A funny thing happened at the movies: We saw an actual movie! Then another! And a third! The Boy and I love weird, arty, indie flicks, but it seemed like the Anglo-American movie machine had completely forgotten how to make just a regular movie: A story about normal people trying to get along on life, presented with various obstacles they have to overcome.
These are movies that we liked and could recommend, generally—presuming the specific subject matter isn’t off-putting to you.
So, today, let’s look at Somewhere In Queens, Blackberry and What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Somewhere In Queens is written, directed, produced and starring Ray Romano as Leo, the unimpressive son in a family of Italian American plumbers. (Insert Mario reference here, I suppose.) He’s a devoted husband to Angela (Laurie Metcalf), who basically lives in fear of the cancer she beat five years ago coming back.
But the story centers around Sticks, his awkward, super-shy son. Apparently, while his brother and dad sacrifice everything for the business, he put trying to help his son first, and he did this through basketball. His son gets up good enough that he’s spotted by a scout who arranges for a tryout (and a sweet but trampy girl who ends up his first love). The kid can possibly go to college instead of straight into plumbing.
Setting aside all the issues with college these days, this is a very traditional story of values and class clashes. Leo isn’t the brightest bulb and he goes too far in trying to protect his son, but you end up liking him. You kind of end up liking everyone, even Angela, whose character is challenging.
Interesting to note the story would still work almost unchanged if it had been a Jewish family. (This is why people think Joy Behar is Jewish. From a distance, all you get is “loudmouth New Yorkers”.) Point is, it does work and the main criticism people have it is that it isn’t particularly adventurous as a story.
Well, no, but if you’d asked me prior to this whether anyone in the current system could make this movie, I’d have said no. Romano is competent all around, obviously as the lead, but also the direction and writing. I’d go see another movie by him.
Blackberry! The exciting story of the nerds who invented the smartphone and the shark who made them successful.
Here’s another classic tale: A bunch of engineers invent an amazing thing and the business world is poised to screw them over. Enter the Shark. Glen Howerton plays Jim, who grabs the daydreaming engineers lead by Mike (Jay Baruchel) by the shorthairs and whips them into a productive team.
Howerton and Baruchel are terrific. Baruchel nails the sincere devotion to making things work that the best engineers display. Toward the end of the movie, he changes his hair style from a sloppy, careless, almost juvenile haircut to a slicked back look and we know he’s lost touch.
Howerton is tremendous, of course. He’s ambitious, unscrupulous, petty and egotistical — but he’s also the force that makes the whole thing happen. He threads that needle so well that when the FTC comes after him for some shady stuff he did to poach employees from other companies (to save the business), you’re really on his side.
Screw the FTC anyway. What’re they doing in Canada?
But like the engineer, you know he’s lost touch when he’s putting his acquisition of a hockey team over a critical business meeting.
I’m not much for nostalgia—in fact I loathe it—but I have to say the scenes of nerds playing a bunch of ’90s computer games over a LAN during the workday—references to Doom, Duke Nukem, Civ II, Dune 2000), to say nothing of movie nights featuring Army of Darkness, etc., actually got me in the feels. Good times before tech became a monster.
Nice work from writer/director Matt Johnson, who also plays the uber-nerd-second-banana to Baruchel’s wishy-washy but ultimately more grounded character. The actual Jim Ballslie has apparently said he enjoys the movie, and even though it’s wildly inaccurate people should go and have a good time and not sweat it. (Totally not what Glen Howerton’s character would say.)
What’s Love Got To Do With It was perhaps the most surprising movie of the three. From the Bridget Jones people, it concerns Zoe (Lily James), a documentarian who is looking at arranged marriages. She grew up next door to a Pakistani boy, Kazim (Shazad Latif), who has decided at 32 to let his parents arrange a traditional marriage for him. She’s flabbergasted by this and we’re well set up for the two to get together—but the movie does a good job of convincing us this is impossible.
Kazim has a sister who married a non-Muslim, and she’s been excommunicated from the family. He’s determined not to do that and not having any luck finding a girl he likes (because he likes Zoe, obviously). Zoe is a mess. She’s a modern woman who tells her nieces classic fairytales about princesses who don’t need no man. She has terrible taste in men and is basically a loner, to the point where she literally lives on a ship.
But a funny thing happens on the way through this tale of a stronk, empowered wammen: the movie admits she’s a wreck.
It also doesn’t dismiss arranged marriages. And—this really took me aback—when Zoe goes to look at having her eggs freed, the director of the clinic tells her, in essence, “It’s expensive, it’s painful, and it has a 1% chance of working, why are you so dumb as to believe all these tabloid stories about 50+ year old new moms?” I did not see those little hate facts coming.
In one of the more telling scenes, she discovers that her brother-in-law is cheating on her sister, and as a palliative to the overall miserable week she’s having she has a one night stand. (Apparently her go-to for bad weeks.) Of course, the next morning not only does she feel like crap, he’s on the phone with his wife. So she realizes her own behavior facilitates the very behavior she despises.
I mean, wow. The whole thing kind of impressed me with how it adhered to these specific characters making these specific choices with these specific consequences and stayed so strongly away from “We have to say this because we need women to believe they’ll be happier if they act like crappy men.”
The setup is that the producers of Zoe’s documentary turn down her first pitches because they’re looking for something light and they can’t think of a funny angle on honor killings. That’s how she ends up doing the arranged marriage thing. The producer guys are so smarmy, so spot-on trying to be the perfectly PC who-can-we-get-funding-from? spineless, artless, gormless and yet utterly self-confident, they were my favorite characters. When the film is done and everybody in her life hates Zoe for having made it, they call her up on the phone and say something like “love the movie, brown stories, brown struggles…but white lens.” And they cancel it.
It felt so perfect, so utterly true-to-life. So, hey, maybe we’re all sick of this garbage. Then again, the movie was shot in 2021 and underwent some serious changes, so maybe there’s something going on there.
It wraps up perhaps a little too neatly, but I’m not complaining. It’s a romance, and it needs to tie things up, and there are actually only certain ways the genre is allowed to wrap-up. That’s fine.
James and Latif have good chemistry and apparently are longtime friends in real life. Emma Thompson is pitch-perfect as Zoe’s mother in a role written for her because the screenwriter always wanted Emma Thompson to be her mother.
To say that we were startled by three movies in a row that seemed to seek nothing other than to tell specific stories of specific characters is underselling our shock. Now, none of these films are burning up the box office. What’s Love Got To Do With It? broke $2 million (unlike the other two) but it’s unlikely to break $10M. And they all got excellent reviews and wide openings.
Interestingly, all three are listed as comedies. Comedy/Drama for the first two, and Romantic-Comedy for WLGTDWI? None of them are comedies. Someone, probably a marketing guy, decided somewhere along the line that if anyone cracks a joke in a movie, it’s a comedy. Queens has a sitcom-y foundation, full of wacky misunderstanding and plans gone awry, but it’s really very serious. Just because vulgar Italian-Americans having dinner is kind of funny does not make this a comedy. BlackBerry is clever and dark and you’ll get some laughs out of its wry presentation of the business world, but whatever the intentions of the filmmakers were, it’s not really a black comedy. It is by far the funniest of the three, though.
WLGTDWI? is reminiscent of Bridge Jones, understandably, but the character even more neurotic, or at least her neuroses are treated more seriously. This is not a romantic-comedy. The characters in a traditional romcom or even a genre romance, for that matter, can’t go around diddling other people. This is a drama about people in a modern, promiscuous world, and quite frankly, the damage that that promiscuity does, to say nothing of the betrayal the characters feel from absorbing the cultural narrative about love and sex. The characters are charming and human and there are many fun moments but no way in hell is this a romantic-comedy, much less a comedy-comedy.
Still, it’s strange to have three movies released so close together you don’t have to footnote with “Well, how do you feel about tons of feces?” or “It’s terrific, but it portrays the universe as utterly devoid of any kind of divine presence, which you may find soul-crushing,” or even just “Dildos play a prominent role.” (And since I’m way behind and haven’t written the reviews for the first two yet, I’m referring to Triangle of Sadness and The Banshees of Inisherin, respectively.
It all felt very…normal. Which feels weird in 2023.