For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Sunday, September 25, 2011



One could argue that professional baseball is a game played entirely on paper. All a coach or General Manager needs to know about an opponent is plainly spelled out on gridded spreadsheets with rows and columns of players and stats. Right next to a batter's name is his batting average and on-base-percentage -- numbers can help define how well he hits a curve ball, bats against lefties or how many high fastballs he chases. Pitting the right pitcher against the right batter has become more of a science than an intuition -- it's an equation that has the mathematic principles of a casino table game. "Moneyball" is about the role numbers play in our national pastime, and about the man whose efforts to take the romance out of the game only reiterated the goose-pimple sentimentality that made us fans in the first place.

"Moneyball" begins in 2001 (which now qualifies as period, I guess) and Oakland Athletics' GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is staring at the back end of another disappointing season. On top of that, salary restraints are forcing him to sell his three best players -- Giambi, Damon and Isringhausen. What can he do? The New York Yankees are already using pen and paper to win championships -- they can write bigger checks. Compared to their 120 million dollar budget, the A's 39 million is peanuts. They have become a feeder team for bigger clubs; their failure is all but guaranteed.

Something needs to change. It doesn't help any that Beane's round table of head scouts are the kind of old-fashioned, go-with-your-gut "experts" that the new millennium will eventually send adrift. They pick players based on their swing style, looks and, hell, even the attractiveness of their girlfriends -- anything but what really matters. A desperate Beane, while on a scouting trip with the Cleveland Indians, runs across Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale Econ major and numbers cruncher with a highly experimental system: Buy up all the cheap players who get on base and watch the wins roll in. It's not theoretical; it's science.

The two embark on a crusade to do just that, shocking the baseball world in the process. It's a risky move, a numbers game that takes time to show effect. In the meantime, Beane faces off with the team's manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the owners, and all the baseball enthusiasts out there who refuse to believe that their favorite game can be decided by math problems. Baseball is played with your heart, not your long division.

As written by virtuoso screenwriters Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network") and Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List"), based on the book by Michael Lewis, Billy Beane becomes a brilliantly conflicted hero. He's a guy with an overwhelming passion for a game that's left a serrated chip on his shoulder -- he was a promising young player who "never panned out". A dealmaker who doesn't get to know his players (makes 'em easier to cut, trade and send down to the minors), Beane still frets over the fact that the Coke machine costs a dollar in his own locker room. If he's ruthlessly committed to a system that favors odds and percentages over spontaneity, he still refuses to watch games out of superstition. While he's doting over his singer-songwriter pre-teen daughter, we see that he's really a kind-hearted guy whose decision to de-romanticize baseball is, perhaps, against his very nature. And Sorkin and Zaillian's excellent screenplay has dialogue that cracks and pops even as it draws out three-dimensional characters.

If you need one good reason to see "Moneyball", Brad Pitt as Billy Beane is that reason. From the satirical brawl "Fight Club" to the little seen, but highly poetic "Jesse James" to Quentin Tarantino's history book burning session "Inglorious Basterds", Pitt has shown a tremendous amount of range in skill and thoughtfulness in role selection. In "Moneyball" he delivers his most understated and emotionally engaging performance since "Benjamin Button". The actor is marvelous because he understands that Beane's battle is interior; it's not so much with the wage inflation or the rich club/poor club dichotomy that still plagues baseball, it's with his own blasted dreams and uncertain future.

His chemistry with Jonah Hill is equally impressive. The two have such an opposite appeal -- one being a hunky leading man and the other a frizzy-haired man-child -- that when their characters team up they become the most unlikely of success stories. (The jock and the nerd conquering baseball by deconstructing it). The actors themselves have such polarity that their charm as a duo is equally unlikely -- and considerably more delightful to watch as a result.

With cinematography by Wally Pfister ("Inception") and staging by director Bennet Miller ("Capote"), "Moneyball" is calculated to get at the inner workings of the sport, not just its rah-rah surface pleasures. The game's behind-the-scenes trading is so loosey-goosey you'd think the managers were swapping baseball cards not actual players. The game's crushing disappointments are captured in shots of an abandoned stadium, lights out and deathly quiet with Beane's silhouette projected melancholically against the opulence of an arena as eerie when empty, as it is raucous when full. On the other hand, the pressure of the batter's box, the vibrant, pastoral green of the outfield and the spirit of the fans make palpable the singular presence of a day at the ball park. You can almost smell the Cracker Jacks and Big League Chew. The film is less about how baseball is played than how it feels -- for the fans, players and coaches. Thus is the film's most endearing message: You can't take the sensation out of baseball, because baseball is universally sensational.

"Moneyball" is surprisingly contemplative, and sometimes slow and methodical as a result. But it's a highly entertaining and thoughtful sports drama that requires some brains to enjoy, but don't worry, you won't need your calculator -- just bring your heart.

Saturday, September 17, 2011



"Warrior" is everything I wish "The Fighter" had been. Unlike last year's Bostonian squabble-fest that turned rather quickly into a high-pitched acting battle, "Warrior" is subdued, deep, affecting and enlightening. It has a profound understanding of what motivates people to put themselves in harm's way -- to brave the ferocity of the ring. And "Warrior" isn't even about boxing; it's about Mixed Martial Arts. The only films made yet about the sport -- like "Fighting" and "Never Back Down" -- are essentially "Karate Kid" rehashes with amped up Jet Li fight scenes out by the bike rack. "Warrior" is a novelty because it exemplifies the well-known tropes of the boxing genre while revealing the battered wounds and broken flesh (both literal and figurative) behind a sport many see as sideshow carnage.

MMA is, in so many ways, more brutal, horrific -- and even athletic -- than its more traditional cousin. If boxing is a dizzying dance of footwork and strategy, then UFC is that as well -- plus a sweat and blood, contorted mauling once the fighting hits the mat. Compared to the mixed kung fu, wrestling and judo throw-downs of MMA -- which are nothing if not officiated street brawls -- boxing is a gentleman's game, marked by the decency of letting a man get up if he's down. MMA grants no such courtesy; when an opponent is crawling on the mat that's when you attack, either with a blizzard of face jabs for a TKO or a meticulously planned foot clamp or arm trap for the mercy of a tap out.

Which approach a warrior takes depends a lot on what kind of fighter he is and, perhaps even more, what kind of man. There are two brothers at the heart of "Warrior". The oldest, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), is a physics teacher and family man from industrial Philly. He was forced to give up fighting after he was personally chauffeured from too many bouts in ambulances. After the bank forecloses on his house, Brendan decides the only way to keep the home he shares with his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and their two daughters is to get back in the Cage. His brother Tommy (Tom Hardy) crawls out of the shadows in the first minutes of the film after years of absence. A returning Iraq veteran driven by anger, guilt and disillusionment, Tommy -- a former high school wrestling prodigy -- dusts off his gloves just in time to compete in a massive Atlantic City tournament called Sparta. Both brothers have their eyes on the prize, but having been estranged for years, each is unaware the other is even in contention. The film's driving question becomes: Will the brothers meet in the final?

Already we have two opposite poles about to collide: the brother who fights for love versus the one who fights for hate. Their mannerisms and behaviors show us what they're up against. Brendan is all humility and underdog resilience -- winning by pinning and inexhaustible endurance. Tommy arrives at each match in a pointed, black-hooded sweatshirt that has the appearance of MMA's own poor man's version of pro boxing theatrics, and perhaps even shades of grim reaper reckoning as Tommy struts from the locker room with a look of psychotic determination. He prefers knockouts to pins, and when his work is finished he flies from the ring like it's the scene of a crime -- which it kind of is. As one announcer puts it, "If he did that to somebody on the street, they'd lock him up and throw away the key."

The only thing these siblings have in common is the ex-alcoholic father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), who managed to drive them both away with his drunken abuse. Paddy's fight is for redemption and forgiveness from the sons he may have disheartened too much to ever truly reconcile with. He spends his days and nights listening to "Moby Dick" on tape -- another melancholic tale of fruitless pursuit. ("We're lost, Tommy. We're all lost.") He's Tommy's trainer for most of the film, but it's pretty clear both men are facing past and present pains all by themselves.

Although boxing will always be one of our nation's favorite barbaric pastimes, MMA is today's more synthesized version of mortal combat. It satisfies the blood lust of desensitized youths in ways boxing never could. So the fact that "Warrior" is so up-to-the-minute makes it an interesting amalgam of the classic and the immediate. Brendan's story shows how economic pitfalls can force good people to act desperately, even in spite of their own well-being. Tommy's a study in how war can sometimes create monsters -- and when transplanted to the Cage, Tommy is a titanic incarnation of militarist efficiency and almost mechanized detachment. Both brothers become web sensations when their early training rounds go viral. We live in a world where celebrities are made over night on the web.

Exacerbated by an aesthetic that prefers claustrophobic realism, director Gavin O'Conner stages every scene out of the Cage as if it were in it. The conversations between the three central characters are like heated verbal assaults on the verge of actual fisticuffs. And the performances are so astonishingly convincing that even the dapper Briton Tom Hardy (who played smooth talking Eames in "Inception") morphs into a blue-collar Philadelphian with a chip on his shoulder so large it's crushing him -- a wild beast who needs to be broken before he can be reached. Joel Edgerton ("Animal Kingdom", and soon to be Tom Buchanan in next year's "Gatsby") is an Aussie whose innocent gaze of wide-eyed soulfulness makes his Brendan the film's sturdy rock, the variable in the equation normal-enough to drag his fragmented family towards catharsis. And Nick Nolte's performance has a raspy voiced, face-mashed, Rourkian quality that recalled "The Wrestler" in its broken old man vulnerability.

I was also thankful that "Warrior" wasn't all searing drama. Brendan's cheering section of students and faculty -- including the principal who suspended him -- are an enlivening troupe of misfits with matching t-shirts that say GO MR. C! and signs that read Kick Some A++. The announcer's at the tournament are a wisecracking duo that reminded me of a less cartoonish Gary Cole and Jason Bateman in "Dodgeball". Before Brendan's opening fight, one calls him a "feeder fish" as he holds up an actual goldfish in a plastic bag. The action junkies out there will be happy to know the fight scenes are prolonged physical demolitions that are in-the-ring visceral and wincingly hard-nosed.

"Warrior" is one of those rare films in which all the main characters deserve their own movie. By the end, all three stories unify for a euphoric conclusion just as the wounds of the Cage and the wounds of life begin to heal simultaneously. There is no doubt; the movie is a calculated sports drama with some predictable elements. But that's so not the point; "Warrior" is about the brutality of battle and the power of convalescence, and how you must often endure one in order to experience the warmth of the other.

Monday, September 12, 2011



Movies love to prey on our most immediate fears. With "Contagion" director Steven Soderbergh has glorified the recent Swine Flu hysteria into a modern outbreak thriller about a different but more deadly virus making its way from the Asian jungles to suburban Middle America. But the fear of illness is only the jumping off point in "Contagion's" rampage of anxiety. Early on we watch a crosscut sequence of ethnically diverse -- but equally infirm -- travelers stumbling home from airports worldwide before infecting their friends and family. The message is: Airports aren't safe. Next the virus makes its way into an elementary school in Minnesota where the wee pupils fall ill and then start biting the dust: Neither are schools. And finally, when panic has fully enveloped the people, riots, pillaging and home invasions -- all the calling signs of full on anarchy -- make it clear that it's not even safe inside your own home. Soderbergh is going for absolute paranoia, and he comes close to achieving it. But the film's biggest chill comes from its hints of realism; it's pretty convincing that this is what an infectious disease outbreak of this scale might actually look like.

Though "Contagion" spends less time on the front lines of its dastardly epidemic than with the problem solvers, scapegoats and profiteers working tirelessly behind the scenes. As the head of the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) struggles to identify the virus and ready a vaccination. Pretty soon he's the focus of vilification by the government and media for not responding quick enough. (Hell, ya gotta blame somebody). Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet), a prevention specialist, fights to halt the spread of the disease in the U.S. while Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard), an epidemiologist, travels to China to investigate the source of the virus. Making trouble in the shadows is high profile blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) -- a muckraker in cahoots with a cash-grabbing pharmaceutical company. His online rants make for incendiary panic fuel.

Here's the problem: the film plays out as an extremely well produced dramatization, but where's the drama? The movie's everyman nucleus is Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), the poor schlub whose two-timin' wife (Gwenyth Paltrow) brings the first bug home from a business trip in Hong Kong. He goes missing from the story for long stints; all the characters are mostly skin deep. What's most intriguing is that, more than any other film I've scene, "Contagion" showers the viewer with statistics, numbers: number of days since outbreak, incubation periods, spread rates, vaccine sample numbers, mortality rates and population sizes. At one point we learn that 25 million people have died. Soderbergh never makes us feel the weight of that loss. There are traces of humanity to be found within the movie. At one point, a dying doctor, on her last ounce of strength, can't quite hand a jacket to a freezing patient. Emhoff puts on an adorable mock prom for his house-arrested teenage daughter. But the populations of "Contagion" don't feel like people. They feel more like numbers.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Debt


Be it Adam Sandler's flying kicks in "You Don't Mess With The Zohan" or Steven Spielberg's national vendetta in "Munich", the American movie going public likes its Israelis taking names and kicking ass. To Hollywood, Israelis better all be Mossad agents going after terrorists or old retired Nazis, because anything without that kind of vengeful pedigree generates little interest. (Imagine a movie about Israelis living side by side with Palestinians, and growing up with a constant fear of existential demolition; something that fascinating would never get passed the pitch session).

The Hollywood depiction of Israelis is often reduced to kitsch. Sure, "Munich" is a typically poetic Spielberg film with hints of duality (who are the real murderers?). But in the end Spielberg knew that the apolitical route was the way to go because no matter how Americans may feel about the Middle East conflict, placed opposite terrorists and Nazis -- humanities eternal villains -- Israelis are always on the side of good. Not that I have a problem with that per se, only, Hollywood movies love to milk the drama out of a nation's deepest wounds and darkest fears without ever even attempting to understand what those may be.

"The Debt" is a remake of an Israeli film, so it already has an advantage in the ideology department. Yet, the Hollywood treatment is so thorough in this undertaking that any understanding of the Israeli people or their culture was lost in the process of translation.

It's true, a spy thriller is a spy thriller and "The Debt" is -- at face value -- a taut and exciting one. In 1997, three former Mossad operatives -- Rachel, Stefan and David -- are forced to relive the 1966 mission that made their careers, after Rachel and Stefan's daughter writes a book chronicling the event. It involved them infiltrating Soviet controlled East Berlin and kidnapping a former Nazi doctor -- known as "the surgeon of Birkenau" -- in an attempt to sneak him back to Israel for trial and execution. As the book recalls, he managed to escape captivity in Berlin and Rachel was forced to assassinate him. Despite this blip in the mission, the three are lauded for their heroism nationwide. Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds play them and we can sort of tell from their early performances that there is something fishy going on with their story.

In flashbacks we watch the actual mission unfold. Jessica Chastain plays young Rachel. Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas play David and Stefan. After they cross the border -- and the inevitable love triangle plays out -- they locate the fiend, and we get to watch the very Jewish Rachel get "examined" by the old bastardly anti-Semite who's now a gynecologist (yikes!). She reacts to his cold fingers with a syringe to the jugular in one awesome scene and then they try to sneak the comatose lug across the border in another. When that goes haywire, they're stuck with the Kinski-eyed prick in a dilapidated, leaky apartment and each goes a little bonkers with cabin fever, cooped up all day with an evil, manipulative kraut. Eventually, we get to see for ourselves what really happened in Berlin.

To complete the Hollywood transformation, each actor puts on their very best Israeli accent, and I have my theory that their dialogue was cut down significantly because of it. Hey, as long as they don't all sound stone-cold Midwestern like in "Valkyrie" the audience shouldn't be too bothered. But I guess director John Madden figured Mirren's dainty Queen-speak popped a little too much for his liking. Mine, too. Especially considering the movie's core character is Rachel. Mirren is fine, but Chastain is radiant. She's a force on the screen -- playing a graceful, tougher-than-she-looks heroine whose innocent beauty can't mask the blood on her hands or fear in her heart. Angelic and childlike in "The Tree of Life" and loveably giggly in "The Help", Chastain is a versatile talent who is here to stay. The male performances waver between anger and brooding, respectively.

From moment to moment and scene to scene, the film is an electrifying one. Though we're never quite invested enough in the characters or their conflict to get any kind of emotional pay off. This is sterile fun. On deeper examination, the film gets even creakier; the theme is clearly duty colliding with truth, personal honor versus national. Pungent moralist quandaries for its characters, however, "The Debt" doesn't consider the implications of their decision. The final, nail-biting action scene of redemption and justice is irresponsible storytelling because it demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge about the people it represents. Any choice on the part of the characters other than ones promoting national preservation and selfless sacrifice are cultural falsities. "The Debt" thinks it's about characters coming clean and freeing their souls. It's not. It's about characters erroneously reflecting a zeitgeist and national mentality that believed Zionist conservation should come before the very lives of its citizens, let alone their inner demons.

"The Debt" wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be an accessible Hollywood thriller that ponders big questions. Ultimately, those questions are only there as counterfeit higher meaning because there is no actual thought behind them. At least Zohan's flying kicks weren't meant for anything more than kicking ass, and they didn't pretend to be.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011



"Drive" certainly hits the ground running.

In the film's exquisitely paced and exhilarating opening sequence, a man known simply as the Driver cruises the streets of LA amongst a shimmering sea of city lights. From its first moments, the film establishes an almost ethereal harmony between the man, his vehicle and the nighttime cityscape he seems to float above. He's on his way to a heist; he's the getaway driver. Over the phone he explains to his anonymous cohorts, "If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place and I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes, I'm yours. I don't go in. I don't carry a gun. I drive." The sultry organ behind the voice over is Ryan Gosling's, and he delivers his lines so plainly and assertively, with his trademark Jersey cadence, that he takes on a mythical presence -- the grindhouse wheelman incarnate, cool as ice with black leather gloves and a toothpick pinched between his teeth. When the action starts, for a few brief minutes, "Drive" actually evokes the overwhelming thrill of the road; it makes the roar of the engine, the screech of the tires and the whoosh of the wind more than palpable -- it makes them exalting.

And that's just the point; behind the wheel the Driver is a god amongst mere mortals. In these early scenes, the movie captures something unique: in his box of medal and glass the character conveys a juxtaposition of wistful seclusion and buoyant deliverance; he's cut off from the world in his car and also completely at home in it. With a peddle at his feet and a wheel in his hand, he's as natural as a duck in water. When we learn that his day job is crashing deathproof Jalopies for Hollywood movies, the stage becomes set for something very special.

Alas, the movie constructed around the hero is hardly worthy of him. "Drive" gets its dramatic momentum from the friendship between the Driver and his kindly neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Trouble is, Irene's husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is an ex-con who owes money to gangsters. They beat him with lead pipes, threaten his family and than order him to rob a pawn shop. The Driver -- feeling protective of his newfound amigos -- agrees to drive the getaway car. Seems simple enough. But the money they steal belongs to a duo of mob underbosses (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks), and it somehow connects back to an old formula 1 racer the Driver and his grease monkey chum, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), have just borrowed three-hundred G's to restore. As I bet you can guess, chaos ensues.

The plot looks on paper like a taut 70's crime thriller about a callous crook finding his humanity in the company of the saintly young mother next door. Had the film embraced some of those roots, it might have paid off. Instead, it becomes clear rather quickly that the director (Nicholas Winding Refn) is not a genre extraordinaire, but an amateur still struggling to define his method. The film is a pastiche with influences ranging from noir to Martin Scorsese ultra-violence (and mobster babbling) to Antonioni minimalism and Bresson terseness. The result is an over-stylized wannabe art house endeavor as opposed to the trashy-but-meaningful kind of thrill-ride the movie ought to be. The director is clearly attempting to sell pulp as high art, but he tries too hard and he gives us little more than film-school smugness.

There were times when I thought Refn was coddling his inner pulp-peddler, but his aesthetic is so pretentious -- with so many deep compositions, slow-mo tracking shots, and uber-contrasty lighting setups -- that it can't register as anything other than deadly serious.

It's a shame too because the actors in this movie are so good. Gosling ("Blue Valentine" and "Half Nelson") has proven over the last few years that he can do just about anything. As the Driver he recalls Steve McQueen aplomb and George Clooney's leading man veiled vulnerability. Carey Mulligan -- who I adore -- isn't asked to do much more than look pretty and susceptible in perpetual half-light, and she even does that well. She's a most delectable femme fatale (if only she'd been a little more fatale). But unfortunately their relationship is developed in moments of sustained silence that conjured more memories of "The American's" cold ennui than Bresson's "Pickpocket". Wounded souls connecting in wordless, brooding ways is all well and good, but there is no substitute for actual chemistry. "Drive" doesn't bother to generate any; it's more interested in "respectable" existentialism.

"Drive" has the ability to blaze its engines when it wants to. That's why I can safely say: there is more to come from Nicholas Winding Refn. However, this is the old case of style and ambition getting in the way of effective storytelling. "Drive" prefers to talk up its engine size with artsy gimmicks. The smell of burning rubber can speak for itself.

Our Idiot Brother


It's fair to say, Paul Rudd is something of a one-note actor. But to his credit, that one note does vary from movie to movie, and whatever character he's playing at that moment, whether it's the nice guy mensch of "Clueless" or the cynical sourpuss of "Role Models" or the carefree space cadet of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall", Rudd plays it with just enough boyish earnestness to make his single and solitary note a sweet one.

In "Our Idiot Brother", Rudd's character is a Jesus-groomed Neo-hippie named Ned who has the kind of spirited, untroubled disposition that Rudd can sink his teeth into, because, essentially, Ned is one note of unflappable ease and joviality -- he's all boyish, kindhearted earnestness.

But to the rest of the world, Ned is a misfit and a loser; he doesn't have a problem in the world, it's the world that has a problem with him. He's Jeff Lebowski with a heart, a brain-fried, stammering bum who can't help getting caught up in everyone else's busy schedules, because he's comfortably without one. In the opening scene, Ned peddles rhubarb from a stand at the local Farmer's Market. "It's Willy Nelson's poop that gives it that shine," he says with a smile to a customer. Willy Nelson is his dog, a golden retriever, but Ned's sales pitch has the casual ignorance that sums up his character. In time that same oblivious nonchalance gets him into trouble: he sells weed to a uniformed cop, not so much because he's an idiot (I mean, he is an idiot) but because he sympathizes with the cop's sob-story swindle. It sets the stage for an entire film based around a guy whose best intentions often cause more harm than good.

Ned's look accentuates his offbeat persona -- he's all jean shorts, sleeveless shirts and sandals. He has a glued-on grin with an uncanny ultra-whiteness (amazing considering the guy probably hasn't been to a dentist in epochs) and a squinty-blue gape that makes him at once glowing and amiable but still annoyingly peculiar. (If you met him on the street you'd wonder, "What the hell is this guy so cheery about?") So it's easy to see why his girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) -- his flower child counterpart with dreads, hemp jewelry and a faux-chill prickliness -- kicks him off their farm after his eight month stint in the slammer. With nowhere to go, Ned takes turns shacking up with his trio of sisters: the go-getter Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), the sensitive housewife Liz (Emily Mortimer) and the bisexual hipster Natalie (Zooey Deschanel). Before long, Ned effectively puts a dent in his sisters' "perfect" lives.

On top of being effortlessly amusing, mostly due to Rudd's hilariously knowable Ned (the kind of person we've all met at one time or another and didn't know whether to slap or kiss), "Our Idiot Brother" has a well-hidden truth that blossoms even out of its sometimes murky narrative: success and failure are malleable states of mind rather than rigid societal stipulations. Ned, the girls' penniless, screw-up brother is, in fact, the only one that has his life together simply because he's the only one that's truly happy with it. The girls are crushed by the stresses of supposed normalcy. Relationships, marriage, work and children: they're suffocated by what society expects of them. It's only after they scapegoat Ned for all their mishaps -- a few infidelities, a botched promotion, a secret pregnancy, etc. -- that they realize that his laissez faire approach to life is the tonic they could all use a bit more of. The film is a tenderhearted and airy comedy that subverts the black-sheep brother stereotype in funny and unexpected ways.

None of it would have been possible without Rudd's commitment to Ned's almost Gump-ian simplicity and otherworldly insouciance. At one climactic point, when Ned finally breaks his happy-go-lucky rhythm, his aggression speaks volumes because it so starkly contrasts Rudd's excellent performance of consistent breeziness. Never before has one-note acting looked so carefully planned out, or bravely insistent.