Comedies that forget to make you laugh: “The D Train” and “American Ultra”.
Too often, comedy that fails on some fundamental level derives from an insistence on needing to be funny, rather than having humor developing organically from the characters or the story at play. There’s nothing funny about someone who is obviously working, or worse yet, straining, for a laugh. The best comics in film and television and on the stage make it look effortless. “Death is easy,” goes the old saying. “Comedy is hard.”
The first film I’ve chosen to write about today — a melancholic, curiously muted cringe comedy called “The D Train” — is not a film I really responded to, but it’s hard to call it a failure. In fact, the movie has a pretty terrific central premise, as well as two committed lead performances from actors Jack Black and James Marsden. And yet “The D-Train” is ultimately so one-note in its devotion to its lead character’s ritualistic humiliation that you find yourself wanting for the special kind of cathartic release that truly substantial comedy can bring. What we have here is a fairly standard buddy laffer played in the minor key of wince.
This kind of comedy can work beautifully, as it does in the original “The Office,” the work of Jody Hill (“Eastbound and Down”, “The Foot Fist Way,” “Vice Principals”) and, of course, the maestro of neurosis, Larry David. The kinds of movies and shows I’ve just mention place deafening silence where a punchline should theoretically land. They buzz off of bad vibes. Warm, fuzzy feelings are usually a no-go. What’s frustrating about “The D Train” is that it while it operates in this by-now recognizable register, it does raise some troubling questions about the constraints of modern masculinity, only to remain childishly focused on ridiculing Black’s pathetically oblivious main character at every turn. Black, Marsden and Kathryn Hahn are giving performances above and beyond what the material requires, though the script manages to squeeze in a sour zinger every ten minutes or so. It’s just that constructing such an obviously downward-spiraling comedic arc requires finesse and gentle modulations in tone — you know, so that the whole thing doesn’t feel like one long, uncomfortable slog down the toilet bowl. “The D Train” gets points for its nonjudgmental portrayal of a touchy subject and its final moments contain a suggestion of real power, but the spotty laughs don’t do much to justify the sadistic tone.
Black plays Dan Landsman, the self-appointed king of his Pittsburgh high school alumni committee. The thing of it is, not many of the folks who work at the school actually like Dan — not at all. Not that he gives them any reason to: Landsman is another one of Black’s pushy, thick-headed motormouths, and as always, Black is aces in an all-or-nothing role. When Dan fails to drum up any semblance of excitement for his school’s upcoming twenty-year reunion, he concocts one last-ditch effort: reaching out to former high school classmate Oliver Lawless (Marsden), now a hunky party-animal/part-time actor who magically manifests onto Dan’s dinky T.V. in the form of a Banana Boat commercial. Of course, when Dan reaches out to Lawless, his old classmate doesn’t even remember him. But Dan remains undeterred: when the T.V. actor gives Landsman an apathetic “yeah, whatever,” our portly, determined hero takes it as a righteous sign and heads out for L.A.
What transpires between Landsman and Lawless is arguably the most interesting part of the movie. The early scenes trade in the kind of off-tempo comedy of awkward that first became popular with the works of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, but the filmmakers ultimately find a sweet spot that’s amplified by Black and Marsden’s unusual but very real on-screen chemistry. Lawless reveals a desperation beneath his pretty-boy veneer that’s all but lost on the overeager Landsman, who’s so stoked to be hanging out with the onetime former jock and prom king that he thoughtlessly ingests a whole shit-ton of whiskey, cocaine and painkillers over the course of one fateful night. All of this leads to a subtly observed and undeniably affecting scene where Dan and Oliver break the lingering homoerotic tension that’s been hanging in the air since their first encounter with one of the least-sexy seduction scenes in cinematic memory.
The big reveal at the end of “The D Train’s” second act raises some big questions: questions that, if the movie’s climax is to be believed, the filmmakers aren’t very much interested in answering. The movie finds itself at a fascinating crossroads at the end of its first act, only to safely backpedal into a borderline-bland tone that betrays much of what’s come before. “The D Train” isn’t very funny but it’s often compellingly vicious, even if most of the laughs sometimes die in your throat. And yet for every one of the film’s virtues — Kathryn Hahn’s wonderfully understated turn, the movie’s smart and irreverent use of pop music — there’s a plot thread that doesn’t add up, like a subplot involving Jeffrey Tambor as Landsman’s nosy superior that’s forgotten almost as soon as it’s brought up. You certainly can’t accuse “The D Train” of striving for a laugh, though I suppose it might go over well with others who don’t mind a side of malaise with their comedy.
“American Ultra” is a noisy, proudly stupid movie that feels as though it was manifested into existence after too many gravity bong hits and a couple dozen “Cops” marathons. It’s a shame the film ever left the “idea” stage of production. Ugly, incoherent and, worst of all, boring, “American Ultra” takes what could have been a fun, cheeky stoner riff on the spy-centric shenanigans of a typical “Bourne” movie and wastes the valiant efforts of a talented cast on a script that’s about thirty to forty rewrites away from a serviceable draft. I can imagine undemanding 13-year olds and male members of the Gamergate community will love it. Anyone who values grace or subtlety or soul in their cinema is going to leave with one hell of a headache.
“American Ultra” is so bad that even Jesse Eisenberg and Kirsten Stewart — who, regardless of how you may feel about their individual acting styles, are one of the most adorable on-screen couples of our time — can’t escape unscathed. Granted, the characters that Eisenberg and Stewart are playing share the collective intelligence of an ear of corn, though I suspect the earn of corn would have the good sense to get the hell out of this movie before the plot kicked into motion. With its glib passages of “fuck yeah, bro” video game violence, glib, sneering tone and nods to trashy 80’s action cinema, “American Ultra” clearly fancies itself an heir apparent to “Pineapple Express,” David Gordon Green’s hilarious and esoteric fusion of Lou Adler’s “Up and Smoke” with the fringe buddy flick “Tango and Cash”.
But whereas a lot of the initial post-Apatow output feels somewhat dated when viewed today, “Pineapple Express” is still somehow fresh, loopy and for-real weird. The movie has a capricious, occasionally dreamlike tone that’s well in keeping with Green’s gift for offbeat visual poetry, and Rogen and Franco are a comedy duo to whom laughs seem to come naturally. That movie, in its own dumb, gory way, was a moving paean to friendship and co-dependence whose emotionally charged last scenes left you buzzing with bliss. “American Ultra” aspires to no such noble goals. Directed by Nima Nourizadeh, who was behind the deadening real-time “party” flick “Project X,” “American Ultra” is labored in its attempts to be funny and edgy, as well as being visually off-putting and frenetic to the point where you want to grab the film by its shoulders, shake it violently and tell it to calm the fuck down and tell the story. No such luck here, my friends: story be damned, “American Ultra” lumbers on, totally unconcerned with things like logic, humor, good sense, coherence or entertaining its audience. This movie is determined to make mince meat of us all. I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a long-haired, permanently blitzed convenience store clerk who lives a life of blissful apathy in the small rural town of Liman, West Virginia. Whether this last bit is meant as a smart-ass in-joke towards Doug Liman, director of “The Bourne Identity,” is never made entirely clear. Most of Mike’s days are spent smoking copious amounts of ganja, doodling made-up cartoon characters and cuddling with his equally unambitious girlfriend Phoebe, played by Stewart with stringy hair and a Tommy Chong drawl.
Through a string of plot developments too moronic to print here, we come to learn that Mike is what the movie refers to as an “asset”: a robotic super-assassin who lives a docile life without knowledge of his powers. Mike is the last surviving member of the Ultra assassin program, overseen by a steely CIA operative (Connie Britton) and a sniveling, wildly unfunny grown-up brat played by “That 70’s Show’s” Topher Grace in a performance that strains credulity and wears deeply on the nerves. Perhaps a genuinely villainous actor could have made this role memorable, but Grace is wrong for the part: he’d be funny as the villain’s put-upon assistant, but to ask him to play the heavy here is asking a lot. Anyway, the CIA and its gun-toting minions proceed to descend upon Mike and his girlfriend, who subsequently barrel through a graceless plot littered with thankless appearances from gifted actors like John Leguizamo (who plays a mush-mouthed, tattooed drug dealer), cringingly asinine sex and weed jokes and enough weightless video-game violence to satiate a theatre’s worth of “Call of Duty” fans.
I don’t know, guys. I guess I laughed when Walton Goggins, the patron saint of Southern character actors, showed up as a maniacal assassin who communicates exclusively through a series of unhinged giggles. And no amount of bad writing and directing can completely dampen the chemistry of Stewart and Eisenberg, who manage to compliment each other beautifully every time they’re on-screen together. But the movie’s tone is lethally self-congratulatory: screenwriter Max Landis can’t construct one scene without at least one winking meta-reference to remind us that what we’re watching is all one big lark, and who gives a shit if dozens of people get blown to smithereens in increasingly horrible ways? I don’t object to movie violence, and I will go to bat for directors like Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino, Takashi Miike and Nicolas Winding Refn, all of whom push on-screen violence to its often queasy extremes. What I object to is violence as a crutch: leaning too heavily on uber-stylized shots of bullets ripping through bodies and limbs being blown off in slow-motion because, big surprise, there’s no art or even perspective behind the carnage. Comedy that works is an escape — it can make you laugh at the unspeakable, or find some degree of peace in the mundane or even problematic fabric of your own life. The only degree of escape one can glean from “American Ultra” is the desire to see a talented cast escape from this movie.
Grades: “The D Train,” C+. “American Ultra,” D.