Friday, January 17, 2014


Opening this weekend:

Ride Along—The standup comedian Kevin Hart first came to my attention in a tiny role in Judd Apatow’s 2005 The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He had just three or four lines, but he had a comic intensity that popped off the screen, and I made a point of checking the end credits to catch his name—I was pretty sure I’d be seeing more from him.

Now he’s a movie star, top billed with Ice Cube in the action comedy Ride Along. The diminutive Hart’s comedy largely derives from Little Man’s Syndrome—he lives in a constantly aggrieved state of overcompensating machismo. Here he’s a video-game-addicted high school security guard and cop wannabe. When at last he makes it into the Atlanta Police Academy, he’s invited on a day-long ride along by tough-guy detective Ice Cube, the brother of his improbable girlfriend played by Tika Sumpter, a leggy creature who towers over Hart like a showhorse.

Ice Cube’s ulterior motive is to put his brother-in-law-to-be through hell and thus discourage him from joining the force—and, if possible, to break things up between him and his sister. So we get a series of wacky set pieces in which the overconfident Hart is sent barging into situations he’s not prepared for.

Almost all of these scenes are embarrassingly unfunny and overextended. There’s no real sense in which Ride Along, directed by Tim Story from a script by Greg Coolidge and others, can be called a good movie. But the leads are good—Ice Cube, always a strong, naturalistic actor, makes a solid straight man to Hart’s bristling indignation at not being recognized as a studly man of action.

In noting this, I hope nobody will suppose I’m suggesting that you should run out and see Ride Along. But feeble as the movie is, I didn’t mind it, not just because the stars are good company but also because it works through the old-school cop-movie playbook so modestly. When our heroes tangle with gangster heavy Laurence Fishburne—thus reuniting Ice Cube with “Furious Styles” from 1991’s Boyz in the Hood—and his henchman, the result is a little flurry of fistfights, shootouts and explosions, not a half-dozen Wagnerian climaxes in the earthshaking Bruckheimer tradition. It’s almost relaxing.

The Nut Job—This animated feature concerns a squirrel named Surly (voiced by Will Arnett), a renegade from the collective of food hoarders in a midcentury urban park, who organizes a heist from a nut shop. I like squirrels, and I share their passion for nuts—my inability to stop eating them (nuts, that is, not squirrels) is such that I could never, without hypocrisy, be judgmental toward a crack addict. So I’m probably the ideal audience member for this US/Canadian/South Korean co-production, and I must reluctantly report that it isn’t very good either.

If The Nut Job had stuck to being a noir/caper movie, but had replaced the humans with squirrels and the diamonds or art treasures or whatever with nuts, it might have been a riot. But the filmmakers weight it down with obligatory kidflick elements—the need for the misunderstood hero to prove himself, the romance, etc—that are inimical to the spirit of the heist picture. It’s visually pleasant, some of the characters come off well—especially an excitable pug voiced Maya Rudolph—and an animated version of the Korean pop star Psy performs the catchy “Gangnam Style” over the end credits, but overall this is, at best, a slow-afternoon desperation matinee pick when your kids have seen everything else at the multiplex.

The degree to which it’s a missed opportunity may become clear, however, if you watch the Canadian cartoon short on which it’s based, Surly Squirrel by Peter Lepeniotis. It’s hilarious, and it upholds the unsentimental cynicism of its genre.

RIP to Russell Johnson, best known as “The Professor” on Gilligan’s Island, though his long career included everything from Rancho Notorious to Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters, passed on at 89. The Professor was one of my strongest childhood role models, along with Mr. Peabody. They made me want to grow up to be an insufferable pedantic know-it-all.

Speaking of Mr. Peabody, check out this Topless Robot list, in which various contributors to the site say what they’re most looking forward to in nerd culture in the coming year. My entry is number 9.

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