I Love You, Man*

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: With his wedding to Zooey fast approaching, Peter Klaven confronts the reality that he doesn’t have a close male friend to act as his best man. Acquiring one proves to be fraught with difficulties, until a chance meeting with ‘investor’ Sydney Fife leads to an exciting new world of male bonding. But will the relationship with Zooey survive Peter and Sydney’s powerful bromance?

Los Angeles estate agent Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) has plans: if he can convince someone to buy Lou Ferrigno’s house at the right price, he can start buying land towards a development of his own; while on a personal level, Zooey (the charming Rashida Jones) accepts his proposal of marriage, the news leapt upon with glee by her close circle of friends including dippy Hailey (Sarah Burns) and Denise (Jaime Pressley). Peter, however, has no-one to spread the news with but his family, and when he overhears the women fretting that he’ll become a clingy husband without male friends, he decides he must get at least one.

A poker night with Denise’s aggressive husband Barry (Jon Favreau) ends in disaster, as does a ‘man-date’ with Doug (Thomas Lennon), and it looks like Peter’s gay brother Robbie (Andy Samberg) will have to do the best man duties. Luckily, Sydney (Jason Segel) turns up at an open house at the Ferrigno place, and Peter is intrigued by the big man’s laid-back, self-pleasing style, not to mention his love of Canadian prog-rock band Rush (no, me neither**); but as the men bond, Sydney’s plain-speaking ways and demands on Peter’s time and wallet start to put a strain on the lovers’ relationship, to the extent that the wedding itself is put in jeopardy.

At a first glance, it’s frankly amazing that I Love You, Man – with its familiar cast, incessantly fruity language and obsession with things sexual – has no connection whatsoever with Judd Apatow. Look again, however, and it’s not so surprising: firstly, there’s no Seth Rogen, Segel taking the slacker role that would surely have been his; secondly, the film often sails so close to The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s winds that Apatow might think he’d already made the film once. I Love You, Man is essentially a variation on the themes of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, with Rudd taking Steve Carell’s place as the man who never got round to making that ‘special’ friend, displaying a similar verbal awkwardness, the same embarrassment around the poker table and so on. The movie also has strong echoes of Mike Gayle’s book Brand New Friend, although I would imagine purely by coincidence.

These comparisons don’t really get the film reviewed, of course; and the only question that really matters is whether the film works on its own terms. Unfortunately, the answer is a non-committal ‘not really.’ The relationships at the heart of the film are believable and entertaining, Rudd and Jones making a nice couple and Rudd and Segel riffing off each other (musically as well as comically) to good effect. There are also decent contributions made by Lennon, Burns (who has fun during a disastrous double date), J.K. Simmons and Jane Curtin (as Peter’s parents), while Jon Favreau consistently steals scenes with appealingly overbearing boorishness.

On the other hand, the writing rarely rises above the sniggering level of the classroom, the focus of the jokes coming from such lofty topics as farts, vomit, masturbation and oral sex; and while there’s a nice, Egypt-offending joke about Sydney’s dog looking like Anwar Sadat, it’s ruined by the fact that Syd, who we’re presumably meant to like on some level, refuses to clear up the animal’s poo – his other attributes include freeloading and preying on vulnerable divorcees. You could argue that this adds to our own apprehensions towards him, fears compounded when he asks Peter for money, but Sydney’s disruption of Peter’s life never feels as though it could ultimately result in catastrophe. The plot merely hobbles along in a thoroughly predictable fashion towards an equally unsurprising climax, and a contrived, largely undeserved mega-happy ending for all concerned.

I Love You, Man avoids some potential pitfalls quite neatly. For while suggesting that there’s no higher love than that between two men, it – unlike Superbad – also finds time to enjoy relationships between females, as well as heterosexual and homosexual love. Rudd’s affability also helps to offset Segel’s chauvinism, though he’s by no means as obnoxious here as in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Rashida Jones is sweet in a part that might have been naggy. But it’s rarely more than lightly amusing and is destined to be swiftly forgotten, by me at any rate.

NOTES: 1I’m glad to review this film because I received a request, back in the day, to do so – though it did take two years to get around to it. The moral? I do requests, but you might have to be patient.

2This is a reflection of my ignorance rather than an observation about the qualities of Rush, who may well be superb. They are almost certainly bigger in North America than they have ever been in Britain.

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Bean

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Bumbling gallery caretaker Mr Bean is dispatched to America to oversee the arrival of the priceless ‘Whistler’s Mother’ in Los Angeles. Curator David Langley eagerly awaits the masterpiece and an ultra-sophisticated art expert. What he actually invites into his home is a clumsy oaf who causes havoc wherever he goes, threatening to ruin David’s personal and professional lives.

The board of Britain’s Royal National Gallery can’t wait to fire their worst employee, dozy perpetual latecomer Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson). However, they’ve reckoned without the support of John Mills’ sympathetic chairman, who demands that he’s kept on. The board’s alternative plan is to get rid of Bean by packing him off to America, where the Grierson Art Gallery have just bought Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, or simply “Whistler’s Mother”, from the Musée D’Orsay. As far as Grierson’s highly-strung curator David (Peter MacNicol) is aware, Bean is a visiting doctor who will give a learned presentation about the painting at its official unveiling – that is, until he meets him.

At the gallery, Bean appears more interested in his trousers and taking holiday snaps than in meeting owner George Grierson (Harris Yulin) or any of the art on display, but worse is to come: firstly, Bean causes constant havoc at the Langley family’s home, causing David’s wife Alison (Pamela Reed) to fume, then move out altogether with kids Kevin and Jennifer (Andrew Lawrence and Tricia Vessey); then, mere seconds after the painting arrives in the US, Bean contrives to wipe Mrs Whistler’s face clean off the canvas. Catastrophe looms for David, but he hasn’t accounted for the unconventional Englishman’s lunatic resourcefulness.

Because I’m nice, I’ll start with what’s good about Bean. Err…well, if you like Rowan Atkinson’s physical brand of gormless gurning, there’s plenty of it in the movie. He wreaks endless mayhem in airports, on (incongruous) theme park rides, in the kitchen, the bathroom, the gallery, the hospital (of which more later), pulling the whole gamut of bizarre faces as he goes. The odd, smart Richard Curtis touch occasionally threatens to seep out (the merchandising of Whistler’s mother is abominable, yet believable), but then again so do utterly crass gags (no doubt by Curtis too) – laxatives, Bean suffering suspicious wet trousers which are dried via an unspeakable-looking interaction with a hot-air drier.

Bean is essentially a one-man show that doesn’t readily become a double act; but as far as it goes, the unlikely partnership David and Bean strike up works quite well and MacNicol does as well as can be hoped for in the circumstances – a shower scene raises a decent chuckle. But in general, the film pushes at the limits of what Mr Bean can reasonably do – he’s enough of a fish out of water on his own doorstep, so his transplantation to America seems like an unnecessary step. Moreover, by abandoning his trademark silence to give speeches Bean loses his Unique Selling Point, moving from Tati-like ingenuity to Pee Wee Hermanesque oddity.

However, if the character of Bean feels awkward on the big screen, it’s as nothing compared to the awkwardness of the plot. It’s creaky, contrived and raises a heap of questions: why, in a transaction between French and American museums, is there any need for a British gallery to be involved? Why on Earth would David invite a complete stranger into the family home? Above all, why did anyone think it would be a good idea to tack on a second, high-drama climax of Jennifer falling off a motorbike and Bean being mistaken for another sort of doctor? Bean extracting a bullet from Richard Gant’s bolshy Lt. Brutus is daft enough, but his revival of Jennifer by firstly straddling, then landing on top of her, borders on being tasteless.

I can understand why the scenes were written, to heighten the emotions, to make Bean even more of a hero, and (mostly?) to bump up the running time, but the shift in tone is entirely out of place; and since Jennifer is clearly unscathed in the following scenes, I suspect the whole section was put in as a late, if not after-, thought.

Besides, Bean could have been the best-plotted comedy in the world, could have had music that was sympathetic and apt rather than overbearing, loud and featuring lousy covers of classic pop (Stuck in the Middle With You and Yesterday), and could have used Burt Reynolds brilliantly instead of stuffing him into an utterly pointless cameo as the gallery’s sponsor, General Newman; and I would still have taken against it.

Why? M and bloody Ms. The pervasiveness of the product placement is distracting, from the first appearance of the sweets during Bean’s plane journey to the one that Bean fishes around for when he finds Brutus’ bullet (oh yes, they’re used in the plot too); but the worst offender is the vast mound of sweets that takes pride of place in the Langley home. I can understand why the film would want to send its hero to America, where the largest film market is; but if you’re so desperate to sell ‘candy’, why not just show an advert before the film? (And yes, I know there’s a Mr Bean advert for M&Ms).

Still, at the end of the day I realise that (for whatever reason) there are big fans of Mr Bean out there, and for those fans the product placement and the terrible plot are but minor considerations: Bean contains lots of Bean, and is therefore all gravy. I laughed a couple of times, and felt for little David as he struggled with his monstrous man-child of a house-guest. And at least Mel Smith’s film had a go at telling a story, unlike the entirely execrable Mr Bean’s Holiday.

Wall-E

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: He may be a simple garbage-crushing robot, but Wall-E still dreams of finding true love among the ruins of Earth. When Eve descends from the heavens, the little fellow is terrified, then lovestruck; but she has a higher purpose than making friends – not that it stops Wall-E from holding on to her for dear life.

Poor old Wall-E (voiced, after a fashion, by Ben Burtt). The people of Earth have taken an extended break from the planet, leaving the hardy little robot alone – apart from an even hardier cockroach – to clean up the mess. Wall-E feels his loneliness too, reminded by a scratchy copy of Hello, Dolly! that love isn’t all around; so when a spaceship arrives and a sleek, curvy white robot called Eve (Elissa Knight) disembarks, it’s no surprise that he’s smitten.

Eve, however, has bigger fish to fry, or rather life of any sort to gather, but her reaction to Wall-E showing her a sapling is not what he would have wanted – she takes custody of the plant and shuts off completely until her rocket returns. Wall-E hitches a lift back to the mothership, The Axiom, a cruise liner built by the BNL company (under their CEO, Fred Willard’s Shelby Forthright) to save humans the trouble of looking after themselves or the planet. However, as Wall-E and Eve are to find out, and the Axiom’s Captain (Jeff Garlin) discovers very slowly, things have gone very, very wrong in the last 700 years.

For all its awards and critical plaudits, it would be wrong to say that Wall-E is beyond reproach. For some, the tale of a litter-tidying robot falling in love and saving the human race from its own sugar-guzzling stupidity will be the sort of sentimental, lefty, tree-hugging schmaltz that even George Lucas shied away from (there was never, we assume, a Mrs R2-D2*). I will give them this: the second half of the film isn’t quite as inventive or beautiful as the first.

On the other hand…until I see an animated film that’s truly indistinguishable from reality, I’m unlikely to be equally wowed by another CGI movie as I was by Wall-E. A foolhardy statement, perhaps; but I make it in all sincerity. Just in terms of its looks, the film is an incredible achievement, both on Earth – where the skyscrapers are eerily-familiar but made entirely out of junk – and in space. It’s immediately apparent that Pixar have honed their skills to perfection, both in terms of the protagonists and the worlds in which they live.

Moreover, the film is funny. From Toy Story onwards, Pixar have been superb at orchestrating scenes to achieve perfect comic timing; while that has occasionally been overly calculating – nobody will convince me of the merit of fake CGI ‘bloopers’ – the lack of dialogue here elevates many scenes to the level of Chaplin or Keaton at their best.

So far, so kiddie-friendly: but Wall-E explores more mature themes too. The sexless, almost wordless, yet incredibly tender romance between our hero and Eve works better than any number of explicitly romantic films – while Hello, Dolly! (to pick an example not quite at random) has its moments, it doesn’t come near to this film in terms of exploring what it’s like to fall, and be, in love.

Wall-E is the quintessence of a love story, and a doubly abstracted one at that (we’re not watching robots in love, we’re watching drawings of robots in love); since there’s no dialogue to speak of, all the meaning comes from the images married with Thomas Newman’s lovely music. The result is new, unexpected, a technological marvel that at times imitates ballet.

There’s another love story going on too, and I don’t mean John and Mary’s impromptu romance aboard the Axiom; while he battles the ship’s disobedient auto-pilot, the captain learns about long-forgotten Earth rituals: farming, dancing, pizza(!). By taking Western vices of laziness and wilful pollution to an extreme conclusion, Andrew Stanton gives us all pause for thought about the things we stand to lose; and how wonderful to see an American film confront the potential – repeat, potential – ills of unfettered consumerism on the planet and populace alike.

I’ll admit that the obese passengers of the Axiom are pretty unsubtle and suggest that Stanton (and Pixar in general?) might prefer the reliability of their machines over lazy humans, but as a cautionary tale it works stunningly well. As I’ve already conceded, the film does become more predictable as it ramps up the action, the deranged robots (for example) recalling the misfit toys in Toy Story. Yet all is redeemed by the touching denouement which itself continues to evolve as the credits roll, beautifully sketching the future of mankind through the history of art.

Though I’ve not reviewed everything of Pixar’s (I look forward to watching Finding Nemo again), I can’t help but applaud their dedication to quality film-making using tools that they are constantly re-inventing and refining**. Nothing will ever replace the joy of seeing Toy Story for the first time, but the visual, intellectual and emotional impact of Wall-E has to make it the ‘better’ film, whatever that means. Whether or not you have any affection for digital animation, if you like good movies you should watch both – and because it’s that good, start with this one.

NOTES: 1 Oh good grief.

2 Hence the disappointment with Cars. Not a bad movie, just unusually unbrilliant.

Carry On England

WFTB Score: 3/20

The plot: In 1940, Captain Melly is sent to sort out a dysfunctional mixed battery which is in no fit state to be trusted with a real gun. With vocal Sergeant Major ‘Tiger’ Bloomer at his side, he plans to put a stop to the overfriendly relations between male and female personnel. Sergeants (and sweethearts) Willing and Able value the battery’s unique arrangement and come up with a series of sneaky countermeasures.

With the Battle of Britain looming on the horizon, the army needs its men and women to have their minds on the job – the job of defending the country, that is, not the one uppermost in the minds of the male squaddies and females of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) who work, rest and…er, play cheek by jowl in their experimental mixed-sex battery. Captain S. Melly (Kenneth Connor) is dispatched to get the rabble into fighting shape, but he quickly finds out that it’s going to be a very tricky job, because the men and women of the unit are unsurprisingly comfortable with their intimate arrangements.

The ploy of getting Sergeant Major Bloomer (Windsor Davies) to shout them into submission fails, largely because he’s got Private Ffoukes-Sharpe (Joan Sims) chasing him around the place; and Melly’s all-out war on cohabitation faces resistance from all sides, not least Sergeants Willing and Able (Judy Geeson and Patrick Mower), backed up by Bombardier Ready and Private Easy (Jack Douglas and Diana Langton). Events quickly escalate as Melly becomes more power-crazed and puts barbed wire between the barracks, while the lower ranks fight back with underhand – you might say dirty – tactics. Hopefully, the boys and girls will be able to pull together when Goering’s Luftwaffe arrives.

Many Carry On fans cite England as their least favourite film in the series, and it’s not hard to see why. For while it never plumbs the depths of the desperate Emmannuelle, that film at least had the vaguest notion of an edge, of sauce, of parody, however limply delivered. And it had Kenneth Williams. Carry on England is propelled by the combined star power of Kenneth Connor, weedy and blustering, Jack Douglas, twitching manfully away, and Windsor Davies, reprising his shouty role from sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (with little Melvyn Hayes in tow).

There’s also Diana Langton coming on like a cut-price brunette Babs Windsor and Patrick Mower failing to exhibit a shred of comic prowess (he’s since found his niche as a lothario in Emmerdale), together with Joan Sims in a role which doesn’t call for much range and Peter Butterworth in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. Judy Geeson doesn’t do an awful lot, but relatively speaking she’s a rare bright spot in a distinctly unimpressive cast list.

However, the real problem with England lies not with the cast but the dreadful script penned by David Pursall and Jack Seddon, which takes a semi-decent idea (the ‘Home Front’ kept Dad’s Army going for ten years, after all) and ruins the whole premise with unrelentingly juvenile jokes. For example, just consider how weak a joke calling your lead character ‘S.Melly’ is – it’s the sort of thing a 10-year-old would raise a weary eyebrow at. Barely more palatable are the weak puns dished out by Peter Jones’ bumptious Brigadier – yes, they’re deliberately poor, but they’re no less dull for being dull on purpose.

And things are no better away from the wordplay, since nearly all the movie’s comedy is based around the humiliations dished out to Melly: getting knocked over, losing his clothes, getting knocked into a bin, using joke soap, getting knocked into something very smelly, having to wear women’s clothes, getting knocked down by the anti-aircraft gun, and so on. There’s some laborious business around the digging of tunnels and two or three minutes of dubious storyline where the previously-useless troops miraculously down four enemy planes, and then a daft Churchill-related joke wraps it all up.

I’m genuinely struggling to think of a line that made me so much as smile, but I suppose ‘How did he get into our army?’ got close-ish. Which is scarcely a glowing recommendation. Oh, and lest I forget, there’s a short scene of toplessness from five ATS women which is neither sexy nor funny, and serves no purpose other than to show how desperate the producers were to offer something for filmgoers hardened up (if you will) by the Confessions Of… movies.

Perhaps the pithiest review of Carry On England is offered by the film’s DVD and video cases. Above the title are smiling caricatures of the stars of Carry On: Bernard Bresslaw, Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims, Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Jim Dale and Charles Hawtrey: in this movie, all you get is a bit of Joan, and she’s not used extensively or particularly well (though that’s not altogether atypical). With such a horrible script, it’s hard to credit that England would have been any good with the whole crew alive and present; but the loss of nearly all the stars certainly plays its part in this film being but a tiny fraction as good as the series in its pomp. One, I’m afraid, for completists, masochists and insomniacs.

Elf

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: When Buddy the Elf finds out that he’s really a human put up for adoption as an infant, he leaves the safety of the North Pole for the rough and tumble of New York to find his unknowing father, Walter. Buddy finds friends and enemies aplenty in the Big Apple but the one thing he desperately wants – his Dad’s approval – is harder to come by.

Buddy (Will Ferrell) isn’t like the other elves. For one thing, he doesn’t possess the nimble fingers that the others in Santa’s workshop use to churn out toys for Christmas; for another, he’s about two feet taller than them, even his own father Papa Elf (Bob Newhart). Still, Buddy is blissfully unaware that he’s a human who crawled into Santa’s sack as a baby, until events force Papa Elf to spill the beans and reveal that Buddy’s real father, children’s publisher Walter Hobbs (James Caan), is alive in New York.

Remaining as good-natured as ever, Buddy sets off with encouragement and advice from Father Christmas (Ed Asner) and other well-wishers, undaunted by issues that would put off less positive souls: firstly, Buddy’s real dad now has a family of his own and doesn’t know that Buddy was ever born; secondly, Walter is cynical, work-centred and firmly on Santa’s Naughty list.

Arriving through the Lincoln tunnel, Buddy is charmed by New York but his first meeting with Walter at his office in the Empire State Building is less than successful, though luckily his elf outfit leads him (briefly) to a job in the department store across the road where he meets lovely but shy songbird Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and causes a ruckus with a fake Father Christmas. Meanwhile, continued meetings with Walter lead to Buddy being taken in by his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen); but while Buddy becomes friends with his streetwise half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay), and miraculously gets a date with Jovie, relations with Walter remain frosty, not helped when Buddy causes chaos at work. Just when Buddy feels most rejected, a familiar face appears in desperate need of some know-how when it comes to raising Christmas cheer.

Should you wish to, it’s quite easy to take Elf apart and discover its workings; for Christmas films mine such a rich vein of sentimentality that original ideas are as scarce as genuine sightings of Santa, and Favreau’s film, with a screenplay by David Berenbaum, brings little truly new to the party. The plot is a solid amalgamation of ideas from such films as Santa Claus: The Movie and Miracle on 34th Street with Buddy adding the Pollyanna-ish qualities of Steve Martin’s character from The Jerk and Zooey Deschanel providing an off-the-shelf love interest (we hardly discover anything about her, other than that she likes to sing).

The fact that none of this seems to matter can be put down almost completely to Will Ferrell’s superb rendering of Buddy: he’s a big, lovable lump with a heart of gold, providing enormous helpings of physical comedy but never coming across as moronic. And while there’s no danger of Ferrell underplaying the part (as if he could), there is also a complete absence of cynicism or awareness of the artifice of the situation, either of which would have ruined the movie. With Ferrell in top form, dependable stars like Asner and Newhart also shine; Caan too is impressive, never relinquishing his hard personality, just bending to the extraordinary events he finds himself caught up in.

Elf’s absolute lack of cynicism leaves plenty of room for silly fun, such as Buddy’s encounter with Peter Dinklage’s writer of restricted size, Miles Finch, and lots of interaction between Buddy and Michael; it also has some truly surreal moments, mostly involving stop-motion characters at the North Pole such as Leon [Redbone] the Snowman and my own favourite, Mr Narwhal. And when it comes to the rousing climax – Santa’s stranded in Central Park and needs Buddy and his new family to create belief in him to raise the ‘Clausometer’ – the film manages to be both sweet and uplifting without ever becoming gooey, a trick that helps to overcome the undercooked nature of Buddy and Jovie’s love story and the forced drama of making Central Park Rangers the bad guys.

The trick is done, by the way, with clever writing and direction that provides distractions for all ages – for example, the grainy footage of Buddy walking through the woods will be eerily-familiar to most adults, though many will take a while to realise why.

Elf, then, is by no means a great departure from the Christmas film norm, confirming as it does the importance of putting family first and approaching life with a good, clean heart. But by acknowledging the syrupy nature of the subject matter in literal terms, Ferrell, Favreau and co. have side-stepped the trap of becoming cloying and – with a few caveats – have made a film that will surely be on the Christmas Nice list for years to come.

EuroTrip

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Dumped by his girlfriend, high school graduate Scotty compounds his misery by rejecting the advances of German pen-pal Mieke. However, when he learns that Mieke is not a man but a beautiful woman, he drops everything to find her, resulting in a chaotic introduction to the charms of Europe.

The humiliations just keep piling up for young Scotty (Scott Mechlowicz). Ditched on graduation day by girlfriend Fiona (Kristin Kreuk), she cosies up to rock singer Matt Damon while he belts out the salacious tune ‘Scotty Doesn’t Know’ to Scott’s scoffing classmates. His German pen-pal Mieke reacts to the news by threatening to come to America to comfort him, so in a drunken email Scott tells him to get lost; except that Mieke is not a he but a rather lovely she (Jessica Boehrs).

Determined to put things right, Scott teams up with best friend Cooper (Jacob Pitts) and heads for Berlin, though – predictably – it’s not quite as easy as that. To get to Europe cheaply they courier goods to London, stumbling into the drinking den of football hooligan Vinnie Jones and his cohorts, who – unpredictably – take the Americans under their wing; the whole gang travel to Paris, where the boys meet up with sightseeing twins Jamie and Jenny (Travis Wester and Michelle Trachtenberg) and Scotty kicks a robot mime in the nuts.

From there, the quartet visit Amsterdam, Bratislava (inadvertently) and finally get to Berlin, only to find that Mieke has gone to Rome to visit the Vatican. Scotty and co. head there immediately, causing mayhem within the Papal Residence as Scotty seeks his would-be Teutonic sweetheart.

EuroTrip could hardly be better designed to irritate me had its makers rung and asked what I didn’t like in films. In essence, it’s a well-worn, not to say threadbare, tale of a horny High School guy looking for sex, another Jason Biggs wannabe trying to get his end away like Get Over It/American Pie/a million other films. That old chestnut is coupled with the motif of ignorant Americans abroad in crazy old Europe; you know, the place with ‘crazy European sex’ and countries full of horrendous stereotypes, the ones we know from National Lampoon’s European Vacation, the later Deuce Bigalow European Gigolo and Beerfest and – in less comic fashion – The Rules of Attraction. And it’s all presented to appeal on the basest level to an audience of teenage boys for whom the insult ‘gay’ and the sight of bare breasts are, respectively, the funniest and sexiest things on the planet.

And – d’you know what? – It’s actually quite funny. The film is so wildly off about almost every aspect of European life that its jokes surely have to be deliberate, either to pander to US ignorance or deliberately to wind up European audiences (or both). I might be doing the writers too much credit, but there is such a sense of ridiculousness running through the film that it approaches a form of delirium.

Take the joke about Manchester United fans, for example: I’m almost totally certain that the writers haven’t got a bloody clue about football, since Vinnie Jones neither looks nor acts like a Manc. Are they making a clever joke about most Man U fans not coming from Manchester? Even if they aren’t, there’s something nicely surreal about the boys appeasing them with Sheena Easton songs.

Anyway, the British get off lightly compared to the insults heaped on poor old Slovakia, portrayed as a bombed-out wasteland where four people can live like royalty for less than $2; or the Vatican, where Scotty finds a new job and catches up with Mieke in a big way in a Confession booth.

Everyone should be offended by EuroTrip, but as I say, it gets so silly that taking offence almost becomes redundant. Even the sex and nudity is sort of based on equal opportunities – the group visit a nudist beach, solely occupied by naked men who didn’t read their guide books properly; and Cooper discovers that crazy European sex is more trouble than it’s worth, even if you do get to keep the T-shirt.

Of course, there’s nothing inspired about Fred Armisen’s smarmy Italian or Patrick Rapold’s suave, bisexual Frenchman, and the film allows itself too many crass touches – Scotty’s coarse younger brother (too reminiscent of American Pie), the boy playing at being Hitler, Jamie getting oral sex because the girl likes his camera – and some lax plotting (Jamie gladly handing over his security belt because he’s enjoying the oral sex so much).

However, these are balanced by some game performances, not least from Mechlowicz – not as bland as he first appears – and Michelle Trachtenberg, who provides the closest thing EuroTrip has to a Unique Selling Point. It helps immensely that Jenny is part of the group and joins in on the comedy, admittedly as well as being a bikini-wearing object of desire, in one scene to an entirely inappropriate member of the party. Her presence keeps the sexism in check and prevents the film from slipping into an endless parade of mindless, juvenile ogling. On top of that, there’s the sheer (pleasurable) shock of seeing Matt Damon as a pierced rocker, providing the film with its catchy running gag, the ubiquitous popularity of ‘Scotty Doesn’t Know’.

It seems that EuroTrip was undone at the cinema by a saturated gross-out market and the unfortunate timing of Pope John Paul II’s death; so perhaps the Catholic church had the last laugh after all. It’s rubbish, naturally, but it’s not nasty, demeaning rubbish like Superbad, and it contains the odd moment of inspiration amongst the clichés. By no means a tour de force, but unless you’re a particular prude (or a particularly proud Bratislavan), you should find something to laugh at.

Stranger than Fiction

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: The mundane life of IRS employee Harold Crick is turned upside-down when he starts hearing a voice in his head. The voice belongs to Karen Eiffel, who is writing a book with Harold as the main protagonist; unfortunately for Harold, not only does she have writer’s block, but she’s famous for killing off her main characters – just as he’s falling in love and starting to enjoy his life.

It seems unlikely that Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) would be the hero of anyone’s book, since – apart from having a talent, bordering on a penchant, for numbers – his life is thoroughly ordinary. He works for the IRS, lives alone, doesn’t really have a hobby or social life to speak of, save for his trusty watch. However, one morning his ablutions are disturbed by a voice in his head, narrating what he’s doing.

Naturally, his first instinct is that is that he’s going mad, which is unfortunate given that he’s auditing and falling for feisty baker Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a conscientious tax objector who also, understandably, objects to Harold ogling her. When the narrator reveals Harold’s deepest thoughts back to him and also the fact that he is marked for death, he’s alarmed and struck by the literary turn of the voice in his head (‘Little did he know…‘).

He shares his concerns with literature professor-cum-lifeguard Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who sceptically asks Harold to keep a tally of whether he’s in a tragedy or comedy. The results aren’t promising, even if Ana slowly softens to Harold’s uptight honesty. Anyway, the owner of the voice – writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) – is desperately researching ways to kill off her lead character. Can Harold reach her before she overcomes her mental block?

Authors will often say (I do, at any rate) that their characters ultimately take on lives of their own and will begin to make suggestions about what they’re going to do or say next, and this simple premise drives Stranger Than Fiction. It’s not particularly original – plenty of characters have confronted their creators – but Marc Forster’s film takes the idea and runs with it confidently and nimbly. It’s an idea which (like close cousin Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind*) only makes sense as long as you don’t prod it too hard – exactly when did Harold wink into existence, for example? – but the film manages to be clever without being clever-clever, by which I mean that it asks questions about the nature of fiction in books and film (neither Eiffel nor Hilbert are ‘real’, after all) without shouting from the rooftops that it’s doing it.

It’s cutely written as well: there’s a great verbal and visual pun which I won’t spoil for you. That said, the theme – if you have a life, make sure you go out and live it – is a pretty standard one in recent times, American Beauty being just the first example that came into my head: having your author narrate your mundanity to you is simply a novel (no pun intended, though it‘s rather a good one) way of announcing a mid-life crisis.

The appearance of a comic actor in a straight role is not the only feature of Stranger Than Fiction that brings The Truman Show to mind. Harold is almost a negative of Truman: where Carrey‘s character was a ‘real’ person living a fake life, Ferrell’s is a fictional character somehow living in the real world. Both undergo a revelation, a revolution in their lives, and come face to face with their ’Makers.’

It’s tempting to say that Eiffel beats Christof solely because she doesn’t wear a beret, but I won’t be so flippant. Neither will I reveal whether she ends the story as comedy or tragedy, but the denouement is both effective and touching. High praise must be given to Ferrell for reining in his natural exuberance, and while his chemistry with Gyllenhaal doesn’t exactly burn up the screen, she’s as sympathetic as I’ve seen her and they make for a sweet couple.

Hoffman plays his role effortlessly (I hope he works hard to make it look so easy, it would be annoying if he didn’t), while Emma Thompson is just wonderful as Karen Eiffel; her mannerisms and haunted expression bring enormous gravitas to the film, much needed since Hoffman is doing breezy and Farrell couldn’t do deep if he tried (neither of these things are criticisms, by the way).

Nonetheless, it’s not all good news. Though she’s perfectly decent, I saw no reason whatsoever for Queen Latifah’s character to be in the film. She plays Penny, a writer’s assistant who tries to nurse Karen’s book to completion, and for all the impact she has on the story Thompson might as well be talking to her semi-smoked cigarettes. Stranger Than Fiction is also enamoured of its own story, when Harold’s decision to live his life to the full is neither particularly profound, original, nor (to be honest) full – his relationship with Ana is lovely, if familiar, but the guitar playing doesn’t convince – so I’m not persuaded that Karen’s novel is quite the sensational tale Jules makes it out to be, even with its intended ending.

The film pulls a few fancy tricks that I’m not sure about, too: the graphic visualisations of Harold’s obsessive counting don’t add much, and while his wristwatch is incredibly cool – nay, heroic – its analogue/digital design has nothing to do with the story, so comes across as a gimmick for its own sake.

Let’s be clear about this, though. Stranger Than Fiction is no noble failure. It’s a success, albeit one with significant qualifications. At times it’s over-familiar, at others a bit slow; it’s also unbalanced and won’t do anything for you if you’re looking for a full-on Ferrell comedy. But it’s not a self-satisfied, introspective work either, so as long as you come prepared – don’t expect Elf II – there’s every chance you might really like this quietly provoking tale.

NOTES: The film could easily be a conservative work from Charlie Kaufman, a less fevered variation on Adaptation.