Sunday, September 01, 2013

Girl Most Likely & The Purge

Girl Most Likely (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini – USA) 103 minutes
The Purge (James DeMonaco – USA) 85 minutes

Two years on from Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig returns in a vaguely similar scenario. Wiig plays Imogene, a failed (or rather never-made-it) playwright who gets dumped by her boyfriend (Brian Petsos) and loses her magazine job on the same day. Having faked a suicide attempt to try to win him back, she is abandoned by her Manhattan society friends and forced into the care of her long-estranged mother (Annette Bening) back in the Jersey Shore town she grew up in. Living with permatanned slot-machine-addict Zelda is Imogene’s apparently autistic crab-obsessed brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), Zelda’s younger shadowy lover (a very funny Matt Dillon on auto-pilot), and a lodger (Darren Criss, from Glee) who performs in a Backstreet Boys tribute band in Atlantic City. Imogene has not so much moved locale as shifted from one TV show to another – Sex and the City in the morning, generic sitcom in the evening.

Imogene is determined to get back to Manhattan but finds obstacles in her way, not least being without a car or money. She also learns that, contrary to what Zelda always told her, her father did not die during an operation when she was a child but left the family in a mutually-agreed divorce. This gives her two goals to accomplish before the end of the film but it doesn’t really give Girl Most Likely any more direction. Wiig is excellent as ever, as are Dillon (who claims to be a CIA agent) and Bening, a revelation as a brash blue-collar mom, and there are some hilarious scenes, such as when Imogene, on a whim decides to steal a book from the local library and then when, after a traffic accident, she encounters a cop who turns out to be someone whose invitation to the prom she once spurned.

The promise though is quickly squandered in favour of a despairingly conservative cleaving to formula. The film offers up a crude dichotomy between the classy but cultured New York high life Imogene has enjoyed and the trashy provincialism of her home town. It is a Manicheanism that you know is going to get flipped on its head, allowing the film to both sneer and laud the New Jersey rubes. There is a similar liberty taken with Ralph, Imogene’s asocial brother; it’s a bit of a condescending cliché, at this stage, for comedy screenwriters to use people with mild disabilities for quirkiness, and it quickly becomes clear that Ralph’s main use for screenwriter Michelle Morgan is the human carapace he has built which will serve mechanically as a plot device later in the film. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who made a creditable adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, are as far from their documentary roots as possible here. It’s a shame, as you would not have to change much in Girl Most Likely to make it a good film, nor would you risk alienating its intended audience. As it stands though, it lacks the underlying toughness that made Bridesmaids one of the best comedies of recent years. A comic performer as able as Wiig deserves better.

Ten years in the future, after a calamitous second economic crash and social upheaval, the United States government, under the guidance of its ‘new founding fathers’, has got the situation under control. The main tool of social regulation is an annual event called ‘The Purge’ where one night, for twelve hours, all crime, including rape and murder, is legal. Of course, the main object of this state-sanctioned crimewave is the underclass, whose troublesome presence is weeded out by their better-armed and better-protected betters.

‘The Purge’ is staged as part hurricane to be leisurely ‘ridden out’, part Superbowl party; the film centres on one family, the Sandins who are staying in this year, celebrating father James (Ethan Hawke) topping his company’s sales figures. The product he sells is the very hi-tech home security system that he activates to protect the home for the evening. The family sit down to dinner, prepared by mother Mary (Lena Headey), who proudly declares there to be ‘no carbs’ in it; it’s a foreshadowing of the sterilised, unblemished society The Purge intends to facilitate. Unfortunately, the film’s social commentary, which itself carries an echo of JG Ballard’s Super-Cannes (in which the wealthy cadres of a gated business park are prescribed recreational violence as part of their therapy), is rarely so succinct. The radio and TV voiceovers labour the point of class-refracted violence being the fuel that feeds social ‘cohesion’ and when a group of ghoulish youngsters appear at the Sandins’ front door, looking for a working-class black passer-by whom James’ son has let in, their villainy is emphasised by their leader wearing a preppy school blazer.

But ultimately what sinks The Purge is the film’s formal and technical ineptitude. This is strange given DeMonaco wrote the screenplay to Jean-François Richet’s effective remake of Assault on Precinct 13 and the film is produced by the stable that made the Paranormal Activity films. This ought to provide fertile conditions for a house-under-siege film but the action is quickly smothered in a medley of wearisomely predictable sequences that are all resolved by deis ex machina that are so mechanical their clunking machinery can be heard a mile away. Likewise, too little is made, too late, of the possibility of settling of scores, of the likelihood that the purge might operate within social classes as well as across then. The Purge has an interesting premise but it rarely explores the manifold ramifications of its central idea and ideas, being too happy to settle for cheap thrills.