Nostalgic for the days of W.? Well, Oliver Stone’s biopic of the man born on third base who thought he hit a triple, and partied his way from frat boy to Governor to the only leader of the free world nearly assassinated by a pretzel, will give you a sympathetic picture of the man and a critical one of the President. Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Banks both do incredible jobs portraying the first couple, and the rest of the cast varies from James Cromwell’s solid Daddy Bush and Geoffrey Wright’s fantastic Colin Powell to Richard Dreyfuss, who managed to become Dick Cheney through some pact with Satan.
Oliver Stone sees the Bush story sympathetically because there are similarities in their pasts, and perhaps he tells the tale so well because he understands him. Both were born to powerful fathers who were hard to please and perhaps impossible to live up to. George W. Bush had the added burden of a successful brother Jeb, and the film posits he was driven to ambition while seeking his father’s approval. We see everything from Dubya’s perspective, and Stone wisely avoids any “Mr X” characters or revisionism. W. tells a tale with things we may already know, together gives us a view with much greater depth.
We meet George when he’s being hazed as a frat pledge; follow him through myriad disappointments of his father, and his famous failures. Daddy (played to perfection by James Cromwell as the New England aristocrat) is always there to bail him out, but also tear him down for needing it. When Dubya sees how much approval Jeb gets for following Dad into politics, he tries his hand at it as well- but gets torn apart as a carpetbagger, “out-Texaned and out-Jesused,” as he puts it. And he vows that will never happen again. Enter Karl Rove (the always terrific Toby Jones, of The Mist and Infamous) to help with the a-Texanin’ and a-Jesusin’.

From here we see the crafting of a figurehead. He crafts the easy Texan, the guy you’d wanna have a beer with. But you can’t have a beer with W.; you’ve got to have an O’Doul’s. His hard-drinking days are well recounted, but we see little struggle with overcoming it. He shows up at A.A. one day, and after a moving speech by the preacher (Stacy Keach) he stays after. From then on he is born again, and the only ribbing comes from his father. It’s a decision that in the end, helped catapult him to the Presidency on the votes of evangelicals, who abandoned his father for apparent “neglect.” His father’s failure to be re-elected is shown with pathos, but W. blames his father for not listening to him and appealing to the religious right.
His father’s loss and decision to not invade Baghdad weighed heavily on W.’s shoulders, and the real meat of the movie involves the decision to invade Iraq, with Colin Powell arguing for U.N. action and Cheney continually repeating the threat WMD’s and trying to link them to Nigerian yellowcake. The only scenes we see without W. are of the first Iraq War- after the blitzkrieg strike, we see Cheney, Powell and the first President Bush agreeing that pushing on to Baghdad is a bad idea. Ten years later, Cheney has changed his mind, and Bush 2 wants to finish what Daddy couldn’t do. The pressure on CIA director George Tenet to produce U.S.-based human intel to prove what Cheney already believed- that foreign intel on the yellowcake and WMDs was irrefutable- was enormous, and while it is beyond the scope of the film, he resigned in 2004 when no such WMDs were found.
A recurring image in the film is of George W. Bush alone in the outfield, the sun in his eyes, as a fly ball soars toward his glove. He was a son who grew up in a competitive and aristocratic family with a father who was both a war hero and a successful politician, when he only had a history of failures- as an oil man, a financier, manager of a baseball team. When he got into Harvard and Yale, his mother congratulates him but his father sneers, “who do you think pulled the strings to get him in?” The pressure to show up Jeb, and even his own father was enormous- and when he became President, it was something he could be easily talked into. In the beginning, I wanted to have a beer with W.; I voted for him. In the end, his personal failings- his deep need to both impress and surpass his father- led him to drag the country into a nation-building exercise in the Middle East at the cost of trillions, countless Iraqi lives, and over 4,000 American ones so far.
If you hate the man, the movie gives you plenty of flubs to enjoy. If you loved him, this is the most sympathetic portrayal you’re likely to get anytime soon. Josh Brolin gives an excellent, nuanced performance that is no caricature. While it is still too soon for me to feel true sympathy for the President who took us from worldwide success in taming Afghanistan and then blinked when capturing Osama bin Laden seemed in sight, I did feel some for the boy who grew up in the shadow of a demanding patriarch. Or maybe it’s because I just watched The Lord of the Rings with Milky, and we were talking about Denethor, Faramir and Boromir a lot.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Stoner superstar Seth Rogen and potty mouth king Kevin Smith together, with a cast plucked from Apatow, Smith and Office alumni, “Mac guy” Justin Long, ubiqui-cutey Elizabeth Banks, and a plot about two slacker roomies forced to make a porno to pay the rent? Sounds like it should be awesome. And it is for the first two acts, then it sort of peters out- pun intended- but still satisfies. It’s popular to bash Smith, and this isn’t his best movie, but it’s pretty fucking funny for a good while.

I have a love/hate relationship with Kevin Smith’s movies. I loved Clerks, with its unashamed profanity and familiar Jersey slacker culture, but since then Jay & Silent Bob got shoehorned in everything; the movies were good but juvenile, and while I like them I didn’t think he really grew much until Clerks 2 came along. Zack and Miri Make a Porno does feel like Smith meets Apatow, but that’s mostly due to Rogen’s involvement; Banks may not be the best-written female character, but she’s miles ahead of Smith’s usual. So give Z&M a try.

Rogen plays his usual stoner everynerd, a barista at Bean ‘n Gone; he’s Zack, and Miri is Elizabeth Banks (W., The Baxter, The 40-Year Old Virgin) his slacker roommate who’s been buds with him since the first grade. We meet them as they brave the bitter Pittsburgh cold, going to work at their minimum-wage jobs to pay a mountainous stack of bills. Soon the power is turned off, the water too, because Zack would rather buy skates and fleshlights than pay the rent. Actually it’s to Rogen’s credit that he lays on enough charm for us not to wonder why Miri doesn’t just boot his ass out, but I didn’t even think about that until days later.

Zack’s coffee shop pals include the crabby Delaney (Craig Robinson, “The Office” janitor and Apatow alumn) who’s constantly whispering Zen-like epiphanies about the misery of marriage, and the furious boss Mr. Surya (Gerry Bednob, The 40-Year Old Virgin) who is apopleptic over their total lack of work ethic. Delaney steals every scene he’s in, and with Rogen and Banks there that’s fine work. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of him in bigger roles, as he’s definitely got the chops to do it on his own. The other scene-stealer is Justin Long, who was tedious in Live Free or Die Hard and wore out his welcome as the Mac Guy, who plays a flaming gay porn star who shows up at Zack & Miri’s high school reunion. He chews just enough scenery and delivers Smith’s dialogue- which is a little less raunchy and more clever this time around- perfectly. When the duo decides to make porn, some Smith regulars file in but are different enough that they don’t make you roll your eyes.

Jason Mewes is back, this time as a crew-cutted porn star wanna-be, and he’s crafted a character far enough from “Jay” to be funny without feeling old; Jeff Anderson (Randall from Clerks) is back as the unlikely cameraman, and wisely plays the straight man. At least Smith doesn’t shit on his old friends. Delaney is on board as the producer, with his hard-earned HDTV money; after a somewhat lame montage of possible porn movie names they decide upon “Star Whores,” and I worried that I’d be watching an hour of lame Star Wars jokes. Smith wisely plays this for a brief laugh before taking the script elsewhere, and manages to craft a hilarious, raunchy second act as they film their ultra-low budget epic.

For a movie about a porno, it manages to be somewhat less gross than Clerks 2 except for one scene, and for being slapped with NC-17 twice it only uses bouncing boobs and dangling wangs purely for comedic value. While the humor is definitely on the raunchy side, this is a lighter side of Smith; he’s learned that shock value is difficult to come by, but he still manages to slip a good one in there. Traci Lords and Katie Morgan are on board for the porn talent, but we never catch the camera leering, which is a good thing. For one lesson the movie will teach you is that there is no free titty. Smith earns his titty with this funny movie, which may not be his best, but is a fresh addition to his portfolio and a sign that he shouldn’t be written off as an aging, potty-mouthed Star Wars & comic book nerd with a camera just yet.

And I’m glad that bad boy Jay Mewes is clean again. He’s from my part of Jersey and I first met him stoned out of his mind, and know a lot of his old crew never made it out of heroin hell. Others have cleaned up their act quicker than he has, but the Hollywood temptations of easy access to your poison has to be hard. He plays his wanna-be porn star like a German-accented crazy nudist and is hard to recognize as “Jay,” which is a good thing. Apparently the “accent” is a lisp from dental surgery according to IMDb, but it’s still funny.

3 out of 4 titties. (Shave and a haircut, two bits- I saw a lady with three tits)


Role Models

Damn it is great to see a hilarious comedy that Judd Apatow has no involvement with. I like his films, but give someone else a chance. David Wain, writer of “The State,” one of the best skit comedy shows ever, and director of Wet Hot American Summer comes together with snarkmaster Paul Rudd (Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and Sean William Scott- who hasn’t been this entertaining and well, not annoying since he was The Rock’s punching bag/sidekick in The Rundown– to give us a filthy-mouthed but soft-hearted comedy that somehow manages to make fun of, and yet embrace male nerdery of many kinds.

If you’ve seen the Role Models trailer or commercials you know the story- Danny (Rudd) and Wheeler (Scott) work for an energy drink company, peddling “Minotaur” to school kids to keep them off drugs and on hyper-caffeinated, guarana-infused beverages. Wheeler loves it- he gets to dress up as a bull-man and bag chicks, but Danny hates the dead-endedness of his job, and his girlfriend Beth, a lawyer, is sick and tired of his super-negative attitude. So she dumps him, and Danny breaks down in front of a bunch of schoolkids and causes untold mayhem, which lands him and Wheeler with a 30 day jail term. Unless they placate the judge by performing 120 hours of community service with his favorite charity, Sturdy Wings.
Sturdy Wings is the creation of a tough-as-nails ex-addict Gayle Sweeney (Jane Lynch, A Mighty Wind) with a dagger tattoo on her arm and a no-bullshit attitude. She’s not going to let them coast through their sentence, since she had to claw her way out of hell. So she hooks them up with her two toughest cookies. Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson, “Human Giant”) is a foul-mouthed, hostile little black kid who delights in embarrassing and shocking the shit out of adults. Something he is quite good at, greeting Wheeler with an accusation of pederasty. And Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, “McLovin” from Superbad) is a fantasy-obsessed nerd who gallavants around in a cape, with his trusty foam sword at his side. To his credit, he doesn’t just play McLovin again, and this nerd is different from his last.

Happy-go-lucky Wheeler takes foul-mouthed little Ronnie in stride; he’s obviously a smart enough kid who acts out because he wants to see what he can get away with; his mom isn’t a stereotypical exasperated single mother, but one who knows what her son needs- a positive male role model- and who doesn’t give in to his bad boy shtick. Wheeler eventually bonds with the boy over a mutual love of boobies, and when he explains the enduring power of the rock band KISS, I was in stitches. How he tells the tale of a bunch of Jewish guys from New York who dress up weird t get laid and sing about their penises, is a masterful bit of writing filtered through Sean William Scott’s likeable doofus persona.

Augie introduces Danny to his fantasy world- players of a game called LAIRE- Live Action Interactive Roleplaying Experience- or what the geekerati know as LARPing. If you read my review of Monster Camp you’ll know all you need. LAIRE is a bit of LARP with a healthy dose of obsessiveness from the Society for Creative Anachronism; we meet a gaggle of people at the local park dressed up as knights and maidens, who like to whack each other in the face with padded foam swords. These folk are lorded over by King Argotron (Ken Jeong, Pineapple Express) who may not be able to grow a real moustache but can lead a nerdy nation of cape-wearing Renn Faire rejects. Danny refuses to get involved at first, but of course Augie slowly grows on him. Mintz-Plasse plays up the nerd angle but stays likeable and doesn’t tumble into parody.
If there’s a weak point it’s that the women get little to do, and when they do, it’s a bit over the top. Jane Lynch has some great moments as the hard-ass leader, but she sticks out as the least realistic character. She seems like an exile from an SNL skit, while everyone else is fully fleshed. Danny’s girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks, W., Zack and Miri Make a Porno) gets very little to do except give Danny a chance to redeem his misanthropic ways. That’s unfortunate, since she’s quite a good actress, and it would have given the girls a bit more to laugh about. KISS and Dungeons & Dragons jokes aren’t really their domain. Ronnie’s hilarious asides, like constantly calling Danny “Ben Affleck” are enough to make the movie fun, thankfully.

When Danny finally understands Augie and how to channel his own anger to get things done instead of bitching all the time, the final mash-up of KISS and D&D nerds is a rollercoaster ride of hilarity. Like Monster Camp, the nerds are poked fun at, but much of the joke is how mundane their strange hobby is to them, and the people who hatefully mock them- like Augie’s stepdad- are made the butt of the joke in the end. It was a masterstroke to include a much more mainstream example of Adults Dressing Up, such as KISS and Minotaur mascots, so we’d have something accepted to compare it to. The theater loved it as well, and they couldn’t have all been nerds who were already familiar with the concept of adults dressing in capes.
It has its flaws- Jane Lynch’s character really doesn’t come into her own until the end, and Danny’s inevitable reunion with Beth is a bit unlikely, albeit heartwarming. But Sean William Scott has graduated from his Dude, Where’s My Car? days, and Paul Rudd is proving that he can lead a film. He’s got his own thing going, and let’s hope like Ronnie says, that the Jersey boy (Passaic born and bred, yo) gets to be Ben Affleck some day. He’s got the chops. McLovin shows he’s not a one note wonder like Jon “Napoleon Dynamite” Heder, and Bobb’e Thompson is funnier at age 12 than most adults in the skit comedy gang. He’s going to be one funny motherfucker.

So, Role Models is a fine role model for an R-rated comedy. At least two sets of fine boobies- probably added as a what-the-hell measure when it was obvious they’d never get a PG-13 with Bobb’e dropping F-bombs and McLovin waxing jizzpantsic over Queen Esplen- bring us back to the early 80’s era of Caddyshack-style guy-comedy, unlike the Apatow bromantic kind where wiggling wangs rule the screen. David Wain, I salute you. I didn’t like Wet Hot American Summer‘s over-the-top antics much, but I thank you for this movie. It’s one of the best comedies of 2008, a year that gave us Pineapple Express and the excellent Forgetting Sarah Marshall among others, so that’s saying a lot.

3½ whispering eyes out of 4.