Comedy

The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest from that freewheeling observer of American crime, Martin Scorsese, can be viewed as a worthy companion piece to the director’s 1990 gangster saga, Goodfellas. Both movies deal with criminal underworlds–Goodfellas with the Italian mafia, Wolf of Wall Street with our financial world’s sub-culture of sleazy stock traders. Both movies’ protagonists come at their respective milieus as outsiders with starry-eyed ambitions: While Henry Hill ingratiates himself into the local mafia so he can bask in the glories of gangsterdom, Wolf’s Jordan Belfort (Leornardo DiCaprio) aspires to become one of the conniving stock traders surrounding him when he’s hired at a successful Wall Street firm. Both Goodfellas and Wolf deal with the inner workings and relationships of crime syndicates and, running parallel to this, are themes of marriage, career, ambition and loyalties within their respective organizations. These movies together gives you the sum total of Scorsese’s stylistic brilliance and his barbed social consciousness.

Absorbing performances, stylistic wit, a lacerating and subversive sense of humor: The Wolf of Wall Street delivers all of these in spades, more so perhaps than Goodfellas. It belongs in the top half-dozen of the director’s films and could’ve been his best film ever if only the material had been shorn of 30 minutes of bulk. As it is, Scorsese drags out and indulges every possible story beat and subplot such that it belabors the whole enterprise. There are probably a few too many office orgies (we get the point after the first few that these guys are unchecked hedonists), several scenes stretch out far too long because Scorsese can’t bear to dispose of a punchline or gag. An awkward plot line involving an elderly British relation whom Belfort uses as a front for his offshore accounts feels tacked on and pointless. Had the director and screenwriter, Terence Winter (adapting Belfort’s memoir), taken another pass at their script with an eye for narrative economy, Wolf would’ve been the lean, mean machine befitting the predatory metaphor of its title.

It’s to the credit of the performers, to the energy of Scorsese’s direction and to the inherent appeal of this subject matter that Wolf is one of the year’s most entertaining films. Yes, the jokes are often in poor taste, the content is scandalous, out of control, over the top. The resulting comedy is on the order of last summer’s inappropriately hilarious post-apocalyptic laugh-fest This Is the End. This is This Is the End done up as a cautionary example of white-collar hubris. The two movies share the comic spirit of Jonah Hill, the selfless buffoon who’s never a met a joke he didn’t mind being the butt of, and that’s what makes him a crucial presence in cinematic lampoons of social archetypes.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy about a bunch of clowns, really, who get away with terrible things. No, not a bunch of  clowns, but a tribal clan as, every so often, Belfort will lead his trading floor through primitive rounds of whoops and howls that paint these Wall Street con-men (and -women) as cannibalistic savages. Some have wondered how it is that Belfort survived those years of defrauding investors, of whoring, partying and gluttonous drug-taking, but the more apt question is: How did he not harm even more people? Leonardo DiCpario delivers one of his finest performances in a role that’s at once tragic and farcical. At times, he’s channeling Ray Liotta (as Goodfellas’ Henry Hill). He’s got the attitude, the swagger, but this man is too unhinged to take seriously what with the helicopters, the yachts, the MTV-Spring Break lifestyle, the parade of strippers and prostitutes. His life is an orgy of excess; disturbing, yes, but certainly more fun to watch than poor Spider getting blown away in that seedy bar in Goodfellas.

Keeping up with DiCaprio is a crackerjack cast that includes the aforementioned Hill, sporting Chiclets-like teeth, as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s business partner, and the stunning Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort’s trophy wife, Naomi. As Henry Hill and his crew rose from trafficking in stolen cigarettes to robbing Lufthansa airlines, so Belfort, Azoff and friends rise from trading penny stocks to gullible postmen to opening a dazzlingly successful trade firm on Wall Street. As Henry and his wife Karen sparred over Henry’s affairs, so Belfort and Naomi bicker over the same. But, as in Goodfellas, the wives are soon on-board with their husbands’ back-room profiteering, leading to the long, delirious downward spiral of drug-addled insanity that follows. This is when Scorsese is in peak form: Depicting the alternately frightening and comical choices that his increasingly compromised characters make.

Functioning as their counterpoint here is FBI Agent Denham, played by the always-excellent Kyle Chandler. As the modest, middle-class law enforcer, Denham is the moral heart of the film. Scorsese is careful not to make Denham too square though; the man has regrets of giving up past dreams for a police career, and he wonders fleetingly if he’s truly the schmuck that Belfort makes him out to be. While riding home in a subway, Denham stares out at his fellow commuters: The hard-luck, but honest 99%, young and old, for whom he does what he does. In their pasts, Denham and Belfort had come to the same crossroads. But where Belfort chose selfish gains, Denham chose to ride the subway.

Remember the “May 11, 1980” sequence in Goodfellas that took audiences through that dizzying final day in Henry’s criminal life, when he has to accomplish several things (selling guns, preparing heroin, making the perfect tomato sauce) while a police chopper whizzes overhead? The problem with Wolf of Wall Street is that there are too many sequences pitched on that same frazzled wavelength; there are too many “May 11, 1980s” here. Thankfully, DiCaprio is that peculiar kind of star who can make even the most thoroughly dislikable characters likable. His confidence, charm and underlying sincerity wins our trust, so we don’t mind following him from one script indulgence to another. Likewise, Scorsese is too dazzling a filmmaker–Wolf of Wall Street’s comic playfulness, its endless invention recalls Fellini at his most daring– and this is his headiest whirl yet through his patented universe of compromised morality.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley

American Hustle

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The best scene in the spazzy, long-winded, 1970s-set shaggy-dog story American Hustle is the opening one, in which the paunch-bellied grifter Irving Rosenfeld gets gussied up in a hotel room ahead of a crucial con job. Writer-director David O. Russell lingers over the details of his dressing process, his clothing and accessories, leading to the coup de grâce: the toupee and combover. Irving’s fussing over his hair-do is emblematic of everything right and wrong with Russell’s confidence-game comedy-thriller. First, there’s the hair itself: luxurious on the back and sides where it still grows naturally but, on the top where it doesn’t are lanks of hair layered under and over the tribble-like hairpiece that Irving oh-so-carefully cements into place square atop his crown. This shot holds for quite a while as Christian Bale, in a terrific tragicomic performance, arranges and adjusts his precious combover, perfecting this sad illusion offset by his beard and his use of ’70s-style aviator sunglasses.

As an exercise in constructing a comic character, this is wonderful stuff. We’re awed, appalled yet somehow drawn to Irving, as detailed by Russell and played by Bale. The dynamic of period details and performance is what works so well in Hustle, but the film’s comic virtuosity is surrounded by an unrelenting tornado of visual style that eventually serves as a smokescreen to cover up the fact that there isn’t much of a story here.

When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) blows the lid off the fraudulent lending operation run by Irving and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, who gamely commands the film’s dramatic and comedic tones), he gives them an ultimatum: Do time or help him stage an elaborate sting to bring down corrupt New Jersey politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the effusive mayor of Camden. Irving and Sydney take Richie up on it, developing a scheme they know will reel in Polito: They tell the mayor that a Middle Eastern sheik is ready to invest hundreds of millions into revamping the down-in-the-dumps Atlantic City into a modern gambling mecca. They dupe Polito, but soon Irving and Sydney finds themselves in over their heads when the mafia also wants in on the action. This all makes the cocky, career-driven Richie giddy with delusions of his own greatness, especially after several politicians take bribes to help speed up what they believe to be a huge windfall for their state.

Irving and Sydney, meanwhile, find their relationship under strain. This is really the story struggling for breath at the heart of the film’s smothering style and con-game theatrics: A love triangle in which the plucky survivalist Sydney leverages her sex appeal vis-à-vis the horny, crazy-for-love Richie to gain the loyalty of the sad-sack Irving, really the love of her life but who’s married (unhappily) to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), his crackpot Jersey-wife who’s in turn using her son as leverage to keep Irving from divorcing her. The chemistry that this triangle sparks among all the above makes it fun to sift through their tacit deceptions and ulterior loyalties, and it’s where Russell approximates most successfully his gift for depicting how love and sex can trigger comedic anarchy.

On balance, the con game in Hustle, the real-life, so-called Abscam scandal, is a non-starter. A cameo by Robert De Niro as a seasoned mafioso is meant to instill suspense and fear, but it registers only as a gimmick of an aging star riffing on his on-screen legacy. And the actual sting in which Congressmen consent to take the bribes from Irving and company doesn’t read as a clever ruse to bring down bad guys; in legal terms, it’s only entrapment, a play that only a dunderhead like Richie would think is ingenious, but, in reality, is just pressuring people to make a bad choice for what they believe to be a good cause. The only legitimate sting in Hustle takes place over a couple of minutes toward the end, when Irving and Sydney attempt to pull out the rug from under Richie. But now it’s too little, too late.

By the end, more successful than any of the cons on-screen is the con Hustle plays on its audience, which has now sat through two hours of every ’70s hair and wardrobe cliche, an enjoyable but predictable 70s pop soundtrack and a camera that refuses to sit the hell still. There’s hardly a shot in this film that doesn’t involve the camera flying into or away from a character’s face, presumably to accentuate their drug-addled, anxiety-ridden vortex; the style becomes so repetitious that it soon becomes a lampoon of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and After Hours (both better films by a long shot). Once you’ve untangled the film’s style, which over-wraps the story–exactly as Irving’s combover shrouds the lie underneath–you’ve got a hollow shell of an enterprise, filled only by the hot air of homage, gimmicks and throwbacks. As the end credits roll, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

Grade: C
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Alessandro Nivola

Her

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It’s tempting to dismiss this mopey techno-romance as just another spin through the solipsistic post-hipster universe of Spike Jonze, but Her is just too prescient about how humanity’s dependence on technology will escalate to include our total emotional well-being, too well-acted and, finally, too wise and gentle in its prescription for the survival of human interrelationships for any trash talk. While its limited characters can make Her a long slog, Jonze’s observations about the sad, misguided intersection of humanity and technology won me over.

In near-future Los Angeles–gorgeously rendered by designer K.K. Barrett and art director Austin Gorg–the superb Joaquin Phoenix plays the lonely and soulful Theodore Twombly, one year removed from a painful split from his emotionally fragile ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara, who’s become a specialist in playing disturbed and/or volatile women). He’s kind of a proxy letter-writer working for an Internet company specializing in crafting customized letters commissioned by its clients to any variety of recipients (relatives, friends, the parents of fallen soldiers, etc.).

In his ability to exude empathy through these letters, Twombly is not unlike another lost urban soul–Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s greeting-card writer in (500) Days of Summer (another self-consciously quirky romance set in L.A.!). Whereas Gordon-Levitt’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl was the moon-eyed Zooey Deschanel, Twombly meets his ideal woman in Samantha, an artificially intelligent operating system played by Scarlett Johannson. She’s a Manic Pixie Virtual Girl.

In fact, the whole world is awash in these revolutionary operating systems; people buy them up and, before long, there’s an entirely new economy and sub-culture created from millions of these newly formed hybrid relationships. After the iPhone and Siri, the advent of a sentient OS companion seems like the logical end point in our desire to synchronize consumer technology with our every human whim and need. And in a culture of dysfunctional relationships, serial self-absorption and a spiraling increase in our collective narcissism, it’s only natural humans would turn to the relatively nonjudgmental safety of a “personal” relationship with an artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, Her’s Los Angeles is an unending forest of skyscrapers and sleek surfaces–the fusion of Hong Kong and present-day L.A.–everything bespeaking a cool nonchalance. The city isn’t foreboding or unwelcoming–it’s simply disinterested.  As social satire, this is wickedly on-point and a much-needed commentary on where we are today.

The society that Jonze depicts isn’t so much bleak or alienating as it is fraught with the terror of failure and abandonment; disconnection and loneliness, therefore, are our default emotional settings. Still, it’s not Orwellian: Theodore enjoys a close friendship with his college friend/neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), who’s married to Charles (Matt Letscher), an absolute drip and control freak. And, at work, the cheery receptionist Paul (Chris Pratt) is a reliably sunny presence in Theodore’s life.

There’s misery here, for sure, but you look around, and you don’t see much to stand on: The characters we meet are all white, middle class, well-to-do, educated first-world citizens who’ve never–from what we know–suffered much or sacrificed. They’re over-the-hill hipsters who presumably moved out of their Silverlake bungalows and into gorgeous, ultra-modern downtown lofts when they hit their 30s and are still crying about how they can’t have a relationship. You want to scream, “Get the fuck over it!” But then we wouldn’t have this film and the rewarding ruminations that follow.

Those ruminations begin after Samantha enters Theodore’s life, and, quickly, he falls in love with her. Hyper intelligent and programmed to “evolve,” Samantha falls in love right back. Soon, Theodore is in the midst of a relationship more fulfilling than any he’s ever had with a human. This is when Her gets interesting as Jonze takes the tropes of the star-crossed romance and posits them into his novel framework. The results are fascinating as Samantha learns to feel everything from sexual ecstasy to embarrassment and shame, especially when the matter of her not having a body comes up. When Theodore, smarting from Catherine’s demeaning his relationship with an OS, lashes out passive-aggressively at Samantha, you can’t help but feel her pain, the sting of her wounded self-esteem. Then, you realize, you’re feeling deep sympathy for a computer. One moment stands out: When a little girl, speaking into the iPhone-like device where Samantha’s “lives,” asks why she lives inside a computer, she answers sweetly, “I have no choice.” I have no choice: An existentialist’s worst nightmare. And that is when, to me, she became tragic and beautiful, and when I fell in love with her myself. Moments like that are the film’s miracle.

But even after the two make up, Jonze isn’t finished as he enters the territory of distrust, jealousy and heartbreak that marks the full maturation of a relationship that’s taken its bruises … and the writer-director keeps on going, beyond considerations of mere romance and into the meaning of life and death itself. This is American filmmaking venturing out to its very edge, and Jonze manages to balance himself beautifully. He does it the way of all great storytellers: By journeying from the anxiety of the ego–which occupies everyone in this film from the first scene–to deep into the soul where Theodore finds self-realization in moments captured with lyrical beauty and emotional honesty. Her does American cinema proud.  

Grade: B+

Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher

Silver Linings Playbook

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You have to hand it to David O. Russell. Since his debut feature, Spanking the Monkey in 1994, he has steadily proven himself to be a worthy descendent of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. More than any other Hollywood filmmaker, Russell has demonstrated a facility with nutty situations, screwball energy, and eccentric characters, the kind of facility that recalls Sturges in his Hail the Conquering Hero and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek heyday, the kind that approximates the manic farce of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot together with the acerbic wit and sentiment of The Apartment. Movies like Flirting with Disaster (my vote for Russell’s best movie), I Heart Huckabees, and his latest, Silver Linings Playbook all have the pace and hysterics to match Hollywood’s screwball tradition and no other filmmaker seems capable of sustaining a sense of sheer lunacy–that is, an edgy, barely contained craziness–over a feature-length movie without losing his audience. Yet, as entertainingly oddball as Playbook is, the movie derives much of its pleasure from its offbeat energy, soft-heartedness, and the roiling tensions that preoccupy its largely two-dimensional characters.

Insanity, or at least some degree of it, is all over this movie. Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solatano, just released from a mental institution after a violent episode that’s scared off his wife. He moves back in with his parents, played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, vows to clean up his act, and win back the affections of his estranged wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), who’s taken out a restraining order on him. Of course, Pat functions in a kind of manic delusional state, just as his father–as warm and genuine as he is in his love for Pat–is an obsessive-compulsive Eagles football fan whose life pivots on the outcomes of football Sundays. Because he can’t get to Nikki, Pat enlists the aid, however grudgingly, of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), one of her friends. Tiffany herself has more than her share of emotional issues; she’s struggling to put the grief and guilt over her husband’s death behind her. So she pours her energies into a dance competition and makes a deal with Pat: if he agrees to be her dance partner in the competition, she’ll cooperate in his attempts to win back his wife. Pat and Tiffany’s uneasy alliance warms to a mutually dependent friendship that, after some ups and downs, blossoms into, you guessed it, an old-time romance.

Five years ago, Mark Wahlberg–an actor who’s been featured in three of Russell’s movies–would have played Pat; the role of the off-kilter yet adorably sweet working-class misfit seems tailor-made for an earlier Wahlberg incarnation. Cooper gamely fills Wahlberg’s shoes here; his comic timing and intensity level matches that of his predecessor. And, as the volatile Tiffany, Lawrence is consistently watchable. De Niro and Weever nicely counterpoint each other with the latter serving as a kind of buffer for the neurotic excesses of the former. But, when all’s said and done, Silver Linings Playbook is as aggressively offbeat as it is aggressively by-the-numbers. This is a tried-and-true, paint-by-numbers rom-com whose adherence to convention is masked by Russell’s brand of anarchic comedy. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, so the story goes–what’s different this time around are the players and the twists in the path that lead us to the end. Russell doesn’t really offer a new take on family or interpersonal dynamics and we never feel that Pat, Tiffany, or anyone else here are particularly authentic human beings, just a collection of tics, oddities, and obsessions. But, for what it’s worth, Silver Linings Playbook is grounded in real heart–an embrace of such eternal virtues as true love, parent-child bonding, and self realization–and it delivers the kind of sharply timed laughs that Sturges and Wilder would’ve appreciated.

Grade: B-

Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Ker, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles, Brea Bee

Soul Kitchen

German filmmaker Fatih Akin, noted for award-winning dramas like “The Edge of Heaven,” takes a stab at comedy and romance with “Soul Kitchen,” an experiment in lunacy and laughs for Akin but an endurance test for the rest of us. Lacking character development and clean story construction, Akin’s film subsists on antic set pieces that try to wring laughs but come up dry.

The title refers to the comfort-food restaurant owned by the oafish Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos, who co-wrote the script with director Akin). With his journalist girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) on assignment in Shanghai, Zinos throws out his back while attempting to lug around a dishwasher in his restaurant kitchen. Too injured to cook, he hires a passionate but ill-tempered chef, Shayn (Birol Ünel), but his sophisticated concoctions turn away the restaurant’s regulars. Meanwhile, Zinos’ convict brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) weasels his way onto the wait staff so that he can get extended parole. Tensions mount when both tax and health inspectors show up with ultimatums, and the cutthroat realtor Neumann (Wotan Wilke Möhring) turns up the heat on Zinos to sell his restaurant

While Zinos and Nadine’s relationship goes the way of the Skype end-call button, Illias falls hard for Soul Kitchen’s sexy waitress Lucia (Anna Bederke). As word of the restaurant spreads to area hipsters, business starts to boom and so do the dance beats as Soul Kitchen takes off as a culinary and nightclub hangout. Akin saturates the soundtrack with the obligatory soul, funk and hip-hop for no good reason except to justify the film’s title, and to punctuate his themes of youth, fun and freedom. Zinos himself demonstrates no special connection with music or, for that matter, with cooking or running a restaurant.

Endless scenes of young people partying float along on semi-clever gags and generic good cheer, and do nothing to punch up the plot or enrich the central characters. As the object of Illias’ attraction, Lucia is a stock bohemian: She’s got the sullen pout, the exotic dance moves and the cigarette dangling from her lips. Both she, with her frumpy rebelliousness, and the waiter Lutz (Lucas Gergorowicz), who’s a garage band musician with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude, represent not characters but ideas for characters. Then there’s the unamusing curmudgeon Sokrates (Demir Gökgöl), a freeloading tenant of sorts in Zinos’ building. He’s a contemptible fly-on-the-wall type, hovering in the background, amounting to nothing. Indeed, Akin’s entire roll call of characters is comprised of ciphers and social clichés.

Blame “Soul Kitchen’s” script for the mess. Every joke, sentiment and set piece (one involving a Honduran aphrodisiac has predictably raunchy results) strains for effect, each falling flat. Zinos comes off as a clueless tool in whom we invest our total indifference, and his cohorts are largely throwaways forgotten no sooner than we leave our seats. Structurally, the script tangles together multiple strands, as the personal and professional pieces of Zinos’ life smash together, and it hasn’t a clue how to take its characters through the requisite beats of what is allegedly a story about a man’s search for self. Just as “Soul Kitchen” is allegedly an attempt at bright, witty comedy.

Grade: D

Directed by: Fatih Akin
Written by: Fatih Akin, Adam Bousdoukos
Cast: Adam Bousdoukos, Mortiz Bleibtreu, Birol Ünel, Anna Bederke, Pheline Roggan, Lukas Gregorowicz, Dorka Gryllus, Wotan Wilke Möhring, Demir Gökgöl

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

In 2003, Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski shanghaied Disney’s ride into a madly popular swashbuckler. The movie made a boatload of booty, and made Johnny Depp a bona fide movie star. Its sequel, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” takes all that was so charming about the first “Pirates” — its resurrection of a classic Hollywood genre, pirate-talk humor and Depp’s fey mincing as Capt. Jack Sparrow — and amps it up to the wattage of a Looney Tunes cartoon. “Dead Man’s Chest” hails from the “Bigger Is Better” school of filmmaking, whose dean is Jerry Bruckheimer. By “bigger,” I mean in all its dimensions: the movie is the original’s louder, faster, more effects-crazy twin brother. It’s also snottier and more spoiled — a Bruckheimer spawn, after all. What did you expect?

Once again, scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio shunt Sparrow and the ever-hapless lovers Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) through another treasure-hunt storyline, and tangling with yet another crew of preternatural villains. The latter are captained by the squid-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) who, after a thwarted romance, secrets his broken heart into the titular chest and commences to terrorize the high seas. Because Jones and his shipmates’ fates are entwined with the seas’, they’ve anthropomorphized into various icky-looking sea creatures. What’s more, Jones’ possession of the chest also lends him the power to summon the Kraken, that ship-destroying sea monster of ancient Norse fables. Who let him in here is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, when news of the chest reaches tight-assed seaman Culter Beckett (Tom Hollander), he blackmails Will into recovering it, holding his spunky lass Elisabeth as ransom. For help, Will seeks out pirate-at-large Jack Sparrow. Sparrow’s got the dirt on Jones’s curse; he’s himself condemned to share in Jones’s fate if he doesn’t figure a way to break it. Elizabeth escapes Cutler’s custody, and, in her wedding gown, hotfoots it in pursuit of Will. By now, Elliott and Rossio’s script resembles a big-budget clusterfuck, crashing towards the inevitable throwdown with Davy and the Kraken. A superfluous plot detour on a cannibal island is but a clumsily staged send-up of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” complete with Sparrow outrunning large rolling objects and hungry natives. “Dead Man’s Chest’s” climax involves yet another instance of antics atop and inside rolling objects, proving the old adage: Why settle for one when you can have two for twice the cost?

“Dead Man’s Chest” taps into our need for air-conditioned escapism, and, to be fair, it’s effects are a marvel of digital realism. But Bruckheimer’s effects-makers go to gratuitous lengths to force a gee whiz out of their audience, especially in the case of Jones and his gnarly crew, whose slimy deformities don’t so much amaze as repel, and expensively so. This leaves Depp and his cohorts to mug, pose, and caper through Verbinski’s frenetic telling. Depp, rather than stretching his characterization of Sparrow, is sadly limited to playing up his cartoonishness; more than once, Sparrow’s panicked face is the punchline to another in a minefield of effects-rigged comic setups. Right from the get-go, there’s an unsettling immodesty about “Dead Man’s Chest,” a presumption of its own charm and popularity without bothering with anything as unsexy as story craft, character development, or a cleanly defined narrative arc. No, it pummels us into submission. And if you’re going to mutiny, matey, then you can just walk the plank.

Grade: C

Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Written by: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook

Intermission

Dizzily paced and structured, the Irish import “Intermission” charms with its “never-let-‘em-see-you-sweat” exuberance. Theater denizens, Mark O’Rowe and John Crowley, the movie’s writer and director respectively, juggle elements of romantic comedy and farcical crime caper with hardly a misstep or stumble. After a somewhat annoyingly “virtuosic” opening that comes staggering at us with a chopped-up, documentary-style jitteriness, “Intermission” finds a sure and brisk footing. Before long, you’re swept away in its pell-mell of interweaving narratives by a couple of crack storytellers who seem audaciously at ease in their newfound medium.

Dewy-eyed and pouty-lipped John (Cillian Murphy) calls it off with his girlfriend, Dierdre (Kelly Macdonald), and almost immediately regrets it. He finds that it’s too late to make amends, however, because Dierdre is already bedding down with Sam, a middle-aged and married bank manager in the thick of a raging mid-life crisis. Eager to mend her tattered self-esteem, Sam’s jilted wife, Noeleen (Dierdre O’Kane) sets her sights on Oscar (David Wilmot), John’s rangy, sex-starved pal. Noeleen’s unleashed libido, not to mention her pent-up rage at her delinquent husband, loosens Oscar’s goose but it also, comically and mid-coitally, beats the poor schlub to a pulp.

John and Noeleen aren’t the only ones stung by rejection. Ever since her last boyfriend shit on her, literally, Dierdre’s sister, Sally (Shirley Henderson), has let herself go and has the moustache to prove it. Sally’s bitterness has her hissing and snarling, but she’s got a tender soul which her widowed mother (Ger Ryan) tries patiently to nurse back to health.

Following the old rule that if you can’t get them back, then get back at them, John throws in with Lehiff, a petty, thuggish punk (played with gusto by Colin Farrell) in a scheme to kidnap Dierdre and hold her ransom to Sam. It so happens that Lehiff is in the cross-hairs of the brutish Jerry Lynch (the indomitable Colm Meaney), Dublin’s answer to Popeye Doyle by way of the self-serious vanity of Inspector Clouseau. Lynch is on a one-man crusade to scour Dublin’s streets of scum and achieve local stardom, while he’s at it, if a reality-TV producer has his way. Meaney mines the great tradition of comic blowhards; he clads Lynch in the armor of male bravado, but one that can’t hide his pathetic inner gloom nor his idiosyncrasies (in this case, an obsession with Celtic mysticism).

Through all its whirl and bluster, “Intermission” comes through a remarkably winning and tender character study—a patchwork of contemporary Dublin’s lovers, hoods and regular Joe’s. O’Rowe and Crowley impressively dovetail their various stories through well-timed turns, parallels and intersections. Add to its ambitious script and direction an ensemble of on-target performances, and you have a rare seasonal treat: a rowdy comedy unafraid of honesty and with a direct appeal to the heart.

Grade: A-

Directed by: John Crowley
Written by: Mark O’Rowe
Cast: Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, Kelly Macdonald, Brian F. O’Bryne, Colm Meaney