Ugliness at and beneath the surface
What Happens In Vegas…
Roger Ebert, writing about Dice Rules, an Andrew “Dice” Clay concert film said that “it could not be more damaging to the career of Andrew “Dice” Clay if it had been made as a documentary by someone who hated him.” Well What Happens In Vegas is the equivalent, except this time the target is Cameron Diaz.
Harshly lit, splotchy faced, overtanned, and frighteningly skinny, the fact that she’s supposed to appear sexy is either some kind of joke on her — by the director, director of photography, and makeup people — or everyone was going through the motions so much during the making of this film that they forgot the most important thing about forgettable star vehicles, which is to make the stars appealing and attractive.
Granted, this is the new custom for middling studio comedies in this decade. They are using a particular kind of film stock that makes black colors blacker (thereby reducing compression issues for DVD) but makes skintones look pasty and unattractive. This is a deeply cynical move — they expect the audience who pays for this in a theater to be too stupid or indifferent to care (recent, prominent examples include Renee Zellweger in Leatherheads and Uma Thurman in My Super Ex-Girlfriend). They expect the real money will be on DVD, where it will look much better, anyway. So why not just release direct to DVD instead of shooting it on video in the first place? It would save them a hell of a lot of money.
As a result of this, the movie itself is a complete afterthought, What Happens in Vegas…, is completely slapped together, with a plot stolen from a very bad Larry David film called Sour Grapes (in that film, cousins argue over who gets to keep a slot machine jackpot, this is the same, only Diaz and Ashton Kutcher had a quickie drunken wedding the night before). The jokes are telegraphed five minutes in advance, the slapstick is so contrived as to be distracting (there’s a scene where Diaz throws oranges at Kutcher, while he’s on a skateboard, in the middle of NYC traffic), and the plot forgets what its own rules are at several different points (a judge forces the couple to stay together for six months to prove they are really trying, and then when they get the money, he doesn’t say anything about one side keeping the whole thing if the other side doesn’t cooperate, and yet Kutcher and Diaz are immediately scheming to foil each other). The only saving graces, apart from its comedically overextended “romantic ending,” are Rob Corddry and Zach Galifianakis as Kutcher’s friends. A better way to handle the movie would be to let these two scene stealing forces star in their own movie, as no one would care how bad their skin looked.
Speaking of bad skin, Tim Allen’s haggard and bloat set the stage for David Mamet’s superb Redbelt.
The film is another one of Mamet’s twisty mindfuck con games that answers the burning question, would it ever be possible for Jean-Claude Van Damme to star in a legitimate film? The answer would be, “Yes, as long as Van Damme wasn’t actually in it.”
A strange melding of smart and tricky plotting with the generally disreputable martial arts genre, call it Glengarry GlenBloodsport, Mamet doesn’t condescend to fans of the wildly popular sport of mixed martial arts, nor to his own fans. Mamet doesn’t believe in exposition, he likes to think his audience can keep up without it (his best film, Spartan, assumes you’re right there in the moment, despite not having the information that the characters have), so he boils his initial concept down to something simple and innocent, a Jujitsu instructor, who thinks honesty and honor will make him successful, who saves Allen, who is playing an aged movie star, in a bar fight.
Redbelt drifts along rather slowly, lining up entertaining but seemingly incongruous elements that play to Mamet’s interests in samurai training and Greek tragedy (exemplified most succinctly by his famed rewrite of Ronin). Shocking bits of violence and well-staged fights, which really capture the intensity of being right up close without the cartoonish necessity of the typical over-choreographed Hollywood fiction, distract the viewer from looking what’s up Mamet the magician’s sleeve (Redbelt most resembles Mamet’s first film, House of Games). As the story builds and even after you’ve left the theater (or, since the movie was basically not promoted at all, once you see it on DVD), you realize that what would normally be plot holes in a typical thriller, are just questions that Mamet hasn’t answered for you, and you have to work out what really happened and put the puzzle pieces together. You can’t knock a filmmaker who wants you to think.