Movie Reviews: The Invention of Lying, Whip It, Zombieland, Paranormal Activity 

Plus, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, In Search of Beethoven and more

Monday, Sep 28 2009

A BEAUTIFUL LIFE “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing,” Oscar Wilde quipped about the virtuous, beleaguered heroine in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. A similar constitution is required to endure the misery pileup in Alejandro Chomski’s film about saucer-eyed, abused teenage runaway Maggie (Angela Sarafyan), who roams the streets of Los Angeles quickly finding kind protectors in David (Jesse Garcia), an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who tries to teach her the right way to love, and Esther (Bai Ling), a stripper who instructs her new charge to recite the Post-it affirmations that adorn her dressing room (“All things are possible for the ones who believe”). Based on the play Jersey City, by Wendy Hammond, who co-wrote the screenplay with Deborah Calla, A Beautiful Life dispenses with continuity and credibility (when your career as a pot dealer is thwarted, try selling handmade beaded jewelry) to become the latest risible, City of Angels–set sudser about broken souls and crossed paths destined for the trash heap. Scream, smash, slap, cry, repeat. The only respite: fleeting scenes of Debi Mazar as a librarian, rocking a cardigan and reading glasses. (Sunset 5) (Melissa Anderson)

BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN “Everything I write ends up being about loneliness,” said the late writer David Foster Wallace in a 1999 interview. Wallace was trying to get at the core of his Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, a four-part short story he wrote as a series of monologues, which, in turn, are presented as a transcription of interviews that an unnamed woman conducted with dozens of men. In a dizzying whirl of language, Wallace’s fictional men explain how they feel about the women they’ve loved or, more often than not, have failed to love. Actor John Krasinski, deeply affected by Wallace’s work, has been developing the stories as a feature for years. All of which makes it even more painful to say that, as a film, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is a disaster. Wallace’s monologues are funny, profane, intense and, at all times, deeply emotional. The plot specifics of each man’s story — the who, what and where — are secondary to the clutter of language. Wallace used language as a kind of protective padding for his interviewees, and the reader, at his own pace, must dig deep to find the essential truths. Filmmakers, even great ones, are always battling the clock, a dilemma that left Krasinski little choice but to cut each monologue down to its bone. The stilted storytelling that results often rings false, and the monologues — delivered by some very good actors (Timothy Hutton, Bobby Cannavale) who come across as first-year theater students — no longer add up to much. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

GO  IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN In Search of Beethoven plays like a good, if necessarily condensed critical biography. Drawing from archival letters, interviews with contemporary musicians and historians, and a generous selection of live music, Phil Grabsky’s film takes us through the life and work of its imposing subject, moving from Beethoven’s days as the “piano virtuoso of Vienna” in the 1790s through his establishment as that city’s leading composer and his subsequent personal troubles and declining production. What’s interesting about the film is not so much its re-creation of the man’s life or its presentation of his character — which hew closely to romantic notions of the stubborn, increasingly erratic genius — but its consideration of just how revolutionary his body of music was compared to that of his predecessors. The film’s real resource is its impressive array of talking heads, their intimate familiarity with the music, and their ability to impart graspable insight, as when two subjects offer different readings of the Ninth Symphony’s seemingly incongruous ending. Only the angry outburst of one expert, who uses Beethoven’s genius to deride contemporary art and “video clips” as comparative trash, imparts a sour elitist whiff to the proceedings. (Music Hall) (Andrew Schenker)

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THE INVENTION OF LYING The Invention of Lying’s plot hook sounds like a pileup of Jim Carrey–Tom Shadyac concept comedies. Ricky Gervais’ fuzzy parable exists in an alternate universe where nobody has made a word for “truth,” because nobody tells anything but — until one man discovers how to say “things that aren’t.” That man is The Office’s auteur, also co-writer/co-director here. As in that calling-card work, Lying is interested in self-deception as a survival technique. Basically a good sort, Gervais’ Mark uses his gift to ameliorate the sting of the matter-of-fact on the meek — nobody here has heard the old “Everything’s going to be all right” before, and it’s a revelation. In a moment of unction, Mark improvises the comforting idea of heaven, along with a Man in the Sky making up the guest list. Playing to a more credulous public than Jesus, he doesn’t need miracles, and the viral spread of TV news makes him an overnight prophet. At times, it feels as if Gervais has made a film as two-dimensional in its smug secularism as Bruce Almighty was in its vacation Bible-school pandering. When the jokes based on universal social ineptitude wear with use, the film remembers unrequited love. Gervais plays schlub beautifully, testing and discarding a dozen ineffective inflections, sweetly suppliant in hurt. But though Lying brushes more big ideas than commonplace comedies, it hasn’t taken those ideas through enough drafts to work out their implications or — harder still — make them killingly funny. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

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