Saturday, February 26, 2005

REVIEW: Man of The House

Yeah, I know. No one cares how this is, no one was waiting for this, a great deal of you had never even heard of it or, if you had, knew it was coming. I was planning on reviewing it, but it turned out to be the only new movie my schedule allowed me to see tonight, so more's the pity on the both of us, eh?

This is one of those bad comedies that probably lost any chance it had to be any good the moment someone decided "it can't not work!" Most likely that moment occured concurrently with the hiring of Tommy Lee Jones for the lead. Jones is one of those little showbiz marvels, the talented, utterly-unpretentious workmanlike character actor so adept at filling up (often) thinly-written supporting roles with charisma that they become "marquee-name" leading-men because their very presence makes audiences feel instantly comfortable and "connected" to their role.

Always a reliable actor well-liked in his industry, Jones went from character actor to unlikely leading man after his "holy crap!"-inducing turn as Sam Gerad in "The Fugitive." Since that film (and his subsequent Oscar win) Jones has been one of Hollywood's busiest older-stars, appearing in a spectacular number of major-release films giving performances that are always good, frequently great and consistently based on the same premise: That audiences instantly connect with his decidedly-unimpressed-with-himself/old-school tough-guy vibe and can instantly imagine how "good" a movie might be by placing that "vibe" in any given situation. "Tommy Lee Jones fighting aliens with Will Smith" ("Men in Black") sounded like fun, and it was. "Tommy Lee Jones versus an evil version of Rambo" ("The Hunted") sounded like a decent little actioner, and it was. And so on, and so forth.

In "Man of The House," Jones is playing a hardcase Texas Ranger Roland Sharp who's chasing down the mystery-asassin who killed a high-profile witness and wounded a fellow Ranger in the process. The only witness to the crime and, thus, the bad-guy's face, are five College football cheerleaders; so Sharp is assigned to move into the girls' sorority house, protect them from the at-large killer and wait it out while they try to pin down whodunnit. (Provided with the information, as we are, that the girls cannot pick the killer from a list of "every known criminal in the United States," will tell every member of the audience who's seen more than a few cop movies in their lives who the bad guy is much quicker than it takes for anyone in the movie to figure it out.)

So the idea here is "Tommy Lee Jones having to share a house with five dizzy girls," and let's not lie: It's a good idea. It sounds good. Jone's rough-hewn bluntness paired off against five yip-yapping young girls is immediately appealing, and we can imagine all the fun scenes that will organically grow out of it: It'll be funny to hear what he thinks of current pop music, his thoughts on their fashions, his reaction to encountering a bathroom full of feminine products, etc. It's understood that the opening and closing acts will contain a healthy amount of shoot-em-up action business while the "funny stuff" will occupy the length of the 2nd act. It's a given that Jones will impart some old-fashioned wisdom to the youthful girls, help them solve problems with experienced advice, etc., while they in turn will help him "loosen up," and everyone will learn something and grow as people just in time for the bad guy to show up and get foiled before everyone reconvenes for the one-big-happy-movie-family coda. In addition, there's the opportunity to stock the cheerleader roles with fresh young faces eager to use the role as a full-motion headshot for future work. Done well, or even passably-well, this could easily be a fine little no-brainer comedy.

Too bad it's not done well, or even passably well.

It seems obvious, almost from the get-go, that the "this HAS to be funny" nature of the project may have inspired either a bit of laziness, a bit of producer interferance or a combination of both in the production overall. It's just not very funny. The characters are sketched too broadly, even for a film like this, and it just does not work. Jones is as good as ever, and all the girls' aquit themselves well enough, but there's just not enough there to work with. Scenes and events that rely on a connection with the characters or an understanding of reaction falter because the connection and understanding simply aren't there. Jones' role, even moreso than usual is based entirely on the idea that "it's Tommy Lee Jones." The girls' roles are so thin that it almost feels like overkill when the film gives them names, as they're really only defined by their broad archetypes: as expected, we have Smart Girl, a Silly Girl, Hot-Tempered Latino, Edgy Bad-Girl and Largely Uninteresting African-American Leader Girl. ("Stoic Asian Martial-Arts Expert Girl," apparently, was not invited to attend on the grounds that the film was already being too nice to me by providing some lovely footage of Monica Keena in a sports bra.)

Monica who? Keena has yet become a suitably big-named starlet despite a genuine talent and, it must be said, a tremendous sex appeal, but you might know her as "that actress who looks like Brittany Murphy might look if she ate some food once in awhile." Take a look:
http://www.wallpaperbase.com/wallpapers/celebs/monicakeena/monica_keena_2.jpg

So yeah, it's not a total waste.

The director is Stephen Herek, a solid worker-bee filmmaker who started out in the late-80s with a pair of genuine classics- "Critters" (which he also co-wrote) in 1986 and "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" in 1989- before settling into a good niche as a maker of likable family fare like "The Mighty Ducks" and "Don't Tell Mom, The Babysitter's Dead." He also made the perpetually-underappreciated "Mr. Holland's Opus." So the guy can direct, and he doesn't so much do many things wrong with this material as he does "not do enough" (it would be too harsh to say "fails") to elevate it from a disposable collection of gags with barely enough laughs to fill it's own trailer into something slightly more likable. The film's biggest running joke, about Sharp's insistance that the girls avoid wearing revealing outfits, not only doesn't produce any great deal of laughs, it serves to make Sharp look creepily preoccupied with the subject. (It's also a little too smug of the film to point out how "Girls Gone Wild" the cheerleaders' early appearances are.)

There are brief glimpses of a better movie wanting to poke it's head through: One of the girls developing a crush on Sharp comes up and is quickly dropped, as is the quick rapport he develops with "Bad Girl." And yeah, the expected sequence in which Sharp undergoes a "makeover" is about as clever as you'd, well.. expect.

But in the end, this is pretty bad. Too few laughs in a film that's really designed to provide as many as possible. Not that it'll take much effort, but this is really worth skipping (unless choice #2 is "The Wedding Date," in which case... it's really worth examining what you're doing in a situation where those are your only two choices.)

FINAL RATING: 2/10