A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: July, 2017

“Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel” (2009)


If, at this instant, the “man-child misadventures” genre was razed to the ground and the earth upon which it stood thoroughly salted, it wouldn’t be soon enough. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the conceit of immature goofballs coming to terms with responsibility, yet the abundance of lazily-written, poorly-concealed wish fulfillment fantasies tends to drown out those stories with actual concern for exploring this tension. 2009’s Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is but one in a swarm of comedies that reward their lead characters for having no arcs to speak of, masking the absence of personal growth with constant claims of, like, just trying to be funny, man. In its defense, this UK-born farce does strive to be something in the Bill & Ted mold, a light-hearted romp mining its humor from what comes to pass when a few pop culture-obsessed slackers are thrust into a situation way over their heads. But in making these guys alleged experts in the kind of pickle they’re in and proceeding to do jack-all about it over the course of the narrative, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel sets itself up for disappointment that springs up more consistently than good jokes or witty observations.

There are those among us who have occasional difficulty grasping with the duties of adulthood; Ray (Chris O’Dowd), on the other hand, can’t even handle working at a low-rent theme park. Along with his buds Pete (Dean Lennox Kelly) and Toby (Mark Wootton), he’s fine with griping about what might’ve been and waxing nerdy down at the pub. But what starts as an evening over a couple pints soon turns into an adventure beyond anything these gents could have ever imagined. Following the appearance of a woman (Anna Faris) who says she’s from the future, the trio finds that the bar bathroom has become the host of a “time leak.” Every time they leave it, they’re greeted with a different point during the night — and, sometimes, an apocalyptic vision of things to come. Initially freaked at their predicament, Ray and company quickly realize that they haven’t the luxury of sticking their heads in the sand until things get better. Pursued by both murderous monsters and evil “editors” that want them wiped from the history books, the gang discovers that the fate of existence itself is in their hands and that it’ll take all the geeky knowledge at their disposal to save it.

With its budget and scope equally restrained, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel has to rely on its laughs and its smarts to woo viewer interest. As most of the action takes place in or around the pub, director Gareth Carrivick and writer Jamie Mathieson (who penned a handful of “Doctor Who” episodes) tailor the story’s time-hopping elements to suit it. The flick has fun constructing scenarios in which versions of our protagonists from different periods must dodge one another in enclosed spaces, many of which come across as novel and elicit a well-earned smile. But such smirks gradually peter away, as the realization that these gags are all the film really has to its name and that it wholesale ignores a potential comedic gold mine sets in. Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel does next to nothing with the notion of its main characters being nerds who’ve spent countless drunken nights speculating how they’d handle the sort of far-fetched mess they end up stumbling into for real. Rarely are Ray, Toby, and Pete permitted to put their collective years spent absorbing sci-fi culture to good use, with this aspect reserved chiefly for pushing the target audience’s nostalgia buttons with some key references while our heroes blunder from scrape to scrape. One can make the excuse that the guys being useless in the face of real peril is part of the joke, but it’s a stretch, especially considering what scant variety the script wrings from its time angle, forgoing opportunity after opportunity to show off how clever it supposedly is.

Still, the right cast has been known to elevate the crummiest material, and to its credit, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel benefits from a wholly likable bunch. Having perfected his layabout act on TV’s “The IT Crowd,” O’Dowd carries a similar persona and sense of timing in the part of Ray, chalking up his fair share of chuckles (albeit without as much charisma). As for his socially-awkward chums, Kelly proves as ideal of a choice for the group’s designated cynic as Wootton is for its naïve dreamer, each actor’s natural charm doing what they can to help us weather the screenplay’s sorriest sections. For as all smiles as Faris remains through the ordeal, though, she’s almost totally wasted here, her roles in the plot relegated to those of exposition dump and Ray’s flimsily-established love interest. All in all, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel doesn’t utterly strip its players of their humanity, yet because we so often see them either whining up a storm or citing better movies in their dialogue, those moments that try to develop them end up feeling phony and trite. Cobbling together a silly escapade for the yuks is fine and everything, but narratives have to have some consequence to them, and be it in serving up characters who learn from their trials or creatively inserting them in and out of danger, this film falters far more than it needed to.

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is Diet Edgar Wright, substituting the savvy, soul, and genuine introspection his flicks possess in spades with rote storytelling and cheap nostalgia baiting. Though the production isn’t without merit, I hesitate to give it too much credit for the odd amusing one-liner or well-executed conceptual set piece, lest it come off in the same way the plot congratulates its protagonists merely for not completely sucking in the end. Clocking in at around eighty minutes, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel isn’t insufferable, but with its lazy attitude, chances of it endearing to us at any length are mighty slim.

(This review is part of a crossover with Sam Wampfler of the Cinema Bros podcast. Click here for Sam’s thoughts on the film I chose for him, Gray’s Anatomy.)

“The Love Parade” (1929)


Potent is the charge that arises when the cinema of generations past connects with modern audiences. Naturally, this all depends upon the film, but it’s always wild to see something speak to viewers so strongly even decades down the road. Certain themes, situations, and stories bridge the gap like nobody’s business, especially sex, a subject undergoing such constant societal exploration and evolution that one might assume its big-screen portrayals would age the least gracefully. Yet here we are, going on ninety years since 1929’s The Love Parade first marched into theaters, and its grasp on romance and its many complications has scarcely eased up. With the soundtrack’s propensity for fluff, it’s easy to imagine this picture getting lumped in with the slew of inconsequential musicals that cropped up during the talkie’s infancy. But the wit that The Love Parade comes to proudly place on display proves that it’s anything but a simple lark, even if its execution can be regrettably rocky at times.

Throughout the picturesque land of Sylvania, love is in the air. Marriage is all that seems to be on anybody’s mind, yet not in regards to themselves. As fair and fine as her reign has been, Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) remains single, with no man willing to concede authority by becoming her royal consort. While her advisers fret about how the absence of a husband makes Sylvania look on the world stage, Louise is peeved for entirely different reasons, until one potential suitor instantly captures her curiosity. Into her life schmoozes Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier), a military attaché who flirted up a scandal in Paris and happily accepts his queen’s marriage proposal. But it isn’t long before the lap of luxury’s charms begin to wear on the count, who learns too late that despite being royalty, he hasn’t any influence on affairs of state. The country jumps only on Louise’s command, and as he’s viewed as little more than another of her subjects, Alfred plots to assert his dominance wherever possible, be it in the public eye…or in the bedroom.

The Love Parade was among the first sound efforts from director Ernst Lubitsch, as skilled a purveyor of romantic fables as Hollywood ever saw during its Golden Age. Kicking off a trend he’d carry on in later years through the likes of Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner, his objective here is to create a sort of fairy tale for grown-ups, marrying fanciful storytelling elements with weightier thematic undertones. This film being so early an entry into the burgeoning musical genre, greater emphasis is put on developing song-and-dance spectacle, yet Lubitsch devises numerous means to help it stand out against its more rigid and primitive contemporaries. Outside of its tinkering with editing techniques and the inclusion of some wonderfully-staged physical comedy from co-stars Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth, The Love Parade‘s greatest asset is the wicked streak lurking just underneath its otherwise mushy façade. There’s a wink behind nearly everything this movie does, be it in the form of Chevalier’s fourth wall-breaking nods to the camera or the many examples of wry social satire at work. Lubitsch takes real delight in sticking it to the institutions on his list, with poking fun at the male ego’s fragility of particular interest, if not his top target. On more than a few occasions are the pretensions of masculinity yanked away, as when Louise’s blustering advisers are shown to be no better than a group of giggling gossips as they keep tabs on her first date with the count.

As the picture strives for equal opportunity amongst the sexes, it only makes sense that The Love Parade take the queen herself to task, as well. In doing so, though, more harm than good comes about, as Lubitsch fails to make as compelling of a case for Louise’s dressing-down as he does for Alfred’s. Seeing the serial ladies man get his just desserts is one thing, but after witnessing what little cruelty there is in the way Louise regards her new hubby, that the last act seems to wag its finger at her as strongly as it does is downright confusing. For a spot, it appears as if The Love Parade is more concerned with taking shots at the aristocracy’s most outdated customs, what with all the focus cast on royal red tape curtailing even the smallest shred of Alfred’s personal freedom. Unfortunately, the story exaggerates the size of Louise’s role in this (as well as in a hastily-cobbled subplot about Sylvania needing a loan), leaving the movie to wrap up with that most tired of suggestions: no matter how much power they yield, all women “really” want is a man to show them what’s what. This leaves a bitter taste that The Love Parade‘s charms can’t entirely wash out, though that doesn’t stop the otherwise sharp script and very appealing leads from giving it a go. MacDonald brings equal parts grace and fire to her character, transforming Louise into a kind ruler who can still cut through the baloney surrounding her on a constant basis. Though it’s a shame she’s not allowed to cut as loosely as her co-star is, her chemistry with Chevalier remains fittingly playful, with the latter’s rascally charisma consistent from scene to scene.

While lacking the same timeless quality as future Lubitsch productions, The Love Parade is fascinating to take in as a kind of first draft, one introducing both themes that would spring up in those later films and the manner in which he’d tackle them. Where other musicals of the era were skittish about how much their actors could move and what taboos could be tested, this movie goes with the flow, having its actors bound across the screen and trade in as much sentimentality as they do double entendre. Not all of its choices have withstood the test of time, but on the whole, The Love Parade still serves as a master class on the heights of naughtiness similar stories can reach while hanging the most innocent of smiles on their mugs.