Twilight for the Twilight of Your Life
Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll) sees the moving truck pull up behind the Loski family station wagon and falls immediately head over heels for their young son Bryce (Callan McAuliffe). Bryce, however, is a complete tool and runs away from her, treating her like a stalker and generally being a douchebag. This is pretty much the crux of their relationship for the rest of the film: Juli, forced by the awful screenplay to levels of Cullenesque mooning, does kind things for herself and her family, while Bryce acts like a spoiled, snotty shit. Everyone feels like they're performing in a terribly miscast high school production of a Chekhov play, standing around woodenly and spouting out aphorisms without the least concern for emotional subtext: "Yes, Papa, I long for the days of your saxophone symphonies. A cherry orchard would improve the look of their front lawn. The peasants do so love to feed their chickens. Hello, Mother."
Written like someone took Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and pulled a Pleasantville, the kids take turns narrating the events of their courtship in a he said/she said pillow fight format. Bryce gets the first whack, so we have to watch him stumble and fumble through his bastardly eighth grade antics, and then we have to painfully relive the exact same scenes, with the tiny comfort that it comes from the instantly likable Juli -- no matter how hard Reiner and Scheinman and Van Draanen conspire to give her stupid, stupid traits. The constant voiceover narration is distracting and overdone. Rather than give us a solid scene or the actors an opportunity to, you know, act, we're forced to listen to the tweens prattle on. There are actually moments where the voiceover drowns out the character's line just to tell us what advice they imparted. Voiceover narration is usually a sign of patchy storytelling, so to wrap 85 percent of your flick in an Ace bandage gives you a pretty fierce idea how meh the story is. But again, it's lovely for the old folks, who don't have to worry about trying to figure out the subtleties of conversation -- someone's literally gonna tell you everything that happened. And then someone else is gonna retell it in about 15 minutes.
Now, there's plenty of just straight up awful and unusual moments in the film. We have to watch a snake devour and regurgitate an egg, two maybe-twin brothers sing a terrible doo-wop song at the dinner table, and a painfully contrived "Basketboy Auction," where eighth grade boys are auctioned off with picnic lunches. But the worst moment in the film comes when we learn about Juli's father's brother, a mentally-handicapped man-child who lives in a special home that sucks up all the available funds of their struggling family -- we go full retard. Again, we make this joke often -- don't go full retard -- but Kevin Weisman (who played tech-geek Marshall Flinkman on "Alias") is performing a idiot minstrel show. Reiner won't let cigarettes appear in his movies but has no problem repeatedly referring to a character as a retard. In fact, the retard button becomes a lynch pin in the telling of the story, and Christ on a bike, it's horrendous. Retard's the new cancer. I double fucking dog dare Reiner to take that to a special needs parent-teacher assembly and explain how he knows what's best for kids. Now, I need a fucking cigarette.
Sometimes we critics overuse the word melodrama, but not nearly as much as Reiner overuses sound. Every goddamn scene in the film has some sort of music playing, whether it's Time Life's Obvious Jukebox Classics from The Wrong Decade or some stirring stings like fucking Pavlov's bell reminding you it's time to sigh. But it's better than being beaten over the head with cliches. None of Reiner's classic dry wit is present -- no snarky Columbo sidebars or funny Wil Wheaton puke parables. It's like he desperately clung to his weight and lost his sense of humor instead. The period piece, childhood sweethearts schlock might not be so painful if we couldn't name at least five films where they've done growing up in the old days so much better. For Christ's Sake, Reiner made Stand By Me, so he should know how to write a coming-of-age story better. In My Girl, Veda loses Thomas J. to a fucking bee sting, he dies, and it's got more laughs than this flick.
Which is a shame because some of the actors are better than this material. The parents were just miscast and did the best they could. Juli comes out the clear winner with Aidan Quinn and Penelope Ann Miller, instead of lame ass Bryce who gets Rebecca De Mornay and Anthony Edwards. The moms kind of balance out, other than De Mornay, who really should be duking it out with Ellen Barkin over the choice cougar roles instead of slumming as a poor man's Betty Draper. Aidan Quinn gruffly dangles between sentimental and screaming. Anthony Edwards wants the whole asshole pie, so he baldly preens like the cock he is, sniping everyone while slurping scotch. Daniel Stern could have pulled this off with one hand still counting his Home Alone residuals, but what's weirder is that Denis Leary was a more effective father in The Sandlot playing almost the same character. Discuss. John Mahoney is Morgan Freeman good -- if he's playing a crank or a charmer, a schemer or a sweetheart, he's just effective. They try to throw this terrible Grandpa role at him, and he dances with it like Fred Fucking Astaire, no matter how cruddy the dialogue or moments. Callan McAuliffe, as Bryce, just doesn't have the chops to pull it off. It's not that he's bad; it's just that he's not enough. Van Draanen keeps harping -- through Juli -- on Bryce's dazzling eyes, and this kid just doesn't have them or anything emoting from them. He's outclassed by his young co-star, Madeline Carroll, who proves yet again she can rise above any material. She was Kevin Costner's daughter in Swing Vote and the White Queen in one of the Resident Evil movies. She's on track to kick some serious ass, potentially in a Chloe Moretz way, so keep an eye on her.
I'm not familiar with the young reader's novel, so I don't know how many of these failings are in the original story, or whether or not to blame Reiner, but it's pretty satisfying and easy to lay the blame squarely at the pudgy feet of Meathead. Everything feels faked like an astroturf lawn; there's not a single authentic moment in the entire film that isn't telegraphed or manufactured. Sure, he's bound to woo a few seniors, but honestly, it's just another sad example of how far Reiner's fallen. Some might claim that with a PG rating, Reiner's trying to reel in a family-friendly crowd, but he's still got both parents and children saying shit and goddamn, and he's still got Bryce's pop swilling scotch and slapping his daughter. But as long as that Seinfeld money keeps pouring in, we're gonna have to suffer every time Reiner's got an ass itch to foist another cloying and banal love story on us.