Levitt’s Review Of “I’m Dying Up Here” (A-) (Showtime, Sunday, 10-11 PM E.)


When I began watching Showtimes, “I’m dying Up Here” I thought the tone of a show about comedians too despairing and similar  to the Tom Hanks/Sally Field film, “Punchline”. In Punchline, the impulse to do stand-up seemed more like a curse than a freedom.  The comedians were sufferers; unable to lead a normal life because they were addicted to the rush of performing. Too many times in these kinds of true-to life shows about comedians are depicted  comedians as only “on” when hit the stage and then, post-performance; collapsing in some sort of destructive/drunken cocoon in the corner.

The success of “I’m Dying Up Here”, though is that it successfully shows the comedians have three dimensional lives on and offstage. When not performing, There are numerous exchanges where each comic is just standing around shooting the shit and being normal knuckle-heads.  Other shows about comics also fall lazily into familiar templates; comedian as detached funny commentator (Gaffigan) or being a bottom-rung comedic pee-on (“Crashing”).  “Dying”, instead, presents a solid close-knit band of “working” comedians.  There are no break-out performers (save for the occasional visiting celeb or A-Lister).  By in large, each comedian is a-work-in-progress, honing their craft, and- aside from the inevitable jealousies- generally supportive of each-others success.

The show is full of talented real-life comedians and actors.  A stand out in the cast for me is the club owner, Goldie Herschlag  (Melissa Leo) who resists the greedy/grumbly stereotype and, though thick-skinned maintains a good. mature working relationship with her comics and a sporting interest in their careers. As the series progresses, it will be good to see more of her personal life take center stage…she might even get the itch to pick up the mic.


I also like the fire-cracker energy of Adam Proteau ( R.J. Cyler)  He is not as guarded as his contemporaries and has more raw vital presence on the stage and is interesting to watch and set him apart from the other comics.rj


Finally, Cassie Feder (Ari Graynor) shines as the show’s only female comedian.  The show’s writers do not make her cast as a typical salty/sassy Joan Rivers or Bette Midler over-sexed clone.  In fact, she disdains stock material in favor of a richer, more personal and confessional brand of humor that should yield rich dividends later on.


So far, in my review of “Dying”, I haven’t mentioned that the show is set in the 70s and that is, in large part, because I really don’t find the time frame to be that relevant to the show’s atmosphere.  The show is cast in the 70s because that’s when stand-up was king.  If people wanted to see comedy, they had to leave their homes to see the likes of Pryor or Carlin since there was no cable/internet outlets.  I think a strength of the show is that it doesn’t beat you over the head with 70s references or slang that takes you of the action. The 70’s setting is just atmosphere, man!

One of the show’s few negatives for me is the heavy-handed backstories.  The writers of “Dying” can’t seem to resist the temptation to make each comic the product of a bad home life.  Every comedian’s dad apparently drank too much and beat them up. Yipes, I wouldn’t want to be stuck in the audience at Caroline’s on Father’s Day ! Thankfully, though, the back-stories take a back-seat to the rich and realistic stand-up and the tight-knit relationships of the comedians.

Now that I’ve given this show a pretty great review, I thought I would temper my analysis with a little reality.

Although the writing and acting are first-rate, Here is why I feel the show might get cancelled.




Nobody On “Dying” is a Zombie, vampire, or otherwise living-challenged Individual

By comedian standards these guys are relatively normal earth-bound dudes.  nobody is drug-addicted (at least not violently so, sticking up a 7/11 at 2 in the morning to get enough money for “blow”).

The Lead actress is not a sex-pot-  Though attractive and talented, the lead actress is more interested in her career, than trying out out experimental, cinematically pleasing sex positions.

Nobody gets wacked every week–  Shows like Sopranos, True Blood, and Boardwalk Empire tended to like to sacrifice a different character every week to keep everyone interested and guessing.  Stand-up comedy,  although competitive,  is not exactly a blood sport.

Nobody is mentioning Trump or politics- Trump and political commentary are hogging the airwaves this summer with all the Russian/collusion shenanigans.  To me, my interest in Russia really peaked with Rocky 4.  But, This show with its occasional references to news or pop culture, (Billie Jean King V Bobby Riggs anyone?) seems miles away from being topical.











Levitt Reviews Masters Of Sex-Season Finale (spoilers)


Masters Of Sex did tick-up in quality slightly this year from the Dan Logan-Centric previous season but unfortunately the year also doubled-down on soapy intrigue and melodramatic shenanigans.  The season finale had a rushed-up feel.  Subtlety gave way to easy closures and bizarrely unexpected detours.

Libby Masters JD-


 When did Libby’s deep love of the law begin,  two episodes ago?. Libby was formerly the queen of domestic complacency; spending the past 3 seasons doing absolutely  nothing except smoking, and inwardly brooding about her condition.  This season, the staid former housewife however, suddenly decided to head on down to Woodstock and… eschewing the counter culture phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, instead decided to…become a lawyer. If you troubled to ask,  I’m sure people’s first impulse after dazedly emerging from the mushroom /mud infused grounds of Woodstock was probably not to decide to buckle down to 3 years of intense study and preparation for the Bar Exam.  Talk about your bad trip!

Johnny Masters- from neglected child to teenage martyr


In this hyper-melodramatic finale, Johnny Masters (estranged son of Bill) overhears his parents bickering and -apparently because he has an extremely low tolerance for parental discord- completely freaks; jumping into his dad’s Jaguar and driving off in some wacky vehicular tantrum.  I’m not sure why Master’s son (absent all season) was suddenly called in for this melodrama.  Maybe due to some child labor laws in AFTRA, kids must appear in at least one episode per season to be granted health coverage. Johnny’s sole scene depicted him overhearing that his mom (kids in tow) would move halfway across the country to attend law school. Its hard to believe that Johnny’s character, so long estranged and even insulted by his father, would get so worked up about the fight that Johnny would both freak and -in some bizarre  magnanimous impulse-volunteer to live with his dad to ease his fatherly loneliness.  Luckily, the still “paternally ambivalent” Bill Masters quickly put the kibosh to any “The Courtship Of Eddies Father” scenario by announcing that despite Johnny’s kind offer,  Dad would now be keeping house with former mistress, fellow sexpert, Virginia Johnson.  Music to any estranged kids ears!

Dr Nancy-  Going Off “Half cocked”


After a whole season of sniping at Virginia and de-masculating husband Art, what was Dr Nancy’s exit strategy this season?  Just steal Master’s and Johnson’s Clients, move to another city and set up shop using their approaches? Great plan!  Good luck getting a good job recommendation/employer referral after that one! .   This year, Dr Nancy and Art already won my  award for least fun, open-marriage swingers ever. Nancy was cold blooded, stone-faced, and ambitious and Art was  devoted, ethical, and soul searching. Instead,  Masters could have tapped into the more casual, promiscuous vibe of this era and even added some “far outs” or “groovys” to add some tacky flavor and more of a smarmy groove.  Unfortunately, the show apparently wanted to end the season by making Dr Nancy, Betty Gilpin, the single least likable woman on cable; aborting her husband’s baby without his knowledge/consent and stealing her bosses clients. On the plus side though, she did like her some “open marriage sex”.

Masters And Johnson- How About A Wedding Quickie?


What do you get for the couple whose relationship was sizzling, bubbling, percolating for 4 seasons (spanning 10+ years)?   a quickie marriage in the clerk’s office of City Hall and presided over by a grumbly functionary. Yeah, that hit the spot!  Seems satisfying.  I guess the writers wanted to avoid any  needless romantic proclamations by Masters or any earnest love-filled vows by Virginia to keep female fans of the show happy. No, we don’t want that! Look, They got hitched.  Isn’t that enough?  The show didn’t even go to the trouble of throwing up any last minute roadblocks.  No last minute Dan Logan or “Dotie” objections to clog up the works and kill any remote dramatic tension. No last minute Barton Scully indignant meltdowns at the courthouse (always good for a laugh)  Bill was late to the ceremony. that’s it.  It would probably be a more dramatic payoff if Masters suddenly realized he forgotten his beloved bow tie.

Betty- What, Did Her Invite To the Finale/Wedding Get Lost In The Mail?


Killing her lesbian lover in childbirth, losing custody of her new baby to her lover’s hateful, intolerant parents…They did everything to Betty this season but chuck her head-first down a flight of stairs.  What happened here? who’d she piss off?  Did she accidentally  drop a #2 in the Toilet of Lizzy Caplan’s private dressing room?   The show didn’t even have the courtesy to invite her to the courthouse nuptials of Masters and Johnson.  Screw Scully or Guy, Betty deserved to be there.

Levitt Rates “The Duff” (B- On A Teen-Comedy Scale)


On the surface, the plot of The Duff, follows in a long tradition of Boiler-Plate Teen comedies .  The recipe is: Take a misfit protagonist, a stuck up homecoming queen, the school jock, and sprinkle in some John Hughes teen angst  and stir.

The plot off “The Duff” is the most highly derivative teen comedy I have ever seen and, since most of these films borrow from each-other, that’s saying alot.  Here are some of the more copy-cat plot points:

The central character of the film is a social mis-fit who is just one make-over away from being attractive (in every teen flick): check

The embarrassing viral video (see “American pie”)

The pretty but dim friends (any teen comedy) check

The climactic prom scene where the jock must make a decision to choose love over social convention. (She’s All That)  Check

The cool girl’s come uppance (every teen comedy)

The central story of the film involves Bianca’s realization that she is the Duff (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) for her friend group to whom people approach who are more interested in her prettier friends. Once she realizes this less-than-profound fact, she is able to take a stronger ownership of her invisible social status:to act/dress different, confront her peers, ie get out of her comfort zone and take more risks. She quickly buddies up with jock, “Wesley Rush” who, in exchange for help with his science Class, agrees to help tutor her to confront her Duff Status and navigate through the tough social waters of high-school life ( you know,in between push-ups/making out with the homecoming queen).

Ulitmately, What makes these geek to chic teen comedies work is largely the likability/relatability of the central character. That’s where this film, for me, breaks above the average pack of this genre.  The writers make The Duff, aka Bianca Piper (played appealingly by  by Mae Whitman) a fully three dimensional character. Not too Goody-Goody, not too much of an angry outsider. She just seems real.  She’s casual and self-deprecating but also sharply critical of the people around her. Physically, Mae Whitman she reminds me as sort of a cross between Amanda Bynes and janeane Garofalo ( although with less real-life baggage than Bynes and less sardonic than Garofolo).  The writers also smatter-in plenty of witty social media references and pop culture references to keep things moving and entertaining.

But of course, “The Duff” is the most likable character in the film  The writers hardly give the other characters a fighting chance. The other actors are mostly  stock figures: pretty girls who take turns either preening or mercilessly bashing their underclassman.  The only other character who has a more singular personality is the 2nd lead of the film, The Jock/heartthrob “Wesley Rush”.  I like how the writers named a football character “Wesley Rush”. Get it? I guess the name “Scott Scrimmage” was too on the nose. The writers make him a decent guy but with raunchy streak that gives his character more depth/reality than your basic jock/good samaritan type which is pretty common in these types of films.  Less successful, though, is the odd addition of  actress  Allison Janey to play The Duff’s mother Its questionable why they cast Janney as mother since she towers above Mae and physically they barely seem part of the same species much less family members.  The film largely sidelines the talented Janney relegating her to just a sounding board for Bianca’s problems .

The film is obvious in its treatment of social groups. These types films never met a cliche’d teen niche they didn’t like/exploit.  From the original template of The Breakfast Club: you have your Jocks, criminals, nerds, wierdos etc.  Anyone who has experiences high school, knows that social groups that not very sharply delineated.  Its not like jocks or nerds telegraph their status that obviously:  “Look, I’m a jock and I can’t be seen talking to you.  Read the contract!”.  Social groups are, more often than that more varied;  weird melting pots of people who could probably and do hang equally with many different social groups.

The ending morality of the film, everybody is somebody’s duff.  We’re all nerds, blah blah is straight out of every other teen movie from John Hughes On. Not that earth-shattering.  But its still nice to see difference being embraced after the slew of body shaming/ cyber bullying that happens so frequently online and through social media these days.  Its also nice, if cliched, to see the heroine of the film achieve love and self-acceptance.  So, despite its extremely copy-cat, by the numbers plot-line and cardboard supporting characters, I liked the lead actors and some of the sharp/witty dialogue enough to give this film a B- (On a highly more generous Teen-Comedy Scale)




Levitt Reviews Trainwreck (C+)


(*Premiering This Month on HBO)

To most, Amy Schumer doesn’t fit as the lead to a romantic comedy. Her salty/guarded stand-up stage persona reads more like a caustic best friend than a doting girlfriend. But the film, “Trainwreck” does a good job softening Amy Shumer’s more acerbic insulting edges though still keeping her character fundamentally dysfunctional.

I think its safe to assume Bill Hader is no one’s conception of a romantic leading man. He’s known for playing characters on SNL with a wacky and slightly menacing quality. It took a good 45 + minutes into Trainwreck for me to finally accept him as your basic boring romantic man. I would never sit Hader and Schumer at the same table at a wedding much less match them up romantically. Frankly it looks like Schumer could easily bench press Hader and that, if lifted in the air, its likely Hader’s gangly body would snap like a twig. So, it did take a lot for me to disregard their asymetrical relationship to imagine them in a romantic scenario. Also, in theory Schumer’s character should have disdained the square sports doctor as Hader’s character should have steered clear of the Slutty Schumer.  The film, I think wisely recognizes the couple’s unlikely romance and purposely sets them up in an “opposites attract” kind of context. Furthermore, the real twist of this film also is that Shumer is set up as more the man in the relationship: she’s Commitment-phobic, promiscuous, and a partier. whereas Hader is more stable, square, and romantic. Its this rom-com twist, I feel, that lies at the film’s center and the choice whether or not you buy into it as a viewer is is at the core of whether or not you like Trainwreck.



The scenes between Shumer and Hader’s character are enjoyable.  They move from the writer/subject idea of the early scenes (She’s writing an article about hader’s as a sports doctor to the stars) to their dating phase. Many such films, when casting two comedians as the leads, would fall into the trap of having long scenes of the two doing comedic riffs that don’t add anything to the relationship and just look a lot like what they are:  two comedians trying to “outfunny the other” (random scenes in Knocked Up or “She’s Out Of My League” come to mind). Although, there are a few short exceptions, most of the dialogue in Trainwreck, though, furthers the relationship and supports the couple’s unlikely yet growing intimacy. Schumer’s initial reluctance to form a permanent bond with Hader gives way to a true fondness and respect. At times, though, I found Hader’s character, in many ways, a bit too perfect (he even likes to spoon!). Hader’s eager willingness to gloss over Schumer’s reckless past also seems a bit too pat.  When confronted with Schumer’s past, Hader doesn’t even seem even slightly skeeved or wary. His one imperfection as a character(if you can really call it that) is that he likes one of Billy Joel’s lesser hits, “Uptown Girl”.  Oh the shame!!!.

The flaws in the film’s narrative are not extremely detrimental to the whole experience because mostly come from the unrealistic, cartoon-like supporting characters.  Because this was Schumer’s first foray into film/rom-com, I think  it was her fundamental insecurity (or producers) that tempted them to cast her fellow comedian friends and sports figures in  cameos/supporting roles.  For instance,  Vanessa Bayer plays Schumer’s nervous/innapropriate co-worker.One scene has Vanessa Bayer’s character interrupting Schumer’s eulogy of her father to reveal that Bayer had once dated a black man. Additionally, Hader’s best friend, ridiculously portrayed by The Cleveland Cavaliers, Lebron James makes no sense in the context of the film or in general. The unlikely bond of Hader and Lebron James is made worse by Lebron’s over-protective, mother-hen vibe and his constant cautioning to Schumer not to hurt his friend is ludicrous and largely unfunny.


Other unfunny and buffoonish supporting characters include an intern who, although only 16 years old,  amzingly already boasts  a whole varied sexual repertoire and even a “safeword”. His preposterous drunken scene with Schumer toward the end of the film is one that I think should have been tossed.

In addition to the silly supporting characters, the  pattern of the relationship is a little cookie cutter. From the ailing father character (the mortality rate for dads in romcoms must be pretty high) to the The obvious scenes where Schumer doesn’t get along with Hader’s friends at a party and goes out of her way to be controversial.  For instance, feeling bored, Schumer suddenly tells a group of Hader’s assembled guests about the time that an errant condom that got stuck in her cervix during sex.  Only in film comedy would someone’s natural response to a boring party would be to blurt out their most embarassing sexual experience they ever had.  For must of us, living through it the first time would be plenty!


The more ridiculous elements aside, ultimately I think Schumer does a fairly good job acquitting herself as a formidable film presence. Throughout Trainwreck  She is able to play the lighter moments, the more moving moments with equal ease. The one slight imperfection in her acting was that she struggled a bit to have her face to light up and convey true love for Bill Hader. But, I’m not sure if you can really fault her too much for that. Much more established actresses than Schumer would probably confess that the difficulty level of acting like your in love with Bill Hader was pretty damn high!



Actors Who Can’t Do Accents

Some Film Actors like Meryl Streep are adept at playing characters with a whole range of different accents and regional dialects. However, some film actors who should be best kept nameless  but who I will now mercilessly name are best kept to their “mother tongues” because when they try to venture into changing the natural rhythms and cadences of their voices, the results are often quite painful to the human ear.

Park The Cah in Haavad Yaaad


Having gone to school in Boston, I know that the regional accents are often subtle. I can therefore categorically say that not everyone speaks like John F. Kennedy after a visit to the dentist.  Unfortunately, I don’t think Tom Hans or Rob Morrow ever got my memo.

Sure  Charles Van Doren famously lied about getting the answers on 21 in the film Quiz Show, but I believe the more grievous crime was Rob Morrow’s ridiculously thick “bahstonian” accent in Quiz Show. Its lucky he was a lawyer and not a dialect coach. His clients would sue.

Tom Hanks is a respected actor known for versatility in comedy and drama.  Yet accents are not his strong suit.  Even Forrest Gump where he must put on a southern accent is cartoon-ish and only aided somewhat by the reality that Gump was mentally challenged so therefore  spoke in a halting and overly deliberate way.  But, Hanks bizarrely bad boston accent in “Catch Me If You Can” cannot be attributable to any inferior intellect.  In this instance, Hanks character was in complete control of all his faculties…except for speech.

2 thick accents don’t mix


Russel Crowe is known for his intensity and dissolving into the characters he plays.  unfortunately his australian accent doesn’t always make the seamless transition.  In A Beautiful Mind or Cinderella Man  his accents it still sounds like a mix of australian/new york or australian/southern.  A mumble-mouthed jumble… a verbal concoction that savages two dialects in the process.  Maybe the more merciful way to go was to dub Crowe’s audio using another actor.



In the history of bad accents, Keanu Reeves should be given the gold trophy.  In the film Dracula, his accent is so bad you wish that a vampire would put an early end to his life. In the film, “Devil’s Advocate”, Keanu voices a southern accent so fowl, him and his law clients deserved death by lethal injection.  In fact, in most films Keanu seems even barely able to speak his native language, English, with any degree of fluency or meaning . When he is called on to speak, Reeves talking pattern is as awkward as any space alien or a 6 year old reading a Dick and Jane Book for the first time.

Holly Hunter- The accent from nowhere


Holly Hunter has an eccentric sounding southern accent which she cannot shake and even sounds out of place in films in which her characters are supposed to have southern roots. Simply put,  her voice doesn’t exactly match her face.  When watching any of her films, you might always find yourself asking,  Why does this character have this weird southern accent?    So film-makers almost have to concoct a colorful backstory to explain why Holly Hunter has an eccentric southern drawl…ie her character often summered in a farm in rural Arkansas. fittingly, she Hunter was honored for an Oscar for  her work in the Piano, in a role in which she did not speak out loud.

Speak Russian?  Nyet!


I think its safe to generalize and say that most actors cannot do a convincing Russian Accent. Inevitably, they all sound like some variation of “Boris” from the old Bullwinkle Cartoon . For instance  John Malkovich’s ridiculously over-the-top accent in “Rounders”. If he tried that voice in real life, He’d be laughed out of any self-respecting Russian Bathhouse or denied service in any restaurant in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn which served pirogis. Thankfully, in the film “Inside John Malkovich” the actor was not called upon to to illicit any  particular foreign accent. The last thing you’d want to be is trapped in his subconscious or the scene with the multiple malkovich’s all speaking in bad Russian continuously. Nyet, Definitely Nyet!

Levitt Reviews Straight Outta Compton (B+)


I’ll get this out of the way early…I’m not the biggest fan of rap.  When it comes to music, I’m more of a traditionalist;  tune and melody slightly more important to me than the words wheras in rap, the opposite is largely true. So, when it came to watching “Straight Outta Compton”, I was really coming at the subject largely from a beginners perspective. Of course, I’ve heard of NWA and knew of Ice Cube largely from his movies and “Aint nothin but a G Thang” but I was largely ignorant, except in very broad strokes, of the bands history and importance to gangsta rap.  I wanted to check out the movie, though, because I usually like music biopics and this film got such universal positive praise.

Most music biopics follow a very familiar template:  clashes with dissaproving moms (do moms in movies ever approve of anything?), low-level club owners who warn the band “their kind of music will never sell”, soon early success leads to drug excess and ego clashes, and for some reason each biopic I’ve seen always features a greedy jewish band manager with a bad hairpiece.  “Straight Outta Compton” hits all these familar beats without apology but what separates this film and what stops it from being a superficial “movie of the week” is the throbbing vitality of the music itself and its unflinching portrait of the world it depicts.  NWA, the film’s focus and its main members:  Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube not only write and rap about their violent culture they live it.  Unlike many musicians who visit and report on injustice in songs in an “aint that just to bad” or detached coffee-house way, these guys are the ones who are getting guns flashed in their faces and thrown down on the hoods of cop cars. Much of their rhymes serve as a retaliatory gut-punches on what just happened.  The lyrics have a raw. blunt, immediacy that could not be denied by the music industry and the public at large.

The film shows the rise of NWA and the politics within the group and clashes with record producers/managers.  There are many scenes  and the groups manager, Jerry Heller played by Paul Giamatti who adopts a paternal protective image with the band and forms a special Bond with Eazy-E. I liked this relationship but felt that these scenes and much of the films middle part was a bit insular.  There are boardroom scenes and scenes noting the band’s success by showing lavish pool-side parties. But Since NWA,  was such a fan favorite, I would have preferred more scenes which showed the group interacting with the public….laughing or commiserating with fans,   or the group connecting with old people of their neighborhood.

Interestingly, in a film largely about violence and bravado, I found the film was at its most effective in moments of quiet. The scene where Dr Dre learns about his brother dieing is a standout.  The guys are allowed to take a pause and reflect on the transitory nature of life despite any momentary material/financial advantage.

As I mentioned much of the film is about the groups clash with record executives. In a fit of rage, Dr Dre is scene taking a bat to one excutive’s display of gold records.   But, the primary relationship of the film with Eazy E and his manager, Heller needed a more satisfying resolution. Despite Dre Dre and ice Cube leaving NWA because of Heller’s corruptness/skimming off the top earlier in the film,  Eazy-E stayed loyal to the the manager despite mounting evidence that Heller was cheating the band of some profits.  I think there needed to be an extra scene which showed why Eazy was so blindingly trustful or why Heller was so unnecessarily greedy to make a better payoff at the end.

I enjoyed Straight Outta Compton and found the pace of the film good and the performances first rate. (especially from O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube who captures the sullenness, and Jason Mitchell (as Eazy E) who inhabits the films most dramatic moments.  I would have liked a scene or two about the actual writing process and the members of NWA struggling more to find their musical voice.  But, I realize that the writing/creative process is a hard nut to crack in a dramatic way on screen.  Films from everything from Barton Fink to Throw Mamma From the train have tried to depict the writing process in a competitive but ultimately unsuccessful way.  Maybe ultimately true creation is often too random and elusive to truly capture on screen.But, At least we have films like Straight Outta Compton to testify to the vibrant/ lasting end result.



Levitt Reviews “The Martian” (B)


“The Martian” is the most recent in the rash of survivalist flicks where one man or woman must use their ingenuity and fortitude to survive against a cruel and unforgiving environment.  Films like The Castaway and Gravity also pit their lead largely sole, character against a war of wits and humanity against mother nature or in this case “Space Nature” to stay alive.

I think they key to a major factor on whether a lot of these films being successful is the vulnerability of the lead actor. They must convey the loneliness and desperation of their struggle for us to totally emphasize and get invested in their struggle. Unfortunately, Matt Damon the film’s star and the lone astronaut who is marooned  on Mars after a horrific storm, is known for having a cool calm demeanor on screen. “The Martian is no exception.  Damon is, in large part, missing the  “oh shit, I’m alone on a desolate planet factor”  Its a little like watching Denzel Washington try to play helpless on screen. It doesn’t totally work.   The film needed someone with more vulnerability, more emotional subtlety in their performance. In addition in many scenes Matt Damon is seen being snarky (railing against disco etc) which, while funny and made him more likable removed me from the complete seriousness of his situation.

Matt Damon was, of course, thought of for this film for his star power but I think Damon should have refused for the good of the movie.  I think Matt Damon is too interested in being in control in the acting projects he chooses i.e. his ego wont allow him to play someone inept or deeply flawed.  In any film he chooses,  he has to show he’s the best, the most qualified character in the film. He played a card genius in Rounders, top CIA Assasin in The Bourne Films, in Good Will Hunting he was a math-genius janitor and Even in this film, he’s the self proclaimed best botanist on Mars!

Damon’s screen strength/arrogance also doesn’t play well when you consider that his crew has to go completely (and a bit unrealistically rogue, taking them a year off course, risking their lives, and in complete contradiction to direct orders) to complete a daring rescue of him in space.  Damon’s demeanor, to me, doesn’t inspire loyalty.  I had the same problem with Damon in “Saving Private Ryan” when after he was rescued by Hanks and his men,…they came all this way just to save Matt Damon?! and too top it off, he didn’t even seem to care about their sacrifice.

Because Damon is so unpreturbed throughout much of the film its Its up to the other characters to show their worried. Other actors particularly NASA engineer Mindy Park (played by mackenzie Davis) does an excellent job and conveying the nervousness and range of emotion necessary to be empathatic.  I think she should have played the marooned astronaut and left Damon to play some unconcerned Nasa bureaucrat instead.

The first half of the film the action is told in large part of Damon making a video diary of his daily life on the planet, gradually by degrees is able to grow food (whattaya know he just happens to be a botanist…that’s a lucky break!) and gradually able to communicate with nasa. Soon, complications, technical failures, and the barren-ness and oxygen less enviroment take their toll.  At times things do get a bit slow in the action as Damon is forced constantly to confront adversity and work each situation through in a math-like way to arrive at a solution. Soon, I almost wanted some kind of Mars Monster to come out of a crater and attack Damon to relieve the monotony and so Damon could bust out some cool Judo moves or something.  Instead there are long stretches of Damon planting crops, rationing food, and although interesting a documentary way were at times a bit dull.

I did enjoy the secondary characters in the film, Damon’s crewmates especially “Rick Martinez”, Michael Pena, are fun and Chwietol Ejiofor, who plays Dr. Vincent Kapoor, head of NASA’s Mars missions, conveys the humanity largely missing from Damon.   Less successful I thought was Kristin Wiig who seemed out of place in a cast of otherwise earnest actors. She’s not horrible but always looks like she’s holding back something that she thinks is funny so took me a little out of the action.

In the final analysis, I liked The Martian Okay but aside from Matt Damon’s casting, I generally have a problem with all vehicles which are largely one man shows like The Castaway with Tom Hanks. To be completely engaged on all cylinders , to borrow from aircraft jargon, I prefer more conflict, friction/clashing of wills, multi-person viewpoints to get lost and feel a stake in the action.  One actor, no matter how gifted, cannot frankly play all the sides of the same issue and, in this case, if you’re not totally in love with Matt Damon, you won’t be totally in love with “The Martian”.