Nicolas Cage wants his pig back

The reclusive Rob (Nicolas Cage) is forced to return to society after his truffle-hunting pig is kidnapped.

By Richard Ades

Rob leads a quiet life in rural Oregon sharing a cabin and hunting for truffles with his foraging pig. Then, one night, someone breaks in and steals the pig. What will happen next is anybody’s guess.

That’s partly because Pig, the debut feature by Michael Sarnoski, stars Nicolas Cage as grizzled recluse Rob. Repeatedly spoofed by SNL for appearing in over-the-top flicks in which everything’s on fire and “all the dialogue is either whispered or screamed,” Cage has the reputation of being an explosion waiting to happen.

Sarnoski uses that image, along with the setup of a typical revenge film, to keep viewers in a state of anticipation. What will the hulking Rob do when faced with someone who stands between him and his beloved sow?

As it turns out, he never does quite what we expect him to do. Neither does the film as a whole, which may disappoint fans of the star’s more outrageous outings but should please those with subtler tastes.   

The beginning scenes set up Rob’s key relationships. Settling down for the night after a day of truffle hunting, he starts to play a birthday greeting tape-recorded by his deceased lover, Laurie, but finds it too painful to hear. “I’m OK,” he insists when his concerned pig tries to comfort him.

But the most important relationship, as well as the most problematic, is between Rob and Amir (Alex Wolff), the Camaro-driving entrepreneur who drops by every Thursday to deliver those valuable truffles to high-class eateries in nearby Portland. Rob spurns Amir’s attempts to show concern for his well-being, but he brusquely demands the younger man’s help after his beloved pet is kidnapped. Together, they set off for the city, where Rob reveals unexpected knowledge of the restaurant scene and Amir reveals his prickly relationship with the industry’s ruthless kingpin, Darius (Adam Arkin).

Not everything in the script (co-written by Sarnoski and Vanessa Block) is logical or even believable. Particularly jarring—like a holdover from one of Cage’s tackier flicks—is a fight club of sorts that caters to disgruntled restaurant employees. More satisfying are the satirical barbs aimed at pretentious elements of West Coast culture. An enjoyable example is Rob’s interrogation of a chef (David Knell) who concocts trendy “deconstructed” fare but would rather be running his own English-style pub.

Through it all, Cage effectively plays against what’s become his type as the quietly resolute Rob, while Wolff keeps us equally off-balance with his portrayal of the hot-tempered but stubbornly loyal Amir. Their chemistry helps to sell a psychological study that builds slowly and imparts crucial life lessons along the way.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Pig (rated R) can be viewed at select theaters and will be available from VOD outlets beginning Aug. 3.

Schumer leaves her mark on raunchy rom-com

Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Universal Pictures)
Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Universal Pictures)

By Richard Ades

We knew Amy Schumer was funny. Likewise, SNL alum Bill Hader.

But who knew LeBron James could slam-dunk a joke almost as easily as he does a basketball? That’s just one of the revelations crammed into Trainwreck, a raunchy rom-com that’s awash in hilarious surprises.

Written by and starring Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids), Trainwreck is tailor-made for the current queen of provocative comedy. Schumer even plays a New Yorker named Amy who, like her stage persona, indulges in a life of bed-hopping abandon.

That is, she does until she meets Aaron Conner (Hader), a sports physician who volunteers for Doctors Without Borders when he’s not keeping James and other athletes in competition-worthy shape. Assigned to interview Aaron for the aggressively hip magazine that employs her, Amy soon finds herself questioning the prejudice against monogamy that she learned from her cynical father (Colin Quinn).

Incidentally, the scene in which Dad imparts that advice to an adolescent Amy and her little sister is the first of the flick’s hilarious surprises. But since comedy is always better when it catches you unawares, I’ll say nothing more about that moment except to advise you to get to the theater on time.

Throughout the movie, Schumer is a delight, whether Amy is having her way with a one-night stand or trying to convince Aaron she really does know something about sports. Schumer even handles the rare detours into pathos with aplomb. Maybe she’s not quite as versatile as Bridesmaids star Kristen Wiig, but she’s no one-trick pony, either.

Even more surprising is screenwriter Schumer’s ability to make the most out of the film’s innumerable supporting players, including prominent sports figures.

Appearing as himself, James generates laughs whether he’s arguing over a check or talking up the hometown that welcomed him back after his sojourn in Miami. Fellow NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire also is effective, playing himself during one of his bouts with knee injuries.

Funniest of all is the WWE’s John Cena, who plays the pre-Aaron Amy’s closest thing to a steady guy. A particularly funny bedroom scene even finds a way to utilize Cena’s fluency in Mandarin Chinese.

Non-sports-related players include familiar Saturday Night Live faces such as alum Quinn and current cast member Vanessa Bayer. Also prominent are Tilda Swinton as Amy’s blithely nasty boss and Brie Larson as her happily married sister.

Is there anything wrong with Trainwreck? Well, some of the transitions seem a bit abrupt, if you want to be picky. I also could have done without the “homage” to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Not only does it remind us of an even better film (never a good idea), but it includes a humorless dig at Allen himself.

A more welcome detour consists of scenes from a fictitious avant-garde movie about a dog walker played by Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe. Trainwreck is so full of such throwaway moments that it’s one of the few flicks that would benefit from a second viewing, just so you can catch the subtle jokes you missed the first time.

In recent weeks, Schumer has been criticized for making supposedly misguided jokes about racial and ethnic matters. After initially explaining that the comments were made in the guise of the clueless chick she used to play in standup routines, she vowed to do better.

Let’s hope Schumer doesn’t censor herself too much. Her first big-screen vehicle demonstrates that we’re all the winners when Amy is free to be Amy.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Trainwreck, rated R, opens Friday (July 16) at theaters nationwide.

If only the script were as profound as the photography

 

Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte play a father and son who hit the road in Nebraska
Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte play a father and son who hit the road in Nebraska

By Richard Ades

Director Alexander Payne fills Nebraska with black-and-white images of desolate landscapes and all-but-deserted small towns. Above them, the skies appear bleak, even on the rare occasions when the sun is shining.

The photography is beautiful and evocative, but it’s a mixed blessing. It can’t help reminding film buffs of that devastating portrait of small-town America, 1971’s The Last Picture Show. And Nebraska is hardly The Last Picture Show.

Payne’s very name is another mixed blessing, as it leads us to expect more than we get. He’s the director behind such memorable films as The Descendants and (my personal favorite) Sideways. And Nebraska falls well short of both of these predecessors.

Indeed, it’s a tale that fails to live up to either its photography or its potential.

Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a semi-senile old man who thinks he’s won $1 million and is determined to journey from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to collect it. Since he has long since lost his driver’s license, he’s willing to walk there if necessary.

SNL alum Will Forte plays David, one of Woody’s two sons, who tries to explain to him that the “prize” is merely a gimmick to sell magazines. He finally agrees to drive his dad to Lincoln, if only because there seems to be no other way to convince him. Besides, David’s girlfriend has finally tired of their stagnant relationship and moved out, leaving him eager to get away from his suddenly lonely apartment.

Will Woody and David arrive at a better understanding of each other during the long road trip? Will they come to terms with Woody’s lifelong addiction to alcohol and the problems it created for his wife and sons? One expects such issues to be addressed, and to some extent they are, but not nearly as effectively as they might have been. One explanation is that director Payne has uncharacteristically relegated screenwriting chores to someone else—namely TV veteran Bob Nelson.

What are the script’s shortcomings? For starters, it’s not clear that the Grants’ dysfunctional household was all that destructive. Yes, David seems to be drifting a bit, but his brother (Bob Odenkirk) has a family and a modestly promising career as a TV newsman.

The real hindrance to profundity, though, is the script’s devotion to superficial humor and characterizations. Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), is the main culprit, as she quickly turns into a shrewish caricature who doles out malicious insults and TMI revelations with equal abandon.

Later, after Woody and David stop to visit relatives in their Nebraska hometown, male communication is depicted as a ritual revolving around two subjects: cars and sports. A few humorous moments ensue, particularly when David’s cousins (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) razz him about his conservative driving habits, but this is hardly groundbreaking material.

Perhaps the ultimate barrier to meaningful character development is the fact that Woody is so far gone. The former mechanic shuffles around in an age- and alcohol-fueled stupor, seldom giving any indication that he understands what’s going on. Dern’s portrayal is physically convincing and may give the 77-year-old actor a shot at winning a major award (he’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe), but the character has almost zero depth.

As for Forte, he handles the pivotal role of David well, particularly considering his background is in comedy. Also making a good impression is Stacy Keach as a family “friend” with a mean streak and a long-held grudge.

Haunting photography, good acting: Nebraska has most of the makings of a great Alexander Payne film. All it lacks is a great Alexander Payne script.

Nebraska opens today (Dec. 13) at Columbus’s AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)