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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Jennifer Westfeldt's FRIENDS WITH KIDS, Paul Weitz's BEING FLYNN, and Lasse Hallstrom's SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

For reasons I'm not even sure of, I have a very strong memory of seeing writer and actor Jennifer Westfeldt's film KISSING JESSICA STEIN. And I remember being particularly impressed with it because of the matter-of-fact way it dealt with its story of a straight woman who becomes romantically involved with a woman. The film is a romantic comedy of sorts, but examines with a great deal of thought the life-changing. In a way, Westfeldt's latest work (which she also directed), FRIENDS WITH KIDS does the same thing with the idea of a pair of best friends deciding to have a child together without all of the romance-killing pressures of a relationship. This may sound like a light-hearted subject, but since their decision threatens the very fabric of modern marriages and parenting, they are met with borderline resentment from many of their married friends.

Westfeldt is Julie to Adam Scott's Jason. The two live in the same building, discuss each other's sexual exploits, and often accompany each other to group dinners with their other friends played by Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd, Kristin Wiig, and Jon Hamm. Hmm, it sure does appear that Westfeldt cherry-picked from the cast of BRIDESMAIDS, and so what if she did (she didn't, but that's not the point). These actors work great together as they document the rocky and stressful road to parenthood. And while Julie and Jason don't exactly enter into their arrangement lightly, they do forget to address some fairly fundamental questions that will come up down the road as they co-raise their child. For example, how will their child react when he finds out that his parents never loved each other (which isn't entirely true, but on the surface appears to be)?

Once the baby is born and time passes, both Julie and Jason enter into new relationships, while their married friends go through struggles that shakes their marriages to the core. Megan Fox is actually quite good as Jason's dancer girlfriend who never wants kids, and seems unlikely to ever grow close to Jason's son, while Edward Burns plays Julie's perfect new boyfriend with a son of his own from his previous marriage and a very clear idea of how to raise him. Things come to a boil during a ski vacation in a cabin during dinner when a drunk Hamm comes down on Julie and Jason for their rash decision. The near 10-minute scene is intense, dark, and full of true bitterness, and it happens to be the highlight of the film.

Without ruining anything concerning the final act of FRIENDS WITH KIDS, Jason and Julie have something of a falling out, and the film's conclusion is a bit predictable but not entirely unearned. I love the idea that this troupe of actors are able to get together twice in one year to make two very different films that deal with various aspects of relationships. Westfeldt's writing continues to balance nicely the silly and conversational with the hyper-dramatic and occasionally cruel, and the result is a story that doesn't necessarily feel authentic as much as it comes across as appropriately cinematic. I like the way she looks at the world and at people and their sometimes-reckless decisions. This is one of those laughing-crying deals that I think most people, especially couples, will enjoy and possibly even learn something from.

My feelings on the new film from writer-director Paul Weitz (About a Boy) run hot and cold, but for me the bottom line is simple. Any movie that gets this kind of performance out of Robert De Niro is worth checking out. BEING FLYNN is an adaptation of the Nick Flynn memoir "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City," in which Flynn (played by Paul Dano) details a section of his life during which his long-absent father Jonathan (De Niro) returns into his life after nearly 20 years gone.

The elder Flynn left his now-late wife (Julianne Moore) and son to devote his life to writing the great American novel, but he returns unceremoniously when he loses his job as a cab driver and is evicted from his home. Just before his arrival, Nick decides to work at a homeless shelter and not long after he begins, Jonathan walks in looking for a bed, giving the two a rocky start to possibly finding some common ground on which to build a relationship. But Nick is also trying to build a relationship with a co-worker, played by Olivia Thirlby, so sometimes life with dad takes a back seat with Nick feeling no guilt.

As much as Nick has grown to live (even thrive) without dad, he misses his mother with so much force that it makes him angry, usually in the direction of his father. At other times, the film enters into amusing, bleak humor as these two men navigate each other's space. There's no doubt that Jonathan is delusional about his talent and work (he's convinced that a Nobel Prize for Literature is his for the taking), and as much as Nick would like to laugh off his dad's ego, it was the thing that drove him away from the family when he was a child, and that is not easy to forgive.

De Niro's performance here is magnificent, and watching him tear into the character of Jonathan is such a treat, one that I haven't had the pleasure of in far too long. It's hard to believe that just a couple of years ago Weitz directed De Niro in LITTLE FOCKERS. Let's just say both men redeem themselves quite nicely with BEING FLYNN, a movie that shatters as many concepts about the bond between parent and child as it reinforces. Dano does a solid job grounding the energy that De Niro brings to every scene, and that's exactly what he needs to do. Weitz doesn't create situations that are too over the top or extraneous, and the result is a rock steady story that is surprisingly effective.

The biggest problem with this film seems to be that the writer (Simon Beaufoy, who wrote SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) would rather tell a love story than an actual story, which is just odd enough to be compelling if they would just leave well enough alone. But SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN benefits from something that even better written works don't have: undeniable chemistry between lead actors Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt.

For starters, these two actors are undeniably likable. McGregor plays Dr. Alfred Jones, a scientist (perhaps with mild Aspergers) working in the fisheries department of the British government who is charged by the Prime Minister's press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a rare miss as she overplays the heartless bureaucrat part) to look into the possibility of bringing fly fishing to the bone-dry Yemen in an effort to bring some good press to British-Middle East relations. The driving force behind the idea is a rich sheik (Amr Waked), a very zen man with a passion for sport fishing. Blunt plays Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, who has been retained by the sheik to look into the dynamics of creating a viable river and way to stock the fish needed. In addition, her boyfriend has been sent to the Middle East to fight and he goes MIA, leaving her terrified and vulnerable.

This wouldn't be much of a movie, if the salmon fishing didn't turn out to be a possibility, and suddenly a ridiculous amount of money gets spent on setting up the experiment. Jones and the sheik form a close friendship built around their mutual love of fishing, but the sheik also attempts to inject some amount of faith and spirituality into Jones's life with regards to their endeavor. And then there's the draw between Jones and Ms. Chetwode-Talbot, complicated by the fact that he is married (unhappily, so it's alright).

Some things (let's be real: most things) play out exactly as you think they will from about the 20-minute mark. Predictability is this film's biggest drawback, but as I mentioned, McGregor and Blunt have a great rapport that reminds me of the great rapid back-and-forth styles of many 1940s comedies, and that carried a lot of pull in getting me through this movie. Somewhere in here is a really fascinating true story, but this version from director Lasse Hallstrom (THE CIDER HOUSE RULES: CHOCOLAT) is so buried in cute that it's tough to find. If you're a devoted fan of either actor, it's probably worth all of the drivel just to get to see them work so well together; otherwise, I'm not sure I can whole-heartedly recommend SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN.

-- Steve Prokopy
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