Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is this weekend’s widest release, but the two runners up both call into some question the traditional masculine ideals. Here are brief reviews of those two. (To see my review of Cloudy, watch the video above.)
Rush (Director: Ron Howard)
While perhaps not quite at the same level as Ali vs. Frazier, Palmer vs. Nicklaus, or Agassi vs. Sampras — or perhaps even Gordon vs. Earnhardt, for that matter — the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One racing circuit promised enough dramatic potential to fuel Ron Howard’s new sports drama Rush.
Chris Hemsworth stars as Hunt, a quintessentially cocky British rapscallion whose drive for success seems largely guided by his need for respect, esteem and a lifetime’s supply of good times, as anyone with as much musky allure as Hemsworth’s matinee idol performance supplies seems pre-determined to receive. Lauda (as played by German actor Daniel Brühl) is his mirror image, a man equally determined to strive for glory, but without any compulsion to endear himself to anyone. Winning friends isn’t his strategy for influencing people. Attaining perfection on the race track is.
The contrast between the two — the perpetual prom king against the math club geek turned CEO — is, of course, the lifeblood of almost every reality TV competition show on the air today, but one of the most enjoyable aspects of Rush is seeing how those dynamics played out in a world that still waited for the morning edition. Landa may come off like a sniveling automaton in his personal interactions (Brühl is getting Oscar heat for his surprisingly constricted performance), but back then mass media hadn’t quite ballooned into today’s attention-commanding omnipresence, and the world seemed more focused on achievements than personality.
Given that juicy opportunity for two-handed drama, Howard’s direction is ironically as close to the track as possible. With far less focus on the relationships between his main characters, which has been the hallmark of his best work (i.e. Parenthood, mostly), Rush allows itself to be far too dazzled to the season’s Wide World of Sports narratives and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s (Slumdog Millionaire) grimy, oversaturated lensing. That renders both Hunt and Landa as nothing more complicated than two halves of a hackneyed “we’re frenemies who, deep down, need each other.”
Don Jon (Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts himself at the center of his own debutante cotillion as a first-time auteur with Don Jon, the story of a shallow, T&A obsessed Noo Joisey meathead who, though he has plenty of success prowling for 9’s and 10’s in the club, finds himself perpetually dissatisfied by all of his sexual conquests in bed. And he watches porn. All of the time. With multiple browser tabs open.
As crestfallen as he always finds himself when he brings his Friday night mistake home week in and week out, and as often as he runs back into the cold glow of his laptop, he doesn’t make the connection any other rational person could: that pornography has distorted his view of sexuality, and that he has drastically reduced his carnal vocabulary down to onanism.
Which isn’t an incredibly big problem for him until he meets Scarlett Johansson’s voluptuous Barbara Sugarman (a name that screams “first-time screenwriter”), a “dime” who tames Jon and, before terribly long, puts him on the fast-track toward total domestication, changing his wardrobe, forcing him to watch corny romantic comedies, goading him into taking a night class. It’s there where he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), a highly emotional but earthy woman who evidently has taken something of an interest in the buff, stand-offish Jon. The contrast between the two women eventually help Jon reach a newfound sexual actualization, which of course involves him washing that pomade out of his salad.
Don Jon gets away with a lot more than did Shame, which if you break it down to the basic elements has almost exactly the same storyline, owing to its comedic trappings, but those same flourishes (e.g. the showy repetitions, the staggered joy-buzzer sound of a computer booting up, the so-telling Titanic poster in his “perfect” girl’s bedroom) end up amounting to the movie equivalent of a juiced-up meathead who can’t or, worse, doesn’t even want to look you square in the eye while he mechanically gets his. As Tom Servo once said, “This is a problem with many first-time directors: too many ideas. Or, as it were, none at all.” If Don Jon were half as cinematically knowledgeable as it is sage about current sexual standards, it would be something to behold. Maybe Julianne Moore should’ve taken the reins.