I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up as a kid in today’s world. When I was a kid, I played on dangerous playground equipment and in homemade tree houses. I rode in the back of station wagons and pickup trucks without being restrained in any way. And with entertainment like The Karate Kid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I spent a lot of time fighting with friends. It was all in fun, but occasionally someone would get hurt by a punch or kick that landed just a little too hard. But today’s idiotic “zero tolerance” policies seem like a way of immersing children in the police state culture before they get a chance to have fun or make mistakes they can learn from.
Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) are just these kinds of overprotective parents, with the added bonus that they’re very concerned about how the behavior of their children reflects on their image. When their sons Ethan and Zachary get into an altercation, it’s imperative that they (the parents, with no sign of the children) get together and discuss it. When Penelope and Michael invited Nancy and Alan to their apartment, they thought it would be a relatively quick ordeal to craft a statement that both parties could agree on. When the film begins, they’re just finishing that statement and Nancy and Alan are about to leave. And they’re still just about to leave for the next hour and a half.
Their interaction starts off in an excessively civilized way, with everyone going far out of their way to be more polite and sophisticated than they really are (with the possible exception of Penelope, who at least believes that she’s as refined as the image she’s trying to present). Penelope and Michael live in the kind of apartment that may be nice to look at, but that would be horrible to live in. The coffee table littered with art books is front and center, the walls are lined with decorative sculptures and at least one well-lit but completely empty frame, and the television is high up in the corner right next to the window, with none of the furniture really facing it.
Nancy and Alan make their way out the door several times, and yet they always seem to be drawn back in for some reason. First, it’s for coffee and cobbler. Then it’s for more coffee. Then it’s a phone call that Alan can’t take in the elevator because there’s no reception. And then it’s the arguing. As they day wears on and the alcohol comes out, the politeness and civility is dropped and their real personalities are exposed.
The film is based on a play, and that really comes through in its direction. With the exception of bookends shot at the nearby park where the fight occurred, the whole movie takes place in Penelope and Michael’s apartment (or in the hall just in front of it), and mostly just in the living room. But they make good use of that space and the film doesn’t really feel constrained in any way. It’s a good “pressure cooker” kind of environment, but they find increasingly interesting (and funny) ways to vent that pressure.
John C. Reilly is a great choice for Michael because his comedy experience really comes through, but so does the more heartfelt performances from recent films like Cyrus and Terri. Christoph Waltz also gives a great performance, although his is the only character that doesn’t really undergo any significant transition in the film. He starts off as a disinterested, self-involved jerk and stays that way throughout the movie, whereas it takes time for the others to drop their personas and devolve to his level. Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster also do well enough in their roles, although in many ways it feels that they’re playing more supporting roles than starring even if everyone has roughly the same amount of screen time and dialogue.
I was pleasantly surprised by the movie’s comedy. Although I was initially concerned about the “sophisticated” humor which is only mildly funny and won’t get more than polite laughs, I was happy to see that as the walls are broken down between them, their interactions get funnier. It’s still not going to go toe-to-toe with the best pure comedies, but there’s enough substance layered underneath to make it a thoroughly enjoyable movie.