Aug 8, 2011

Reaction: 30 Minutes Or Less

Casting a movie is an interesting process to say the least and I've been lucky enough to get a fairly detailed look behind the curtain over the years.  I think it's not an element of filmmaking where risk is generally encouraged, which is why you tend to see the same people playing such similar roles over and over again.  It's a shame, because watching an performer play against type, really stretching themselves artistically, is one of the real joys of the movie watching experience.  (Patton Oswalt in Big Fan is a great example.)

So there's this movie about two characters.  One is a charming slacker who let his life sit in neutral a little too long, squandered his potential, and is now stuck in a dead end pizza delivery job, but he's okay with that.  When two masked men strap a bomb to his chest and force him to rob a bank, he turns to his best friend, an uptight, play-by-the-rules school teacher.  Oh yeah, and the pizza delivery guy slept with his friend's sister years ago and never told him.  Now, if I told you that one of these characters was played by Aziz Ansari and one was played by Jesse Eisenberg, you'd naturally assume that Ansari was the slacker and Eisenberg was the school teacher.

In this case, you'd be dead wrong and we're all the luckier for it.

Director Ruben Fleischer has crafted a breezy and clever buddy comedy, or as he puts it a "double buddy comedy."  (More on that in a minute.)  The film moves along at a brisk pace and deftly finds the best humor in the characters themselves and their relationships, as opposed to the crazy circumstances they find themselves in.  For example, while the bank robbery scene is manic and fun, there's a scene earlier in the film where Nick (Eisenberg) and Chet (Ansari) are arguing, and start trying to one-up each other by admitting the terrible things that they've done to each other over the years but kept secret.  It's a really smart way to unload a lot of backstory very quickly while also establishing the stakes and the drama of their relationship for the rest of the movie.  It's also absolutely hysterical.  Eisenberg and Ansari are a great odd couple and I think their chemistry is far more effective than it would have been had their roles been reversed.  Writers Michael Dillibarti and Matthew Sullivan make another refreshing decision early on: once Nick is strapped to the bomb, Chet agrees to help him rob the bank for really no other reason than he wants to keep Nick from exploding.  While he's not happy about the situation, he's not really forced into helping Nick against his will by some other mitigating circumstance (at least for the majority of the movie); Chet could really walk away at any time, but he makes a conscious decision to do the right thing and stay to help his friend.  I think it's not only a nice change of pace from how these movies typically progress, but it's actually a strong choice that actually informs Ansari's character.

While Nick and Chet are the heart of the movie, they really only take up about half of film's the running time.  I think the commercials sort of imply that Danny McBride and Nick Swardson strap the bomb onto Nick and then disappear till the end when they come looking for their money, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. See, Dwayne (McBride) and Travis (Swardson) aren't just looking for a quick payday.  The bank robbery is actually just one component of Dwayne's much more convoluted plan involving his father (Fred Ward), a stripper (Bianca Kajlich), a hitman (Michael Pena), Dwayne's dubious inheritance, and plans for a massage parlor complete with an In-N-Out-style secret menu of sex acts.  McBride is essentially playing the same character we see in all of his work, and while we don't get any of the sweetness hiding beneath the tornado that is Kenny Powers, we do get a hint of that same vulnerability here.  Swardson actually surprises by giving Travis a pretty clear journey from the devil to the angel on Dwayne's shoulder.  While he starts out as the sort of lackey/enabler to Dwayne's insanity, by the end he's essentially saying "Yeah, I built you this sweet flame thrower, but maybe we should pump the brakes here for a second."

Kajlich's role is minor and essentially thankless and Fred Ward is his usual curmudgeonly self.  Pena gets some great moments to flash his comedic chops, particularly a scene where he's forced to dress his own bullet wound.  Looking over his work in projects like this, Eastbound And Down, and Observe And Report, Pena certainly can't be accused to making timid comedy choices.  He goes BIG, but more importantly he really commits to the point that even his more absurd characters feel true to life and not merely over the top caricatures.  Even in just a few scenes here, he really pops and I'd love to see him do some more heavy lifting in a bigger comedy.

The only really unfortunate element to the film is the end, which is extremely abrupt and suffers from a fairly big logical hole.  There just isn't a moment where the characters can pause and take stock of the day's events or how each of them may have been changed by their near death experience.  As soon as the heroes are out of danger, the movie just sort of ends.  It's frustrating because up till that point the movie is so incredibly character driven that not having any kind of meaningful conversation to top if off makes the film feel incomplete, as if it's literally missing a scene.

Otherwise Ruben Fleischer has a decent successor to his debut hit Zombieland.  (Moreover, by going smaller with his follow-up, it actually makes me even more excited to see him really open up on his next, The Gangster Squad.)  It's not going to set the world on fire, but I think this flick is well placed to deliver a light touch and some late laughs at the end of a very uneven summer.

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