Boom, Baby!: 'Battleship' & 'What to Expect'
Today we review two contenders for our Most Cynical Movies Ever Made list. One's big, giddy fun, one's a tedious endurance contest. It's not what you're expecting.
There's a sequence of scenes at the beginning of Battleship, the noisy new action picture from director Peter Berg, that is so ridiculous, so patently absurd that it just might be the strangest thing you'll see at the movies this year — and it has nothing to do with battleships. Instead, it's Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) and his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård) at a seedy Hawaii bar knocking back drinks in celebration of Alex's 26th birthday. "I love you," they say earnestly but casually to one another, perhaps the first indication that there's something a little off about this movie. Then, after some oddly serious discussion of what kind of birthday wish Alex should make on the little cupcake-with-a-candle that brother Stone has brought him, Alex spots a sexy blonde slice of American apple pie named Samantha (Brooklyn Decker) at the bar, and stumbles up to work his game. Samantha is trying to order a beer and, bizarrely, a chicken burrito — nothing sexier than someone by themselves at a bar ordering a chicken burrito in the middle of the night — but the surly bartender informs her that the kitchen is closed. Alex tries to argue on Samantha's behalf, but surly bartender will not have it. Trying to win over this jean-shorted slip of Americana, Alex says that, never fear, if she gives him five minutes, he will get her a chicken burrito. He runs across the street to a convenience store, but it has just closed. So instead of returning in shameful, chicken burrito-less defeat, he breaks into the store and falls all over the place. But he makes it out, just in time for the police to arrive, from whom he runs. He is determined to get this burrito to this girl and, even though he gets tased twice, darned if he doesn't slap it in her hand just before he passes out. She responds with an amused, turned-on smile. It worked! We then cut to Stone yelling at a hungover Alex who is naked in the shower ("I love you," echoing in my head). Stone has had enough of Alex's tomfoolery and, he loudly proclaims, "That's it, you're joining me in the Navy!" Alex looks up, shocked, and then BAM, we get our title card: Battleship. It's an absolutely hilarious way to begin this frequently amusing movie. The trick is trying to figure out if anyone involved was trying to be funny.
I choose to believe that hidden somewhere in this loud — I'm going to keep talking about how loud this movie is, because it is so loud — clamor of explosions and robot-alien clanking are a few sly winks. I didn't see them on first viewing because I didn't know to look for them, but I'm convinced they must be there. Because there is no way this movie could be an attempt at seriousness. It is just too silly, too giddily excited by the simple sight of things exploding, to be a thing earnestly made by adults. So yes, I'm choosing to believe that the movie is self-aware, that it's in on the joke. And in that spirit, it's a rollicking summertime blast.
Alex does indeed follow his brother into the Navy, and would it surprise you to learn that, while very smart and capable, he's a loose cannon screw-up? He's too busy getting in fights and hanging out with his gal (chicken burrito, works every time) to bother about rules and being on time and other bunk. This annoys his brother and it enrages Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), a stern and towering figure who, omg, also happens to be Samantha's dad. Will Alex ever learn to accept responsibility and become the officer he has the potential to be? By picture's end you'll have your answer -- this movie is really Alex's story, it's about his journey.
Well, no, it's mostly about the aliens that crash onto Earth, destroying Hong Kong and setting up some sort of invasion base camp out in the Pacific Ocean. And wouldn't you know it, this happens on the same day that Alex, Stone, Admiral Shane, and the gang are out doing Naval exercises with a bunch of other fleets from other countries. It's Navy Field Day and the aliens had to come and ruin it! It's when our heroes first encounter the aliens' hovering warships that the Explode-O-Meter starts to go off the charts. The destroyers and battleships have their canons and guns and whatnot, while the aliens have what basically amount to aerial depth charges, and when you put all that together, oh boy does it make a lot of noise. Theater seat-rattling noise. Bracing Maxell Guy noise. And it is thrilling. With every boom I was jolted back into my action movie-obsessed early teenage years, viscerally delighted by all this sound and light, fighting the urge to cheer every time a shell from one of our, uh their, boats made contact with an alien vessel. (Some in my audience were less successful in repressing the cheers.) There is nothing thoughtful or nuanced or subtle about any of this. It's a two-hour 4th of July fireworks finale and it has no shame about that. That's what makes the movie funny, its completely unapologetic appeal to the simple fact that we like when things go boom. "You want boom? Here is boom." Ha! Throw in a chicken burrito and I'm sold.
The aliens also have big rolling razor things that they employ to destroy stuff on land, and those make loud metallic whinings that are less pleasant to hear, but that's sort of the point. These are the villains' noises! Tremble in fear. And lest you think this is all some Transformers-esque clutter of machines, we do actually get to see the aliens, tall humanoid creatures who wear Exosquad-style suits and are invading Earth for... Eh, well, we never really find out. I suppose that lazy ambiguity could rankle some, but I was too busy waiting for the next series of explosions to care. Luckily I didn't have to wait long. Alex and his crew quickly get separated from the fleet and are forced to take on the aliens themselves, and the rest of the movie is a back and forth volley of firepower, which Berg films with whizzing, kinetic fervor. The way the movie incorporates the pinpoint grid of the board game this movie is "based on" is both ingenious and riotously stupid — undetectable by radar, the alien ships can only be tracked using readings from water displacement buoys that are arranged across the ocean in, yup, a grid — and you have to admire the screenwriters Erich and Jon Hoeber ("I love you...") for being ballsy enough to acknowledge the inherent absurdity of trying to "adapt " this board game into a movie at all.
Most of the cast seems to be in on this experiment in id. Kitsch, with his ludicrous bee-stung beauty and hoarse but wholesome Canadian twang, is surprisingly most appealing not when he's looking intense and focused, but when he's being goofy and inept. He seems to be making fun of the capable bad boy stock character that's often at the center of these movies, and he does a good job of it. (Again, I'm taking this on faith. This is all intentional, this is all intentional...) For whatever reason Skarsgård seems far more Swedish in this than he ever does on True Blood, but that just adds to the movie's collection of surprising and delightful little bits of weirdness. Making her feature film debut as a tough weapons tech (or something), pop star explosion Rihanna avoids embarrassing herself. She even gets to deliver the movie's most satisfying line after "I love you," a rousing "Mahalo, motherfucker" punctuated at the end by, yup, an explosion. Decker gets her own little bit of business involving a disabled vet and a squirmy geek — it was nice of them to give her something to do — but I fear she's one of the ones that took this thing a little too seriously. There's a determination in her face, a sense of "OK, I really have to sell this," that stands in dopey contrast to the rest of the relaxed, lettin' it all hang out crew. C'mon, Brooklyn! Chill out, have a burrito.
Battleship will make no top ten lists this year, it probably won't even be remembered by summer's end. But it's the most unexpected fun I've had at the movies this season. It is balls-out foolishness and flag-waving hooey, but I left the theater grinning like a kid. I suspect lots of people will hate this movie, brash and loud as it is, but, Battleship? I love you.
After vanquishing the aliens, Brooklyn Decker moved to Atlanta, got a Southern accent, married Dennis Quaid, and got pregnant. Yes, Ms. Decker is having a double duty weekend, appearing in both Battleship and the dumpy new comedy What to Expect When You're Expecting. She doesn't feature very prominently in What to Expect, which is a shame because she actually shows some comedic aptitude in her handful of scenes. Ah well!
This is an ensemble movie in the style of Valentine's Day, but the main-ish characters are played by Jennifer Lopez (she's adopting), Elizabeth Banks (she wants to have the perfect pregnancy), Cameron Diaz (she hosts The Biggest Loser and got pregnant with her Dancing With the Stars partner), and Anna Kendrick (she got pregnant off a one-night stand). The various men in their lives (Rodrigo Santoro, Nick Falcone, Matthew Morrison, and Chace Crawford, respectively) factor in, of course, as do wacky best friends (Rebel Wilson, Wendi McLendon-Covey, both great, both misused) and a dads group which includes Chris Rock and Thomas Lennon. (Guys, what are you doing here? I know you've got mouths to feed, but come on.) So it's a pretty full house already, and y'all are going to add babies to it??
The movie actually begins not-so-badly. There's a spikiness to the humor that you absolutely do not find in the awful Romantic Joke Machine 3000-scripted Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve. The characters are idiosyncratic, some of the jokes land with a satisfying ping, and all the actors are game and expressive. Sure they all have dumb 'movie jobs' — J.Lo works at the aquarium photographing whales, fertility-challenged Banks owns, what else, a baby supply store, Diaz does what's mentioned above, and Kendrick runs a food truck — and the various plotlines all trade in their fair share of cliches, but, I dunno, something about the first thirty or so minutes of What to Expect started to win me over.
But then it kept going, and going, and going. Clocking in at nearly two hours, What to Expect feels like carrying a baby to full term. First you're excited, then it starts to get uncomfortable, by the end you're screaming in pain from the prolonged agony. Lopez's story gets mired in a morass of "He might not be ready" business that is boring and well-trod territory. Diaz's plot never connects — who the hell cares if the baby is circumcised, which is the chief conflict she has with Morrison, not to mention the fact that Matthew Morrison talking about sex and penises is deeply unpleasant. Kendrick, who suddenly and magically finds herself in a relationship with the guy who, er, knocked her up, is terrific as always, but her story gets pretty sad pretty quickly, and she gets no support from the emptily handsome Chace Crawford. And Banks, adept comedienne that she may be, is forced to make, by my count, four jokes about peeing her pants followed by a fart noise and a hemorrhoids kicker. Discussing the ugly physical realities of pregnancy is probably a good and necessary thing to do, but piling it all on one character and then going ha ha is, I dunno, a little lame.
The film's attempts to throw a bone to the fellas are almost as egregiously marketing-minded as the bought and paid for references to Delta Airlines and lingering please-give-us-the-tax-break tourism board-approved shots of Atlanta. When your wife says you're just looking at houses, you're buying a house. (The implication being that it's the man's money they're using.) If your wife gives the baby a fruity name like Henri, just call him Henry in secret. It's all that kind of stuff. Lennon, Rock, and fellow dad grouper Rob Huebel are far smarter than this material, and they're able to polish it up a little, but it mostly falls hard and flat. (Though, I will admit to laughing at a recurring joke about one of Rock's injury-prone sons.) This just isn't a movie for dudes, and I'm not really sure it's a movie for ladies either. What begins a little witty, a little bright, fairly quickly becomes a parade of hoary cliches and half-assed platitudes. For a two-hour movie all about pregnancy, the only insight the movie ultimately has is "Babies are nice." Oh, OK. Thanks?
Still, What to Expect is significantly better than its ensemble romcom peers. Let's credit the cast with that. There's nary a Kutcher or Biel in sight here, and that's probably the only reason why this movie works on the rare occasion that it does. Take note, Garry Marshall. Ditch your little repertory crew for Arbor Day or whatever and hire this gang. Compared to Ashton and Jessica, these folks will deliver.