Hey You Guys,
The first Monday of every month I offer three capsule reviews of direct-to-DVD movies. I sees 'em so you don't have to. With no further ado here are my suspiciously lengthy takes on Jenna Fischer's Lollilove, Kevin James and Ray Romano in Grilled and the Oscartastic Big White with Robin Williams and Holly Hunter.
Lollilove (2004)–Though the adult in me knows better, there's still some lizard part of my brain that thinks that the actors in my favorite television shows really are the characters they play. There's part of me, for example, that secretly wants to believe that Steve Carell really is a clueless middle manager at a paper goods company in Scranton, Pennsylvania and that Tracy Morgan really is a hard-partying space cadet and sketch-comedy performer whose outrageous offset behavior gives his corporate bosses migraines. Oh wait. On a similar note Jenna Fischer is so indelibly imprinted in the public imagination as a cute but dowdy secretary that it's a little jarring seeing her all glammed up to play a self-deprecating version of herself in 2004's Lollilove, a micro-budgeted mockumentary she also directed and co-wrote. Fischer's playfully post-modern directorial debut cheekily satirizes the narcissistic self-delusion of wealthy white people through the story of a myopic couple (Fischer and real-life husband/Slither director James Gunn) that vows to fight the plague of homelessness by giving out lollipops to the impoverished with wonderfully condescending "inspirational" messages and Gunn's amateurish artwork. Like most celebrity charities the Gunns' (Fischer is billed here under her married name) Lollilove campaign has everything to do with boosting their careers and reputations and nothing to do with helping the homeless. Fischer gets in lots of smart digs at the myopic self-importance of celebrity do-gooders and the whole project has an agreeably loose, improvised feel. And, at the risk of pandering to reader's baser instincts it should be noted that Fischer is surprisingly hot here. The Troma label might scare folks away but this is funny, smart and casually satirical, sort of Albert Brooks light. Lollilove's biggest flaw is that even at sixty-five minutes it still feels a little padded, like a killer short film on steroids.
Just How Bad Is It?: It's actually pretty good Grilled (2005)–As a rule, I love movies about salesmen. Slasher, Tin Men and Salesman are three of my favorite films of all time. The superior first half of 2005's Grilled taps into the vast reservoirs of drama, comedy and pathos endemic to the act of trying to sell strangers things they don't need. In Grilled those salesman are gregarious Ray Romano and roly-poly human teddy bear Kevin James, two hard-luck meat men in the midst of a serious slump. Things go from bad to worse and plausible to wildly implausible when the hapless fellas stumble onto the murder of a potential client. In a series of increasingly unlikely events the salesmen hold the murderers at gunpoint, then inexplicably give the hitmen back their guns, then escape from the trunk of a car and head into a Bar Mitzvah where they face almost certain death. Yet even when Grilled embraces a level of implausibility seldom seen outside of movies about giant shape-shifting robots it stays eminently watchable thanks to vibrant cinematography, a brisk running time of just over seventy-six minutes, likable leads, a soul-saturated soundtrack and some neat stunt casting (Burt Reynolds as a mob-connected Jewish businessman who gets his son a hooker as a Bar Mitzvah present? Why the hell not?). On the big screen this would be little more than an amusing trifle but on DVD it's a pleasant, diverting surprise.
Just How Bad Is It?: Not bad at all The Big White (2005)–Entourage director Mark Mylod's The Big White belongs to a curious little cinema sub-genre: the wintry black-comic noir. Following in the fur-lined boot steps of Fargo and The Ice Harvest, the film casts a refreshingly restrained Robin Williams as a hapless travel agent trying to cash in a million-dollar life policy for long-gone brother Woody Harrelson. Alas, Harrelson isn't dead and insurance investigator Giovanni Ribisi isn't buying Williams' story. What follows plays like second-rate Coen Brothers mayhem as crook Tim Blake Nelson, Harrelson's reappearance and Ribisi's dogged investigation collectively make Williams' already difficult life infinitely more arduous. Holly Hunter grates on the nerves as Williams' Tourette's-stricken wife while Alison Lohman is wasted in the nothing part of Ribisi's phone-psychic girlfriend. What makes The Big White so frustrating is that it's just a couple of screenplay drafts away from being a real sleeper. Ribisi is compelling as an obsessive whose unhealthy dedication to uncovering the truth proves his undoing and Mylod makes smart, melancholy use of The Eels' majestic "Last Stop This Town". If The Big White were rooted in messy human emotions rather than flashy, self-conscious black-comic quirks it might actually live up to the high standards for the subgenre set by Fargo and the vastly underrated Ice Harvest.
Just How Bad Is It?: Less bad than disappointing.