You have to wonder about the sanity of the studio executives who would release a romantic comedy with this title. It’s as though they were inviting critical barbs. “Failure to Amuse”? Check. “A comedy that never gets off the ground”? Sure. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
But you also have to wonder about screenwriters like Tom Astie and Matt Ember, and a director like Tom Dey, who think it a good idea for Terry Bradshaw to do a nude scene in their movie. To be sure, he’s shot very discreetly so that it can still allow the obligatory PG-13. But it’s still pretty gruesome. In fact that only saving grace to the sequence is that Kathy Bates, who plays his wife, and who, you’ll remember, went au naturel herself in “About Schmidt,” doesn’t join him in the buff this time around.
That’s but a small blessing (artistically speaking), though, in a movie so limp and mirthless that it would barely pass muster as a single-season network sitcom. The central idea, to use the term loosely, is that boat salesman Tripp (Matthew McConaughey) is a 35-year old man who’s never moved out of the house of his parents Al and Sue (Bradshaw and Bates); indeed, whenever he feels his current girlfriend is getting too serious (he’s a real ladies’ man, of course), he finds that the easiest way to break things off is to bring her “home” and let her discover he’s still sponging off his folks. Al and Sue have put up with him without much complaint, but when a neighbor couple shows them how blissful life can be when the children leave the nest, they try to get him finally to vamoose by hiring Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), who “cures” such apparently hopeless cases by “romancing” the Peter Pans who’ve never grown up and getting them to fly the coop before dumping them. It will come as no surprise that in this instance, Paula falls for the target and he for her, but the revelation of how their meeting was arranged threatens their ability to commit. And, of course, both have the rote colorful chums–he two other stay-at-home types, Ace (Justin Bartha) and Demo (Bradley Cooper), with whom he indulges in assorted frat-boy pastimes (rock climbing, paint-balling) as well as lunchtime conversations about how great it is still to be living at home, and she an acid-tongued misanthrope named Kit (Zooey Deschanel) with whom she can talk over her interest in Tripp.
The basic premise at work here is a lame one, made even worse by the fact that those involved actually believe that by trotting out all the curdled cliches of the genre they’re actually making some deeper point about people who’ve never matured. It would be wonderful if their picture truly did so; but you’d have to read a lot more into the final product than is really there to find any profundity in the result, especially since McConaughey’s slickness and Parker’s brittle persona don’t mix especially well. (Back-story revelations about the characters’ pasts, inserted to endow them with serious overtones, seem little more than screenwriting crutches.) And the bits that the script adds to the basic romantic plot to provide some tang and charm fall equally flat. That doesn’t apply just to Bradshaw’s naked routine: in a larger sense he and Bates can’t bring much to Al and Sue beyond the obvious. Still, they’re at least mildly likable beside Deschanel’s sneering Kit; obviously what the actress is trying for is a younger version of Thelma Ritter, but she makes the character so rude and obnoxious that Kit comes across as vaguely psychotic rather than amiably sly. The various sequences showcasing Tripp’s adventures with his pals are also lame: an elaborate paintball contest is flaccidly directed (as is the entire picture by Dey) and clumsily edited (by Steven Rosenblum), and a series of other scenes, in which a collection of robotic animals (a chipmunk, a dolphin, and a lizard) attack Tripp, are merely strange–and very unfunny–slapstick. (There’s an effort to “explain” them late on, but it would have been better to leave them as is.) As if those episodes weren’t bad enough, a repeated gag involving Kit and a noisy mockingbird–which culminates in the dorky Ace giving mouth-to-mouth to the injured fowl–goes way beyond strange to positively icky.
“Failure to Launch” looks okay, with widescreen cinematography by Claudio Miranda that gives both outdoor and inside locations the glossy, colorful sheen that seems mandatory in such pieces of romantic fluff complemented by a bubbly but faceless score from Rolfe Kent. The result is an overall exterior blandness that mirrors the movie’s lack of inner fire. In this case the title proves all too accurate for a romantic comedy that never takes wing.