Max Landis finds his Mr. Right
In recent days I watched a pair of Max Landis movies, Mr. Right (2015) and Victor Frankenstein (2015).
I'd heard screenwriter Max Landis speak on a few podcasts in the last year where he was very free to open up a notebook's worth of plot ideas so I'm always interested to see what results of his screenplays. It's quite enjoyable to hear his enthusiasm for stories, playing with genres, and for taking chances on pitches and scripts. He did run into a bit of a problem where he called Rey in The Force Awakens a "Peggy Sue" character, meaning a character (usually female) that is inserted as a surrogate of the author to befriend established characters while being perfectly skilled to the point that it nullifies conflict in the story and tends to be a flat and boring character. His analysis was pretty soundly disputed by others and I'm not sure it's the best introduction of him to people who might not know the names of the screenwriters of the movies they see.
I had seen the first two movies he had written, Chronicle, and American Ultra, and had kind of mixed feelings about both of them. I didn't have negative feelings, it's just that they're both very ambitious movies that do not fall into a cookie cutters for genres. Chronicle is a found footage, superhero, high school, and villain origin story. It's incredibly well put together with the characters, special effects, use of fictional found footage but the moody high schooler side of it made it a one viewing movie for me, a movie I liked, but not one I wanted to see a second time.
American Ultra didn't do especially well, kind of because of the polarizing lead actors Jessie Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart. It is also a movie with a dirty look. Everything looks greasy and smelly as it follows a pothead couple, but the action and the story is really quite engaging and fun to get into conspiracy theories around the Ultra program.
Mr. Right feels like it comes from the same universe as American Ultra, and even mentions the ultra program early in the film, but it succeeds better than any other Max Landis movie I've seen. It is a perfect success of a film even though it didn't get much exposure in theaters. Some of it has to do with the leads Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick are both incredibly charismatic actors and sticking them in a brutally violent action movie. It might be that this is the first of Landis's screenplays that he is also an executive producer and perhaps this is allowing more of the vision of the screenplay to make it to the screen.
Mr. Right is a hitman/spy movie smashed into a romantic comedy with a little bit of superpowers or psychic-like powers. Anna Kendrick's character could have been the cliche "manic pixie dream girl" but instead is a flawed and funny character who has her own struggles in love rather than saving the main male character they help each other reconcile some of their flaws. It also confronts the concept of onscreen deaths in film and the morality of killing by an action hero and gets interestingly nuanced in the debate that occurs in the movie both through dialogue and actions.
I was so encouraged by Mr. Right that I decided to watch another movie from Max Landis last year, Victor Frankenstein. This movie loses focus at times, forgets what works best in early parts of the story by the time it gets to later parts, and oddly confuses the stakes in the movie. I feel like the screenplay is probably better than the final outcome, although there are some interesting pieces. I thought I was going to like this early on because the main actors have a lot of charm. James McAvoy is fun to watch (although it's hard to trust he has truly gone "mad" as narrated later in the movie), Daniel Radcliffe acts his balls off as Igor, and it was great to see Downton Abby alum Jessica Brown Findley carries a lot of good faith from her woman's rights hero Downton character.
These three main character share the screen in a very interesting scene early on where Radcliffe and McAvoy perform a medical procedure on Findley in a way that feels more like an action scene, a stylized fight scene, than something from a medical drama. For a movie with more than one re-animated corpse the coolest special effect is superimposing Grey's Anatomy sketches over Findley's body to show what is medically happening to the character. This is an effect that could have been used again in the movie, or played off of, or expanded, but it is shown then forgotten.
There are a lot of ideas in this movie and they end up suffocating each other. There is a buddy movie that works pretty well, a love story that needs a little more foundation, a murder mystery that is forgotten, a family drama that drifts in and out and comes out confusing, and a story about monetizing science to the detriment of progress that should have worked but felt like it came out of nowhere as a plot device to get Frankenstein in a castle but didn't feel like it altered the stakes.
I'm going to finish up by talking about Landis's next big project to come, apparently, Power Rangers. This was a show that was easy to enjoy when I was little for the campy action scenes, and I probably wouldn't see this movie if there wasn't the promise it'll swing for the fences with Landis's hands on it. I had seen a new commercial for it recently and had also been watching 30 Rock before bed so the other night I had a dream about this Power Rangers movie. The gist of my dream was that Judah Friedlander was playing the red Power Ranger and when I thought about it after waking up I realized it's not as crazy of a casting idea. I never like when an action hero has too much of a physique and I always felt like the Power Rangers got special skills by wearing their costumes, so why not make the alter ego of one be more average (and older) as well as having a funny personality. It would also be great to see what he would have written on his hat he would wear over the helmet.