The Visit

Grandparents are weird. They talk funny, they smell funny, they act funny. And those are your normal, run-of-the-mill grandparents!

In The Visit, Becca and Tyler (ages 15 and 13) take a train ride from Philly to rural Pennsylvania to spend a week with grandparents they’ve never met. Their single mom has been estranged from her parents for years, until they find their daughter online and ask to see the grandkids.

Why would a mother (Kathryn Hahn) allow such a thing? Well, the teens (played by Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) are bright and self-assured. And mom wants to go away on a cruise with her new guy.

The grandkids are delightfully chatty, always recording video. Many of the film’s key scenes include their “found footage.” They engage in Skype conversations with their mom while she cruises. Tyler’s white-kid raps are clever and hilarious.

The grandparents Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) seem like sweet people. They pick up the kids at the train station and bring them back to their farmhouse. Soon, weird things begin to happen. Frightening things. Funny things.

As nights and days go by, the grandparents are revealed to be a bit stranger than your grandparents or mine. The Visit establishes a solid level of creepiness. There’s a visual shout out to a horror/suspense classic. Suspense builds.

Two questions need answering: What the heck is going on? And… Is writer/director M. Night Shyamalan still capable of making an engaging movie?

Second question first. Shyamalan, who burst onto the movie scene with The Sixth Sense in 1999 and followed with Unbreakable in 2000, went into an artistic slump after 2002’s Signs. With The Visit, he shows that he maintains the ability to merge strong characters with a plot that keeps an audience engaged and wondering.

Regarding what the heck is going on… well, no spoilers here. But… A key element of a successful suspense thriller is a decent payoff to the setup. The Visit accomplishes that trick and delivers a fast-moving hour and a half of creepy fun. It’s a movie to enjoy.

Call your grandma and see if she’d like to go with you!

This Is Where I Leave You

 

This Is Where I Leave You tries hard but falls short. The film waffles between being a story about Judd’s (Jason Bateman) breakup with his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) and being an ensemble piece about a family whose father/husband has just died. It tries to be a comedy but is only partially successful. It tries to touch our emotions but is only partially successful.

The cast of TIWILY is impressive. The adult children of Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda) are Judd, Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stall) and Phillip (Adam Driver). Kathryn Hahn plays Paul’s wife Alice. Connie Britton is Phillip’s lover, Tracy. Wendy’s husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) gets very little face time.

The movie opens with Judd catching his wife cheating with his boss (Dax Shepard) who is an outrageous testosterone-fueled satellite radio host. This is where he leaves his wife. Soon after, dad leaves his family behind. So there’s your title.

When the siblings come home to bury their dad, mom tells them that his last wish was that the 4 of them spend a full week in the house. One might expect hilarity to ensue here, but the humor is weak and the film is not as funny as hoped for. TIWILY has its moments, but the overall chuckle factor is rather low on the scale.

Yes, there are those relatable family moments when long-buried memories and resentments resurface. There are those moments when perceptive family members figure out that another isn’t being completely honest. There are reconnections with the past, including Judd’s fling with Penny (Rose Byrne) who just happens to be working at the family’s sporting goods store.

Shawn Levy, who directed the Night At The Museum movies, Date Night and one of my kids’ favorites, Big Fat Liar, is director for TIWILY. He does a nice job of squeezing in numerous characters and plot points with only a handful of each getting shortchanged.

I keep comparing this film with 2005’s The Family Stone, which presented both the emotional moments and the funny stuff better. This Is Where I Leave You is not a “bad” film. If you’re a fan of Jason Bateman or Tina Fey, you’ll enjoy seeing them onscreen. But TIWILY is a middle-of-the-pack movie that, for me, inspires deep feelings of indifference.

 

Bad Words

Bad Words is one of those funny little movies that is definitely not for everyone. It has a ridiculous concept, an obnoxious lead character and a charming kid.

Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is a 40-year-old proofreader with an encyclopedic knowledge of words. He finds a loophole in the rules and enters a spelling bee in Columbus, Ohio, which he wins. He moves on to the national finals where the story picks up steam.

On the plane ride to LA, Guy meets and immediately disses a young boy of Indian descent (Rohan Chand) who ignores the putdowns and maintains his upbeat attitude.

Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) runs the spelling bee. She is just as upset at Guy’s participation as are the parents of the kids in the bee. Dr. Bowman (the 82-year-old Philip Baker Hall) is the emeritus leader of the bee. He co-hosts the national telecast of the finals with Pete Fowler (Ben Falcone).

Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) is Guy’s sponsor and occasional lover. She has an online news outlet for which she is covering him and his wacky mission. She works to discover his reasons for crashing this party to which he is not welcome.

Other than his talent for spelling, Guy has no obvious redeeming social values. He is an absolute dick. He is rude to everyone: the kids, their parents, Jenny, the hotel staff, etc.

Eventually Guy becomes a friend to the young boy with the perky spirit. He takes him out for a night of totally inappropriate debauchery. Is sabotage his ulterior motive?

Bad Words delivers a few big laughs and several chuckles. Guy’s bad behavior, especially the terrible things he says to people, is often shockingly impolite. An actor less likeable than Jason Bateman would offend greatly. Guy is a total jerk but because it’s Bateman in the role, audiences are more likely to cut him a break.

Bad Words is Bateman’s competent debut as a director. The script is by rookie Andrew Dodge.

Viewers who appreciate its outrageous story and its mean-spirited humor have already championed this film. There are critic blurbs galore. But Bad Words is a movie with a central character who is hard to embrace and cheer for. That, for me, makes this movie hard to like. See Bad Words at your own risk.