Stan & Ollie is a wonderful portrayal of the friendship between the comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. This is not a standard biopic, eschewing the pair’s rise to worldwide fame and instead focusing on a grueling UK stage tour long after their peak. The whole endeavour relies upon the performances of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, filled with warmth and the weight of such a long-running partnership, as well as being brilliantly observed as the actors recreate a number of the duo’s classic acts. It would be easy to overplay the emotional moments between two performers who were, by their nature, larger than life — what makes the film so moving is knowing when understated subtlety is more effective.
Although this is ostensibly the first time I have watched Mean Girls, as a child of the Internet I have been exposed essentially to the entire movie in memefied form. Rooted firmly in the early 2000s, with a high school experience likely unreconisable to teens now — from three-way calls on landlines to the complete absence of social media — its satire of high school cliques and the elevation of shallow idiocy has aged surprisingly well. The best visual moments are Cady’s visions of her peers acting like prehistoric primates in a way that shows human adolescence in its truest form — chattering chimps, fearful and desperate to fit in. Meanwhile, the film’s continuing quotability comes from Tina Fey’s ear for teenage dialogue that is simultaneously ridiculous but believeable. What nearly undermines Mean Girls entirely is its denouement, which abandons comedy in favour of tritely traditional teen movie resolution through a handful of speeches. Tina Fey’s script wants us not only to empathise with, but to like these characters, despite minimal consequence or growth from the pain each has caused. That, like ‘fetch’, is not going to happen. Ironically it is this failure to treat her characters sufficiently meanly which almost torpedos Mean Girls in its final act, though it is not enough to undo all that precedes it.
“He never struck me as the kind of guy who’d go get small. Wow!”
Alexander Payne’s social satire takes a fascinating concept — shrinking part of the human population to reduce environmental impact — but fails to explore it in any real depth as he prefers to follow his usual brand of mid-life crisis tale against that tantalising backdrop. There is a biting cynicism toward a brand of faux-environmentalism in which people only engage when it offers other benefits to their lifestyle or economic situation. In “downsized” communities, minimal wealth earned outside translates to luxury living which is the real draw for most residents. Though peppered with interesting ideas, Downsizing‘s ultimate message seems to be that we ought to care for the people around us now rather than engaging in high-minded attempts to save the species. For that to be the only real take-away feels like a wasted opportunity.
“Because I’m not a Vanderbilt, suddenly I’m white trash? I grew up in Bel Air, Warner.”
Elle Woods is a spiritual sister of Clueless’ Cher — privileged and superficial but also genuine and caring. Reese Witherspoon carries the film, bringing Elle to life with bubbling charm, but she finds herself in a script that lacks the wit of Clueless and pulls punches in its own attempts at satire. Elle’s boyfriend is so smarmily awful from the moment we meet him that we never want her to win him back even as she follows him to Harvard. Selma Blair is underused as his new girlfriend, a vacillating foil to Elle in a relationship that is never satisfyingly developed. It briefly seems as if the film is setting up a fun revenge story, before it swerves again into courtroom drama. The issue is less the predictability of the plot than its failure to communicate anything: it wants us to sympathise with Elle because her intelligence is overlooked due to her appearance, yet her courtroom success is based on luck, stereotyping and her superficial knowledge rather than legal study. The film actually makes a far better case for the benefit of hiring from diverse backgrounds — which allows Elle to connect with a client and identify information that her colleagues cannot — but this makes the cast’s total lack of diversity intolerable. Witherspoon is effortlessly charming and it’s easy to understand why Legally Blonde is loved by many who find Elle’s success empowering; it is just unfortunate that the weak script undermines much of its own message beyond a useful warning: never underestimate your opponent.