Against the Ropes, Welcome to Mooseport, and Eurotrip (review)

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Critical Crisis

I wondered, back when I decided to give this flick-filosophizing thing a shot, how long I could keep it up. How many movies could I cover and still find interesting stuff to say beyond “this is good” and “that is bad”? Turns out, I mostly needn’t have worried — six and a half years and close to one thousand reviews later, it’s the rare film in which I can’t find something to spout off about (though whether that spouting is actually interesting isn’t for me to say).

But it’s those rare films that I fear, the ones that hold a power over me out of all proportion to their puny worth: the bland, listless, empty movies so devoid of any spunk or spark or meaty chunkiness that they seem to slide right off my brain. I sit and stare at a blank Word screen for hours, desperate to come up with something to say that isn’t going to repeat what every other critic is going to say. Cuz if I can’t do that, then what the hell am I doing here at all? And from there it descends into a spiral of depression and doubt and I turn into Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, all procrastination and self-recriminations and too much compensatory tea-drinking and cat-petting, and it’s not pretty.
Like I said, those films are rare. But in a remarkable confluence of events conspiring against me, there’re three movies that fall into this category, all opening today. And what’s worse, I saw all three of them in a span of less than 24 hours earlier this week, and now they’ve all sort of congealed in my mind, like so much leftover takeout food, into one cold, jellied lump of indistinguishable Movie Product: something about a spitfire Meg Ryan and a neurotic Ray Romano taking a raunchy trip through Europe while training a boxer to be President of the United States. Paradoxically, though, in this convergence of content-free forgettableness, something stands out. The utter nothingness of everything new at the multiplex this weekend, and how it’s spread like a thin gruel across the audience spectrum — here’s a flick for teenage boys; here’s a flick for women; here’s a flick for “older” people — highlights what a depressingly monotonous and insipid entertainment environment we live in. (It would have also been theoretically possible, by the way, for me to see, within that same 24-hour span, the surely instantly forgettable film for teenage girls opening this weekend, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. But then my brain may have shut itself down entirely.) Yes, it’s February, and yes, the Oscar films are still playing, but that we’ve got an available, even planned-for, dumping ground for crap movies is hardly a disincentive to ensure a movie isn’t crap, is it?

“That’s my job,” explains Meg Ryan’s go-girl boxing manager Jackie Kallen in Against the Ropes, “to see shit coming.” And you can see this shit coming a mile off, though you really want to like it: There are never enough movies about women, certainly never enough movies about women doing things beyond being an adjunct either to children or to a man, and gosh but isn’t Ryan really trying to break away from her scrunchy-nosed, one-size-fits-all rom-com heroine (her reign as which is clearly over after Kate & Leopold)? So she struts around here like Erin Brockovich, in an endless stream of hooker outfits and with a snappy comeback for every wiseass male comment about her supposedly limited abilities owing to her lack of a penis — whoever heard of a lady boxing manager? But, as with last year’s In the Cut, she just doesn’t have what it takes to make Kallen anything beyond a cliché.

She tries — she does — but the film never rises above something that feels like a halfhearted attempt to remake a proto-feminist B flick Roger Corman tossed off in 1968. You could blame the impossibly trite and nearly conflict-free script, by Cheryl Edwards — the boss who demands coffee from his smarter-than-him secretary; the barely-there obstacles the nervy gal nimbly leaps on her road to inevitable success. You could blame the sodden direction by Charles S. Dutton (who also appears here as a boxing trainer) — where’s the power we saw in his TV miniseries The Corner, which practically ignited with the raw energy of desperation Ropes wants to be all about? But it all might have worked despite its flaws if we believed in Ryan’s Kallen, if we felt any of the fire it must have taken the real Kallen (the film is loosely based on her true story) to succeed as she did. Tony Shalhoub (Made-Up, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over) manages it, after all: He’s stuck with an undefined lump of a character, Sammy Larocca, a rival boxing manager, but there’s a world of anger and seething and history and life in his eyes whenever he’s onscreen. He’d have been a more convincing lady boxing manager than Ryan manages.

The little good that can be said in defense of Against the Ropes — it is, at least, about a woman doing something we haven’t seen a woman doing on film before — does not apply to Welcome to Mooseport. The film tries to make a joke of it (it’s the only joke that works, actually), but for all the obfuscating window dressing about politics and the media and the wonders of small-town life, this is yet another film about women being awarded as prizes to men who behave themselves.

The most popular President of the United States ever, Monroe Eagle Cole (Gene Hackman: Runaway Jury, Behind Enemy Lines), moves to rural Mooseport, Maine, after he leaves office, not because he likes it there but because his rapacious ex-wife (Christine Baranski: Marci X, Chicago, who is just sleepwalking through these roles now) got the mansion in Maryland or wherever. He’s barely arrived in town — where moose, not to mention nude joggers, roam the streets; ah, quaint, wacky small-town America! — when he’s been connived into running for mayor. It’ll be good PR, his people insist, even though he’s running against the town plumber, Handy Harrison (Ray Romano: Ice Age), whom everybody seems to like despite the fact that he’s an anxious, twittering head case. Oh, and don’t ask, but Mr. President is also after Handy’s girlfriend, Sally Mannis (Maura Tierney: Insomnia, Scotland, PA), the local vet. Still, everybody in Mooseport loves The Eagle!

It’s all so idiotic as to be laughable, except that when comedies go bad — and this one never has the chance to go good — they’re painful and headache-inducing and make you want to run screaming from the theater. A lot of this is the fault of Romano, cuz guess what? Not everybody in the audience loves Raymond or his twitching or his panic attacks or his pathetically low levels of self-esteem — he’s Woody Allen without the charm, and I don’t find Woody Allen charming in the least. But the real problem here is that Moosewood is nothing but a sitcom writ large (which is why they called on Romano, I suppose). It might as well be set in high school and been directed by John Hughes and star John Cusack and Molly Ringwald (all of which would have been a dramatic improvement), where the ordinary schmoe and the superjock battle for the heart of the cute valedictorian and guess who wins?

Instead of a biting Wag the Dog, though, or a charming Dave, we get a film that seems to have no idea how thoroughly wrongheaded a sitcom it is. Forget the women-as-prizes thing, even though that goes beyond Sally: Cole’s advisor Grace Sutherland (Marcia Gay Harden: Mona Lisa Smile, Mystic River), who is more wifey-mommy than anything else, scolding him about his diet and anticipating his every whim, gets subjected to this, too. (The only life the film has comes in Harden and Tierney’s one scene together; let’s give them their own movie.) No, we’re used to that theme. By using its oh-so au courant politico-media trappings only as a thoughtless backdrop, it turns Mooseport into a parable that celebrates everything that’s wrong with America at the moment: a public won over by celebrity-slick bullshit. “I had dignity once,” Gene Hackman cries here. “Does anybody remember that?” We do, Gene. We do.

And then there’s Eurotrip, which celebrates the hetereosexual male fear of homosexuality — my god, straight guys really do think they’re absolutely irresistible to gay guys, don’t they? — when it isn’t doing its damnedest to assure Europeans that their image of Americans as uncultured morons is accurate. When Scott (Scott Mechlowicz) and Cooper (Jacob Pitts, like Matthew Lillard, only sleazier) head to the Continent the summer after high-school graduation to track down Scott’s German email penpal, they encounter not only all manner of European stereotypes — British football hooligans, Parisian sidewalk mimes, and many, many more — but get fully doused in homosexuality anxiety, from a creepy Spaniard who gets inappropriately amorous on a train to a nude beach full of naked men. But don’t worry, fearful straight teen boys, this movie aimed directly at your fragile self-esteem: the naked men here are ugly, lest any uncomfortable thoughts be, er, aroused by them, and the naked female breasts, of which there are many, are beautiful.

After all, the entire reason for the trip in the first place — and hence the entire reason for the film — is to prove how Not Gay Scott is. See, Scott thought his penpal was a guy, told Cooper what a great connection he had with this “guy,” was scolded by Cooper for getting all icky-close to this “guy,” and then, upon discovering his mistake in re this “guy,” sets off to redeem his battered self-identity by bonking a cute German girl.

With all its fears on its sleeve like they are, Eurotrip is never surprising, because every humiliation is telegraphed a mile off. The only way watching their adolescent sexual fumblings could have been worse is if Ray Romano were standing over them, wringing his hands and saying “oh my god oh my god” in a parental moan over and over again and imploring them to use a condom. Although, it’s possible that might have actually been funny, too.

[reader comments on this review]

Against the Ropes
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for crude language, violence, brief sensuality and some drug material
official site | IMDB

Welcome to Mooseport
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for some brief sexual comments and nudity
official site | IMDB

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated R for sexuality, nudity, language and drug/alcohol content
official site | IMDB

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