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Schultz reviews: "Just Getting Started" and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Schultz reviews: "Just Getting Started" and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

By Carl Schultz

 

“Just Getting Started” Distributed by Broad Green Pictures, 91 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Dec. 8:

At first glance, it seems as if “Just Getting Started” is going to resemble one of the old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby collaborations from decades ago: two footloose con men ambling along in search of a life of ease, avoiding responsibility and matrimonial entanglements by relying largely on their wits and their engaging personalities.

But before you start getting excited by a sense of nostalgia, you might want to remember that the Hope and Crosby comedies coasted along on the most threadbare of plots, leaning instead on the rapport between the two stars and their often unscripted and improvised dialogue, which mostly consisted of in-jokes and references to each other’s entertainment personas.

And that’s one of the many problems of “Just Getting Started.” Unlike Hope and Crosby, stars Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones have absolutely no chemistry in their scenes together. While the dialogue in the picture might seem spontaneous and unscripted, it’s not; it just isn’t funny. And as anyone knows who’s seen either Jones or Freeman appearing on a television talk show, without a script in his hands neither actor has a great deal of personality to contribute to the party.

“Just Getting Started” has no discernible plot. There’s barely even a pulse. As a result, the picture after a while begins to resemble one long and pointless comedy sketch rejected by some obscure television variety show from the 1970s. Worse, Freeman and Jones often mutter and mumble their lines inaudibly, under their breath, as if they’re embarrassed.

They have reason to be. Writer and director Ron Shelton has created for the two aging stars a script, which meanders all over the screen. The story seems to travel in one direction for a few minutes, then wanders off in another direction, and then repeats the pattern again and again until we don’t really know what the picture’s about. Is it a mob comedy? A satire?

Rene Russo, cast in the role Dorothy Lamour would’ve played in a Hope and Crosby comedy, at least gives the movie her best effort, in marked contrast to Jones and Freeman. Russo seems to be pointedly enunciating her lines, but in the process she also unfortunately removes every dramatic nuance or hint of intentional humor. And Jane Seymour in a guest-star role literally phones in her performance. She has no scenes with any of the other actors, appearing almost unrecognized in elaborate wigs and slinky metallic outfits, shrieking with a "Noo Yawk" accent into a gold telephone.

Dumped into 2,146 theaters nationwide, “Just Getting Started” has earned a 9 percent approval rating from the critics on the Rotten Tomatoes website, and a score of 25 out of 100 on Metacritic, signaling generally unfavorable reviews. The more charitable audiences polled by CinemaScore assign the picture a C grade.

"Just Getting Started" is a mess. Skip this one entirely, and save your money to buy extra Christmas gifts.

 

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, 115 Minutes, Rated R, Released Nov. 10:

The critics are practically falling all over themselves in their efforts to find new ways to praise “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.” But it’s not the kind of praise somebody uses when they enjoy a picture, or are entertained by it.

Rather, the critics seem be heaping upon this movie the kind of praise you’d give to a complete stranger if he made an unflattering but surprisingly accurate observation about you in the presence of your friends; either you compliment him on his comprehension, or risk looking like a fool.

In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” when after seven months no arrest is made for the rape and murder of her teenaged daughter, a grieving mother rents three deserted billboards on the outskirts of town and displays on them messages designed to provoke the local police chief into placing a priority on her daughter’s case, and renewing his efforts to locate and arrest her killer.

Written, produced and directed by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of the critically-acclaimed “In Bruges” in 2008 and “Seven Psychopaths” in 2012, “Three Billboards” is being described as a black comedy. But more accurately, the picture is a tragedy, which occasionally incites a sort of ironic humor. What laughter comes from the picture is rueful, self-conscious and sometimes even nervous — chuckles with a question mark at the end.

The billboards are at first tolerated by the grieving mother’s sympathetic neighbors, then openly criticized. Finally, the community begins to ostracize the woman. And after her billboards fail to achieve the desired result, she escalates her campaign to provoke the police into action, with methods, which include assault, vigilantism and eventually even domestic terrorism.

At the center of “Three Billboards” is a riveting, virtuoso performance by Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the grieving mother. In intimately-adjusted levels, McDormand’s Mildred slowly loses her sense of rationality, and her ability to interact with society. Her difficulties and emotional agony are reflected in her eyes. As she grows more and more estranged from her neighbors, the light of reason begins to fade from her eyes, and the viewer senses she’s losing her sanity, and even her soul.

Along the way, the audience’s reaction is tested also. Like the townspeople of Ebbing, the viewer is at first sympathetic to the mother and patronizing of her eccentricities. But as we grow more uncomfortable with her actions, and before long are even horrified by them, we conversely become more sympathetic to the police chief, played with a sense of canny, homespun wisdom by the wonderfully-talented Woody Harrelson.

In case you haven’t noticed, Woody Harrelson has matured and developed into one of our most solid, dependable and inventive character actors. Harrelson’s presence in a picture all but guarantees its quality. Those viewers who doubt the actor’s ability to stray from his television persona are advised to look at Harrelson’s genuinely terrifying characterization in 2013’s “Out of the Furnace,” filmed in and around Pittsburgh. And in “Three Billboards,” Harrelson contributes a customarily thoughtful and multidimensional performance.

Martin McDonagh’s script and direction of “Three Billboards” makes it heartbreakingly plain for the viewer to observe how easy it is for a person to surrender to bitterness and despair. A flashback scene halfway through showing Mildred and her family interacting with love and warmth prior to the daughter’s murder becomes almost unbearable in its contrast to the bitter cynicism of the rest of the picture.

It’s during the flashback that we realize that part of Mildred’s mania, her growing outrageousness, and her motivation to maintain the billboards, is a hysterical need to shift the responsibility and blame for her daughter’s death away from herself. And it’s the growing affection we feel for the grieving mother, the police and the townspeople of Ebbing which contributes more than any other factor to the ultimately unsettling nature of the picture’s conclusion.

Already nominated for six Critics’ Choice Awards, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” is a great film: challenging and often difficult to watch. In seeing the residents of Ebbing, Missouri, we’re seeing ourselves through the eyes of outsiders: our strengths and weaknesses, our foibles and eccentricities, our reflexive and conditioned sense of justice. The success of the picture depends almost entirely upon the audience’s ability and willingness to recognize and acknowledge in ourselves the unflattering realities as well as the greatness.

It’s not easy to hold a mirror to ourselves and ask, “Is this how the world sees us?” Especially when the answer is, “Yes, it probably is.” 

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