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Will Ferrell uses lazy shock humor in Step Brothers; marriage problems in Brick Lane, The Last Mistress and Tuya's Marriage

Bad marriages and squabbling siblings in four new films 

click to enlarge Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly square off in Step Brother - PHOTO COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES

The essence of any good satire is its underpinning of truth. Last February, during a press junket in Chapel Hill, Will Ferrell took a few moments to forecast his then-upcoming film, Step Brothers, about two 40-year-old dolts still living at home with single parents who then get married, forcing the two man-children to become stepbrothers.

"It's different in that it's not based on broad, over-the-top characters. ... It's pretty grounded," said Ferrell. "[The film] is our little way of saying that there are certain people out there who have a kind of righteous indignation. We all know people who say, 'As soon as I get my welding degree, I'm going to get a job, but I'm NOT going to do that until I get my car fixed.' We all have characters who are like that in our lives, so that's what we're playing around with there."

Regrettably, Ferrell's otherwise cogent assessment of Step Brothers' underlying truth belies the woeful finished product. Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly) are exactly over-the-top characters who live in a state of such arrested development that they are utterly divorced from reality. The same goes for their long-suffering parents, Brennan's mom Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) and Dale's dad Bob (Richard Jenkins), who tolerate and even enable their emotionally retarded sons to an unhealthy degree.

But, why so serious? After all, this is not only a Ferrell vehicle, but also the latest biweekly Judd Apatow production. However, without a viable satirical element, all the film leaves us is the quality of its gags. Unfortunately, they do not rise above the level of a post-Weekend Update Saturday Night Live sketch. Brennan and Dale waste their (and our) time hurling invectives at each other, most of them comprising a cacophony of F-bombs and scatology that lack any creativity or originality. The "plot," using that term loosely, just sits there like a rickety edifice barely propping up Ferrell and Reilly's aimless ad-libbing.

A few scattershots, principally Reilly's, hit their mark: Dale praises Brennan's inexplicably lauded singing voice as "a combination of Fergie and Jesus"; during a job interview, Dale makes clear that he does not want any work that requires "sex with older women or bear traps"—"Those are my two bugaboos," Reilly deadpans. Otherwise, there's not a redeemable character in the entire dysfunctional mess, including Brennan's financially successful, douche bag of a younger brother, Derek (Adam Scott). Anytime there is the slightest lull in the action, someone tosses out some variation of "What the fuck?!"—even Steenburgen gets in on the act at one point.

This is Ferrell's second consecutive R-rated comedy, and, notwithstanding his memorable turn in Old School, he does not wear them well. The lax content restrictions allow Ferrell to choose lazy shock humor—e.g., rubbing his testicles on Dale's drum set (yes, you read that correctly)—instead of fashioning something more imaginative. We get a glimpse of the latter during the film's climax, when Ferrell channels Andrea Bocelli with a rendition of "Con te partiró." Throughout the rest of Step Brothers, you will just find yourself wondering when it's "time to say goodbye." —Neil Morris

Step Brothers opens Friday throughout the Triangle.


click to enlarge Bibi (Lana Rahman), Shahana (Naeema Begum), Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and Chanu (Satish Kaushik) in Brick Lane - PHOTO BY CHRIS RAPHAEL/ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Photo by Chris Raphael/ Sony Pictures Classics
  • Bibi (Lana Rahman), Shahana (Naeema Begum), Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and Chanu (Satish Kaushik) in Brick Lane

Where is home? The place you come from, or the place you live? Your family, your community, your dreams? A lonely married woman, living in a self-imposed purdah, isolated in her apartment, ponders just where she belongs in Brick Lane.

"What cannot be changed must be borne," an unhappy wife and mother tells her daughters, innocently romping in the paddy fields of Bangladesh. Soon, eldest daughter Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), will be married off to a much older man she has never seen. Named Chanu (Satish Kaushik), he's supposedly a success, living far away in London's paved jungles. He reveres the culture of the colonizers, who will never accept him as an equal.

As Nazneen suffers her daily humiliations, "home" becomes a paradise of memory—while she walks to the market, endures her marital duties and bends over a sewing machine to support her feckless husband. Her sewing piecework is delivered by Karim, a dishy radical Muslim firebrand, whose polite attentions ripen into something forbidden.

A British film directed by Sarah Gavron, Brick Lane turns a sympathetic eye on the continuing challenges faced by British Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. Beautifully imagined in the family's stiflingly claustrophobic flat, scenes are dappled by turmeric-colored shadows, and fractured imagves linger in mirrors, amidst shimmering sequins and behind veils. Although Nazneen yearns to find consanguinity between the childhoods of her bored, rebellious daughters and her own, her burden eases only when she begins, not merely to endure, but to live her own life.

Yet, in spite of the filmmakers' fine intentions, Nazneen's passions fail to ignite on screen, perhaps because the source material, Monica Ali's 2003 novel, is too introspective to be cinematic. Furthermore, the heroine's friendship with a more Westernized Bangladeshi woman depicted in the novel is shouldered aside to focus on romance. Unexpectedly, however, Nazneen's husband, so unsympathetic at the beginning, develops into an interestingly complex character, adding another layer to the meaning of home in this unsatisfying film. —Laura Boyes

Brick Lane opens Friday in select theaters.


click to enlarge Asia Argento and Fu'ad At Aattou as the forbidden lovers in The Last Mistress - PHOTO COURTESY OF IFC FILMS

For her adventurous movies about female sexuality, French filmmaker Catherine Breillat has long been a favorite of academic critical theorists and shock-seeking adolescent filmgoers. Her best-known efforts in this country are probably Fat Girl and Romance. (The latter film, anyway, was excruciatingly dull but for the matter-of-fact, explicit sex that enticed the ticket buyers.)

Like any French enfant terrible, Breillat has, with her latest, The Last Mistress, taken a crack at a period piece, the better to situate her work in the French canon of outrage. Indeed, there's a whole library of perdition that is available—from de Sade and Laclos to Celine and Genet. Breillat settles on Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's 1851 novel in which a handsome but penniless rake is permitted to marry a virginal and very rich young woman. The complication is that the rake, Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aattou), is quite attached to his lover of 10 years, the Spanish-Italian courtesan Vellini (Asia Argento), she of the dark flashing eyes, heaving bosom and whirlwinds of passion.

Aattou is a non-actor, and it shows. It appears that Breillat cast him for his full, Jolie-style lips and effeminate manner, but he's a dreadful bore—his speeches die on camera—and far too young to be the worldly, Rhett Butler-esque rake the script tells us he is. Argento is better, playing a role similar to her turn as Louis XVI's mistress in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette—that is, the sensuous, intelligent woman whose low station in life prevents her lover from marrying her. Aside from a few startling pictorial compositions, the story's best moments are with the young bride's nostalgic mother, Marquise de Flers (well played by the French journalist Claude Sarraute), who pines for the looser, less hypocritical standards of morality in her own 18th-century day. One wishes that the film had stayed with her rather then burn so much time with the dull self-infatuation of its young lovers.

Breillat has said of her film, "When struggling to survive, feeding a family and finding a room for shelter, there is no time for the leisure of romance. Not enough time to experience the pureness. Sentiment can only be expressed in a certain level of comfort where it is not tainted by the harsh realities of life." That's an astonishingly reactionary opinion from a self-styled radical. The Napoleon-era diplomat Talleyrand once said something similar, that only those who lived before the revolution know the sweetness of living. Well, we're long past the revolution, and long past caring about the tender sentiments of the idle rich. —David Fellerath

The Last Mistress opens Friday in select theaters.


click to enlarge Yu Nan as Tuya in Tuya's Marriage - PHOTO COURTESY OF MUSIC BOX FILMS

Tuya's Marriage is another entry in what could be called the cinema of distant places. Who are these people in Nepal, Mongolia, the Arctic and Kurdistan, who are producing such gripping, low-budget and indigenous tales as The Fast Runner, A Time for Drunken Horses, Postman in the Mountains, Mountain Patrol and now Tuya's Marriage? In the cinema of distant places, we have well-trained filmmakers venturing into their native hinterlands, casting stories often with local amateurs and bringing first-rate technical skills to stories that are both tied to the lands in which they're shot, and also possessing of universal appeal.

Quanan Wang's Tuya's Marriage can be seen as a modern-day companion piece to the recent Mongol—the wind-blown steppes we see are just as unforgiving as in the days of Genghis Khan (whose portrait is seen alongside Mao's in adornment of this film's interiors). And, like Mongol, Tuya's Marriage features an embattled but utterly indomitable lead character.

The title suggests that a young woman is to be married, but actually, we learn that Tuya (Chinese actress Yu Nan) is a mother of two in her 30s, with a disabled husband. Her life herding sheep is made more difficult by the lack of water on her property, which forces her to make dangerous, exhausting daily water runs on her dromedary.

Given the limited options, and Tuya's dwindling energy, her husband, exhibiting the unsentimental logic so essential for survival in that environment, suggests that she divorce him and get a new, physically fit husband to help her. Tuya agrees, but only on the condition that her new husband support her soon-to-be ex-husband. Surprisingly, the Mongolian steppes turn out to be a vibrant matchmaking territory and Tuya spends much of the film sorting through her potential suitors, and assessing which one is best able to abet the survival of her family.

The film's narrative takes turns through drama, romance, comedy and ethnography. Throughout, it remains surprising and engrossing—it would be unfair to reveal more, other than to say that the marriage of the title ultimately refers not to her potential remarriage, but her existing one. Otherwise, readers should discover this marvelous film for themselves. —David Fellerath

Tuya's marriage opens Friday in select theaters.

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