There's a current trend in new movies now showing in theaters, and it appears to be on the rise. Call these early 2024 releases supercute cinema.
While awards-season heavy hitters continue to open in South Florida ahead of the 96th Academy Awards on Sunday, March 10, major studio offerings from the first several weeks of the new year have opted to double down on the silly. “Let there be levity,” these filmmakers proclaim. Following a fall and early winter filled with prestige biopics, sobering indie dramas and acclaimed European imports, this critic is all for this change of pace.
If only the movies were, you know, actually good.
A trio of new comedies run the gamut between teen angst fueled by macabre laughs, globe-trotting espionage with tongue placed firmly in cheek and a musical reimagining of a beloved high school satire from the mid-2000s. Good intentions, meet spotty execution. Let's dig in.
“Lisa Frankenstein”: For her debut feature behind the camera, Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin, attempts to walk a tightrope between campy nostalgia-driven laughs and ghoulish romance. The filmmaker is intent on putting a smiley face on pretty disturbing subject matter, but the results come across as a jumble of underdeveloped ideas, a rough draft for a better film, especially to those who, like me, are totally on its happy-dark wavelength.
It helps that Williams has entrusted screenwriting duties to Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning scribe behind “Juno,” “Young Adult” and the underappreciated “Jennifer's Body.” The movie starts, promisingly enough, with our sullen protagonist, Lisa Swallows (“Big Little Lies'” Kathryn Newton), fixated on a gifted 19th-century pianist who met an untimely demise and is buried in the abandoned Bachelors Grove Cemetery.
It's not exactly a (fake) courtship, since love isn't really part of Lisa's current headspace, but her morbid interest certainly beats the dire situation that awaits her at home. The year is 1989, and Lisa's dad, Dale (Joe Chrest, essentially recycling his “Stranger Things” role), has remarried and moved in with his new wife, the selfish and materialistic Janet (a game but underused Carla Gugino) and her daughter Taffy (Liza Soberano), in Janet's thoroughly pink suburban abode.
Where is Lisa's mom? Hacked up to pieces by a masked psycho who broke into their home, a piece of information that Taffy, Lisa's sole ally in this dysfunctional household, casually discloses to her classmates at school. The lingering trauma, coupled with Janet's open hostility, is too much for Lisa to bear. A fervent wish appears to align with a freak, green-hued thunderstorm that brings the long-dead musician from the dilapidated cemetery back to life. Sort of.
What's Lisa to do when the lumbering, undead Creature (“Riverdale's” Cole Sprouse) who rose from his grave literally smashes into her home? A shower and a makeover, of course. Cue the fashion montage. The results play as if “Desperately Seeking Susan” director Susan Seidelman had remade Tim Burton's “Corpse Bride” with the genders reversed.
It sounds amusing, but just when the movie should be kicking into gear, you realize it's running on fumes. The fun quickly turns murderous for the pair, as if “Heathers” had been reimagined as a “Goosebumps” episode, but Williams and Cody are unable to mesh the body count, and body horror elements, with their PG-13 rated sendup of teen comedies from the '80s. Also, while Newton shines whenever Lisa is rediscovering her confidence, it's too much of a stretch to buy her as a socially inept outsider.
The filmmakers want to show you a good time, but they haven't really ironed out the story details beyond a grab bag of genre tropes and pop culture references. So what we're left with is '80s dress-up with a committed cast, occasionally clever production design and not much else going for it other than a winsome disposition.
The period details alternate between lazy (Taffy's red Yugo) to on-point (Lisa's peachy keen wardrobe, including a T-shirt with the titular character of the comic strip “Cathy”). What's missing is more of a narrative glue holding these ideas together. “Lisa Frankenstein” serves up cotton candy. Thing is, I was really craving a strawberry milkshake.
“Mean Girls”: Speaking of pink, there's another teen comedy out there that leans heavily into nostalgia and is another feature directing debut. Tina Fey has resurrected her thoroughly quotable foray into high school cliques and backstabbing maneuvers, not only rebooting the 2004 hit for a new generation but integrating the songs from the Broadway musical based on the original film.
If the resulting Frankenstein monster stitched together from all these sources is not quite the misfire some would have you believe, it still falls considerably short of the standard set by the older, Mark Waters-directed film, itself inspired by Rosalind Wiseman's self-help book “Queen Bees and Wannabes.”
First, let's point out what works. Directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., working from a screenplay by Fey, have ingeniously structured the film to make it unfold not unlike a theme park ride, beginning and ending with a garage jam session by supporting characters/narrators Damian (Tony nominee Jaquel Spivey) and Janis (“Moana's” Auli'i Cravalho). In other words, a film already brimming with queer appeal is frequently told from the point of view of the two queer characters.
As for this “Mean Girls'” queen bee, the vicious Regina George, pop star Reneé Rapp capably takes over the part made iconic by Rachel McAdams. As for her ex-boyfriend, the dreamy Aaron Samuels, cutie patootie Christopher Briney is as good as, and even better looking than, the original Aaron, Jonathan Bennett.
But, as in the 2004 movie, this remake/remix rises and falls by the ability of its lead actress to carry it, and this is where the new “Mean Girls” doesn't make fetch happen. On paper, Amy Adams look-alike Angourie Rice (HBO's “Mare of Easttown”) seems to be the perfect fit to breathe new life into Cady Heron, North Shore High School's newest student, memorably played by Lindsay Lohan. But Rice, wholesome but unremarkable, alternates between adequate and nondescript. It doesn't take long for the Australian actress to slide into blandness.
It's a shame, because Cady, homeschooled and brainy, is an engaging character, and the contrast between her blank-slate naiveté and the rigid social rules practiced by the Plastics, the trio of popular girls who take her under their wing, is a combustible mix that draws blood in the original film. Alas, not so much in its 2024 incarnation, which amounts to a pale facsimile. What does it say about a movie that casts Jon Hamm as the gym teacher and sex-ed teacher, then gives him nothing to do?
More disappointing still, the musical numbers are staged in perfunctory, largely unimaginative ways, set to songs that fail to leave much of an impression, despite Rapp's formidable screen presence and Cravalho's mighty pipes. It suffers from an affliction that can only be called “Hairspray” envy. You end up rooting for the ice queen, whereas it's apparent this “Mean Girls,” which falls flat more than it hits its targets, wants you to cheer on her comeuppance. Nope, not happening. Not when the purported “good girl” is such a wet noodle.
“Argylle”: With these two underachievers fumbling the ball, will director Matthew Vaughn come riding to the rescue? Don't count on it. The bad boy behind “Kingsman” and “Kick-Ass” has assembled a fearsome all-star cast, featuring the likes of Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Henry Cavill, Samuel L. Jackson, Bryan Cranston and Catherine O'Hara. But he has stuck them in an insouciant spy tale that's too convoluted, and not nearly ridiculous enough, to be much fun.
If only Vaughn had bottled the cheerful absurdity of the film's opening sequence, “Argylle” would have easily been a gas. Picture this: a swanky nightclub, a vivacious Dua Lipa as a dangerous dame and Cavill as the titular secret agent, wowing the crowd with their outrageous dance moves. As Barry White's raspy vocals hit just the right kitschy note.
A mission turns into an ambush, an ambush leads to a daring escape. And then we realize what we're seeing is the closing chapter in a book by best-selling novelist Elly Conway (Howard), who's out peddling her page-turner but is struggling to finish the next book, as she starts thinking the time is coming for her suave yet wooden leading man to hang up his hat. Ruth (O'Hara), Elly's mom/editor, is less than thrilled with the latest draft, so she suggests a visit home so they can brainstorm.
Neither Elly nor Alfie, her fluffy, predominantly CGI kitty, make it home. Because on the train ride there, they comes face to face with actual spy Aidan Wilde (Rockwell), and Vaughn, working from an aggressively twisty screenplay by Jason Fuchs, reveals what appears to be the movie's central conceit: that a real-life version of the evil syndicate Elly depicts in her novels, led by the dastardly Director Ritter (Cranston), actually exists, and the events she conjures up on the page turn out to predict what actually transpires in the web of intrigue where she now finds herself tangled up.
But as “Argylle” careens from competently staged fisticuffs to odd-couple banter between Elly and Aidan, the film moves farther and farther away from the freewheeling irreverence of its exhilarating beginning. The plot, rather than functioning as an engine to move things along, grows so elaborate that it takes about as long to explain what's going on than it does to take the movie from one setpiece to the next. It starts feeling like dead weight.
When something like this happens to a movie that initially shows promise, I start looking for stuff on the edges, and “Argyle” does have a handful of incidental pleasures, like O'Hara's scenery chewing, Vaughn's tendency to shoot the fight sequences like musical numbers (coincidentally, one of his future projects is reportedly a musical scripted by “La La Land” auteur Damien Chazelle), and hottie Tomás Paredes punching above his weight as one of Ritter's henchmen.
But these few bright spots only delay coming to terms with the sad reality that “Argylle,” while not nearly as lousy as you may have heard, squanders enough potential to fill a John le Carré novel. It jettisons its pleasures in favor of an endlessly mutating brick wall of a plot. The relentless rug pulling loses its capacity to excite or surprise.
“Lisa Frankenstein,” “Mean Girls” and “Argylle” are now showing throughout South Florida in wide release, including at Regal South Beach, AMC Aventura, Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami and CMX Brickell City Centre.