THE STEPFORD WIVES
As crummy movies go, Frank Oz's remake of The Stepford Wives is pretty darned terrific. The film has been plagued by rumors of trouble on the set and post-production nightmares and general confusion throughout, and you can practically see these turmoils on the screen; the movie is bizarrely assembled and terribly edited - characters' motivations change from scene to scene with little rhyme or reason - and it all falls apart before your eyes. Oz doesn't seem to have a clue how to treat the material, but one person does: screenwriter Paul Rudnick. He knows exactly what he's up to - a bitchy, campy tale involving a group of nerdy men who enact revenge on the successful women they feel inferior to - and individual scenes in this Stepford Wives are so hilarious and dead-on smart that you wind up enjoying the movie despite being aware of how awful much of it is. Like last summer's Rudnick-written Marci X, it's a perfect example of a comedy in which individual set pieces far exceed the whole, and it can be blissfully enjoyed on its own underwhelming terms.
Thank God actors get Rudnick, even if director Frank Oz doesn't (this time, at least, since their In & Out collaboration was just fine), because his screen works are always populated by tremendous comedic talents. In The Stepford Wives' final cut, Nicole Kidman's role is the most nonsensical; it requires her to play several distinct stereotypes - driven executive, medicated depressive, plucky heroine, mischievously grinning bimbo - with only hints of a through-line for the character. Yet, amazingly, Kidman makes it work through the sheer force of her comic drive; at this stage in her career, Nicole Kidman seems positively indefatigable. Matthew Broderick, ageless as ever, is a wet blanket on the movie (almost none of the male roles, Christopher Walken and Jon Lovitz's included, are shaped well), but Bette Midler hasn't been this enjoyably brassy in years, Glenn Close comes through with one of her Norma Desmond-inspired crazy/funny specialty acts, and Roger Bart, the closest Paul Rudnick has ever come to an on-screen alter ego, is spry and inventive; you wish he had more screen time. From scene to scene, the movie is an unholy mess, but there are so many great one-liners and so many performers having a good time within the mess that The Stepford Wives might eventually stand as this summer's definitive guilty pleasure.
THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK
The Chronicles of Riddick is like Aliens without the aliens. A sequel to 2000's creepy, moderately impressive sci-fi work Pitch Black, wherein a band of loners fight inhuman forces on a faraway, seemingly deserted planet, this continuation is a pumped-up action spectacle designed to beat you senseless, which it does with grim competence. Like James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 monster movie, Riddick takes its haunted-house-in-space inspiration and turns it into a bad-ass summertime blockbuster. Yet something strange has happened. Someone (and I dare not say who, for fear he'll beat the living crap out of me) has determined that what people really liked about Pitch Black wasn't the aliens, or the bursts of suggestive paranoia, or the gloomy cinematography. It was Vin Diesel, and Vin Diesel alone. So: Gone are the aliens. Gone is the mystery. Gone is just about everything that made Pitch Black an effective little Alien clone. And what we're left with is a generic (albeit enormously budgeted) space opera in which the über-villain is forcing all other life forms to be his personal slaves until Diesel takes charge as the hardened bounty hunter who wants to bring the bad guys down. It's a whose-dick-is-bigger showdown between a sci-fi Hitler and an impenetrable lug in a wife-beater, and it's a chore to sit through. You want desperately to laugh at the movie, yet Mr. Diesel makes it quite clear that being an action stud is no laughing matter.
As a movie star, Vin Diesel is the Anti-Rock, a glum, joyless bruiser with no discernible sense of humor (even his jokey one-liners are tossed off with contempt), and his one-note screen persona of I-don't-give-a-damn-about-you-but-I'll-do-what's-right makes him an aggressively uninspiring screen hero; it's like watching the school bully get rewarded for stealing kids' lunch money. Director David Twohy helms much of The Chronicles of Riddick effectively enough, and the effects are fine, but in the end, the movie is about nothing but Vin Diesel's raging narcissism; supporting actors like Thandie Newton, Linus Roache, and Judi Dench (um, excuse me... Judi Dench?!?) end up sublimating their natural gifts to make it less obvious that Mr. Diesel has next to none.
GARFIELD: THE MOVIE
Truth in criticism: I was expecting to seriously dislike Garfield: The Movie, because while I was on-board with the notion of a computer-animated feline in the lead, I couldn't believe that Odie wasn't going to be computer-animated, too. How could any real-life dog compete with Jim Davis' cartoon creation, he of the wide, unblinking stare and continual slobber and vacant happy-go-luckiness? I was even more distressed when the movie began and I saw that Odie looked nothing like the Odie from the comic-strip; I mean, it's not like the filmmakers were desecrating Shakespeare, or anything, but ... . (As added proof that I know far more about this source material than I should, the movie's Nermal is played by the least Nermal-like kitty imaginable, and while Breckin Meyer is acceptable enough as Garfield's owner, Jon, the hot veterinarian, Liz, is played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, which is just plain wrong.) So I was all prepared to have this cinematic Odie ruin the film for me, and what happens? The dog turns out to be the only entertaining thing about it.
Seriously, whoever trained this pup should receive an award of some kind. It's not just that Odie makes believable eye contact with our computer-generated hero - which many of the film's other cast members (human and animal alike) can't do - and can simulate actual emotion, but the mutt pulls off a routine in which he dances on his hind legs, spinning in circles while doing so, and it's just about the silliest, cutest damned thing I've ever seen. True, the effect gets repeated once or twice too often, but you barely care, because Odie's dancing is about the only true enjoyment you'll find in Garfield. The script consists of third-rate puns that would be deemed too unfunny for the Sunday comics and a plot that flagrantly rips off both Toy Story movies, and while the animation for Garfield himself is impressive, Bill Murray's uninspired line readings make the bad jokes he's been given fall even flatter than they would have without his help. The movie's a bummer, and the kids in the audience didn't seem to care much for it, but they sure loved that dog. And they weren't alone.