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Schultz reviews: 'All My Life,' 'Half Brothers' and 'Happiest Season'

Schultz reviews: 'All My Life,' 'Half Brothers' and 'Happiest Season'

“All My Life”   Distributed by Universal Pictures, 91 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released December 04, 2020:

 

“All My Life,” the new movie from Universal Pictures now playing in area theaters, will inevitably draw comparisons with 1970’s “Love Story,” which has gone down in movie history as among the biggest, most profitable, and most shamelessly contrived tearjerkers of all time.  While “All My Life” doesn’t quite give “Love Story” a run for its money, the two pictures are without question cut from the same cloth.

 

The real difference is that “Love Story” was more concocted than written, and featured a formula rather than an actual narrative.  The acknowledged end result of “Love Story” was to make as much money as possible in as little time necessary, a feat which the movie achieved quite handily:  ”Love Story” remained at the top of both the box office and best-selling novel charts for months.

 

While we can’t look into the hearts and souls of the filmmakers behind “All My Life,” the picture appears to be more sincere in its motives, or at least less cynical.  Based on the real-life experiences of a young Toronto couple named Solomon Chau and Jennifer Carter, in “All My Life” a young man and woman meet and fall in love.  Together they face career challenges and personal difficulties, and prevail over adversity through their love for each other...until shortly before their planned storybook wedding, when one of them is diagnosed with cancer.

 

With their savings depleted by medical care and continuing employment made difficult because of the physical impairments of the illness, Jennifer and Sol at first decide to postpone the expense of their wedding...until their friends band together and persuade the young couple to proceed with the ceremony of their dreams, with a little help from donations through a #GoFundMe appeal.

 

Directed by Marc Meyers from a script from Todd Rosenberg, “All My Life” unfortunately employs just about every cliche, adage, and familiar situation you can think of from earlier movies in which young people face mortality, from 2009’s “Bright Star” to 1991’s “Dying Young” to 1971’s “Brian’s Song” and even “Camille” in 1936, which has roots all the way back to 1848.  Sol and Jennifer meet cute and somehow through their developing relationship to become even cuter--at night they actually conduct toothbrushing races together.

 

But despite a reported $25 million budget, the picture has an appearance that’s more than just economical.  The drama is mostly set-bound, and the dialogue recording often makes the viewer long for subtitles...although there’s an outside chance that the actors are deliberately sabotaging their lines to camouflage the abysmal writing, since enough howlers manage to get through to persuade the viewers the script was written by neither Shakespeare nor Sorkin.

 

The real problem with “All My Life” is its verisimilitude.  After Sol is diagnosed with a mortal illness, the actor appears more or less the same.  From his first scene to his last, by all appearances he’s in the pink, despite enduring both chemotherapy and radiation treatments throughout the second half of the film.  And that’s a problem, because in trivializing the effects of Sol’s illness, the filmmakers also patronize those people fighting the illness in real life--over 30,000 new cases per year, according to the CDC.

 

Almost as distracting as the verisimilitude is the picture’s lack of focus.  The audience can never discern the central drama of the film, since equal emphasis is placed on the characters’ romance, their careers, the illness, their friends, their wedding, and even their #GoFundMe account.  We can see the sadness and tragedy of the story overall--a number of scenes seem to aim for tears.  But we never actually learn which of the above topics the movie’s about.  For comparison, imagine emerging from a screening of “Star Wars” wondering if the movie was about people stuck in a trash compactor.

 

Still, despite the problems “All My Life” goes down fairly smoothly, thanks to the efforts of Harry Shum Jr. and Jessica Rothe as Sol and Jennifer.  Known mostly for the television series “Glee,” Shum remains mostly amiable and agreeable throughout his illness.  And Rothe has developed something of a cult following through her appearances in the “Happy Death Day” pictures as well as the moderately successful 2018 romance “Forever My Girl.”  As an actress, she lacks only one big movie to put her on Hollywood’s A-List.  Unfortunately, “All My Life” isn’t it.

 

Filmed in New Orleans, “All My Life” is rated PG-13 for brief adult language considerations.

“Half Brothers”  Distributed by Focus Features, 96 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released December 04, 2020:

 

On the eve of his marriage, a high-powered and affluent airline executive learns his absent and estranged father is dying, and travels from his Mexican homeland to Chicago to visit the ailing man and possibly resolve their emotional differences.  Instead, the long-missing dad sets his son off on a cross country odyssey to solve the mystery of his disappearance long ago.  Accompanying the son on his journey will be an addled American half-brother he never knew he had.

 

A scattershot, scatterbrained seriocomic misadventure, “Half Brothers” manages to register a notch or two below dozens of other mismatched companion movies of the past, thanks partly to irritating and unsympathetic central performances from Luis Gerardo Mendez and Connor Del Rio as the half-brothers.  And the picture’s serious and sometimes tragic subplot doesn’t juxtapose well with scenes of comic mayhem and confusion.

 

Directed by Luke Greenfield from a screenplay by Eduardo Cisneros and Jason Shuman, some viewers and critics discern in “Half Brothers” a metaphor for the state of diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States.  But after the first hour or so of slapstick, sight gags, and situational havoc, you likely won’t be interested.  Bugs Bunny did a lot of this stuff better fifty years ago.

 

Filmed in New Mexico locations and also featuring performances from Jose Zuniga, Vincent Spano, and Pia Watson, “Half Brothers” is rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language.

“Happiest Season”   Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, 102 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released November 25, 2020:

 

The notion of actress Kristen Stewart appearing in a Christmas-themed romantic comedy is not quite as unnatural as it might first seem.  Although known primarily for lurid drama in both her on- and off-screen incarnations, the actress displayed a nice comedic touch in 2019’s “Charlie’s Angels” reboot...although the picture was such a resounding failure at the box office that most people didn’t actually see it.

 

In “Happiest Season,” Stewart plays Abby Holland, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon living in an urban Pittsburgh home with her gay lover Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis).  While Abby has had little use for the holidays since the death of her parents, Harper revels in the yuletide celebration, traveling annually to her small rural hometown to celebrate Christmas with her parents and sisters.  

 

When Harper impulsively invites Abby to accompany her to her family home for the holidays, Abby sees the occasion as a perfect opportunity to propose marriage to her sweetheart.  But arriving in the hometown turns out to be the beginning of an array of problems.  Harper reveals to Abby that her family is still unaware she’s gay.  And shortly after arriving at her parents’ home, she begins to display a duplicitous side Abby never knew she had.

 

“Happiest Season” at first promises to become a sort of romantic comedy of errors, a new millennium-style updating of the old Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedies from the 1960s, with Stewart in the Doris Day role and Mackenzie Davis inhabiting Rock Hudson’s part, with “Schitt’s Creek” actor Dan Levy as Abby’s friend John inhabiting more or less the slot usually occupied by Tony Randall.  But at somewhere around the 40-minute point, the movie begins to morph into a drama worthy of Eugene O’Neill...or Ingmar Bergman.

 

If “Happiest Season” has a fault, it’s a sense of awkwardness.  Especially during the opening comedic segments, Stewart’s performance seems like what might occur if a royal monarch were invited to a subject’s home for a family celebration:  She seems to be spending so much time and effort trying to persuade others in the cast to relax that she really doesn’t have a chance to cut loose and have fun herself.  But that might actually be part of the picture’s charm, and as the comedy transitions into drama the actress seems more comfortable.

 

The picture’s strength:  Davis’ family is as engagingly--and infuriatingly--eccentric as anyone else’s, which is to say that its members are blissfully oblivious when they’re saying or doing anything outrageously offensive.  As awkward as any worlds-colliding situation, Mackenzie Davis’ family in “Happiest Season” might be relatable for nearly everyone in the audience--particularly Mary Steenburgen as her smilingly controlling mother, who seeks to give virtually every moment the illusion of being picture-perfect even when it really, really isn’t.

 

There’s a lot going on beyond Kristen Stewart’s slacker facade.  Once considered sort of Generation X’s ambassador to the world of mainstream motion picture acting, Stewart at age 30 is now well-beyond her “Twilight” years, and is resolutely transitioning into one of our most consistently original performers.  Stewart might be the only actress who can deliver the line “Yeah---yeah--yeah---yeah” and give each “yeah” a distinctly different meaning.  Her performance redeems a lot of the picture’s shortcomings.

 

“Happiest Season” is brightened and given depth by a talented supporting cast.  The movie’s warmest and funniest scenes are the phone conversations between Stewart and Levy, who’s minding the home back in Pittsburgh.  And Aubrey Plaza is maturing nicely from teen roles into a seasoned character actress.  As Riley, a high school casualty of Harper’s ardor, Plaza provides for Stewart’s Abby an island of security, understanding, and support.

 

Directed by Clea DuVall from a script by DuVall and Mary Holland, “Happiest Season” turns out to be an ironic title, since most of the characters are miserable.  In the end, it’s not the flawed and richly human character played by Kristen Stewart who’s out of place in Davis’ picture-perfect hometown world--it’s the other way around.  And despite an effort to regain the comic momentum during the third act, the ending seems contrived to deliver a warm and fuzzy denouement.  In real life, Stewart’s character might spend the rest of her life waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

Filmed in Pittsburgh prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, “Happiest Season” was originally scheduled for a wide theatrical release, but was instead delayed by the pandemic and eventually purchased by Hulu for online streaming in the United States.  The picture is rated PG-13 for adult language and references to sex.

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