Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On the Edge of an Active Volcano

After several weeks of seeing films programmed by Joe Dante, am I supposed to go back to seeing the same boring new releases? Is that really going to be good enough? In truth, I have seen a few new ones during that time but haven’t written about them because of lack of interest. I saw 88 MINUTES which is an inexcusable piece of shit but it should be pointed out that it’s a gloriously inexcusable piece of shit. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to actually have any interest in writing about it. To mention a creatively unsuccessful film screened by Dante, WRONG IS RIGHT may not exactly work, but it’s definitely interesting. At least it has that.

BABY MAMA doesn’t have that but in fairness it doesn’t really care. A throwaway comedy if there ever was one, it seems to be sold on the strength of Tina Fey and one of the more interesting things about it is that multiple times in the past few weeks I’ve had someone express surprise upon realizing that she didn’t actually write this film, unlike her years on SNL, her screenplay for MEAN GIRLS and her creative involvement in 30 ROCK. For the record, BABY MAMA was written and directed by Michael McCullers, another SNL vet who has also contributed to several movie scripts including the AUSTIN POWERS sequels. Of course, Fey may have worked on this script as well but anyone going to this because of Fey’s writing talents should probably know what they’re getting. In all honesty, I didn’t hate BABY MAMA. It’s fairly pleasant, it’s a lot shorter than FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and it beats getting a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But even the weaker episodes of 30 ROCK offer more laughs and, in their own skewered way, more comic intelligence.

For those who haven’t seen the trailer: Fey plays Kate Holbrook, a 37 year-old single businesswoman in Philadelphia who has suddenly decided that she wants a baby, only to learn how unlikely it is because, as her doctor tells her, “I don’t like your Uterus.” Through an extremely expensive surrogacy agency run by Chaffee Bicknell (Sigourney Weaver) Kate is set up with white trash Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler) who she hires to carry her child. But when pregnant Angie unexpectedly shows up at Kate’s door with nowhere to go, she really begins to learn what sort of person she’s gotten involved with, leading to numerous comical situations. That’s pretty much the setup which is in the ads, so I won’t get into plot complications beyond that.

Enough reviews have referred to Fey & Poehler as a female Lemmon & Matthau to make me wonder if the observation is in the press notes. Fey, always self-deprecating in interviews about her acting abilities, is very good, even if there’s little difference between Kate Holbrook and Liz Lemon. Poehler is more problematic. I like her on SNL and in a few small parts in the past like MEAN GIRLS. I get the feeling that if she were working under a director who would actually, you know, direct her there could be something but as it is she’s playing a sketch character at feature length. There’s no consistency, there’s no sense of believability even on a comic level and ultimately she's not very good at all. I’d be lying if I said I never laughed at anything she does here but she’s just let loose without any modulation to the performance. When the plot gets more serious (well, they always do, so that’s not really a spoiler) it simply doesn’t work. If the two of them are going to do another movie together and with the business this thing is doing that’ll probably happen but they need stronger material and a stronger guiding hand than Michael McCullers seems willing to provide. They needed Billy Wilder, but they got, I don’t know, Gene Saks? Herbert Ross? Arthur Hiller? Saks, of course, directed THE ODD COUPLE instead of Wilder but in that case the script was airtight. Arthur Hiller directed THE IN-LAWS from a script by Andrew Bergman that was petty much flawless. This one isn’t.

Greg Kinnear appears in a key supporting role as the owner of a local juice bar and Steve Martin is the owner of the Whole Foods-like company Fey works for feeling like a role which started as an unbilled cameo and then got expanded. But he prefaces almost every one of his thoughts with proclamations such as “I was swimming with dolphins this morning in Costa Rica,” and “I’ve toasted pine nuts on the edge of an active volcano,” which is of course a good thing. Sigourney Weaver, in full Katherine Parker mode, is sharply funny as the owner of the surrogate agency. Dax Shepherd, Romany Malco, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Maura Tierney and Holland Taylor also appear, along with a few bits by familiar SNL faces.

BABY MAMA is genial, yes, but it's not a very good movie at all but even while saying that I’ll bet most people who like it won’t care about its flaws. They’ll probably say I’m being a grouch. But I’d just like to see Tina Fey in a movie playing at a theater near you that’s better than this one. Hopefully that’ll happen. For now, watch 30 ROCK on Thursdays, because it’s a terrific show and, well, more people should be doing that.


Anonymous said...

Good article, Peel. I would like to convert you to my revolutionary cause of ignoring the consumer entertainment product playing at the multiplexes and to instead try to turn people on to good movies like Gremlins 2 etc.

But, variety is a good thing, and I think it's cool that you can discuss Baby Mama without prejudice or snobbery. That's one reason I keep coming back to this site.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I'll do what I can to expose more people to things like GREMLINS 2. It's worth it. But I still like going to the movies to see new things. And sometimes you do find something good at the multiplex, so I keep on trying. Thanks very much for the comments!