Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Virgin beats Wedding

I finally got around to seeing last summer's two comedy blockbusters, and I know that "Wedding Crashers" had nearly double the box office of "The 40-Year Old Virgin," but I thought "Virgin" was much better. Not just funnier, which it was, but a better movie period. Plot, acting, humor, overall just better.

The first strike against "Wedding Crashers" was high expectations. This is the downfall of so many movies, but it is also the great thing about watching it on DVD. If my wife and I see a movie in the theater, we are making an investment of 2-3 hours and about $70 (tickets, concessions, babysitter); usually we will also have dinner, so there goes another 2 hours for the sitter and whatever dinner costs. The emotional investment is even more substantial; since we don't get out much without the kids, we need to have a quality experience. That's why we make such an effort to schedule these things. When the movie or the dinner is disappointing, it taints the whole evening. If both are bad, I find myself hoping that everything went okay at home with the sitter, because, you know, three strikes and you're out. But if you rent a movie, your risk is much lower. If it stinks, you're out five bucks and a few hours. You turn the TV off and hit the sack; or, in my wife's case, you fall asleep and get to hear how bad it was the next day. No great loss.

And now back to the movie. Critical acclaim and word of mouth set the bar very high for "Wedding Crashers", and I will always give any movie with Vince Vaughn a chance. He may never approach the brilliance of "Swingers," but we can all hope. I'm not as big a fan of Owen Wilson as an actor (great in "Meet the Parents," though), but it's hard not to like a guy with his producer credentials ("Rushmore", "As Good as it Gets").

The initial premise of the movie was clever and original, and I always like being dropped into the middle of a plot, without getting all the backstory. That allows me to see the subplots that emerge later without feeling like I am getting clubbed over the head. The execution of the premise was also well done as we see our heroes ply their considerable skills and make their champagne-enabled conquests. I have been to weddings on a beach, at a singles camp, in an art museum, and even in a few temples and churches, and the details of the film's ceremonies all rang true. The byplay between Vaughn and Wilson was just as fast and funny as expected and by the time they set sail for the post-wedding weekend at the Cleary estate, the movie was jumping along merrily. At this point, however, the screenwriters threw the creative parts of their brains into park and put the script on autopilot. The only uncertainty from that point on was who would play Chaz: Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller.

We knew that the girl would fall for Wilson and then cut him loose when she learned that he was not exactly who he claimed to be. The relationship between Vaughn and the psycho sister kept the humor going, and his one-sided confessional conversation with the priest was Vaughn at his best.

All the performances were solid. Rachel McAdams was always lit and made up perfectly, and she did a fine job with a two-dimensional character. Christopher Walken was an excellent choice; the thought of him as Secretary of the Treasury might have been the funniest thing about the whole movie. Bradley Cooper as the fiance was the best onscreen boor since Bill Paxton in "Weird Science." Jane Seymour's "shocking" turn as the sex-starved wife was underwhelming.

"Virgin," on the other hand, did not come with such pressure to perform. The concept was not original, so all I really expected was "American Pie" with an older cast. This was a story that could end only one way, but it was very well done and came to a much more satisfying conclusion than "Wedding Crashers" (judge for yourself whether the numerous puns and innuendoes in this review are intentional). Kudos to director Judd Apatow, who cowrote the screenplay with Steve Carell. In less subtle hands, this movie would have been completely over-the-top and below-the-belt, but Apatow showed that he could handle adults on the big screen as well as he managed teens on TV with "Freaks and Geeks."

The predictable plot elements of "Virgin" had enough surprises to hold your interest. Unlike a teen comedy, the protagonist was not sex-crazed. Rather, his urges had been repressed for so long as to be nonexistent. When his coworkers learned that he was a virgin, they made it their mission to get him deflowered. This is typical of the events that made up the plot; I didn't have to suspend my disbelief for too long to accept the twists and turns. For instance, as soon as we learned that Catherine Keener ran a business that sold stuff on ebay, we knew that Carell would make a ton of money selling his childhood treasures. Most movies would let that happen, maybe show a montage of the two of them happily taking and filling orders and laughing as they counted the money. Instead, Carell sold his stuff just to be agreeable, even though he didn't want to, and this caused friction in the relationship leading to the big, blowout fight and breakup that allowed for the inevitable reunion. And it was great that Keener's teenage daughter figured out Carell's status when her mom could not.

Steve Carell gave his character depth and humanity and his performance made the plot believable and funny. Carell was so good in this role that the Daily Show is one more alumnus away from replacing SNL as the farm team for Hollywood hit comedies. Keener gave a great performance as the love interest who didn't know what to make of a guy who actually stuck to the "let's take it slow" plan. The coworkers, an annoyingly racially heterogenous bunch, sometimes rose above stereotype but were funny even when they didn't.

Now, maybe, I would have enjoyed "Wedding Crashers" more if I had seen it in the theaters opening weekend before the hype really took hold. And I doubt that my wife would have let herself be dragged out to see "Virgin" in the theater. But the bottom line is that both of us laughed more and louder at "Virgin," and were actually interested in seeing how it ended.

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