Liquid Latex seem normal when they’re totally not. Shaving your body and painting yourself like a Ninja Turtle and dancing to Vanilla Ice is not normal, but at Brandeis people are just accepting.”

Gondelman has also written for McSweeneys and for several comedy websites, including slacktory.com and thoughtcatologue.com, and hopes to continue to write satirical pieces. “I am in a pretty fortunate position. I am looking to be on the road a lot in the coming year,” he said. “I would like to get a steady job writing books or for a TV show. I love stand-up, but unless you’re in the top one percent of stand-up comedians, you can’t really sustain yourself or have a retirement plan or anything. There’s no one watching your back. Stand-up is fun and rewarding, but the constant touring is tough on your body and brain, and I don’t think I could do it in 30 years.”

For now, however, Gondelman is continuing to tour and perform at bars and comedy clubs throughout the Northeast. And of course, you can follow him on Twitter at @JoshGondelman. But despite his success, Gondelman still has a soft-spot for his alma mater.

“Brandeis is an oddball place, in a really genuine way,” he said. “In [Friends Like These], there were people pursuing all sorts of different degrees, but they were all totally respected. When you’re in Brandeis, things like Liquid Latex seem normal when they’re totally not. Shaving your body and painting yourself like a Ninja Turtle and dancing to Vanilla Ice is not normal, but at Brandeis people are just accepting. At other schools, everyone streamlines into a ‘partier’ or a ‘studier.’ At Brandeis, everyone got to be a complete person.”

50/50

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Oct. 4, 2011

There are plenty of over-done comedic sub-genres out there. There’s the raunchy comedy, the romantic comedy, the buddy comedy. But the cancer comedy? That’s one I haven’t heard before.

50/50, a new film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and SethRogen, tackles this rather macabre subject. What’s funny in a film about cancer? Well, a whole lot, actually.

Levitt plays Adam, a 27-year-old yuppy working for public radio who is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. His chances of recovery? 50/50. Adam is completely blindsided by his sudden illness but is helped along by his brash, unapologetic best friend Kyle (Rogen). Though Kyle’s primary objective seems to be helping Adam use the sympathy card to get laid, his honest, forthright personality is endearing. Kyle’s shining moment comes when he snags a photo of Adam’s girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) kissing another man and goes on a hilarious tirade against her. Rogen provides most of the film’s comedic moments, including his many jokes about Adam’s diseased appearance.

Adam, on the other hand, goes through much of the film in a numb, drowsy fog, a state that he refers to as “fine” and that his therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick) terms as “shock.” It is clear from the first scene between Adam and Katherine that the two will become more than friends by the end of the film, despite the fact that their initial interaction is so awkward it’s painful. Kendrick doesn’t seem to be much more than a placeholder for the requisite romantic interest that all Hollywood movies must contain. An actress with stronger comedic chops would have been more suited to the role. Instead, Kendrick falls flat next to Gordon-Levitt and Rogen. Veteran film actress Anjelica Huston, as Adam’s mother, however is wonderful in her role as the silently grieving matriarch.

Adam is “fine.”

Gordon-Levitt, the star of the film, gives a terrific performance as well. Adam’s disbelief slowly turns to acceptance, then rage and fear as his situation worsens. A scene late in the film, in which Adam admits that he believes he will die, is beautiful in its willingness to confront the audience. 50/50 doesn’t back down from its premise that Adam could very well succumb to his cancer, and Gordon-Levitt, though he is as charming and adorable as ever, doesn’t back down either.

At the film’s climax, the movie’s most powerful scene, he locks himself in his car and lets out a primal scream, hitting the wheel and dashboard savagely. His fury appears real, and when he later says he thinks he may have “broken his larynx,” I believed that Gordon-Levitt meant it.

One other moment that is equally touching is Adam’s relationship with two elderly chemotherapy patients, Mitch and Alan (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall, respectively). Together, these three men share the hardest aspects of their diseases. Their scenes are also some of the funniest in the entire film.

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Veteran film actress Anjelica Huston, as Adam’s mother, is wonderful in her role as the silently grieving matriarch

50/50‘s realism is due in large part to its writer, Will Reiser (Da Ali G Show). 50/50 is Reiser’s semi-autobiographical account of his own battle with spinal cancer, for which he underwent chemotherapy and, eventually, surgery in 2005 when he was 25 years old. Rogen and Reiser are good friends, and Rogen essentially plays a larger-than-life version of himself in 50/50. Though there are elements of the film that are fictional, some of its funniest scenes, such as Adam’s going-away party from work, are taken from Reiser’s actual experiences.

50/50 is more than just a funny film. It strikes a balance between poignancy and comedy. It may make you cry, and it will definitely make you laugh. Cancer touches the lives of most people. It is, sadly, a fact of life. Reiser’s choice to use his experiences to create a comedy, however, is a rare example of how humor can help us cope with the most difficult events in our lives. 50/50 may just put the cancer comedy on the map.

Our Idiot Brother

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Sept. 6, 2011

Is there anything not to like about Paul Rudd? The guy is cute (in an approachable way), witty and hilarious, but he rarely crosses the line into bathroom humor the way some of his frequent collaborators do—I’m looking at you, Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen. His charm and deadpan delivery have made many of his characters, who would be otherwise unmemorable, the scene stealers and highlights of several of the best comedies of the last decade.

It is this charm and wit that carries Our Idiot Brother, Rudd’s latest movie and one of the few in which he plays the main character. Rudd plays Ned, an organic farmer with a penchant for classic country music and a desire to see the best in everyone. This desire often overrules common sense, as in the first scene when Ned sells marijuana to a uniformed police officer because the cop complains he is having a “bad week.” Ned sympathizes and is thrown into jail for nine months for his trouble.

This is just one example of the way that Ned’s chosen outlook on life backfires. His never-ending supply of good faith makes him appear clueless and almost childlike. Even after he sees the negative consequences of his complete honesty, it never sinks in that it is sometimes more important to stay quiet than to share his thoughts with the world, particularly when those thoughts concern the lives of other people.

Paul Rudd plays a lovable dud in this lifeless comedy.

Paul Rudd plays a lovable dud in this lifeless comedy.

Upon his release from prison, Ned returns to his farm, only to find that his girlfriend of 3 years, Janet (Katherine Hahn), has moved on with Billy (the hilarious T.J. Miller), a similarly crunchy and dim-witted guy. Adding insult to injury, Janet is keeping Willie Nelson, Ned’s beloved golden retriever. With no job, dog or place to go, Ned calls on his family for support.

Enter his three sisters: Miranda (Emily Banks), Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) and Liz (Emily Mortimer). These women represent three basic female archetypes: the ball-busting career woman with no time for romance, the free-loving artist and the exhausted housewife, respectively. None of these characters is ever fleshed out enough to make the audience actually care about them in their own right.

This is a shame, as each of the sisters, if given more screen time, could add a lot to the plotline, which focuses too much on Ned’s overwhelming honesty and general niceness. The audience can only empathize with a completely amiable guy for so long before it gets a little boring.

Natalie, in particular, is an interesting subject: one half of a lesbian couple with partner Cindy (the entirely underused Rashida Jones), Natalie would seem like Ned’s perfect ally against the rest of their more normative family. Instead, Deschanel plays out the tired cliché of a woman in a committed queer relationship who is seduced by a man. (Don’t worry, this isn’t much of a spoiler as Natalie only appears in three or four scenes in the movie. She is the least present of the three sisters.)

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Ned and two of his sisters wonder why they put up with him. I couldn’t figure it out either.

Natalie, as the more feminine woman in her relationship, is written as bisexual rather than gay and therefore, of course, is more likely to be in need of a man at some point during the film. Audiences have seen this scenario on screen more than once, even in “queer” films and television shows such as The Kids Are All RightChasing Amy and Queer as Folk. These storylines suggest that many filmmakers view lesbian relationships as less valid and less stable than straight ones, particularly if one woman in the relationship is bisexual or even “straight-acting.” Other than this plot device, the rest of Our Idiot Brother is actually quite progressive, considering that the protagonist is an organic farmer who values honesty and the comfort of others above his own needs. The inclusion of Natalie’s dalliance with a man, as opposed to just having her cheat with another woman, adds an unnecessary bias into the film.

Sisters Liz and Miranda aren’t portrayed much better. Miranda is a self-centered journalist who finds Ned annoying and tiresome, and Liz is a mom who is so worried about the health and safety of her children that she won’t let her son eat a piece of cake two days in a row. Each sister ends up blaming Ned and his good intentions for the problems that arise in their own lives, though it is their brother who ultimately causes them to think more deeply about their attitudes and actions.

In the end, Our Idiot Brother pretends to be a quirkier and more alternative film than it really is. Despite several life-changing events, none of the characters evolves, including Ned, who remains a socially awkward child until the credits roll. Hopefully, in the future, Rudd will take center stage in films that are both funnier and more original than this.

Paul

March 15, 2011

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the duo behind Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, are about to release a new film, Paul. Just as their previous two collaborations were tributes to the action and horror genres, respectively, Paul is Pegg and Frost’s homage to science-fiction films. For Pegg and Frost, sci-fi holds a special place in their hearts. When discussing Paul at a round-table interview last Tuesday, the pair continually referenced their own experiences with nerd culture, particularly their love of ’70s and ’80s era alien flicks such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Additionally, Pegg himself has appeared in the most-recent Star Trek film as Scotty (of “Beam me up” fame) and the British time-travel series Doctor Who. As Pegg himself put it, “We’re geeky, and we always will be.”

That may be true, but it doesn’t mean that Frost and Pegg only make films which require a fluency in Klingon to understand. In particular, Paul has a raunchy surface, but at its heart it is really a film about two buddies helping a friend out of a jam. That friend just happens to be an alien the government has secretly been studying for the past 60 years. Paul (the alien, voiced by Seth Rogen) landed in America in the 1950s and has since been sharing his intergalactic knowledge with Washington, D.C., as well as influencing popular culture. The reason he looks so familiar is because he has intentionally guided our idea of what aliens should look like since he came to Earth. In one of the film’s cleverest moments, Paul is heard advising Steven Spielberg via telephone. The voice on the other end of the line? Spielberg himself.

Pegg and Frost had told Spielberg about Paul while on the set of their next film, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Apparently, the director was thrilled. “His eyes just lit up, and he said ‘I love it.’ Then he said, ‘Maybe I should be in it.'” Pegg and Frost were understandably delighted. “So we went away, wrote this scene, then we came back and said, ‘Are you gonna do it or what?’ We loved the idea of him literally phoning in a cameo,” laughed Pegg. “The irony was beautiful.”

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Spielberg isn’t the only big name to make an appearance in Paul. Along with Pegg, Frost and Rogen, Sigourney Weaver (a mainstay of the sci-fi genre), Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig also star, and there are additional cameos by Blythe Danner and Jane Lynch. Paul is Frost and Pegg’s first movie to have a mostly American cast and director (Greg Mattola, who also helmed Superbad and Arrested Development) and the first to be set in the United States. Before filming, Frost and Pegg went on a road trip across the country to explore the film’s setting. “It was awe-inspiring. It’s an extraordinary landscape, and it’s vast and terrifying,” shared Frost “We said ‘wow’ more than we’ve ever said ‘wow’ before.”

The story of two Star Wars-loving Brits and an alien named Paul might not seem like material for a great movie at first, but Pegg and Frost have managed to create a film that is both hilarious and touching. Rogen was a key addition, and he has added his own comedic style to Paul and made him funnier than the character the writers had originally created. “Initially it was an older gent we had in mind when we thought of the character,” explained Pegg. “When we adjusted our mindsets to it being a younger actor, when Seth’s name came up it was like little sirens going off in our heads, because here was someone whose voice sounded quite old, but coming from the mouth of someone who was actually a lot younger than you think.” Rogen imbued Paul with an old hippie, seen-it-all, laid back vibe that works well against Pegg and Frost’s characters, Graeme and Clive, who are initially both awkward and terrified.

The duo is traveling across the country on the way back from Comic-Con International via trailer when they meet Paul. The alien has just escaped the secret government facility where he has been living the past 60-odd years, because he has discovered that the scientists there want to cut up his body to study extra-terrestrial life forms. Clive and Graeme decide to give him a ride to safety. The three travelers eventually meet Ruth (Wiig), the daughter of a bible-thumper trailer park owner (John Carroll Lynch). Meeting Paul challenges Ruth’s entire upbringing and slowly changes the way she perceives her world. The relationships between these four characters form the heart of the film. Paul is filled with cute nods to science-fiction tropes and other references to popular culture. The film also works hard to justify its R-rating, but like other Rogen films, the characters’ vulgarity just makes them more likeable.

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Like their characters in Paul, Frost and Pegg are best friends in real life. They constantly banter back and forth with one another, demonstrating their impressive improv skills. It almost sounded as though they were speaking in prewritten dialogue, always ready with a witty comeback or rebuke. The pair has worked together since they created Spaced, a show that debuted in 1999. After collaborating for over a decade, it’s clear that Pegg and Frost have not grown tired of one another.

Though the two have no future projects together lined up after Tintin, which is the third installment of their Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy with director Edgar Wright (of which Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are the first and second parts, respectively) I hope there will be another film at some point in the future.