Monday, October 8, 2012

Speedy: Hit and Run and Premium Rush

Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard star in Hit and Run

At the end of August, while critics and buffs were bemoaning the arid movie summer, two blithely enjoyable entertainments, Hit and Run and Premium Rush, opened more or less unnoticed and died a quick death at the box office. Hit and Run, written by Dax Shepard and directed by Shepard and David Palmer, pays tribute to Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, The Sugarland Express, though it’s more closely linked to now-forgotten off-the-beam seventies road pictures like Slither and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. Like them it’s a whacked-out charmer. (It also reminded me in some ways of the terrific Elmore Leonard adaptation Killshot from 2008, which opened almost nowhere, though the tone of Hit and Run is much lighter.) Kristen Bell is Annie Bean, who lives in a dusty northern-California town with her boy friend Charlie (played by Shepard, who is also Bell’s main squeeze off screen). She teaches Intro to Sociology courses at a local college, but her chair, Debbie (Kristin Chenoweth), lands her an interview at an L.A. university for a job opening her own department in conflict resolution, which is what her doctorate is actually in. The job, if she wins it, would be a coup, since she designed her own discipline and so when she went on the market there were no teaching jobs in the country that might have allowed her to teach in her area of specialization. Despite Debbie’s insistence – she doesn’t want to Annie to end up like her, in a dead-end job, kept afloat on tranquilizers – Annie is reluctant to make the move because Charlie, who hails from L.A., is in witness protection after testifying against a pair of bank robbers. Still, Charlie insists that she go down for the interview; he even says he’ll drive her himself, despite the danger. When Annie’s ex, Gil (Michael Rosenbaum, the Lex Luthor of TV’s Smallville), finds out he goes into hyperprotective mode: he’s sure that Charlie’s situation hides a shady past and he’s under the delusion that he can get Annie back. So he gets his cop brother, Terry (Jess Rowland), to do some checking, finds out Charlie’s real name, and lets the men he testified against know where he is. Gil’s a jerk and an idiot, but he turns out to be right about one thing: unbeknownst to Annie, Charlie’s no innocent. The men he testified against were his partners; he drove the getaway car. And the only reason they aren’t in prison is that the brains behind the gang, Neve (Joy Bryant), was Charlie’s girl at the time – he turned state’s evidence in exchange for her release – which, as it turned out, rendered his testimony untrustworthy. Now she’s dating Alex (Bradley Cooper), the violent loony bird Gil gets in contact with in an effort to eliminate the man he still thinks of as his rival for Annie’s affections. He figures that once Alex disables Charlie, he can step in and drive Annie to L.A. himself, proving how indispensable he is.

Michael Rosenbaum and Dax Shepard in Hit and Run
Shepard’s script contains only a few minor plot glitches: Gil finds out about Annie’s plans when she appears at his house in search of some papers she left there when she moved out, including the teaching certificate she’s required to present at her interview. But since Annie moved out a year ago, it’s unlikely that anything of value of hers remains at Gil’s house, and since Charlie’s connection with WITSEC is clandestine, would she really have told her ex-boy friend about it, of all people? (Also, though as a college professor I got a kick out of Shepard’s dig at academic specialization, no one shows up with a teaching certificate for a university job interview, since a doctorate is a de facto teaching certificate.) But the writing is hilarious and sometimes inspired – Annie can’t help slipping into conflict-resolution jargon, and her exasperation when people around her resort to stereotyping leads to some nifty, borderline-absurdist interchanges, especially when she’s in the company of a bunch of bank robbers. The opposites-match romantic pairing of Annie and Charlie is the movie’s best idea, both in terms of the way her background and political correctness play against his less sophisticated notions and as a method of throwing into relief the surprising fact that they’re actually a lovely match. The filmmakers make sure that we see they are in the opening scene, when, after their playful lovemaking, he provides her with an affirmation to start off her day. (She’s convinced that Debbie has called her in for a meeting in order to fire her.) Shepard is a loose, affable clown, sort of like a young Red Skelton without the frantic quality, and he and Bell – whose skills don’t need to be sold to anyone who saw her as the titular teenage detective on the ace TV show Veronica Mars – play together marvelously.

The whole tip-top cast seems to be having a ball embodying Shepard’s nutty characters. Cooper, who can be an overly intense pain in movie comedies, is a revelation as the dreadlocked Alex, who, in his first scene, picks a fight with a black body builder (John Duff) because he doesn’t like the way he feeds his dog. (This is Shepard’s ingenious way of introducing Alex’s psychotic nature, and the sequence has a good punch line: after he takes care of the body builder, he makes off with the dog.) The film sketches in other enjoyable characters, too, like Randy (an uproarious Tom Arnold), Charlie’s WITSEC liaison, a well-intentioned klutz who shouldn’t really be handling a firearm or even a car; and Terry’s partner, Angella (Carly Hatter), who knows he’s a lonely gay man and so suggests that he make a connection with Randy when he pulls him over for reckless driving. (She’s in the police vehicle while Terry goes out to confront Randy and the gay app on his Smart Phone goes off.) Beau Bridges shows up – always a good idea – as Charlie’s dad, whom he hasn’t had the nerve to talk to since his arrest. Jason Bateman and Sean Hayes pop up too, in cameos, and though I couldn’t locate him in the credits I liked the actor who plays the garage mechanic who interrogates Charlie about the vintage car he’s driving. The movie’s irresistibly loopy and sweet-natured, and it contains some of the funniest wild-card car chases I’ve ever seen – they’re like drag races.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in Premium Rush

Premium Rush isn’t exactly a road comedy like Hit and Run, though it’s in constant motion, with chase scenes that are feats of mathematical wizardry. (The crack editors are Derek Ambrosi and Jill Savitt.) It’s a hard-boiled comedy set within the community of Manhattan bike messengers – “premium rush” is courier lingo for “extra speedy” – and it’s a rare example of a genre that is seldom invoked these days, the New York movie. David Koepp directed it, from a script that he wrote with John Kapps, who collaborated with him on his last movie, Ghost Town. I thought Ghost Town, which starred Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni, was one of the few first-rate romantic comedies of the last decade (it came out in 2008), but it didn’t get an audience, and it’s disappointing to see Koepp and Kapps come up empty-handed once again when they keep doing such elegant work. It isn’t the dialogue that shines here, as in Hit and Run, but the plotting and the intricate flashback-within-flashback structure. I don’t want to give away any surprises, so I’ll offer only the bare bones. Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – as in Coyote -- is a former law student who decided he wasn’t cut out for the life of a suit; he’s a legend among messengers and he’s in love with speed. He and his girl friend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez, from Entourage) work for the same company; so does a smooth operator named Manny (Wolé Parks), who wants to move in on Vanessa and thinks he can now that she’s pissed at Wilee for missing her college graduation.  The plot heats up when her roommate, Nima (Jamie Chung), who works at the law school Wilee used to attend, dispatches him with a letter that she’s desperate to have delivered by seven p.m. that evening. The obstacle is a crooked cop named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) who, for reasons of his own, wants to waylay the delivery.

The movie’s themes are speed and time, and those are also the means Koepp and Kapps rely on to convey them. The other element is a series of superimposed aids like the visuals you’d see in a video game or on a GPS screen indicating the routes Wilee chooses as he be-bops his way through the city, sometimes anticipating the consequences of several possible routes – as Nicolas Cage does in Next, the movie in which he plays a Las Vegas magician who can see a few moments into the future. Wilee isn’t prescient, just astonishingly deft – and a radical speed freak who seems to get smarter the higher he notches up the risk factor. The fantastically talented Gordon-Levitt, who did, in my estimation, the best work by an actor last year as the cancer-afflicted hero of 50/50, gives an almost purely physical performance as Wilee, though Koepp gives him a chance to settle down in one scene – a flashback to a bar where he and Vanessa are chatting before he wins the Bike Messenger of the Year award for the third year in a row – where we catch an alternative glimpse into his sexiness and confidence. It’s a witty, sporty piece of acting, different from anything else he’s done, though in truth he seems to have made it a conviction never to repeat himself. The ensemble, which includes Aasif Mandvi as his supervisor, Henry O as a mysterious, soft-spoken Chinese named Mr. Leung, and Christopher Place as an aggravated bike cop who keeps getting his ass kicked by Wilee, is ideal. There’s one exception: that inveterate scenery chewer Michael Shannon as the villain.  Shannon doesn’t seem to know how to act without fixing his eye on another Academy Award nomination, even in a modest action picture that Academy voters aren’t going to see. He’s tiresome. The movie is the opposite of tiresome; it makes your pulse rate accelerate.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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