The Two-Pop: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, November, and The 40 Year-Old Virgin

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is undeniably a triumph of production design. The sets are truly amazing and splendiferous. But this is a movie without heart. Part of the trouble is that the story is so familiar. There’s a tedious quality to the action as the story hits all the expected beats with doomed brats Augustus Gloop, Violet Bureaugarde, Veruca Salt, and Mike Teevee. Much was made of the fact that the filmmakers were going back to Roald Dahl’s original story and avoiding some of the embellishments of the 1971 Mel Stuart film, but some embellishments might have been a good idea to provide audiences with a bit of unpredictability. Director Tim Burton, who can be a genius in the right circumstances, has stayed true to Dahl’s plot but has inadvertently crafted a story without a human center. Charlie Bucket, as played by bright eyed Freddie Highmore, is too good to be true in a blandly annoying sort of way. This is the kind of kid who’d probably react to a kick in the groin with a toothy smile. And that means that the story must hinge on the humanization of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka. Depp, as always, delivers a tour de force performance of weirdo affectation (no one does that better) but when the film clumsily tries to explain why Willy’s weird by unveiling a labored backstory involving a cruel dentist father, you just have to laugh. Explaining Willy’s weirdness isn’t key to the story. Some people are just weird. The key should lie in the present and in the way Willy connects with Charlie, but that’s a relationship the film seems unsure about. To extend the candy metaphor, this is a melted blob of a movie wrapped in a sleek and shiny wrapper: it looks like it'll be delicious, but more than likely you'll get a bit of a stomach ache.

There was much fun to be had this summer watching the U.S. implosion of the clone thriller The Island. What was more entertaining, seeing the film bomb with audiences just days after director Michael Bay was quoted bragging about his unblemished record at the box office; watching the finger pointing by producer Walter Parkes who blamed the cast, the marketing campaign, and even the film’s title as if he – one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers – had zero influence over any of those elements; or learning about a copyright infringement lawsuit from the makers of a 1979 film called The Clonus Horror? It’d be fun to report that the movie itself is as bad as these disastrous rats-fleeing-the-sinking-ship indicators might suggest. But it’s really not. If you look at The Island with the right perspective, it’s actually pretty entertaining in an empty-headed popcorn-movie sort of way. You just have to go with it and let the many preposterous and illogical moments (and they are legion) wash over you, then pick it all apart on your ride home from the theater. There’s also a fairly frustrating schism in the film as it divides itself between a rather thoughtful conspiracy thriller in the first half and an unending chase movie in the second. And as with any Bay movie, this one has its share of loud, noisy sequences full of rapid-fire cuts and visual confusion, but he seems somewhat tamer this time around when compared to his truly awful films like Armageddon. As a postnote: if any of you hoped that The Island’s failure with American audiences might send a message to Hollywood, rest assured that message was probably not received. The film is a blockbuster hit overseas.

November is one of those brooding little indie films that plays for a week and your local theater and then disappears forever, until the one day you spy the DVD box at your neighborhood Blockbuster store and have a vague memory of having heard of it somewhere before. November is also one of those mindbend Mobius-strip movies that folds in on itself and plays with the audience’s (and the main character’s, for that matter) perception of reality, replaying a number of scenes with distinctly different outcomes to suggest that some of what you’ve seen didn’t happen at all. Is it a dream? Are the characters crazy? Or is it something else? Astute viewers will realize the truth fairly easily. But this film seems to exist more for the ride than for the destination. And with the running time well under 90 minutes, it’s an engaging ride that benefits from giving Courtney Cox the chance to give a completely convincing dramatic performance. But in the end, one wishes there were a little something... more to it all.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin delivers about what you’d expect from a movie with that kind of title. It’s an unending riff of sex and virgin jokes that put hapless hero Andy (Steve Carrell, in a surprisingly subdued performance) in a number of amusing sexual and romantic situations that climaxes, as it were, with a relationship with a single mother (the always sterling Catherine Keener). And that’s sort of the problem with the movie. Unlike, say, Wedding Crashers, this film doesn’t really hang together in a cohesive narrative way. It feels more like a collection of gags and sketches. It can be very funny, yes, such as Andy’s encounter with a drunk girl and his efforts to channel “David Caruso in Jade” in order to be an aloof jerk to women. But it leaves an aftertaste of disappointment. There’s a nagging sense that this could have been so much better. This is particularly true of the strong supporting cast whose characters doesn’t seem as well defined as they probably would be in a truly brilliant comedy. That said, the film ends with a showstopper musical number (yes, you read that right) that may be the most inspired and hilarious thing you’ve seen on screen in years. For that ending alone the film deserves your $8 ticket price.

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