A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
FAILURE TO LAUNCH j
½ 

2006, PG-13, 97 mins.

Trip: Matthew McConaughey / Paula: Sarah Jessica Parker / Kit: Zooey Deschanel / Demo: Bradley Cooper / Ace: Justin Bartha / Sue: Kathy Bates / Al: Terry Bradshaw / Jeffrey: Tyrell Jackson Williams

Directed by Tom Dey / Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember

There was something unrelentingly off-putting about the new romantic comedy FAILURE TO LAUNCH.  It was sort of immediate within it's first few minutes or so – the two main leads are simply not likeable, nor do they inspire much empathy from the audience.  As a matter of fact, they so completely fail at garnering our emotional buy-in that it all but drowns out the laughs and romance in the film.  To make matters even worse, the two lovers lack so much chemistry and are unsuccessful at gaining our respect to the point where you really never care if they get together in the first place.  As a result, FAILURE TO LAUNCH swings three times, gets three strikes, and is officially out right from the beginning.

I have been extremely forgiving to this genre before because I think that they place less expectations on audience members.  They are in the realm of "Big Mac Cinema" – you know, the type of easily digestible product that you know what you’ll be ingesting before you buy it and know exactly how it’s going to taste on the way down.  Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good, ol’ Big Mac.  The ingredients are never different and you get what you anticipate.  Romantic comedies have simple aims and, if they are handled properly, they can "go down" extremely easily.  I have a modest, three step process for successful and entertaining screen comedies:

 

1.       Give us two main leads that we immediately like.

2.       Make us empathize with their difficulty falling in love with one another.  Often there are barriers – both small and large – that impede their way.  If we like them, if makes it simpler to understand their plight.

3.       Make us yearn for them to get together.  These films are utterly anti-climatic, but if they can make the journey towards that inevitable conclusion enjoyable and fun, that’s most of the entertainment value right there. 

Is this process too much to ask for?

FAILURE TO LAUNCH disregards it completely.  It not only breaks the first of the three criteria, but it even manages to gnaw its way past the other two and masquerade itself as a lightweight, amusing, and crowd-pleasing romantic comedy.  To a less than judicious eye, FAILURE TO LAUNCH will be a good time passer.  However, for those that look deeper at the film’s nucleus, one will no doubt discover a somewhat cruel and volatile tone, which underlines many of the characters.  When you sort of despise what the main characters do and stand for…then what hope is there for you to crave them to jump into each other’s arms at the end?  Are we supposed to like them because the film desperately tries to make us like them despite their behaviour? 

Consider the male lead, Trip (played by Matthew McConaughey with characteristic charm and white-toothed charisma).  Trip seems like a decent, amiable 35-year-old man who loves his family and his friends.  Yet, as the trailers for the film have given away, he still lives at home with his parents.  Okay, fine.  Nothing inherently wrong with that.  I myself was a late bloomer when it came time to leaving the nest, but my reasons were primarily fiduciary.  I simply could not afford it at the time because of being so financially challenged.  This is not the case with Trip.  He’s essentially affluent and makes tons of money.  How do I know this?  Well, for starters, he works as a boat broker selling yachts to the wealthy, drives a Porsche, has a big screen plasma TV with all of the prerequisite guy toys to go with it, and he has a killer wardrobe.  Oh, he also has his mother wait on him hand and foot.  He expects her to make his bed, do his laundry, make him pancakes, bacon, and eggs every morning, and make and pack his lunches and mid-day snakes everyday.  Uhhhh…hmmmm…am I supposed to like and respect this guy?  This is pathetic loser # 1 in the film.

Now consider the female lead, Paula (played by the equally attractive and white-toothed visage of Sarah Jessica Parker).  She too appears to be a compassionate and gentle soul.  She makes a very good living at what she does as well.  She is, as one character points out, a “professional interventionist,” kind of like the Nanny that occupies one of those inane reality shows that comes into a family’s home and cleans up the house and teaches the parents how to properly run their household with discipline.  She’s a much different type of interventionist.  She is paid by exasperated parents to date their sons who still manage to live at home despite their pleading with them to move out.  Her basic plan, as with all of her male clients, is to become intimate with the man in question, get to know him, and form a relationship with him to the point where they bond enough for the man to declare "Hallelujah" and want independence from mommy and daddy.  Although the film does not make this point explicit, I would assume that after she “dates” the man and he leaves home, she abruptly dumps him, most likely breaks his heart, and goes off to the next "client."  She is, in essence, paid to be a glorified call girl to fake a loving relationship with the man.  Uhhhh…hmmmm…am I supposed to like and respect this girl?  This is pathetic loser # 2 in the film.

Am I being too malicious on this film’s overall premise?  Maybe, but there is no denying the fact that it’s incredibly hard to hold much reverence for these two people in any meaningful way.  Yes, McConaughey and Parker are great to look at and – superficially – they look great together.  Yet, their “meet-cute” and their ensuing relationship leaves such a bad taste in one’s mouth.  These are not evil people that are purposely vindictive to those around them.  However, I resented the fact that a fully-grown man that is rich and drives a $100,000 sports car is such an unmitigated slacker and pig that he still expects his mother to baby him on a daily basis.  I resented the fact that the woman has no clue of the repercussions of her job and how she can potentially hurt the men that she has heinous relationships with.  What does she do when they move out?  Does she spill the beans?  Does she abandon them?  She has one moment in the film with another "client" who is, let's say, far less easy on the eyes than McConaughey and is sort of a gentle, nerdy figure.  Yet, she eggs him on and makes him feel like she worships him...and to what ultimate effect?  To make the poor sap feel even worse for himself later?  I dunno…her job just seems kind of…well...mean-spirited and spiteful. 

And what about the parents?  They are played well by Kathy Bates and - yes - Terry Bradshaw (one of the few funny characters in the film).  Could they not tell their selfish and spoiled-beyond-recognition son to get the hell out of their home already?  They too seem nice, so nice that I hardly doubt that they would have been able to hire a woman like Paula to willingly deceive their son.  And not only that, but how does Paula advertise her services and not give away her identity?  Online?  Newspapers?  What?  I give up.

Anyways, the plot is as pedestrian as they get for films like this.  Again, predictability for this genre is not a strike against it, but in this film the love that Paula and Trip have feels so inhumanly manufactured.  How could Paula ever fall for Trip, seeing what an egotistical and self-centered person he is?  His particular way of using women is also kind of vile.  He dates them, has some fun with them, and then finally brings them home where they will inescapably meet the parents, realize that he lives at home, and then will abruptly dump him.  He knows this will happen, but he does it anyway.  Paula knows this as well and she comes across as assertive and intelligent, but she seems so dumb and blindsided to the point where she does fall in love.  And Trip’s overall attitude towards women seems to dictate that he himself could never fall for her either, at least in a long-term relationship.  Oh, wait a tick, the story does provide a completely tacked on and manipulative back-story where Trip was wounded by the loss of a past love.  Okay…so this forgives his wretched behavior and allows for the girl to sympathize with him?  Gimmie a break.

FAILURE TO LAUNCH is dead on arrival.  You know there is a problem when you start to enjoy the presence of the supporting characters more than those of the leads themselves.  Bradshaw and Bates are good together and generate some decent giggles.  Bradshaw continues the fine line of former football greats that have proven to be genuinely amusing in films (like last year’s comedy KICKING AND SCREAMING with Mike Ditka).  The film’s only real bright spot is with Zooey Deschanel who plays Kit, Paula’s gloomy roommate.  There is an extended subplot that involves her that seems to be from another film altogether, but it does garner some of the film’s better laughs.  She can’t sleep because a pigeon keeps waking her up all night.  There is one scene that involves her, one of Trip’s friends (who she falls for) a Bee-bee gun and some CPR that provides the film’s only hilarious moment.

Deschanel's scenes work, but they really seem out of touch with the rest of the film.  The balance between all of the elements in FAILURE TO LAUNCH is so disparaging.  It weakly tries to cobble together sweet and sensitive moments with small scenes of touching sentiment with far too many scenes of unnecessary slapstick.  There is a running gag where Trip seems to have a nasty habit of being bitten by various creatures.  Through the film he is attacked three times, once by a squirrel, once by a dolphin, and once by a lizard.  Why are these scenes here in this film?  Did the makers think that pointless slapstick and cartoonishly silly moments like this would spice up the laugh quotient of the film?  It was already dry for laughs, so these scenes kind of reek of desperation in retrospect.

FAILURE TO LAUNCH definitely has its heart in the right place, but its head has completely vanished.  It’s a shame because it seemed like we were starting to enter a brief renaissance for romantic comedies, which saw films like HITCH and last year’s great FEVER PITCH demonstrate superior examples of the genre.  Yet, not even the luminous appeal of McConaughey and Parker can save this film.  Gorgeous stars are not enough for a film like this.  FAILURE TO LAUNCH fails at romance and easily fails at being funny.  When laughs are not aplenty, the chemistry between the stars is null and void, and when you have to compel yourself to like the characters, then the recipe for successful for a film like this has been utterly corrupted.   But, on a side note, you’ll get to see a side of Terry Bradshaw that you’ve never seen before and – at least in one brief moment – you’ll see a side of him that you’ll never want to see again.  Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.

  H O M E