Mike at the Movies

“The Other Guys” (PG-13) ***

I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t start laughing at this film, no matter how hard Will Ferrell and the rest of the cast tried to get me started. If it had been Steve Carell doing these crazy bits, it might have been hysterical, and some of you will laugh anyway. It’s OK. I won’t mind. But Ferrell keeps trying too hard.

Cast in the form of the ancient but still funny “Airplane” series with Leslie Nielsen, complete with the luscious babe (in this case Eva Mendes) and the pratfalls and predictable disasters of bumbling cops, I kept expecting the level of comedy to soar, and it never really does. There is a remarkable series of incidents with a Prius that is a great ad for that company, and the sudden end of Samuel L. Jackson and Duane Johnson is bizarre and perversely funny, but few of the other bits string together to be anything much but bits.

Is it Ferrell’s fault? Probably. If the summer hadn’t been so starved for real comedy, this would maybe make the grade. I just find it worth passing to the next class.

“Step Up” (PG-13) **

I may be way too old for these movies. I seem to have seen them for years and years: boy has a dance group/band/singing group/theater company, meets a girl who gets into the troupe, and becomes a vital member, and they unite to win a big contest against another, evil group. I don’t think this deserves “spoiler alert” status. As soon as the film starts, anyone who has seen this kind of movie before has a pretty good idea where it’s going to end up.

The stars are almost totally unknown: Rick Malambri as the leader, Luke; another gorgeous Australian, Sharni Vinson, as the girl; and a startling Harpo Marx look-alike, Adam Sevani, as Harpo. The dance form is a remarkably aggressive hip-hop/martial arts blend that is effective as a competitive form. The problem is that we are given no criteria for judging the comparative excellence of the competition. The plot is made further hackneyed by the fact that the Pirates must win the competition in order to pay off the mortgage on their home and studio. Enter a villain, another dancer, of course, who vies for the mortgage and the championship. Ho-hum.

If you like this kind of dancing, you’ll like this film. There’s nothing else in it to distract you from focusing on the moves.

“Eat Pray Love” (PG-13) ***

If you do not already know from hearing about the book, this movie is totally a women’s picture. It is about a woman who incessantly wants to find herself. She looks in New York, Rome, India and Bali.

The problem with the concept is that, though the message is allegedly about finding fulfillment in knowledge of self, Liz Gilbert seems incapable of finding any sort of peace without a man. She divorces one, and we are allowed to see why: He is a rubbery, nebbish sort of guy with no direction himself.

James Franco, as the actor-lover, comes up short for no discernible reason other than her continuing search for self-fulfillment. (Boy, that phrase gets tiresome, but that’s what Liz (Julia Roberts) is all about so deal with it.) The actor does give her a guru, which is how Liz eventually makes her way to India, but the stay in Rome is the most memorable. She is given the clue to herself there when someone explains the concept of dolce far niente —“a sweet idleness” — but she refuses to listen.

She is told again in India to learn to love the silence. In fact, the performance by Richard Jenkins as a fellow ashram inmate is Oscar-quality as he attempts to teach Gilbert, dubbed “Groceries” because she eats so much, to appreciate the nothingness of perfect silence.

It is the supporting actors, plus the incandescent beauty and charm of Roberts that carry the picture past its rather self-centered and ultimately mundane message. Those performances, by Jenkins, a lovely Swedish actress named Tuva Novotny and various other players in each location, plus the three primary locations themselves overtake the message, fortunately.

The production’s merits do not cover the fact that it is, at heart, an exercise in feminized narcissism. Roberts weeps enough, in almost every scene, to allow her saving smile to shine through as it always does. Maybe that’s self-fulfilling enough.

“The Expendables” (R) ***

Mickey Rourke, in a cameo as a tattoo artist, tries to focus this picture by saying that what he really wants is not to die alone but next to a woman. That’s about the only “soulful” moment in a violent, explosives-ridden adventure film in the old Stallone “Rambo” tradition. This time it’s a set of mercenaries with various skills who try to liberate the Island of Vilena from the grasp of its dictator and his American backer, a former CIA man.

The villains are clear, the heroes are clear, except for one traitor, and action hot and heavy. The rubric for such movies is very old: Start with a minimum of explosions, add a few car chases, add more and more explosives and bigger fires and more gasoline and more spectacular weapons (my favorite was the automatic shot gun that could blow up seemingly everything with a maximum of noise), and let Sly Stallone and his gang establish a kill ratio of at least 20:1. Or, in this case, 50:0.

Jason Statham is amusing in his detachment from his role as he leisurely strolls through the movie killing people with an inexhaustible supply of knives, but Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are showing their age. Arnold was wise to appear only long enough to hand the mission in Vilena to Stallone.

With Stallone writing and directing, you know exactly what you’re going to get, and he certainly delivers.

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