GNOMEO & JULIET
screenplay by Kelly Asbury & Mark Burton & Kevin Cecil & Emily Cook & Kathy Greenberg & Andy Riley & Steve Hamilton Shaw, based on an original screenplay by John R. Smith & Rob Sprackling
directed by Kelly Asbury
starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver
screenplay by Phil Johnston
directed by Miguel Arteta
by Ian Pugh Gnomeo & Juliet is pretty much exactly the movie you'd expect from one of the directors of Shrek 2. On the bright side, it's also a little bit more. In this latest iteration of Shakespeare's timeless classic, Montague and Capulet are a couple of pensioners living on Verona Drive whose lawn gnomes spring to life every now and then to wage war on each other. The lad and lass of the title (voiced by James McAvoy and Emily Blunt) meet from opposite sides and fall in love, and so on and so forth. As you may have already guessed, Gnomeo & Juliet makes room for its cutesy puns and pop-culture references by robbing "Romeo & Juliet"'s premise of all emotional heft: the warring tribes have no sense of familial bond, which renders the central romance completely weightless; and it's all performed with an absolute minimum amount of bloodshed, culminating in, yes, a happy ending. It's tempting to cry anti-intellectualism until one considers the film's predominantly British cast--after all, hasn't British culture earned the right to make self-deprecating jokes about Shakespeare's influence? (It just feels right knowing that Michael Caine and Maggie Smith are leading the charge in this gnome war--though Jason Statham voicing an angry, Napoleonic Tybalt sounds more subversive than it actually plays.) In fact, the film's generally cavalier attitude towards "unassailable" literature gives the impression that it was trying to piss someone off, what with most of the loathing and introspection replaced by the requisite noisy action sequences.
Of course, it's easy enough to mock Gnomeo & Juliet by sarcastically proclaiming this bite-sized version of Shakespeare's tragedy to be, like, so much better than the older, depressing version. Nevertheless, the film stumbles in its failure to recognize just how much the story hinges on its original context--particularly when it pilfers from other "kiddie" flicks that happen to be inherently tragic as well. This is never more obvious than when a comic-relief plastic flamingo (Jim Cummings) offers a tale of lost love in a transparent lift from Jessie's flashback in Toy Story 2. Such theft takes enormous audacity, but because loose ends are an absolute no-no in a non-Pixar CG animation (this one comes from Disney's more typically adult-skewing division Touchstone), even that minor subplot is happily resolved with a song-and-dance number. Granted, there are moments where its reinterpretations go right for the throat. A statue of the Bard himself (Patrick Stewart, naturally) lectures Gnomeo about the essence of tragedy--and what at first seems like a silly aside culminates in a dead-brilliant sight gag. Yet, somehow the film ends up completely denying the death and heartbreak that drives its source material, and in so doing, Gnomeo & Juliet admits its own irrelevance.
Similarly, Cedar Rapids bears a certain unwillingness to engage reality, but at least it's halfway intentional. After the untimely death of their star employee (Thomas Lennon), a small insurance firm in Wisconsin sends lovable naïf Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) to represent them at an important convention in Iowa. Unfortunately, Tim's narrow worldview can't prepare him for the lies, sex, and political maneuvering he encounters there...to say nothing of the nearby prostitutes and crackhouses. Most of the humour derives from Tim's eye-opening experiences in the outside world: a few ribald jokes told by the veteran salesmen are met with his sputtering disbelief that anyone could say such things! ("This is bullroar," he protests at one point, apologizing for his language.) While Helms's sweetness keeps things nice and breezy, I couldn't shake the feeling that this movie was intended to be shocking and hilarious to someone like Tim--someone who lives in an impenetrable bubble and hasn't seen a movie in decades. Our hero sends himself deep into denial when he learns that his predecessor died during autoerotic asphyxiation; when he slowly enters into an affair with a married woman (Anne Heche); when he shares an awkward (read: naked) embrace with the head of the convention (Kurtwood Smith). Aren't these scenarios a tad conventional for a 21st-century comedy?
Indeed, the claustrophobic hotel setting lends Cedar Rapids a wacky, 1960s veneer, something like a fish-out-of-water flick in the vein of Don't Drink the Water. Maybe that's the best way to look at the film: as a Woody Allen script mistranslated by squares trying to rail against the counterculture. (Was it me, or were those prostitute/crackhouse scenes shot with Dutch angles straight out of Adam West's "Batman"?) Alas, that perspective can't even sustain a scant 86 minutes, though I did like the way that Cedar Rapids presented several layers of cultural disconnect in its titular city. Just as Tim is out of his element in a room full of bawdy salesmen, those same salesmen at a loss for words inside a drug den. Still, I couldn't help but see the whole exercise as a misguided attempt to document class warfare. Tim makes plenty of friends at the convention--including people he was explicitly instructed to stay away from--but the problem is trying to figure out what anyone really takes away from the whole ordeal. Although he undoubtedly emerges from his experiences with corruption and cocaine a better man (he learns how to stand up for himself and make it on his own!), that unpleasant territory is used as proof that we shouldn't stray too far from the familiar. Then again, not much is ventured, so not much is gained. Such as it is. Originally published: February 11, 2011.