Category Archives: Now Showing

THE HOT CHICK

Grade: F

A virulent plague has been sweeping through the nation’s multiplexes of late. It takes a variety of forms, but one can recognize it, and take care to avoid it, by watching for the common element: the presence of the words “A Happy Madison Production.” The sponsorship of Adam Sandler’s company is quickly becoming a virtual guarantee of the wretchedness of any movie carrying its banner.

As if the double debacle of “Mr. Deeds” and “Eight Crazy Nights” weren’t enough proof, the SNL star’s outfit now offers “The Hot Chick,” an alleged comedy showcasing Sandler’s buddy Rob Schneider as Clive, a scruffy petty criminal who, as a result of some magical babble involving a pair of ancient Abyssinian earrings, switches bodies with a snooty high school princess named Jessica (Rachel McAdams). Most of the running-time focuses on our watching Jessica/Clive as she/he tries to come to terms with being in a hairy man’s skin while keeping her parents in the dark about the transformation, holding onto her true-blue boyfriend Billy (Matthew Lawrence), winning the cheerleading championship against a rival school team, and–oh, yes–getting her own body back. She’s aided in all this by best buddy April (Anna Faris), and in the process of accomplishing her goals learns how to be a better, more thoughtful and more tolerant person. She also pauses to solve her family’s problems–not only the growing estrangement of her parents but the inclination of her little brother Booger (Matt Weinberg) to dress up in girl’s clothes. (Maybe if they’d resisted calling him Booger, of course, he would have turned out differently.)

What all this results in is a fragmented, episodic flick that’s nothing more than a random assemblage of cheap, remarkably tasteless gags (rampant penis jokes, smirky gay and lesbian humor, hackneyed high school bits of business, lots of slapstick violence–especially aimed at crotches–and even a stray pederast priest reference) and equally tasteless stereotypes (ditzy adolescent blondes, dull-witted authority figures, and–perhaps worst of all–a Korean woman who puts Margaret Cho’s version of her mother in the shade), all punctuated by moments of well-meaning but unctuous point-making. (“The Hot Chick” doesn’t even have the guts to be a straightforward gross-out; it wants to sell the audience dopey platitudes about life, too.) The common thread that ties it all together, unfortunately, is that it’s likely to generate more groans than laughs or nods of agreement. When it tries to be funny it’s usually appalling, but when it attempts to be sweet it’s truly nauseating.

The picture represents a come-down for Schneider, who even in his crummy past efforts like “Deuce Bigelow” and “The Animal” retained a smidgen of amiable charm. In this case, whether he’s gulping down mouthfuls of melted cheese and ice cream from a convenience-store dispenser or prancing about in an exaggeratedly “girlish” pose, he never manages to be even vaguely likable. McAdams does the typically vacuous campus princess bit well enough at the beginning (just think a bargain-basement replica of the “Clueless” Alicia Silverstone) but then disappears for most of the running-time, showing up toward the close as a hard-bitten stripper type–not entirely unconvincingly; Faris makes a suitably sad-sack best pal, and Lawrence an appropriately lovesick, doe-eyed swain. But the older actors stuck in supporting roles–Robert Davi, Jodi Long, Michael O’Keefe, Lee Garlington, Fay Hauser–really take a beating; this is one they’ll definitely want to scratch from their resumes. Sandler turns up in one of those wink-at-the- audience cameos that’s all wink and no amusement. The picture looks chintzy and slapdash, too.

In fact, the only thing funny about “The Hot Chick” are the takeoffs on its TV trailers that “South Park” did a few weeks ago. And those you can see without having to shell out eight hard-earned bucks.

GOOD GIRL, THE

American comedies dealing with characters from the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum are rarely successful; most wind up as condescending and insipid as “Waking Up in Reno,” a trailer-trash extravaganza with a starry cast (Billy Bob Thornton, Charlize Theron, Patrick Swayze, Natasha Richardson) poised for release last spring but so savagely received in press screenings that Miramax wisely scratched it from the schedule (it’s now listed as a fall release, but may never see the inside of a multiplex). That’s one reason why Miguel Arteta’s “The Good Girl” is such a pleasant surprise. A shrewd, observant ensemble comedy-drama, it’s packed with hayseed types and depicts them sharply and amusingly, but at the same time it maintains an underlying empathy for their plight, making you care about what happens to them. The intermingling of light and shade is characteristic of Arteta and writer Mike White, who also collaborated on “Chuck & Buck” (2000); while this film is far less dark and disturbing, it too will both make you laugh and give you pause.

White’s scenario centers on an interlinked group of people in a small Texas town; each is unhappy in his own way and searching for escape, some through so simple a means as drugs, others in religion, many by fantasizing about alternate futures for themselves. The linchpin among them is Justine (Jennifer Aniston), the unfulfilled wife of Phil (John C. Reilly), who works as a housepainter in tandem with his buddy Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson). Justine and Phil have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child, and Justine has a dismal job at the Retail Rodeo, a poor cousin to K-Mart. Her fellow workers include Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), a disaffected youngster who peppers her announcements over the store speakers with deadpan insults and has a field day overdoing things when offering free cosmetic makeovers; Corny (White), a security guard with a blank smile who’s a Jesus freak; Gwen (Deborah Rush), a spinster who considers Justine a closer friend than Justine thinks her; and clueless store manager Jack Field (John Carroll Lynch), who compensates for anything and everything by overeating. Into this odd mix comes gawky, preternaturally shy clerk Tom Worther (Jake Gyllenhaal), who calls himself Holden after the character in his favorite novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” and dreams of becoming a writer himself. Weary of Phil and Bubba’s boozing and pot smoking, and clearly stifled by her dead-end life, Justine is strangely drawn to Holden, who seems a poetic, romantic alternative despite (or perhaps because of) his brooding, potentially self-destructive personality; and before long the two are sharing not only lunch but an occasional motel room. The ramifications, which eventually draw in all the other characters as well, are both very funny and strangely poignant.

White’s script is a clever, well-constructed piece of work, but it could easily have gone awry in the wrong hands. Happily Arteta–as “Chuck and Buck” clearly demonstrated–is well attuned to the odd rhythms of the writing and generally sensitive to its delicate balance between the comic and the serious. Though the picture sometimes looks ragged around the edges (one function of its modest budget), his touch is mostly well-gauged, and he secures wonderful performances all around. Aniston is quite simply a revelation; sporting a pitch-perfect accent and shedding every trace of her sitcom persona, she captures both Justine’s dowdy look and the character’s intermingled frustration, longing and terrible insecurity. The others offer impeccable support. It’s always a joy to encounter Reilly, who turns Phil, who might have been a caricature, into a subtle, multi-faceted fellow, and Gyllenhaal continues his string of exceptional turns (“Bubble Boy” always excepted) as the anxious, pathetic Holden–surely he’s one of the best young actors working today. Nelson, White, Rush and Lynch haven’t quite as many opportunities to impress, but they seize every one they’ve been given; and Deschanel proves an accomplished scene-stealer, though the hilarious lines White has provided for Cheryl have a lot to do with it. Daniel Bradford’s production design and Enrique Chediak’s straightforward cinematography get the look of things right: this is a dusty, dreary town, as far from the plastic glamor of “Friends” as Aniston’s Justine is.

“The Good Girl” isn’t perfect–a few of the twists seem a bit precious and occasionally things are played a trifle too broadly. It does, however, exhibit a welcome–and unfortunately all too rare–willingness to showcase characters on the economic edge who, while amusing, are deeply flawed but still sympathetic, and to depict their actions as morally ambiguous to the very end. A little film that cannily melds edgy satire with a degree of warmth and even a touch of profundity, “The Good Girl” has some minor problems, but overall it’s a treat; and for Aniston it could well represent a career breakthrough.