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Olympus Games

Plus a Tina Fey fizzle and the pervy, ugly Spring Breakers

Sometimes, no matter how many right notes an action movie hits — no matter how thoroughly, say, the White House is sacked; how comically the secretary of Defense is dragged down a hall while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance; or how satisfying it is to watch one ex-soldier and former Secret Service agent take down dozens of North Korean lunatics to save the president of the United States — it can still feel like the filmmakers just tore open a pouch labeled “blockbuster,” poured its powder into a bowl, and opened the microwave. Olympus Has Fallen is made from action-movie mix. Just add sweat.

The music (horns, strings, swiftly beaten drums) is too much like what you hear in video-game home screens and military recruitment ads. The story, in which North Korean terrorists hold hostage the president (Aaron Eckhart) and some of his Cabinet, is political the way army fatigues on Rihanna are political. And the star (Gerard Butler) feels like the producers’ third or fourth backup, even though one of the producers is the star himself. Despite the professionalism put into downing American helicopters, arranging corpses on the White House lawn, and making sure every Beltway-disaster-movie cliché is checked off, all Olympus Has Fallen has going for it is that generic professionalism.

Butler plays Mike, a detective who used to guard the First Family until a terrible accident forced his pal, the president, to demote him. Mike sees his old buddies and gets wistful for his old job. When the North Koreans hatch their absurdly effective hostage plot, Mike gets armed to the teeth and prowls through the Oval Office and Lincoln Bedroom with the amusing seriousness of a Mattel toy starring in Platoon. The store-brand quality that courses through this movie also has to do with Butler’s being surrounded by Eckhart, Melissa Leo, Angela Bassett, Ashley Judd, Radha Mitchell, and Morgan Freeman without really ever giving them an occasion to rise to. Well, after about 85 minutes of sitting tied up next to Eckhart, it is Leo who gets to defiantly recite that Pledge of Allegiance.

But it’s hard to watch anything that so badly misuses its four leading women. Mitchell spends most of her time nursing it up at a nearby hospital in crisis mode. Like First Lady Judd, she’s here (however expendably) to remind us that when Mike and POTUS lock eyes and, eventually, arms, it’s just two dudes being in love … with, like, um, standing up to terrorism and saving America. But we also need the movie to throw us better, more original curveballs than casting a hot guy (Rick Yune) as the terrorist mastermind or finding new ways to cross off Beltway-disaster-movie cliché no. 1: making Freeman commander-in-chief. Yes, because Eckhart and the vice-president are holed up, Speaker of the House Freeman takes over and reminds you that, as ferocious and intense an actor as Eckhart is, nothing about him says “presidential.”

Antoine Fuqua ( Training Day, Shooter) directs with the dutiful anonymity of whoever made Iron Eagle II or Delta Force 3. Without the showman’s insanity of a Michael Bay, the flagrance of a Jerry Bruckheimer, the boundless cash of a Joel Silver, or the hawkish ideology of a Tom Clancy adaptation, you’re left with an accidental parody of what happens when crazies attack. You want gusto. You want evil. You want charisma. You get a lot of cardboard heroism and self-defensive machismo.

Butler is more than serviceable, even though his American accent is like water in a dirty glass. (All you can taste is the residue of whatever was in it before.) In one flavorless film after the next, he has always seemed like a cut-rate Russell Crowe or discount Mel Gibson — the fire in him is Duraflame. But this movie is a shrewd choice. I could hear the audience falling in love with him the night I saw it. With the old icons virtually obsolete, we might be ready for a newer, loosely younger indestructible paragon of pseudo-military awesomeness. This is why we’re coming back around to Dwayne Johnson, who’s more convincing at this kind of bravado. But in a pinch, Butler’s forced charisma will do.

Admission

Tina Fey’s starred in only four movies in the past 10 years — Mean Girls, Baby Mama, and Date Night were the first; the fourth, an aggravating romantic comedy called Admission, opens this weekend. And in each, you leave convinced that there’s a more damaged side of herself than even what she’s shown as Liz Lemon. On television, the emotional complexity you suspect her of having was insulated by farce. At the movies, there are too many opportunities for the camera and editing to catch her surprised by her vulnerability. When Alec Baldwin put her down on 30 Rock, Fey was able to bob on the currents of his loving bile. In the rare moments when Admission is at its best, the bile leaves a burn.

She plays Portia Nathan, a drably scrupulous Princeton admissions officer, who gets a call to visit an experimental school in New Hampshire run by an old Dartmouth classmate of hers named John (Paul Rudd). When the kids give her grief about the oppressive, corporate bogusness of the Ivy League system, she snaps back at them. But when her uptight, long-term, condescending, British professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen) leaves her for an undermining colleague, she slumps. The movie isn’t about the breakup. And even though I actually don’t know what Admission is about, there’s ache enough in Fey to wish she’d find material that allows her to explore it.

Karen Croner adapted the film from a 2009 novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. You can feel the script and director Paul Weitz trying to smooth a lot of activity into a single movie. But larded with a lot of physical comedy (cue Portia delivering a baby calf), it never, ever coheres. At work, Portia is vying to become the new dean of admission. She winds up in and out of the home of her estranged mom (Lily Tomlin), an ice queen, earth mother, and best-selling emasculator. John keeps pushing one of his students on her, an oddball and screwup named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), and after the first time, it’s uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the movie keeps pushing her in front of John.

Each of these developments proceeds in a tone that has nothing to do with the other. Very few of the actors bring anything out of anyone else. And, sexually, Fey and Rudd have nothing to offer. When their bodies touch, it feels scholarly, like watching a pencil trying to kiss a pen.

At the heart of the problem with this movie are matters of logic and cogency. As Jeremiah becomes a Princeton applicant, John tells Portia that the kid, who’s been adopted by a couple, is the son she gave up years ago at Dartmouth. How a woman as procedure-oriented as Portia would allow herself to get mixed up in a potential scandal doesn’t wash. Neither does the “you didn’t love me enough” melodrama with her mother. The character shuttlecocks from one implausible scenario to the next. In order for her sense of maternity to resonantly corrupt her professional integrity, we have to believe in the kid, and, as delightfully unusual as Wolff is as a screen presence, we don’t see enough of Jeremiah to care when she sticks her neck out for him. But Fey makes a case that the real romance here is entirely parental. If we’re aligned with Portia at all, it’s because the woman playing her is, too.

In movies, Fey hasn’t come close to reaching her flashpoint. The pratfalls and humiliations are getting in the way of what she could do with the maternal angst that she clearly drawn to. Between her old TV show and her movies, I think she’s been playing that mommy angst so long that it’s no longer funny to her. It’s real. Right now her comedy blunts the sharpness of whatever’s fostering that angst. If she dared to let the anesthesia wear off, what she might do with the pain could be seismic.

Franco

It’s always fair to hope that Harmony Korine’s movies — Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, Mister Lonely, Trash Humpers, the new Spring Breakers, which is spreading around the country like an STD — are on to something. You want to believe that there’s some perception behind his grimy, druggy vision for the movies, that his carnivalesque attraction to freaks and creeps and the shocking stuff he has them do makes him a kind of Diane Arbus, that he can sense truth in ugliness. Korine seems to be absorbing the same culture as the rest of us — watching the same television, listening to the same music, getting the same greasy fingers we all do from gossip glossies. But Korine’s movies are like a toxic reaction to it all, like he keeps missing the warning that says “Packed in a facility that also handles nuts.”

With his celebrity-impersonator romance Mister Lonely, the toxicity achieved sweetness. The low-definition pranksterism of Trash Humpers was like watching homemade horror. For about a 20-minute stretch, the definition in Spring Breakers is exhilaratingly high. Korine has swapped out the fuzz and grain and blur of his other movies for lasered digital crispness and microsecond montages. These are the minutes after which three college girls (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Korine’s wife, Rachel) have held up a diner to realize the spring break dreams of another friend — a dull Christian played by Selena Gomez. They arrive in St. Petersburg, Florida, fully bikinied, hungry for fun, and open to exploitation. But they’re not what brings Korine to the beaches and cheap motels. It’s the opportunity to marry jiggling flesh and hypnotically fruity color to the squealing, bleating pump of the music of Skrillex. What Korine does with the beer-soaked skin, face-devouring makeouts, and piles and piles of barely dressed people is intensify the college-party atmosphere in a way that feels simultaneously orgasmic and repulsive. The moral squalor is so thick you can practically smell the police investigation.

But in going for stylized personification, Korine loses the social principle. Diane Arbus warps into Nan Goldin. The degradation the girls face at the hands of horny young men is supposed to be tolerable because a couple of the girls seem to invite and instigate it (and perhaps because one of the girls is married to the director). You don’t sense that Korine has gone into any scene with an agenda for what he hopes to achieve a scene later. When the college foursome winds up in the care and the bed of a rapping, drug-dealing, cornrowed sleaze, played by James Franco, the movie seems to flee from what ideas it has in a hurry, like a plastic bottle speeding down a river. Everything Franco does here calls attention to itself if for no other reason than he’s the only person in front of the camera with any discernible skill. Hudgens and Gomez appear to be here for the credibility-boosting stunt work. But Gomez seems afraid for her life and Hudgens, who’s really going for it, can’t yet act to save hers. As a team, the quartet weaves into and out of embarrassment.

When the girls gang up on Franco and force him to give head to a gun, Spring Breakers scrambles the obviousness of the metaphor and turns strangely erotic. Still, as committed as Franco is to doing everything Korine asks of him, he instantly removes all the danger, menace, and atmosphere from the movie. His fame purifies the air. The risk is all on the women, and Korine appears to have no capacity to redeem them. All the better to shock you, I guess. But the movie is too calculated to shock. Korine just wants to be the danger he’s warning us about.

Filed Under: Movies, Spring Breakers

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris