This weekend offers three comedy options, each occupying a different spot on the sliding scale between credible and preposterous. At the silly end of spectrum, there’s Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, starring multi-culturalism’s answer to Cheech and Chong. It’s a stoner movie/homeland security satire designed for adolescent boys of all ages. The other two pictures are both romantic comedies from the viewpoint of smart, single, thirtysomething women who are rapidly losing their patience. Then She Found Me is the more mature of the two, and it’s really more of a dramedy, reflecting the angst and edge of its star and progenitor, Helen Hunt, who’s making her directorial debut. Baby Mama, hatched from the ever-percolating talent pool of Saturday Night Live, is a high-concept piece—a test-tube comedy that has its share of laugh-out-loud moments but never escapes the limitations of its sketch-comedy roots. In fact, none of these movies, live up to the talents of the actors involved.
Then She Found Me
When you know that a sexy, intelligent, Oscar-winning actress has worked her hyphenated butt off to direct, co-write, co-produce and star in a labour of love like Then She Found Me, it’s a downright shame to be sitting there watching the final product, worrying that Helen Hunt looks alarmingly gaunt. Considering that she directed the movie, you would expect she would frame herself in a more flattering light. (Hey, if it were Warren Beatty directing himself, you’d never see a bad angle.) But there’s a bravery in Hunt’s evident lack of narcissism. Also her character is meant to be at the end of her rope, more stressed-out from one moment to the next, so it works for the role—up to a point. Still, I kept thinking I was watching an actress suffering from the sleep-deprived strain of directing a movie. When her character’s suitor, played by Colin Firth, kept going on about how beautiful she is, I wanted to shout, “No! Helen, you look exhausted! When did you last take the time to eat a decent meal?”
Hunt plays April, a 39-year-old primary school teacher fretting about her ticking biological clock. She is adopted, and feels unloved, which is enough to convince her that adoption is not an option. In the opening scene, April gets dumped by her new husband, Ben (Matthew Broderick), a boyish, immature wimp with a classic fear of commitment. He’s the kind of passive-aggressive weasel who bursts into tears as he tells his wife their marriage was a mistake, then gets her to comfort him. It makes you wonder what a smart cookie like Hunt would be doing with him in the first place. Must have been the sex.
Events converge on April at a hectic rate. Mere hours after Peter Pan has slinked out of their marriage, she is being rigorously courted by Frank (Colin Firth), a single father whose daughter is one of her pupils. Frank is a Harlequin romance prototype of the perfect male: a dashing, self-deprecating Englishman with a deft wit, and a grown-up passion for amorous commitment. Mr. Darcy as a playgroup dad.
We’re still in the first act when April’s mother dies and another stranger hurtles into her life. Bernice, played with larger-than-life panache by Bette Midler, is a local TV talk show host with an exaggerated sense of her own celebrity. She’s like a poor woman’s white-bread Oprah. And she claims to be April’s birth mother. Then, completing the set-up of this elaborate scenario, April discovers she’s pregnant, which she happens through a quickie bout of break-up sex with her ex. (In case you’re worried, I’m not giving away more plot than you would find in the trailer.)
Speaking of the plot, it’s all too neatly contrived. And speaking of contrived, what in Allah’s name is Salman Rushdie doing distracting us with a cameo as April’s gynecologist? Isn’t the dude supposed to be in hiding? Also, as a self-respecting guy, I don’t see why movies geared to women have to employ the kind of the facile male stereotypes played by Broderick and Firth—just as women tend to resent the mother-whore extremes in movies geared to men.
On the plus side, the script navigates a minefield of sexual and parental politics with aplomb. The wit is disarming and the charm oblique, which is more than you can say about most four-square romantic comedies. You get the sense that Hunt is portraying a character we haven’t quite seen before, a hard-headed heroine who has come a long way from the Meg Ryan cutie-pies, the Diane Keaton klutzes, and even the Helen Hunt helpmate who scored an Oscar for lending credence to Mel Gibson’s antics in What Women Want. An actress who’s willing to risk appearing desperate, needy and unattractive in a movie of her own making at least seems to be coming from somewhere real. But the poor woman deserves a better movie.
Juno seems to have launched a baby boom of movies about misplaced motherhood. Baby Mama is another story of a high-strung professional woman who replies on a working-class girl to have her baby. But while Juno was a simple, faux naïf tale of a pregnant teen who surrenders her kid for adoption, Baby Mama is a cynical tale of an infertile businesswoman (Tina Fey), who hires a coarse white-trash grifter (SNL’s Amy Poehler) to serve as a surrogate mother. Fey’s character has a doctor who says “I don’t like your uterus,” which is described as a T-shaped anomaly deformed by fertility drugs her mother took in the ’60s and ’70s. (Ah, more ecological fallout from blind boomer greed). With just a one-in-a-million chance of conceiving, the girl goes shopping—picking out a prime batch of donor sperm, which she proudly carries home like a Fendi handbag.
When Baby Mama is funny, it’s funny. At times, the comedy crackles along like a well-honed gymnastic routine, mixing sharp one-liners and satirical broadsides. This feature debut was godfathered by SNL producer Lorne Michaels, and written and directed by Michael McCullers, whose screenplay credits include Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. But his over-torqued script is too clever by half and not credible for a second. Which might be fine if it sustained its screwball pitch throughout. But by the time Baby Mama puts on the brakes and makes a bid for some credible emotion, it’s too late.
Fey and Poehler seem stuck in their scripted stereotypes, especially Poehler who’s cast as an ignorant white-trash bitch. Later, when Fey’s character gets angry and calls her exactly that, we’re supposed to feel she has stepped unfairly over the line—but really she is just spelled out the unfortunate stereotype embedded in the script.
Some of the comedy’s best moments come from cameos by more established movie stars. In a startling return to form, Sigourney Weaver, cast as the smarmy executive of the surrogate mother agency, upstages the leads with her comic timing. And Steve Martin casually pulls off a priceless turn as Fey’s boss, a health food mogul expanding his chain of “Round Earth Foods.” As a CEO/guru with a gray ponytail, he says things like, “I was swimming with dolphins this morning in Costa Rica,” and “I’ve toasted pine nuts at the mouth of an active volcano.” Cradling a tiny spiral seashell, he says, “I found this while running barefoot through the Toronto airport,” then instructs his baffled minions to design his new Round Earth store in its spitting image. The script improves so much when Martin opens his mouth that you have to wonder if he upgraded his role with some uncredited writing. Both Martin and Weaver make you realize there’s a difference between movie stars and TV stars. Fey and Poehler don’t quite cut it. Their personalities seem pinched on the big screen. And they’re performances, which aren’t generous enough to go beyond parody, seem no more than the sum of their gags.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Seven years after Sept. 11 made a certain kind of political humour off limits, it’s now open season on Homeland Security. I’ve yet to see War, Inc., John Cusack’s spoof about American warmongering, which is also out this week. But one the most remarkable things about Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is that it busts previous taboos with such blithe abandon. It also offers an odd fusion that we haven’t seen before, grafting the poop-dick-’n'-bong genre of gross-out slacker comedy with a light satire of racial profiling and the war on terrorism. That said, this is a pretty dumb movie.
Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Pen) are Americans of East Indian and Korean descent who land on the wrong side of U.S. intelligence while on a flight to Amsterdam. Kumar, who just can’t wait to get to the city’s marijuana cafes, breaks out an allegedly smokeless bong in the plane’s washroom, which soon fills with pot smoke. Soon enough, our heroes are in the clutches of a maniacal intelligence chief (Rob Corddry of The Daily Show), who ships them off to Guantanamo Bay, where the horrors of prison life include the dreaded “cock sandwich.” Enough plot. Let’s just say, the boys get the escape part over with quickly and spend most of the movie back in the good old U.S.A. being chased by the loony feds. In the final act, a George Bush impersonator shows up to drive home the comedy with some good gags.
It’s hard to dislike this film, even though it’s so patently lame. Cho and Pen have great chemistry. And they’re so amiable and endearing on screen—so effortless in their roles—that you can’t help wondering what they might be capable of in a better movie.