Skyline, The Tourist & How Do You Know: When “Not Bad” Is Pretty Good

Skyline, The Tourist & How Do You Know: When “Not Bad” Is Pretty Good

The end of each moviegoing year tends toward the crazy. From early November to mid-December, critics hunker down in their dens with stacks of “for your consideration” awards screeners, working on best-of lists in between the occasional screening of Hollywood’s non-Oscar-bait. Meanwhile, the general cineaste picks between the handful of critically acclaimed movies that have trickled into arthouses and the weekly assortment of would-be holiday blockbusters. In that climate, it’s much easier for a film to flop. Word-of-mouth and slow builds factor less; if a movie comes out and is judged as neither a list-maker nor a fun night out, it dies a quick death at the box office and in the cultural conversation.

I didn’t see Skyline when it opened in mid-November of 2010, nor did I see The Tourist or How Do You Know when they opened in December. I’m in a different position than most of my film critic colleagues, in that I live in a place where I don’t have access to advance screenings, so I generally don’t get to review a movie unless it plays at a festival or I get a screener. Since very few wide releases meet those criteria, and since going out to see a new release involves babysitters and schedule-clearing, I don’t go to movies in their theatrical run unless I really, really want to. Skyline, The Tourist, and How Do Your Know each had a few supporters among my friends, but none were enticing enough to lure me away from the TV shows piling up on my TiVo or my own pile of year-end awards screeners.

I finally caught up with all three last week on Blu-ray, and to my surprise, I enjoyed all three, at least in pieces. I write weekly capsule reviews of new DVDs for the Tribune Company, which is how I see most of the middling-to-poorly-reviewed “big” movies in any given year. I recognize that in an ideal world, a film would hold objective qualities that we could all agree on, whether we saw it on our laptops, on our TVs, in a multiplex, or in some motion picture palace on the night of the world première. But the real world isn’t like that. I believe that movies do hold at least some objective qualities, but our ability to spot them is often subjective, influenced by our personal experiences and biases, our expectations, and by how we watch. When I write about a recent theatrical release on home video, I try to keep in mind that there’s a different vibe to watching something at home than there is to having it be the centerpiece of a night out. Don’t get me wrong: Some movies are so lousy that they’re not worth anyone’s time, no matter how little money or effort it takes to watch them. But at other times, the “failures” of mainstream cinema have more to offer than their reputations would allow. They might contain a fine performance or a few exciting scenes, or they might represent an admirable attempt to try something different. Whatever the reason, I feel more comfortable recommending them on Blu-ray than I might’ve if I’d reviewed them in their theatrical run.

Now, I don’t want to oversell Skyline. It begins terribly, with a long, vapid Los Angeles-set party scene that plays like the opening of Cloverfield only without the first-person gimmick. (Perhaps realizing how weak the setup is, directors Greg and Colin Strause actually start off with a snippet of a scene that takes place about 20 minutes into the story, which may be a record time for a film to loop back around to its opening flash-forward.) However, once Skyline cuts to the chase and its generic cast of ex-TV stars commences fleeing from the beastly aliens who’ve invaded L.A., the entertainment level rises considerably. The similarities to Cloverfield remain way too strong, and the dialogue and performances are just passable throughout, but the Brothers Strause—who got their start in the business as special-effects artists—squeeze a remarkable amount of production value out of their tiny budget, especially in any scene where the heroes high-tail it through the streets while dodging legs, tentacles, and gaping maws. One advantage home video has over the theater is that viewers can fast-forward through the boring bits. Cut Skyline’s chaff and what’s left is a lively, often thrilling sci-fi actioner.

As for The Tourist, it’s hard to feel too bad for a movie that was nominated for multiple year-end awards and made more than twice its reported budget back in overseas ticket sales. But The Tourist’s domestic box office was weak, and those nominations were for the fairly disreputable Golden Globes (in the “comedy” category no less, which seemed odd to many, including the show’s host, Ricky Gervais). Aside from a few supporters in the critical community, The Tourist was roundly dismissed Stateside as silly and dull. And again, as with Skyline, I can’t call The Tourist a great film. But it’s a solidly constructed piece of big-budget entertainment, hearkening back to the globe-hopping caper pictures of the early ’60s. It even has two honest-to-goodness movie stars flirting and fighting their way across Europe, just like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade. I’m still not sold on Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck as a director; I thought his The Lives Of Others was good but too staid, and I’d apply the same criticism to The Tourist. Still, Johnny Depp is charmingly at sea here, playing a man dragged into international intrigue by fugitive secret agent Angelina Jolie, and the scenery is as gorgeous as the stars. All in all, this is fine, escapist fare that deserved more than shrugs and raised eyebrows.

Which brings us to How Do You Know, the movie that’s the most problematic on this list—and the one I’d be the most willing to go to bat for as near-great. (And I’m not the only one; so many of my critic pals have belatedly come to How Do You Know’s defense on Twitter and elsewhere that they’ve dubbed themselves “Team HDYK.”) When I finished watching James L. Brooks’ shaggy romance, I was at once moved, amused, and a little angry. The anger was over how How Do You Know had been mishandled. Brooks spent a reported $120 million on a small-scale comedy that shouldn’t have cost a quarter of that, and did so with a script that largely fails to whip its many good ideas into a clear, engaging narrative. The end product reminds me a little of Brooks’ protégé Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown: a bloated, muddled fiasco.

But How Do You Know is better than Elizabethtown (and I say that as someone who has a lot of affection for Crowe’s folly). Brooks’ low-key love triangle between Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, and Paul Rudd is thrown out of whack some by the presence of Jack Nicholson as Rudd’s father, and by a subplot involving fiscal malfeasance that’s far more time-consuming than it needs to be. Overall, though, I appreciate what Brooks is trying to do here, making a romantic comedy about how people sometimes stumble into relationships that are fine enough, but aren’t the best they could do. Wilson plays a pro baseball player who’s trying to be a better man for the recently unemployed Olympic softballer Witherspoon, but he’s nowhere near as reliable as the disgraced, needy Rudd. What does our heroine really need? How Do You Know is a movie of minute degrees, not grand gestures, which sets it apart from most modern romantic comedies, which favor gimmicky plots and emotional overload. Brooks’ offbeat approach was hard to grasp right away, when the movie was released in the middle of the year-end crunch. It’s more refreshing now, taken on its own terms.

If Brooks had made How Do You Know for $30 million or less, it still would’ve been a box-office disappointment, but only a modest one, and the film might’ve developed a reputation as a scrappy little comedy instead of a lumbering flop. But one of the problems with our filmgoing culture right now—driven as it often is by the buzz generated on the Internet—is that with so many new movies coming out each week, there’s not much room in the conversation for those that aren’t “best of the year,” “worst of the year,” or “fun trash.” The good movie with flaws, or the not-so-good movie with a few redeeming qualities… these don’t draw people to spend their money at a multiplex, nor do they generate hundreds of comments online. As my colleagues Tasha Robinson and Keith Phipps hashed out so well in their Crosstalk on this site last year, it’s more of a grabber to be a passionate supporter or detractor than it is to say, “Well, that had good points and bad points.”

Movies have a long afterlife though, once they leave the theater. This week, Skyline, The Tourist, and How Do You Know begin their DVD and Blu-ray run, and soon they’ll be on streaming services, then pay cable, then basic cable. Then they’ll be seen in fragments on planes and in hotel rooms, and by people flipping through channels on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Very few of those new customers will know anything about the bad reviews or the box-office face-offs that these films lost. Now’s the moment when the likes of How Do You Know can start catching people unaware, perhaps leading some to say, “That was kind of all right. I wonder why I’d never heard of it before?”

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