All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

AMERICAN WOMAN

Producer: Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Michael Pruss and Brad Feinstein
Director: Jake Scott
Writer: Brad Inglesby
Stars: Suenna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Amy Madigan, Pat Healy, Alex Neustaedter, E. Roger Mitchell, Kentucker Audley, Aidan McGraw and Aidan Fiske
Studio: Roadside Attractions

C

The lack of an article, definite or not, in the title of Jake Scott’s film suggests that Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay might be intended to have some universal import. If so, it must be his belief that the lives of most American women represent a kind of mini-series soap opera slimmed down to a two-hour compilation of dramatic (or melodramatic) highlights. “American Woman” is actually just the tale of a particular woman who endures a succession of travails before, apparently, accepting her life as it is rather than as she might like it to be.

She’s Deb Callahan (Sienna Miller), who’s introduced as a thirtysomething single mother dolling herself up for another date in her small Pennsylvania town. Still attractive but brassy and abrasive, she works as a supermarket cashier while carrying on an affair with a married man. Living with her is her teen daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira), who has a child, Jesse, with a scruffy boy named Tyler (Ale Neustaedter) with whom the girl is continuing an on-and-off relationship.

One night Bridget goes off on a date with Tyler and doesn’t come home. Deb is furious, not so much out of concern for Bridget but because she’s been stuck babysitting, and confronts Tyler, who claims that he’d dropped her off at a girlfriend’s after an argument. As Bridget’s absence is prolonged, her accusations against him grow increasingly pointed, though a sympathetic cop (E. Roger Mitchell) points out that there is no evidence against him.

Distraught, and despite the support she gets from family—her mother (Amy Ryan), sister (Christina Hendricks) and brother-in-law (Will Sasso), support that, of course, she finds more intrusive and irritating than helpful—she gets drunk and crashes her car.

She survives, and six years later is raising her grandson (Aidan McGraw) on her own. Unfortunately, she has linked up with Ray (Pat Healy), an abusive control freak who bullies Jesse to boot. It takes a while for Deb finally to break up with him. Happily she meets a much nicer guy named Chris (Aaron Paul) and, after a while, they get married. He even becomes a true father figure to Jesse (now Aidan Fiske), a gangly teen. In another unfortunate turn, however, he turns out to be much less the perfect catch than he seems.

The film comes full circle at the close, with the truth about Bridget’s disappearance finally coming out. It leads to a catharsis for Deb, who by this time has, despite all the obstacles, earned a degree and can begin a new chapter in her life with Jesse.

One can point to elements of “American Women” that are intermittently affecting. Scenes in which Deb reconnects, years after the disappearance, with Tyler and they inch toward a reconciliation for Jesse’s sake, or she suddenly switches from anger to affection as she interacts with her sister and mother, are nicely written and played well. It will be pretty much impossible, moreover, for a viewer to remain unmoved when Deb and Jesse have to deal with the revelation of what happened to Bridget.

Much of the film, however, has a melodramatic feel, despite the efforts of the cast and Scott to keep it grounded in reality. Much of that has to do with Miller’s performance. She throws herself into the role with undoubted commitment—perhaps a bit too much in some of the more emotional scenes, especially early on. Nor does she age convincingly over the span of some fifteen years. (Few of the adults do, frankly, except for Madigan, though Jesse does.) Hendricks and Sasso are fine nonetheless, and Neustadter does well by his limited opportunities, though Healy comes on awfully strong as the caddish Ray. The technical credits are fine across the board, though this is obviously a picture made on a very modest budget.

As a portrait of a woman’s struggle against the manifold obstacles life can send her way, Scott’s film carries some sporadic power. Overall, however, it’s a disappointment.

LATE NIGHT

Producer: Mindy Kaling, Howard Klein, Ben Browning and Jillian Apfelbaum
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Writer: Mindy Kaling
Stars: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Amy Ryan, John Lithgow, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, Denis O'Hare, Reid Scott, Paul Walker Hauser John Early, Ike Barinholtz and Marc Kudisch
Studio: Amazon Studios

C

Perhaps the best thing you can say about “Late Night,” Mindy Kaling’s comedy about the planned phasing-out of a long-time network talk show hostess and the new writing-room hire who’s instrumental in improving her chances to survive, is that it’s modest in its ambitions. But in comedy modesty is not always a virtue.

The real star of the show is Emma Thompson, a positive bulldozer as Katherine Newbury, who’s been doing a late-night program for nearly three decades but is now suffering from anemic ratings. A pushy new network head (Amy Ryan) informs her this is her last year on air; she’s planning on replacing her with a young stand-up comic (Ike Barinholtz) who specializes in gross-out jokes.

Katherine isn’t a lovable sort. Snippy and brusque, she treats her all-male writing staff with disdain, not even knowing their names (or being aware that one died long ago). They respond by providing her with unimaginative material, and her own inclination is to do serious interviews with serious guests, authors and the like. That stuff is not drawing an audience, and others argue that she’s simply out of touch with today’s tastes.

Still, encouraged by her supportive husband (John Lithgow), an academic suffering from Parkinson’s, she refuses to give up. Her long-time assistant (Denis O’Hare) suggests that one tack might be to hire a woman for the writing staff, which leads her without much thought to choose Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a completely inexperienced efficiency officer from a Pennsylvania chemical factory who’s always dreamed of working for Newbury. She represents a twofer, diversity-wise, though she appears to bring few if any other useful attributes with her, apart from her general daffy sweetness.

After a clumsy start—made only a bit smoother by some gestures of friendship from a few colleagues from the writing room, including a handsome fellow (Hugh Dancy) to whom she takes a special liking, Molly writes some edgier new material for Katherine, but she’s reluctant to use it. And Newbury’s attempt to expand her guest roster to make it more attractive to younger viewers stumbles when an appearance by a YouTube star turns into a disastrous confrontation.

What really appears to doom the chance at a comeback for Katherine, though, is the revelation of a once-upon-a-time infidelity that endangers her marital happiness: the combination of scandal and sagging ratings seems too damaging to overcome. Happily, things change for the better when Molly’s commitment to a little charity comedy benefit is instrumental in turning things around—not very plausibly, it must be said, but then a movie like this requires an upbeat ending, however unlikely the devices employed to get there.

“Late Night” is, of course, a fantasy, so one must be willing to swallow all sorts of plot elements that are clearly pie-in-the-sky, from the long-time presence of a female talk-show host on network television to the ability of a gee-whiz industry outsider to transform the culture of a long-time show staff simply with gestures like bringing cupcakes to work. (Certainly Katherine’s resurgence cannot be ascribed to the quality of her new material, which frankly seems no better than the old.) One can imagine the movie’s premise serving as the basis for an acerbic insider satire—something along the lines of “The Larry Sanders Show”—but that’s not Kaling’s style. Her script is basically nice and gentle, with even the villains getting off easily.

The result is bland, especially since it’s so flatly directed by Nisha Ganatra. Thompson tries desperately to spice things up with her irascibility, but Kaling remains so sweetly laid-back throughout that her Molly Patel comes off like a watered-down version of Mary Richards. And the other actors follow her lead. One doesn’t want the supporting figures to be played wildly over-the-top, but it would be nice if they were invested with some real personality. But when even John Lithgow is totally becalmed in sickly sentimentality, you know the film is in trouble. And the technical aspects of the picture—Elizabeth Jones’s production design, Matthew Clark’s cinematography, Eleanor Infante and David Rogers’ editing—are nondescript too.

“Late Night” is an example of a comedy that apparently wants to address real issues in the contemporary workplace but proves weak-kneed in doing so.