We're in a holding pattern, aren't we? As movie theaters continue to struggle to find audiences during the coronavirus pandemic, streaming platforms and on demand services have solidified their status as the principal way viewers consume their entertainment for the night, even those who think of themselves as moviegoers first, Netflix-and-chill couch potatoes second.
A dinosaur like yours truly still hangs on to cable for dear life, predominantly nourishing my film watching diet with selections from Turner Classic Movies. But as you have seen throughout the past two months, I stir in some new cinema into the mix as well. It's frustrating to have to resist temptation over and over whenever a film I'd prefer to see on the big screen actually makes its way to a local multiplex. (For the record, I have not set foot inside an indoor theater since I caught an IMAX showing of Christopher Nolan's "Tenet." Back in August.)
But our current predicament still makes for some curious success stories: movies released for home viewing that have a shot at finding an even wider audience precisely because their distributors don't have to deal with the pressures of a theatrical marketing campaign and making enough of a profit to offset the exorbitant but necessary expenses.
And so, as a fairly eventful February for high-profile movies comes to a close, allow me the opportunity to consider two such examples: a pair of new comedies that wear their quirks on their sleeve. One of them is a Netflix original film that soared to the top of the list of the streaming giant's most watched titles in North America this week. The other was scheduled to come out in theaters later this year but opted instead for a premium video on demand release. In the heyday of the video store, these films would have likely underperformed in theaters but later amassed word-of-mouth exposure among renters.
Well, is this duo worth your time? They've certainly polarized my circle of friends and acquaintances into pro and con camps. Let's take a closer look.
I Care a Lot
She doesn't like to waste her time, so Marla Grayson, the icy hustler at the center of this brash, slickly pushy yarn, lays out her philosophy of life in the opening seconds. "Trust me, there's no such thing as good people. Playing fair is a game invented by rich people to keep the rest of us poor," she asserts.
As played by "Gone Girl's" Rosamund Pike, you believe this sharp dressed swindler's worldview has made her good at what she does. Her specialty is senior citizens, or rather, senior citizens' assets. Marla, whose blond locks are cut to form a perfect line around the back of her neck and even appear to move in unison, swoops in like a vulture when she sees a target ripe for the pillaging, be it someone in declining health or with no family ties to complicate things. She then becomes their legal guardian, not because it's in their best interest, but because their money and property are in her best interest. That glamorous lifestyle she covets, thanks to her growing racket, er, business, inches closer and closer within reach. But not quite yet.
Enter Marla's latest project: Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a retiree who lives by herself, appears to be well off, has no known relatives and is starting to show signs of mental deterioration, at least according to her doctor, who dangles the desirable patient's occasional memory loss like a carrot for Marla to salivate over. Money in the bank. So what if it involves tossing the old geezer in an adult living facility? The die is cast, and writer-director J Blakeson appears to set the stage for a biting social satire that promises to give viewers considerable food for thought.
Turns out Blakeson is setting up something, all right. It doesn't take long for "I Care a Lot" to show its true colors, not as a dark comedy fueled by female empowerment and ruthless jabs at how seniors are exploited, but as a tawdry crime thriller that wouldn't look out of place in the bargain bin at your local Walmart or something you would have watched late at night on Cinemax back in the day. It's a cheap imitation purse that thinks it's vintage Louis Vuitton.
Marla's takeover of Jennifer's valuables draws the attention of some underworld baddies with an unclear connection to the older woman. Why is a short-tempered little person with a weakness for pastries and some iffy wardrobe and hairstyle choices, played by "Game of Thrones'" Peter Dinklage, upset at Jennifer's apparent disappearance? And why is scuzzy attorney Dean Ericson (a hammy Chris Messina, rocking some loud business suits) paying a passive aggressive visit to Marla and offering her a considerable sum of cash in exchange for dropping Jennifer?
The steady succession of red flags prompts Marla's associate (and lover) Fran ("Baby Driver's" Eiza González) to suggest that maybe they ought to back out of their scam this one time. Anyone with half a brain would cut their losses and move on, but Marla's refusal to be intimidated claims her common sense as a casualty. The character's tunnel vision, which initially made her merely come across as a dull and thinly delineated charlatan, crosses over into the laughably improbable, but it's the only way Blakeson can turn on the screws and raise the stakes on his slipshod narrative. The filmmaker's attention to the sleazy pursuit of the American dream in the rear-view mirror, he then tries to turn the rest of "I Care a Lot" into one of those cat-and-mouse capers Steven Soderbergh pulls off with effortless flair.
The results are consistently lame. Even the cheap thrills feel oddly neutered, a synthetic facsimile of better films, making for a thoroughly unsavory experience. More despicable still, the film treats Marla and Fran's relationship as an afterthought, then asks us to give a damn for their welfare. The worst offender is composer Marc Canham's synth-driven nightmare of a music score, which is so overbearing that I found myself screaming internally for it to stop. ("Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP," I scribbled in my notepad.)
But "I Care a Lot," which doesn't care for its topical subject matter, doesn't know when to let up. Blakeson thinks he's being so subversive, the way he cons viewers into siding with Marla, even rooting for her to prevail. Don't take the bait. This repellent tale of crime and punishment reduces what could have been a potent satire into a rote game of one-upmanship. It's the viewer who's being suckered.
Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Diametrically opposed in terms of tone and sensibility to Blakeson's shallow cynicism, this splashy group hug of a buddy comedy embraces the trappings of a "Saturday Night Live" skit but also delivers shrewdly observed characters, eye-popping production values and some really insightful observations about the way close friendships can change and evolve over time.
Mostly, though, it just keeps you in stitches. It's not entirely surprising, considering this is the brainchild of "SNL" vets Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who previously co-starred in and wrote the (Oscar-nominated) screenplay for "Bridesmaids." This time they play best friends in small town Nebraska who find their cherished routine disrupted when they lose their jobs at Jennifer Convertibles. Anyone who's lived in the Midwest has met folks like Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig): affable demeanor, nasal sing-song voice, tacky apparel. They're a 1990s time capsule in human form.
But what are they to do now that they're jobless? A mutual friend suggests taking a break from it all and traveling to the titular destination, tucked away on the west coast of Florida, west of Orlando and north of Tampa. Barb takes the lead here, making a solid case to her BFF as to why leaving their hometown for the first time is exactly the change of pace they need.
What the inseparable pair don't know is that the Machiavellian "Dr. Lady" (Wiig, nearly unrecognizable) is plotting a deadly attack on Vista Del Mar. Her secret weapon: genetically modified mosquitoes! I'm thinking Mumolo and Wiig were going for an outlandish and preposterous threat, but those of us who remember the Zika epidemic might find this detail hits a little too close to home.
To execute her dastardly plan, the gap-toothed albino baddie entrusts the dashing Edgar Pagét ("Fifty Shades of Gray's" Jamie Dornan, pulling a Leslie Nielsen) to do her bidding. No problem there, since Edgar is infatuated with his boss, while she, um, humors his puppy crush, just as long he can get the job done.
The first act of "Barb & Star" generates some guffaws in its knowing dissection of the Midwest and its unique miseries, but once the movie arrives at its Sunshine State destination, it comes to vibrant life, thanks to director Josh Greenbaum's candy-colored showmanship. He gives the film the cadences of a gang's-all-here musical, then adds actual musical numbers. The sequences are cheeky in a way that recalls the 2011 "Muppets" film, only decidedly for grown-ups. Not that the songs are what one would call mature. One of them is a piano bar ditty called "I Love Boobies."
From a story perspective, "Barb & Star" follows the expected path, as the women find their friendship put to the test after meeting the debonair yet heartsick Edgar. What elevates the material, aside from its inspired production design and bursts of absurdist glee, is how each character has layers underneath their cartoonish exterior. Barb and Star have both experienced loss in their lives, and Edgar, who quickly becomes the movie's secret weapon, radiates pure goodness despite his line of work. It's such unbridled joy to discover Dornan's nimble comic chops. He nails the physical humor while never losing sight of the character's vulnerability, and Greenbaum instinctively knows when to play his feelings for laughs and when to take them seriously. I like his performance better than some (most?) of the awards season contenders currently nabbing nominations.
Not everything works in "Barb & Star." "Dr. Lady's" storyline is never quite as satisfying as the besties-on-vacay scenes, and a shadowy henchman played by Damon Wayans Jr., whose sole personality trait is that he sells himself as ultra-secretive yet can't help spilling the beans, on everything, is a one-trick pony that quickly wears out its welcome. In addition, the film's resolution veers too close to Sandler-vehicle stupidity for comfort.
But despite the party fouls, "Barb & Star" is a rare treat: a camptastic studio comedy unashamed of its weirdness. The giddy high it gives you is something I'm still savoring weeks after having seen it. Its intoxicating bonhomie is the stuff of comedy gold. Don't let it pass you by. Seek it out now, before it becomes a cult sensation.
"I Care a Lot" is now streaming on Netflix. "Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar" is available via premium video on demand on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and other services. Its current $19.99 rental fee is pricey, but it's worth every penny.