Will Universal pull “A Dog’s Purpose”?

dog1Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom started his career with an idyllic childhood tale about growing up in Sweden during the age of Sputnik.

“My Life as a Dog” put him on the map, and led to “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and “Chocolat” and a long career in international cinema. “Hachi: A Dog’s Story,” a Japanese set true story of a dog who stayed loyal after his owner’s death, is also on his resume.

But Universal and Walden Media’s “A Dog’s Purpose” is giving him something his films have avoided over the decades — controversy. Video, apparently recorded on set and in plain sight of the crew, shows a German shepherd featured in the film forced — in what looks like a cruel and heartless way — to dive into a huge water tank for a green screen scene for the movie.

It’s gone viral, and being about an animal being abused in the making of a movie, it has utterly overwhelmed any buzz the film might have had before its Jan. 27 release. A sweet story about how dogs touch lives, with a reincarnation twist, it seems to have no chance at anything like a successful release, now.

PETA is calling for a boycott. Another black eye for the American Humane Association, which signs off on the “no animals were harmed making this film,” sometimes with a scandalous disregard for what actually happened. One head has already rolled from this rubber-stamp organization, according to TMZ. Criminal charges might come in Canada, where the movie was filmed.

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Movie Review: Bus driver/poet finds inspiration all around him in “Paterson” New Jersey

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Nothing much happens to the working class poet Adam Driver plays in Jim Jarmusch’s meditative “Paterson,” a drama aptly-set in the New Jersey hometown of poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsburg.

It’s a still-life imagining of a poet’s life — quiet observation, overheard snippets of conversation that inspires writing that the title character, who shares his name with the city, scribbles into notebooks.

Paterson listens to children explaining the life of Paterson boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, spies the various tributes to native son Lou Costello of Abbott & Costello, and wakes up each day with the exotic, unfocused, artistically-minded Laura (Iranian actress Golshifteh Fahrani), who paints everything from her dresses to the shower curtains in their tiny house black and white.

And then he puts pen to paper in his “secret notebook,” musing on a box of Ohio Blue Tip Matches.

“We have plenty of matches in our house,” he begins, weaving that idea into the spark of inspiration about the flame of their love.

His poems (written by a Jarmusch favorite, Ron Padgett) “should belong to the world,” Laura enthuses, before talking up her latest scheme to achieve her dreams of personal expression. She wants to become a country music star, and needs to buy a mail order guitar and lessons.

She may be the true artist in this couple, a mad dreamer heedless of the barriers facing an Iranian finding acceptance in the music of xenophobic America.

paterson2.jpgPaterson sneaks a listen to a would-be rapper (Method Man) trying out rhymes to the rhythm of a washer in the local laundromat. He stops and hears out a little girl poet, waiting for her mother, maybe even envies her natural talent. And  he isn’t creepy when he, a stranger, sits with her to listen in rapt awe to her metaphors.

Anybody familiar with Jarmusch’s work will recognize his static style — the muted long conversations, the quiet, the storytelling largely lacking in incident, melodrama or narrative drive. Longtime fans will wonder where the humor is.

Maybe, you figure, the “young bloods” who cheerfully accost Paterson on his nightly dog-walks are going to “dog jack” his bulldog, which they admire.

Maybe he’ll be discovered, or something dramatic and out of the ordinary will happen on the bus, to Laura or perhaps to Paterson himself. Perhaps there’s something in the story of how they met. There are photos of a young man in uniform in their house.

Is that Paterson, or perhaps his twin brother? Twins pops up in conversation and in several scenes, a cryptic bit of Jarmusch arcana for fanatics to ponder and puzzle over.

Yes, there are exotic, un-discovered foreign film talents including a throwback to Jarmusch’s early meditation on Memphis and rock’n roll, “Mystery Train.” Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase from that film shows up again, as a tourist — this time a poet come to pay homage to the hometown of Williams and Ginsburg.

But I was struck by how dated the film feels, or at least out of its time. It’s something of an aged hipster’s idea how a young poet should be and how to tell that poet’s story. Paterson eschews cell phones as “a leash,” and doesn’t seem to have a TV or even a clock radio (he ostentatiously uses his wristwatch to tell him it’s time to get up). Method Man as a wannabe rapper? Maybe in 1988.

Paterson has built a routine out of a nightly walk with that bulldog to Shades Bar, a somber joint straight out of the 1950s, where the owner/bartender (veteran character actor Barry Shabaka Henley) resists having a TV — the better to overhear the mini melodramas in the chatter of the barflies.

Whatever its charms as a celebration of “the empty page,” of the pauses at the end of poetic phrases which allow the mind to wander into the poet’s head, or in this case — into films similar in tone and tenor — “Tree’s Lounge,” “Factotum,” “Henry Fool” — I was desperate for any hint of Jarmusch’s droll wit, for the humor of “Mystery Train,” “Night on Earth,” “Broken Flowers” or “Coffee and Cigarettes.”

And the omni-present “Girls” alumnus Driver, passively ensconced in this landscape, observing and scribbling without rhyme or the discipline of meter, does nothing  to animate the picture or to give the lie to Jerry Seinfeld’s famous knock on poetry.

“It’s just failed stand-up.”

2stars1

MPAA Rating:  R for some language

Cast: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka HenleyWilliam Jackson Harper, Chasten Harmon

Credits:Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. An Amazon Studios release.

Running time: 1:58

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Movie Review: “20th Century Women”

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It doesn’t limit “20th Century Women” to call it a “coming of age” story.

Because there is no limit to that which comes of age in it.

Sure, there’s a teenage boy, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). And he’s got this crush on a bad girl/broken spirit, Julie (Elle Fanning) who keeps coming over, leaning on him, spending the night and insisting that unlike every other guy she knows — she’s promiscuous — with Jamie she’ll “just be friends.”

His Santa Barbara, California mom (Annette Bening) “had me at 40” and is raising him by herself, something fairly novel even in California in 1979.

She studies him, frets over giving him a complete and well-rounded upbringing. But you kind of figure she’s coming of age, too, in between her pearls of tough-love wisdom.

Mother and son are brutally blunt with each other in that hip, sitcommie post “One Day at a Time” way of the late ’70s.

“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world!”

There’s a fragile, winsome boarder (Greta Gerwig) and free-spirit handyman (Billy Crudup) also under their roof.

And in 1979, America was coming of age — again — about to abandon the serious search for answers to the future and retreat into a deluded nostalgia that lasted for a decade.

So maybe writer-director Mike Mills (“Beginners”) was onto something, tapping into an exhausted zeigeist that suggests America, like Dorothea, Bening’s single-mom in the movie, is earnest and overwhelmed and maybe too tired to get everything just right, to always do right by everybody. She’s not going to be everyone’s friend, not going to get the answers from assorted feminist studies texts.

But being an adult and a mom, she can’t just check out. So the decisive, authoritative Dorothea gets on with it, prioritizing who she wants Jamie to become, enlisting Abbie (Gerwig) and then Julie in her mission. He’s got to be a man who’s a comfort to women, treat them honorably no matter what.

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Over the course of the film, his mother and the other women in his life test Jamie, teach him, and on purpose or utterly by accident make him the man he will become.

It’s a sweet, sad-faced comedy in a minor key, with Bening holding forth as the iconic woman of the “20th Century” of the title. Dorothea is unflappable long before she needs to be. This may be mid “malaise” America. But she is pre-Reagan, pre-AIDS, pre-REAL recession.

Gerwig plays a more brittle version of her usual screen flakes, Crudup is perfectly cast as that rooster in the henhouse just outgrowing his “hippie” phase. Young Zumann holds our interest well enough for us to want to follow his story even though we know every other character in this has a more interesting one.

And Fanning, a wise-beyond-her-years starlet, is right on the money as a lost girl in ’70s straightened hair, catnip to the boys not just because of her looks, but thanks to the air of doom that hangs over her.

It’s not a deep film, but it is a rich one — full of flesh and blood characters, realistic “coming of age” moments and pithy homilies on the state of relationships, gender roles, “the California Dream” and the American one.

And as its title suggests, it’s a real showcase for three generations of the best American actresses in the business, women of feelings and heart and steel. They give Mills’ movie its backbone and in the malaise in which this film reaches us, a hint of hope.

3stars2
MPAA Rating: R for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use

Cast: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup

Credits: Written and directed by Mike Mills. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:59

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Movie Review: M. Night gets his chutzpah back with “Split”

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We don’t mislabel it “schizophrenia” any more. And few call them “multiple personalities” these days. It’s “Dissociative identity disorder” now.

But it’s still every actor’s wet dream. And given the chance to play a kidnapper with an array of guises living in his darkly disturbed skull, James McAvoy does what any gifted actor would under the circumstances.

He chews up the screen, the supporting cast and the movie, and then dabs his lips with his napkin, ever-so-demurely.

In “Split,” he plays a creep who kidnaps and imprisons three tartly-dressed teens —  Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula. They’re freaked out enough, packed into a makeshift dungeon with no TV, no cell reception and nothing to occupy their short attention spans but their doom.

And every time their keeper unlocks the door, he’s “different.”

There’s Dennis, who buttons his shirt all the way to the top like all movie rapists and serial killers. When he barks “I choose YOU first,” the girls assume the worst. Intrepid Claire (Richardson) shrieks, frozen-in-fear Marcia (Sula) weeps in shock.

Only the odd-girl-out, a pity invite to Claire’s mall birthday party, shakes off the shock long enough to react to an impending rape.

“PEE on yourself,” she hisses to Marcia. It works.

Casey (Taylor-Joy of “The Witch”) has inner resources and a dark past. We start to learn about this in flashbacks.

Dennis, the trio discovers, isn’t alone. Shaved head in earrings and high heels, he returns as the ever-so-proper Patricia, or the nerdy nine-year-old Hedwig.

Hedwig?

Claire is all about forming a plan and ganging up on this short but muscular creep. Casey, as shaken as any of them, isn’t ready.

“I’ll let you know when I hear something that makes sense.”

It turns out, “Kevin” is under a doctor’s care. Betty Buckley plays a psychotherapist specializing in D.I.D. patients, and she thinks she’s made a breakthrough, a discovery that will alter our way of looking at such people and at reality. Pity she can’t connect “Barry,” the fey would-be costume designer, Patricia, Hedwig, Dennis or the others living in Kevin’s head with news reports that three girls were just kidnapped, in broad daylight, at a suburban Philly mall.

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan weaves together three points of view and three storylines — the trapped girls, Casey’s past and Dr. Fletcher’s sympathetic, earnest and probing “treatment” of Kevin — in crafting this standard-issue psycho-abduction thriller.

Shyamalan gets his chutzpah, if not exactly his mojo back with this solid and modestly thrilling thriller. While it is markedly inferior to such recent hostage pictures as the riveting and Oscar-winning “Room” and the tighter, tense “10 Cloverfield Lane,” Shyamalan feels comfortable enough to go back to his old tricks after years in the director-for-hire (“The Last Airbender,””AfterEarth”) and cheap, gimmicky horror (“The Visit”) wilderness.

He builds gravitas into the story with madcap theories about the explainable supernatural, packaged in the person of Buckley’s “I’m onto something BIG” shrink.

He ties the picture into his early career continuum, linking it to the storylines he cooked up back when he was a Time Magazine coverboy/wunderkind.

And Shyamalan gives himself a cameo, with speaking lines, always a mistake. He’s not so much a bad actor as a distractingly dull one.

split2The young actresses are given roles with traces of pluck and self-reliance. But they’re objectified, presented in various stages of undress, a heavy-handed tease that a sex crime might be in their future.

That gives the film a standard horror movie failing — a disconnect, an empathy gap. The suspense doesn’t build as they race towards their fate. There is no pulse-pounding feeling to any “They/she might get away” moment. Casey may have demons to exorcise. We’ve seen the “Signs.”

But Shyamalan treats her, like everybody else, as an exotic lab exhibit he and we study, not people root for.

That leaves us with McAvoy, finally ripped out of that “X-Men” wheelchair and given his juiciest, most over-the-top part since “Filth.” He minces, he broods. He tries to manage walking on high heels. He’s fun to watch, but it’s a showy, obvious and flamboyant performance.

There’s just enough connection to the current psychological theory to give “Split” resonance, but too many Shyamalan indulgences and nods to his past to let it stand on its own. And when in the third act he brings it all together and tries to sprint for the finish, all he can manage is to ego trip over his past.

2stars1

 

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language

Cast: James McAvoy, Betty Buckley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula

Credits:Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:57

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Movie Review: Nobody lost any sleep photocopying “Sleepless”

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Every now and then, a cop picture comes along that makes bullet points out of the cliches common to the genre. “Sleepless,” a remake of the French thriller “Nuit blanche,” is here to teach us the conventions of “the cop thriller.”

There’s a dirty police department. Here, Las Vegas “is a city crawling with dirty cops.”

We always have a disgraced/demoted/wounded on the job officer in need of redemption, here played by Michelle Monaghan.

There’s a bad cop (Jamie Foxx) up to his elbows in dirty deals until one gets his son kidnapped.

He’s got a nagging ex-wife (Gabrielle Union) who doesn’t understand that the job comes first.

There’s a polished, over-dressed criminal (Dermot Mulroney), and an even badder guy covered in tattoos and violence (Scoot McNairy).

There’s an undercover officer’s car-with-character (a 1970 or so GTO, driven by Foxx’s cop).

And we’re treated to a sampler of car chases, club scenes including strippers or, in this case, almost naked dancers and brawls in which the bloodied hero/anti-hero still has enough in him, post shooting or stabbing, to better assorted villains twice his size.

 

“Sleepless” packs all its action into a single night and pretty much a single location. Foxx’s “dirty” cop, Vincent, and his partner (the rapper and really bad actor T.I.) have stolen the wrong guys’ drugs. Killed a couple of their henchmen in the process.

So the casino manager (Mulroney) and mobster he’s in business with (McNairy) kidnap Vincent’s neglected son (Octavius J. Johnson) to get the drugs back. They stab Vincent to show they mean business. The hand-off will take place in a casino.

Ninety minutes of kitchen fights and insanely illogical shoot-outs and brawls in the kitchen, in the club and in the parking garage and we’re treated to the “surprise twist” that we saw coming at about the 20 minute mark.

sleep2Union does a lot of yelling and cussing out Foxx on the phone. Willowy Monaghan tries to make us believe she’d be a match in a bar fight with a gym rat Jamie Foxx’s size.

And McNairy swaggers through the thing as if his villain so owns the city he can open up with an automatic weapon in the middle of a crowded night club and never face consequences.

It’s altogether ridiculous, made all the sadder because we’ve seen this ridiculousness before. And not just in the French film that trots out these same tropes, trivialities and worn out cop thriller cliches.

1half-star

MPAA Rating:R for strong violence and language throughout

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Dermot Mulroney, Scoot McNairy, Gabrielle Union.

Credits:Directed by Baran bo Odar, script by Andrea Berloff, based on the French film “Nuit blanche” by Frederic Jardin. An Open Road release.

Running time: 1:35

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Movie Preview: “Death Race: 2050” — Roger Corman? Meet Malcolm McDowell

Gonzo. Just…gonzo.

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Box Office: “Hidden Figures”rocks MLK Weekend, “Patriots Day” kinda bombs

Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg has owned January the way Will Smith used to own July 4 weekend at the box office. But “Patriots Day,” another well-reviewed true-story action collaboration between Wahlberg and his go-to director, Peter Berg (“Deepwater Horizon”), is only slated to do $14 million or so over the four-day holiday weekend.

It’s not weather or reviews that are keeping people away. Maybe West Coast weather dampened turnout. Maybe the public is leery of anything labeled “patriot” with all the political turmoil roiling around the Golden Boy set to take the oath of office. 

That’s the big surprise in a generally desultory pre-Oscar nominations holiday weekend, the first cluttered (several wide releases) cinema weekend of 2017.

A bad horror movie, “The Bye Bye Man,” is easily besting that — $16 million plus. And a POS kiddie monsters and trucks movie, “Monster Truck,” will manage $13.5 or so.box

“Hidden Figures” is edging “Sing” to win the weekend, $19 million to $17-18.

A Jamie Foxx cop picture, “Sleepless,” is barely in the top ten. Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” opened wide, but at 740 or so screens, not wide enough to crack the top ten.

 

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Movie Review: Mark Wahlberg is in the thick of saving Boston in “Patriots Day

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It doesn’t spoil “Patriots Day,” the new thriller about the Boston Marathon Bombing and the hunt for the bombers, knowing this. Mark Wahlberg, as a “suspended and then redeemed” cop at the center of the action, is playing a fictional character, a mouthy, obsessed F-bombing Boston cop cliche.

But it does mute the impact of a docudrama  that feels like fascinating, as-it-happened history. It’s more “Sully” than “United 93” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” movies which proved you don’t need to invent characters in multi-point-of-view narratives to tell a true story.

Still, you get Mark Wahlberg, you get your movie made.

And it’s an otherwise noble enterprise, a detailed and action-packed account of a city’s darkest hour, and it’s professional, passionate response to it. Peter Berg, Wahlberg’s and Hollywood’s go-to guy for “true story” action (“Deepwater Horizon,” “Love Survivor”) has delivered a taut, riveting police procedural that maintains suspense even as it finds humor in the people, their funny accents and way with profanity, and pathos.

Wahlberg plays Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a demoted detective serving out a suspension in uniform, watching over the finish line of the 2013 marathon. You can tell he’s a fictional character by the special interest the Boston Police Commissioner, Ed Davis (John Goodman, rock solid) takes in him, by the number of other cops who and high-ranking officials who pat him on the back and remind him “These guys look UP to you.”

He’s a little distracted on the job, not that he could have seen or prevented what happens on that April 15, the 117th running of the race.

Berg gets us to the blast in the film’s first 25 minutes, and uses hand-held cameras (dropped to the ground), CCTV footage, archival footage and sound — tinnitus-like ringing tones in the score, concussive silence after the blast — to put us in the moment.

There is blood and torn flesh everywhere — a dead child, a disembodied foot.

And then there is professionalism. “All medical personnel to the finish line!…Confiscate all cell phones!”

The narrative also follows the bratty fanatic Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze, simmering with resentment and menace) and his even brattier, bullied and callous teenaged brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff, terrific). We see just the barest hint of their preparations.

Kevin Bacon is Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, the FBI man who looks over the bomb-shrapnel, calls the act “terrorism” and heads the investigation.

040616_PATRIOTSDAY_KB_462.CR2Berg handles of the unraveling of the mystery in brisk, nervy strokes. A great (fictional) moment — summoning the cop who knows the finish line streets (Saunders/Wahlberg, of course) to walk through a mock-up of it, recalling where the right surveillance cameras are that would have captured the bombers as they walked into the crowd to make their mayhem.

Legions of agents flip through video footage and ID the images that will give up the murderers.

But many stories are folded into this narrative — the young couple, planning a cross-country move, who take in the race’s finish only to become victims, the very young and monied Chinese immigrant (Jimmy O. Yang), selling order-placing applications to Chinese restaurants, trapped in the manhunt after the bombing, the equally young MIT campus cop (Jake Picking) who fell afoul of the bombers as they fled town.

J.K. Simmons lends marvelous, world-weary bravado to the Watertown P.D. sergeant who wades into the epic firefight where overmatched cops cornered the brothers. That shoot-out is worthy of something Michael Mann might stick into one of his action epics. In this case, the bullets, bombs and cars blowing up really happened.

And through all the tension and violence, Berg (he co-wrote the script) adds layer of flavor and a sense of place to it all. Personable, sassy, F-bombing cops, comically “helpful” F-bombing civilians, aerial shots capturing the beauty of the city, street-scenes showing its working class standard of living.

The great Michelle Monaghan has one electric moment, playing Saunders’ wife, wild-eyed with relief as she seizes him the moment he gets home.

Aside from those invented characters, Berg plays this thing straight down the middle. There’s no Muslim bashing, “I’m not gonna let Fox News run this investigation” is spat out and the FBI admits, quickly, that it had the older brother on a watch list.

The result is a film that, like “Sully,” celebrates competence over bravado, sympathy for victims over revenge against the perpetrators, and the people of Boston over any attempts to circumscribe their freedoms, dampen their enthusiasms or clean up their language.

3stars2

MPAA Rating:R for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons

Credits:Directed by Peter Berg, script by Peter Berg, Matt Cook, Joshua Zetumer. A Lionsgate/CBS release.

Running time: 2:13

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DGA nominations — Will Best Directors continue to direct Best Pictures?

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Regarding that headline, here’s the old Oscar maxim.

“Best Directors direct Best Pictures.”

If your director doesn’t get nominated, your picture, even if nominated, doesn’t stand a chance at winning Best Picture.

So “La La Land,” “Arrival,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Moonlight” and “Lion” have the edge, at least according to this year’s Director’s Guild nominations.

I am outraged on behalf of Jeff Nichols of “Loving,” “Midnight Special” etc., one of the best, most versatile directors working today. But it’s hard to argue with that field.

There can be as many as ten Oscar nominations for Best Picture, but the DGA also manages to get ten (nine this year) Best Directors.

Garth Davis of “Lion” copped both Best Director and Best First Time Director nominations. He’s up against Tim Miller of “Deadpool,” Nate Parker of “Birth of a Nation” and Kelly Fremon Craig of “The Edge of Seventeen” and Daniel Trachtenberg for “10 Cloverfield Lane.” I’d say Davis has the inside track on that one, with Parker, Trachtenberg and Craig helming films of lower ambition.

“Moonlight” has some buzz, but has felt like an Indie Spirit Award winner, from the get-go. “La La Land” and “Manchester” may have peaked early, in terms of awards heat.

“Arrival” gets a nomination and we remember, “Oh yeah. It’s a contender, and Amy Adams has an outside chance of finally taking a Best Actress statuette (Damn you, Natalie Portman!”).

The TV nominations are, like the Golden Globes, more attuned to the trendy hits (“Stranger Things,””Game of Thrones”) than the true “best directors.”

 

The DGA hands out its honors Feb. 4.

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Movie Preview: “CHiPs,” the first trailer

Upon first hearing they were turning the lame ’80s TV series “CHiPs” into a movie, I thought — “Well, they cast it right.”

Whack-job funnyman and car nut Dax Shepard and funny-when-he-wants-to-be Michael Pena?

That works.

The trailer, with its homoerotic riffs, crashes and Maya Rudolph/Kristen Bell (Mrs. Shepard)?

“Well, they cast it right.”

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