Every once in a while you get a weekend that sees a whole lot of new releases that are more than a little intriguing. As the year winds down, and more and more Academy Awards hopefuls begin to see the light of day, these crowded weekends become more common. This weekend doesn’t see the release of many prestige pictures, but it does premiere several films that I find interesting. I saw Tusk last night, but – in order to fit in everything – today I watched movies about a kid who is really good at mazes, an Irish cop pretending to be American, and a Jewish family who just can’t get their shit together. It’s been quite a day.
I started off this morning with The Maze Runner. The film, based on a young adult novel set in a dystopian future, is about a group of boys whose memories are wiped and who are dropped into a nice, idyllic glade, surrounded on all sides by an enormous maze. When Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) shows up, his arrival coincides with mysterious and dangerous alterations to the life the young men have carved out for themselves. Thomas’s tenacity in finding a way out inspires most of the other boys, but the beasts that roam the maze at night will not make escape an easy task.
I’m not sure why I saw The Maze Runner. I think I’m just a sucker for YA books about a world gone wrong. I also remember students at the high school reading the book and liking it quite a bit. I skipped that one – I kind of gave up on YA after I was so letdown by The Hunger Games novel – but the trailer intrigued me.
What I got was very run-of-the-mill. The performances were all adequate, especially for such a young cast, but the over-reliance on British talent becomes obvious as soon as most of the actors have to speak more than a sentence or two. A lot of the tension is built around a twist that becomes quite obvious after Thomas’s first night in the Glade, but the action scenes are a bit more effective. For the most part, the CGI maze looks realistic, and the stuff involving the monstrous “grievers” (as the stupid kids name them) is pretty well-choreographed. All in all, pretty average.
But surely the latest entry in Liam Neeson’s action/thriller period will redeem the day. A Walk Among the Tombstones stars Neeson as Matt Scudder, a former NYPD officer turned unlicensed private investigator. Scudder is hired by a local drug trafficker (Dan Stevens, continuing to undermine his Downton Abbey days after an excellent turn in The Guest) to track down the men who kidnapped his wife. Along the way, Scudder teams up with a precocious homeless teen (X-Factor contestant Brian “Astro” Bradley) and interrogates a very creepy man (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) – one who would give the villain from True Detective a run for his money.
Neeson’s last actioner, Non-Stop, was actually surprisingly good (up until the bad guys’ motivation was revealed), so I had a little hope for A Walk Among the Tombstones. Writer/director Scott Frank also has a few strong credits under his belt, including two Elmore Leonard adaptations (Get Shorty, Out of Sight). A Walk Among the Tombstones is an adaptation as well, though Lawrence Block’s source material is probably a little more bleak and bloody than James Dashner’s The Maze Runner.
Still, Frank does a fine job, I suppose. Neeson is good as Scudder, as he is always is in these “tough guy” roles. Unfortunately, Bradley’s T. J. keeps name-checking guys like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. I have a feeling Frank is trying to show that real P. I. work isn’t quite like the movies (despite this being a movie), but the subconscious comparisons to movies like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep do A Walk Among the Tombstones no favors. Nor do poorly sketched criminals or a Scudder backstory reveal that is supposed to be a big deal but is actually front and center in the film’s marketing. Seems A Walk Among the Tombstones is just as middling as The Maze Runner.
But I had one last hope. And after checking two theaters and three screenings, I finally found a showtime for This Is Where I Leave You with manageable seating. This family dram-rom-com stars Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, and Corey Stoll as the distant children of a man whose dying wish was that they sit shiva for him, despite his atheism. Their shiksa mother (Jane Fonda) is all too happy to enable the seven day mourn fest, in the hope that her children will finally get all of their dirty laundry out in the open.
This Is Where I Leave You – adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his own book (that’s right, every movie is based on a book now) – seems like a can’t miss. In addition to the incredibly talented central cast, the supporting players are amazing as well, from awesome comic actors (Ben Schwartz as Ben Schwartz as a rabbi, Kathryn Hahn as Stoll’s character’s wife) to more prestigious actor-y types (Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant). Even the music is in overkill mode, with Michael Giacchino providing the score.
There’s just so much going in This Is Where I Leave You that everything feels undercooked, save for Bateman’s Judd. Outside of this protagonist character, no one feels fully developed. Fey’s Wendy and Driver’s Phillip get scenes of their own, but both characters feel reductive – Fey as a shrill housewife and Driver as the ne’er-do-well youngest brother. They both make out better than Stoll, however, who is hung out to dry by the script to Jeremy-Renner-in-The-Avengers proportions. There are a couple satisfying emotional beats, but nothing in This Is Where I Leave You feels new or fresh. It’s all very “been there, done that.”
All three of these movies feel like re-treads of well-worn material. Which is so disappointing when the weekend began with such potential. The worst part, though? The fact that, while none of these movies were particularly good, none of them were really bad either. Do you know how hard it is to write about a movie that is just so damn ordinary? Let alone three? It’s enough to make you yearn for a disturbing man-walrus. Well, almost.