Sunday, December 17, 2006

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Despite the massive worldwide popularity of the comic book genre, audiences tend to only see superhero films based around established characters. Sure, there are exceptions. Pixar's The Incredibles concocted not just a single original hero but an entire universe of costumed vigilantes. The Wachowski Brothers' Matrix films translate manga-style storytelling and a sci-fi comic book aesthetic into cinematic forms. But for every success, there are probably 10 failures, from Meteor Man to Mystery Men to this year's Tim Allen belly flop Zoom!

So even though it has a premise that's more clever than most high-concept summer comedies, and even though it has a solid cast and a few genuinely inspired touches, Ivan Reitman's My Super Ex-Girlfriend was essentially doomed from the start. It should be about 50-60% more funny than it is, granted, but I didn't actively dislike the film. I actually found it kind of charming in spots, and at the very least consistantly diverting. However, even I, a Hollywood outsider, could have predicted that this thing wasn't going to make any money.

Balanced precariously between superhero spoof and romantic comedy, My Super Ex-Girlfriend appears scientifically designed to appeal to no one. The pre-teens and professional nerds who would get excited about Uma Thurman playing a sexy superhero don't want to go see a comedy with Luke Wilson about relationships. (Really, the very notion of combining a geek movie with a movie about relationships is kind of cruel. You trying to make these dateless wonders feel inadequate?) Conversely, the couples looking for a good date movie aren't going to want to see juvenile, sketch-comedy-style shenanigans riffing on the comic books they most likely have not read. Coming out in the midst of a crowded summer movie season, Reitman's modest little genre mash-up didn't have a chance of finding an audience, even though it's the director's best film since 1993's Dave. (Not to damn the guy with faint praise or anything...)

Screenwriter Don Payne started off with a killer concept. Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson), an unlucky-in-love Manhattanite, asks out a mysterious brunette, Jenny Johnson (Thurman), on the subway, not realizing that she's the city's famed superhero, G-Girl.

For the first hour, the film is essentially a comic remake of Superman II. Matt and Jenny get to know one another even as she must keep her nightly hero work a secret. Jenny flirts with the idea of revealing her secret identity to the man in her life while her arch-nemesis, Professor Bedlam (Eddie Izzard), plots to steal her powers by using a magnetic space rock. Once Matt breaks up with the controlling and neurotic Jenny, she loses her mind and begins using her powers to torment him, providing him with no alternative but to collaborate with Bedlam on his latest diabolical scheme, to steal away G-Girl's powers forever.

Reitman's been making these kinds of mainstream effects comedies for a long time now (at least since Ghostbusters in '84), and though this movie's rarely inspired, it's largely professional. Possibly owing of budget concerns, Reitman doesn't overplay the fantasy element of the story, getting lost in elaborate set design or intricate backstory. Like Raimi's Spider-Man movies, My Super Ex-Girlfriend takes place in a relatable, real world New York City that happens to have its own superhero. Even the effects work, most significantly a skyscraper blaze that G-Girl extinguishes using tornado power, is soft and underplayed, as opposed to the typically garish, in-your-face style of these kinds of movies.

To his credit, Reitman has assembled a funny cast, one worthy of better material than Payne's leaden dialogue and predictable turnabouts. The Amazonian Thurman inhabits the dual role of Jenny and G-Girl perfectly, as mousy and retreating in one persona as she is forceful and imposing in the other. It's unfortunate that Payne, tasked with inventing a superhero and her secret identity from scratch, didn't have more fun with it or get more creative. The "G" in G-Girl may as well stand for generic. (In fact, we never really find out what it actually stands for.) She got her powers from a meteor, she has powerful wind-breath and laser eyes and she can fly...Whoop de doo. When I called this a thinly-veiled remake of Superman II, I wasn't kidding. G-Girl's personality, powers and weaknesses are nearly identical to the Man of Steel's.

Izzard's Professor Bedlam has a few funny moments, and a surprisingly proficient American accent, but never actually gets to do anything villainous. It's therefore difficult to see him as a threat, or even a villain, and his presence becomes almost completely extraneous by the end of the film. Rainn Wilson (no relation to Luke) deftly plays the polar opposite of his Dwight Shrute character from the American version of "The Office" - here he's a cold, narcissistic womanizing lout. Unfortately, like Bedlam, he's all talk. We see him make a couple of cheap passes at some women, but that's about all there is to an essentially thankless "best friend" role. The delicious Anna Faris, as Matt's rebound girlfriend Hannah, and Wanda Sykes, in a cameo as an uptight office manager, are similarly underutilized.

The film just never builds up any steam. The inspiration was there some of the time. A few scenes unfold with comic potential, including a clever bit of business at a crowded restaurant wherein Jenny essentially refuses to turn into G-Girl and save the day as a way of punishing Matt. But these sequences just sort of peter out, after which we're treated to five or ten minutes of predictable, uninteresting plot developments. A funny premise, good casting and a couple of amusing throwaway lines just aren't enough to sustain an audience's interest for 90 minutes, no matter how breezily likable the rest of the film might be. Does Ivan Reitman not realize that, or does he simply not care any more? It doesn't take a whole lot of effort, after all, to top Evolution.


GimmeDaWatch said...

Dude, what are you doing reviewing this movie? Was there any question it was going to suck?

Lons said...

I kind of feel that, as I'm trying to write a big stupid summer Hollywood comedy script, I should watch recent movies in that genre. Both for ideas I might want to steal and pitfalls I can hopefully avoid. It really drives home to me the essential fallacy of my whole career path - I'm trying to conceive of and write a comedy that I myself might not be terribly interested in seeing.

This was also behind my decision to watch "Devil Wears Prada." Though I expected this movie to be more entertaining because I prefer Uma Thurman and superheroes to fashion. And I was right.