Who Let the Underdogs Out?


Swingers popularized ballroom dancing, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the adjectival use of money, but scribe-star Jon Favreau’s baby was also something of a cult phenomenon unto itself. Though brisk, clever, and not without genuine pathos, the movie was as myopically insular as its L.A. milieu, and for all the guys’ angsty talk and manic macking, they only wanted to be around each other—finally, retro-ironists of the ’90s had a Husbands to call their own. In Favreau’s directorial debut, Made, he goes one better and gets Peter Falk to play his boss.

Bobby (Favreau) is an aspiring boxer (replete with cauliflower ear), a mob lackey, and something of a professional baby-sitter. By day he works construction jobs alongside lazy, disruptive Ricky (Vince Vaughn), his trouble-prone best friend. At night, in a conflict of interest that soon proves problematic, he bodyguards his stripper girlfriend (Famke Janssen). After bruising one of her overeager lap-providers, Bobby is dispatched by crusty don Max (Falk, doing a fine William Hickey impression) to New York for a “delivery.” Honor-bound by the codes of brotherhood, Bobby brings useless Ricky along for the ride. (“He’s done a lot for me, when I was younger.”) The scenario is familiar: Favreau is the soft touch done wrong by his barely glimpsed woman, Vaughn the loutish yet charming opportunist; only the caretaker role has been switched.

After dropping Gothamites in L.A. for Swingers, Favreau turns the tables for a Fodor’s guide to NYC: The boys hit Spa, Luna, and Tavern on the Green in their pursuit of skittish gangster Ruiz (game Sean Combs, starting his publicity tour for The Saga Continues). The checklist of local color is evident, but the movie looks wan and murky; though Made is all combative talk, the pugilists tend to be stranded in medium shot with no opponents in sight. (Doug Liman, who both shot and directed Swingers, is missed; the cinematographer here, strangely enough, is Wong Kar-wai regular Christopher Doyle.) Handheld sprinting and swish-pans try to enliven the duo’s shenanigans: undermotivated fisticuffs, fun with the nutty controls on their limousine (the roof slides open!), Vaughn’s endless yapping. Not content to remake his first script as a fish-out-of-water mob comedy, Favreau then adds on a bathetic, altogether unforeshadowed coda involving an endangered child. The boys’-clubhouse rules of ethics and loyalty are duly reiterated, and the most memorable image in Made is also the most shameless: a crayon box spilled next to an overflowing ashtray.

Another sort of hand-me-down, Legally Blonde is a throwback to the ’80s assembly line of Animal House rip-offs, in which the wily underdog—cash-poor, socially uncouth, badly dressed, or otherwise disabled—triumphs over the Establishment, winning money and booty. But Robert Luketic’s stultifying comedy is very much of its moment if only for essentializing George W. Bush triumphalism in the form of a sorority chick. Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is a chirpy fashion-merchandising major at a SoCal state college who surmises the only way to win back her Senate-minded blueblood ex is to enroll with him at Harvard Law. With the aid of a Playboy Channel-worthy entrance video and ace LSAT score, the blithering idiot gets her wish. (Aren’t cases like this why Nicholas Lemann wrote The Big Test?)

Law school is a hard-knock life. The snotty Harvardites scoff at this diversity candidate’s pink-vinyl-and-boobies wardrobe, but no matter. The wealthy princess can memorize facts, smile big, and look into people’s eyes and see their souls—her Putin analogue is an aerobics mogul on trial for murdering her aged hubby (Elle can’t quite explain it to her peers, but she just knows she’s innocent). Smug yet clueless, Legally Blonde is a junk-food movie striving to be nutritious—it’s one of your racier Be Yourself after-school specials crossed with Who Moved My Cheese? for Cosmo girls. Witherspoon reaccessorizes her Election warrior with cleavage and a sweatered Chihuahua. Her law-school valedictory is hauntingly similar to Tracey Flick’s campaign speech, but this time it’s meant to inspire.

Opium was a means of inspiration as well as the ultimate downfall of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, though according to Pandaemonium, the only deadly snake lurking in his utopian garden was one William Wordsworth. Julien Temple’s dusky-toned biopic evades crass psychologizing but not cheesy head-movie tropes in trying to visualize Coleridge’s addled mental state; the exposition is thick, the characterization choppy, the wigs terrible. Flagrantly fictionalized, Pandaemonium leaps at every chance to demonize Mr. Prelude, and it proves a giddy dose of wish fulfillment for any erstwhile English majors who always preferred the quintessentially Romantic spectacle of Coleridge’s failed genius to Wordsworth’s cool, prolific professionalism.