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EW review: 'Failure' lives up to title

Also: Pleasant 'Dog,' ugly 'Hills'

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Entertainment Weekly

Launch
Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker in "Failure to Launch."

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(Entertainment Weekly) -- I can't count how many times since Christmas I have been informed of the imminent arrival of "Failure to Launch," by movie trailers and TV spots as well as by eye-catching full-page newspaper and magazine ads that feature a breezy Sarah Jessica Parker propping up a loungey Matthew McConaughey.

But I can report that the massive buildup for the star-driven romantic comedy with the title that sounds alternately dirty (launch, heh-heh) and prophetic (failure, ooh-ooh) has had a deja vu effect.

When, early in the exposition, the domestically delayed hero, Tripp (McConaughey), beds a woman whose crime it is to seek commitment and the two are interrupted by the appearance of Tripp's father (Terry Bradshaw), I knew exactly when the Anonymous Blonde would squeal, ''You live with your parents?!'' I knew when Tripp would boast that ''it's gonna take a stick of dynamite'' to blast him out of the nest (a comfy, well-decorated nest at that).

And I knew that Paula (Parker), the woman hired by Tripp's parents to lure their son into the benefits of independent living, would toss off many charming gestures of SarahJessicaParkerdom as she first works the guy, then falls for him.

"Failure to Launch" arrives pre-told by design. But even those coming in cold will know what's going to happen one step ahead, because the movie has been constructed from a dull calculus based on commodities exchange (Star X + Star Y = Project Z) rather than a freewheeling script based on wit. The work is a computation, if you like, of If You Likes.

If, for example, you like McConaughey's affect of sexy, sleepy-eyed drawl -- is he toasted, or just a sun-kissed Texan? -- then you are meant to like Tripp, even though screenwriters Tom J. Astle and sitcom-savvy Matt Ember abandon all hope of squaring the childish, spoiled-by-Mom slacker that Tripp appears to be pre-Paula with the far more competent, complicated, and sensitive thirtysomething adult he proves himself to be later on.

This character is a bundle of What-If-We-Made-Hims who dribbles away his leisure with similarly unattached goofball pals, yet also takes seriously his responsibilities to a jaunty African-American boy he calls his nephew. And little black kids don't appear for nothing in a white creampuff comedy like this.

If, on the other hand, you like the energy, wisecracks, fashion sense, giggles, hair fiddling, and little yips of joy with which SJP has come to define stylish urban pizzazz since "Sex and the City," you're meant to like Paula, an illegible character wholly dependent on Parker's chic gal-pal persona.

Paula's niche business, marketed to affluent parents who wish their grown sons would fly the coop, involves stimulating separation by simulating a relationship worth leaving home for. (To be sure, the job is more geisha than ho, since sex doesn't come with the deal.)

But who she is when she's not on the job is a cipher; we only know that Paula shares a pad with Kit, a cute-loopy weirdo who, in the tradition of eccentric romantic-comedy roommates in the person of irresistible comedienne Zooey Deschanel, sashays away with the picture every time director Tom Dey ("Shanghai Noon") gives her a chance. If you like oddball sidekick subplots, you're bound to like this diversion. (There's a whole other romantic comedy waiting to make a break for it in Kit's brief bull's-eye encounter with a gun salesman played by "The Daily Show's" Rob Corddry.)

By the way, if you like Kathy Bates movies, you'll probably be frustrated with this one, since as Tripp's mother, the invaluable character actress is made to whipsaw between playing sappy domestic slave to her son's laundry and salty, overly sexual wife. And so, pasted into the story without logic to guide her, she does whatever the heck she pleases.

The two prize headliners, meanwhile, gleam side by side, well matched in celebrity and toiling at lightness, pretending their characters could ever share a lifestyle. (McConaughey's unshaven Tripp looks forever poised to play in the dirt, while Parker's Paula isn't truly happy unless striding in heels.)

There is, no doubt, a great screwball comedy to be made about adult children who won't leave home, and the mothers and fathers who collude in the arrangement -- and not just for reasons of economics.

Alternately, how about a real generational conflict? "Failure to Launch" fails to go anywhere near the subject, either in jest or in earnest, shortchanging Tripp's mom and pop as weaklings afraid to even bring up the subject with their overgrown boy. They are, however, so comically desperate to usher the big lug out the door that they hire a babe to deprogram him from the cult of Catering to Sonny Boy. Mission aborted.

EW Grade: C

'The Shaggy Dog'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

To those who would growl that "The Shaggy Dog" is yet another Disney squeeze toy in which Tim Allen embodies yet another dad who, through comic misadventure, learns to become a better husband and father, I bark this: Do not underestimate the pleasure of watching the fellow, dressed in the suit and tie of a sober deputy DA, plunge his head into a bowl of cereal and milk to eat his breakfast doggy-style.

True, the kennel that produced the original "Shaggy Dog" in 1959 and "The Shaggy D.A." in 1976 has devised a rather droolly and PC update on the notion of a man turned into man's best friend after being bitten by a magical pooch. (Here, dog-averse Allen prosecutes an animal activist for criminal activity against a science laboratory, only to learn on all fours how cruel and anti-PETA the place is.)

But the star, unleashed, is so energetic in his approximation of a bearded collie -- his nose sniffing the air, his whole being (which toggles between human and canine form) overcome by the need to fetch any stick thrown -- that his slobbery charm carries the picture. Besides, those allergic to lessons in improving family communication can draw pleasure from Robert Downey Jr., in prime crazypants form, as the lab's power-hungry evil genius.

EW Grade: B

'The Hills Have Eyes'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

For a few years in the 1970s, horror films occupied their own unhinged, blood-soaked Wild West zone.

Made in the shadow of Charles Manson and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," they became low-budget godless nightmares, with the mystical terrors of old shoved aside in favor of redneck cannibals, rusty power tools, girls in cutoffs getting their limbs cut off, and the tres counterculture image of the American nuclear family under siege.

I still remember watching "The Hills Have Eyes" at a drive-in, and the low-budget grunginess of Wes Craven's 1977 shocker was integral to its effect; it told you that the film came from outside the system, that it was made with a lack of restriction -- on violence, and on imagination, too -- that big-studio horror didn't share.

The remake of "The Hills Have Eyes" is big-studio horror. Set in the New Mexico desert, it features lots of lavish camera movement and dusty compositions out of early Spielberg, plus a nifty, unsettling credit montage of nuclear-test footage set to a corny country song and intercut with brutal shock images of birth defects. (Yes, folks, it's a message movie.)

Produced by Craven, "The Hills Have Eyes" follows the original closely. A fractious family, whose members include "Lost's" Emilie de Ravin and the gifted Aaron Stanford from "Tadpole," move to California in a station wagon joined to a camper and, once again, are stranded in the desert by a broken axle and besieged by primitive, slavering beastie-men who live in the rocky hills.

Now, though, the aggressors are nuclear mutants (in the old film, they were just really nasty), and so when they break into the trailer, pin down the pretty blonde, shoot a few people, burn Dad at the stake, and steal the baby, my God, the baby!, some of this is effective in a garish and reductive way, yet the savagery is so stagey that we never quite feel the dogs of anarchy being unleashed.

Part of the shock of the original was the perception, still novel at the time, that a movie character's inner goodness wouldn't save her. Now, after 30 years of slasher films, we expect nice people to die; that, more or less, is what we've paid to see.

Where Craven and his director, Alexandre Aja, may have miscalculated is in making the genetically damaged demons, with their flesh-potato foreheads and minimal verbal skills (in the original, one of the creepiest things about the hill hooligans is the way they used walkie-talkies), into monster action figures who take vengeance on the world that created them. They're not scary because they're victims themselves.

EW Grade: C+

'Ask the Dust'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

Is there any genre more deadly than the ''literary'' film noir? You not only have to endure all that mannered neo-'40s claptrap (murk lighting, venetian blinds, weary narration about dames), you have to watch the stuff being written about, as the author-hero sits at a typewriter and bangs out a story about how his life is turning into ... the story he's writing. Save us!

Over the years, some very gifted artists have shown a weakness for this brand of hardboiled meta-snooze. In the '80s, there was Wim Wenders' "Hammett," and now Robert Towne, the great screenwriter and director ("Without Limits," "Personal Best"), has coughed up "Ask the Dust," in which Colin Farrell, plunked into a grimy bungalow in Depression-era Los Angeles, works so hard to speak in an American accent, and at the same time to exude the authority of an old-movie tough guy, that he winds up sounding like Gary Cooper on Xanax.

As Arturo Bandini, a second-generation Italian who dreams of becoming a famous novelist, Farrell looks just about as starchy and ill at ease as I've ever seen an actor look. And that's before he meets Salma Hayek, as a ''fiery'' Mexican waitress, and in a series of barely coherent love/hate scenes pelts her with ethnic slurs, then falls into bed with her, then tosses some more slurs.

"Ask the Dust" is based on a celebrated novel by John Fante, and you can see why Towne, with his gothic fixation on the rotting romance of old L.A., would have been drawn to it, but the movie lacks even the misplaced fervor of obsession. It's lifeless kitsch.

EW Grade: D


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