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Failure to Launch

Failure to Launch

Rated PG-13, 97 min. Directed by Tom Dey. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Sarah Jessica Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Bartha, Bradley Cooper, Terry Bradshaw, Kathy Bates.

REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., March 10, 2006

In naming their project, the filmmakers have tempted reviewers with a golden opportunity to unleash our cattiest puns (we love that), but this date movie is better than it has to be. The cast is quite good, although I regret to inform there’s a sight gag involving Bradshaw almost full frontal while feeding fish in a tank, and that’s inexcusable. Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember have backgrounds in television, and the script is sitcom patter (“Deceptions are poisonous! Like margarine!”) with relentless alternation of swoony moments and quirky moments (because he defies the natural order by living with his parents at age 35, McConaughey is bitten frequently by animals). The film is dude-friendly by design, and while this approach invites cynicism (McConaughey gets two dudely chums in Bartha and Cooper, and we frequently cut to them mountain biking or playing paintball – as if a scientific formula ensures a balance of appeal for both genders), it’s actually quite a good idea for a light comedy about love and family relationships to be located more deliberately in the world of men. The movie doesn’t make cruel sport of adult children living at home; the characters are shaded, and the consummately professional Bates, as McConaughey’s mother, has a lovely and graceful moment of acknowledging her fears about marriage after retirement. That the movie takes her seriously proves it has heart, but its heroine is from hell. Paula (Parker) meets cute with the impossibly named Tripp (McConaughey) in a furniture store, but really she’s a ringer hired by Tripp’s parents (Bates and Bradshaw) to persuade Tripp to move out of their house. (That’s the premise, and in the worst romantic-comedy tradition, we’re expected to swallow that logic instead of quite reasonably expecting the parents to address their son directly. But since the audience is ostensibly all on a date, surely we won’t notice.) It’s rather an ugly setup, but we’re supposed to like Paula because she’s a “professional interventionist” and has a positive “Initial Personality Assessment” of Tripp. In reality Paula is a kind of nightmare woman from within the deepest fear center of the dude brain: massive dating agenda, manufactured drama, mercenary stake, really into her hair, buys special shoes for boating. This is a woman who fakes a dog’s death in order to keep you in line. Ostensibly Parker has the comedic heft to make such a tightly wound train wreck into a likable romantic heroine (say what you will about her, but Meg Ryan could do it), but the movie doesn’t really show this to us. The movie shows us a lot of Parker’s hair and her cute outfits. There’s no spark in the romance because people in romantic comedies are simply not allowed to be people anymore: they’re hair and outfits inside a premise. For this we will not blame the actors, who are all committed to what the movie asks of them. But the movie doesn’t ask enough of them. That’s why Deschanel, as the token oddball of the gang, runs off with the movie. It’s light and portable.
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