BILLU A troop of top Hindi character actors work overtime trying to goose the entertainment value of this surprisingly enervated small-town comedy, directed by hit-making slapstick specialist Priyadarshan (Bhool Bhulaiyaa) with about a tenth of his usual manic energy. The local eccentrics, played by Om Puri (imposingly bloated as a bullying money-lender,) and diminutive comic spark plug Rajpal Yadev (as a compulsive versifier who dreams of writing film song lyrics), add as many deft riffs as they can to their one- or two-note village folktale roles, treading water as they wait around to be poleaxed by the season’s most predictable plot twist. The only performer who rises above the fray is the great Irrfan Khan, the fine-grained actor who was the dad in The Namesake and the cop in Slumdog. Khan has his first his first mainstream Bollywood leading role as the gentle, puzzled Billu, a struggling barber who wanders around in a state of chronic distraction, pre-occupied with his schemes to upgrade his decrepit shop and scrape together his children’s school fees. For years, the wool-gathering Billu has been telling his kids and his stalwart, handsome wife (Lara Dutta) that his closest boyhood chum grew up to be India’s leading movie star, Sahir Khan, a god-like celebrity closely modeled upon — and portrayed by — the film’s producer, god-like celebrity Shah Rukh Khan. This extended cameo dovetails with the main action when this star shows up in town to shoot a film (glimpsed as a series of disconnected, garish production numbers) and Billu’s big-talking bluff seems about to be called. The scenes in which rumors of the barber’s bond with the star spread through town, igniting a dozen different strains of wide-eyed greed, are the movie’s best. Ultimately, though, the emotional center of this hard-working movie turns out to be the star rather than the barber. It is dedicated to the proposition that god-like celebrities are ordinary folks at heart. Groans all around. (Fallbrook 7; Naz 8; Laguna 16; AMC Covina 30; Ultrastar 8) (David Chute)
GO CHAIN LINK Luckily, first-time feature filmmaker Dylan Reynolds’ Chain Link isn’t as clichéd as its official synopsis makes it sound: Newly released from prison, Anthony (Mark Irvingsen, a low-rent Billy Bob Thornton) attempts to mend relations with his young son (Luciano Rauso) and ex-wife (Yassmin Alers) but gets knocked off the straight-and-narrow path to redemption by snowballing circumstances beyond his control. In fact, Chain Link’s seemingly generic trajectory is interestingly complicated from the start by Anthony’s erratic behavior — he gets into an altercation with a cop on his first day out, then shows up late to his new job — signaling an unrepentant delinquency confirmed when he casually mugs a woman halfway through the movie for no more than a few bucks and an opened box of candy. Abetted by his enabling mother and a friend of his late father, Anthony isn’t misunderstood or particularly motivated to pursue a newly virtuous life but remains instead a strangely entitled fuck-up oblivious to anyone’s needs other than his immediate own. Although Reynolds’ script sometimes slips into sentimentality and entertains the odd delusion of grandeur, the film mostly presents a spare, refreshingly clear-eyed depiction of a deadbeat’s downward spiral. (Grande 4-Plex) (Kristi Mitsuda)
GO DELHI-6 Addressing the crowd at the New York world premiere of Delhi-6, Indian actor Abhishek Bachchan announced that the film “truly represents the India of today and the youth of today.” “The India of today” (and spurious representations thereof) is a concept currently under review; by the time a grudging consensus is reached, the India of next week will have crowded in. But in his claim, Bachchan (nicknamed “Little B” — he is the son of “Big B,” Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, whose autograph is sought by a certain sewage-covered boy early in Slumdog Millionaire) posed an intriguing question: Could a true-blue Bollywood film ever represent something other than the highly referent, tightly clockworked chaos of Bollywood cinema? The story of an American-born Indian who accompanies his ailing grandmother (Waheeda Rehman) to Delhi and, duly appalled and enchanted by what he sees, undergoes a cultural conversion, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6 attempts to address the generational, economic, and religious problems dividing modern India, but does so in an unapologetically broad, whacked-out way, with each of Bollywood’s four food groups (corn, cheese, treacle, and nuts) present and accounted for. Which is to say, of course, that it’s pretty much irresistible and, in that sense, represents the enigmatic India of today as well as anything ever could. (Culver Plaza Theatres; Fallbrook 7; Naz 8; AMC Covina 30; Laguna Hills Mall) (Michelle Orange)
GO ELEVEN MINUTES Two years after winning the first season of Project Runway, flamboyantly charismatic fashion designer Jay McCarroll still hadn’t launched his first clothing line, the pressure of being internationally famous for being famous playing hell on his nerves and insecurities. Beginning production then, doc filmmakers Michael Selditch and Rob Tate’s charming and unexpectedly perceptive portrait cum procedural proves the DIY-authentic corrective to Unzipped, a warts-and-all chronicle of McCarroll’s yearlong preparation for his inaugural show at New York Fashion Week. Hardly living a glamorous daily existence, McCarroll — a stressed-out but good-humored teddy bear whose naked sensitivities balance his ego — scours Chinatown for cheap material, milks as much as he can out of hemorrhaging budgets and unpaid employees, attempts to micromanage when outsourced work is botched, and squabbles with his publicist over creative compromises. What truly elevates it all is how the directors (deliberately appearing onscreen at times) subtly address our perceptions of filmed “reality,” from their even-handed vérité here to the more grossly manufactured confines of reality TV, a medium McCarroll is quick to call “vulgar.” Like Soderbergh’s two-part Che — yes, I’m making this comparison — Eleven Minutes is less about its subject and more about formalist processes (both McCarroll’s and the filmmakers’), and shouldn’t exist as a standalone without viewers having experienced its other half, Project Runway. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)
FIRED UP Getting high and mighty on teen-sex comedies is a sucker’s game, but it’s worth noting how particularly abhorrent a movie like Fired Up is. Not content to be just another dumb high school flick, it’s actually teaching young, virginal viewers to treat women like stupid, submissive slut-cattle for the rest of their lives. Bored of banging every last chick in school, horny football studs Shawn (Nicholas D’Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olsen) ditch their team for a couple weeks of cheer camp, where they will be the only straight dudes in a sea of 600 tits, er, 300 cheerleaders. They’re basically the same insipid conquistador, except Nick is the more officious schemer, and Shawn is the science whiz who helps all the (brainless) girls with their homework. Learning a few cheers but never punished for their piggish insolence (the third-act inspirational speech, literally: “Be a cocky asshole”), Nick eventually wins over an older coach (Molly Sims) with his secret poetry, and Shawn falls in love with squad leader Carly (Sarah Roemer) because she’s the only girl who didn’t want to whore around on first sight. We’re light-years from Animal House, sure, but who ever thought we would long for the richer, funnier dignity of American Pie? (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)
HOOKERS, INC. When their revenues prove insufficient to fund the porno movie they dream of making, two Hollywood escort drivers (Tim Pingel and Matthew Dowling) try to expand their business by acquiring the services of the extremely stupid “Starship with an I” (Joy Somers) and “Starshyp with a Y” (Camille Solari), a pair of clueless dancers who think they’re being hired to do massages, and are terrible even in that capacity. Like Deuce Bigalow, they somehow manage to satisfy clients by just talking things out rather than actually having sex; only once is this shown to be as dangerously naive as it actually would be. There’s almost certainly a good movie to be made on the topic of the “escorts” who advertise in the back of publications like the one you’re reading right now, and for about 20 minutes, Hookers, Inc. (which was directed by Pingel and co-written by Solari) seems to capture the grit of Hollywood Boulevard. Then it loses focus, trying to parody celebrity culture, the porn industry and couples therapy, without propelling any of its storylines forward — though, if you still think Kato Kaelin jokes are funny, you may laugh a time or two. Pingel and Solari deserve credit for their willingness to appear so dense and unlikable on camera. Too bad their movie can be described with those same adjectives. (Grande 4-Plex) (Luke Y. Thompson)
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MADEA GOES TO JAIL When we last saw Tyler Perry’s signature character — the bosomy, blunt-smoking, Glock-yielding Georgia granny — she and her brother, Joe (also Perry), were being pulled over by the po-po in a cameo in last March’s Meet the Browns (this is Perry’s third film in 11 months). Wearing a fat suit and earrings for more than two minutes for the first time since Madea’s Family Reunion (2006), Perry isn’t content to operate in one genre when he can stuff in at least three. He leavens — not altogether seamlessly — his ludicrous fallen-woman melodrama (Assistant D.A. Derek Luke is determined to save crazy-wigged prostitute Keshia Knight Pulliam, a childhood friend who took a bad turn after two years in college) with Madea’s broad humor: “I’ll rip out your urethra tube!” Check off all of Perry’s motifs: vilification of the black bourgie princess, tough-love Christian messages, Academy Award–nominated actresses (Viola Davis, this time) managing to maintain their dignity. As ridiculous as his films frequently are, Perry, a shrewd yet benevolent showman, knows and loves his audience. And 2009 is a particularly resonant year for Madea, who, though she out-bullies Dr. Phil and beats a butch blonde yardbird into submission, still isn’t as tough as the grandma now living in the White House. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)
GO MOSCOW, BELGIUM We’re not talking the Dardennes brothers here, but fellow Belgian Christophe Van Rompaey gives this light May-to-December pair-up an agreeably mussed, pedestrian milieu. Rather than an exquisitely frumpified romcom creation, Matty (Barbara Sarafian), 41, is a middle-class Ghent mother of three pretending to be shrewish while her experimentally estranged hubby dithers. (Her neighborhood’s “Moscow” moniker is just title bait.) A fender-bender triggers a persistent suitor in lanky, rangy trucker Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), and their one-night stand leads, a few requisite demurrals later, to a home-cooked dinner with her and the kids (menu: blood sausage and stewed apples). But out of emotional routine, Matty still humors the indecision of her weak-willed art-teacher husband, who’s like a sitcom neighbor with an excuse to drop by. The clichés are firmly in place, no question: Johnny is Mr. Fix-It, drawing out her shy son with comic book references, and the romantic volleying chugs along until it’s suddenly time not to. Yet Sarafian’s maternally weary manner suits the low-key tone perfectly (and the accordion score is admirably unrepentant). Though it backs away from Johnny’s adventuresomely not-funny past (courtesy of his rival asking, sigh, “a friend at the police station”), Moscow, Belgium leaves you less offended and dirty-feeling than the evidence suggests. (Nuart) (Nicolas Rapold)