Friday, January 18, 2008

"Mad Money" -- * * 1/2

Callie Khouri's "Mad Money" is not a particularly good movie, and I don't know if I could quite tell you with a good conscience to spend ten dollars to watch it. However, maybe it's attributed to astronomically low expectations (the trailer was awful), but I was surprised to find myself kind-of enjoying it for the most part, despite never really laughing or being completely won over by it. Almost despite itself, the female-skewing, middlebrow comedy is surprisingly entertaining, consistently pleasant and engenders goodwill with enough small charms to mostly overlook the faults. It shouldn't be your first choice at the multiplex this weekend, but it's not a bad back-up.

Beginning with Bridget (Diane Keaton), Nina (Queen Latifah) and Jackie (Katie Holmes) disposing of and/or destroying large piles of cash, "Mad Money" soon flashes back three years to show us how we got to this point. Told largely through police confessions of the parties involved (which admittedly undercuts any sort of tension), the story starts out with Bridget and her husband Don(Ted Danson) floundering financially after he's fired from his job. As a last resort, Bridget gets a job as a janitor at a major bank where she meets single mother Nina and wacky diabetic Jackie. Despite a watchful, anal boss (Stephen Root) who makes sure to tell her "Don't want anything, Don't even think about wanting anything"), Bridget gets the bright idea to steal money from the bank-- the worn-out money that's going to be destroyed anyway-- and gets the other two ladies in on it with her. After a first heist that reaps $91,000, the three (with the help of Don, and Jackie's husband Bob) decide to keep going, and then the fun/trouble begins.

Khouri won an Oscar for writing "Thelma and Louise" and has always shown a fondness for femme-friendly fare (she also wrote and directed "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"), though the focus here isn't really on female empowerment. Sure, it's nice that it's ladies involved doing the stealing, and they do in turn, stick it to "the man," but the gender element isn't at the forefront. Perhaps that can be attributed to the script being written by apparent man Glenn Gers, who also wrote the extremely forgettable "Fracture" last year. The screenplay here doesn't cling to the memory much more than that one did, but it generally avoids dumb gags, at least for the most part (there's a lame joke perpetuating Bob's already-established idiocy when he spells aloud "lawyer" L-A-Y-W-E-R).

Perhaps sadly, this is a step up for once-reigning Diane Keaton after embarrassing turns in "Mama's Boy" and "Because I Said So." Even if she starts to get too loopy and frenetic around the hour mark, she mostly emerges unscathed and doesn't seem on autopilot like she's been too often in recent years. Meanwhile, Latifah is probably the most likable presence here, giving warmth and humor to the one character who's given any real semblance of depth. When these actresses share the screen, we get a look at what might have been; the two clearly have chemistry together, and perhaps might be suited for a buddy comedy down the line. Regrettably however, whatever the two have together is tarnished whenever the unfortunate Ms. Holmes shows up.

Look, I hate when the media unfairly piles on a celebrity for whatever's going on in their personal life. I think it's really unfair how people have been going after her since her marriage to Cruisazy and I feel some sort of (maybe unwarranted) sympathy for the girl. However, it has to be acknowledged that something has happened to her since the relationship began. Really, what's become of Katie Holmes? She was solid in "Go," and significantly impressive in Sam Raimi's "The Gift" and Peter Hedges' "Pieces of April." However, she was embarrassingly off in both the talented ensembles of "Thank You for Smoking" and "Batman Begins." Here, she sucks completely, and literally can't speak one line of dialogue convincingly. While it doesn't help that the script gives her one sole defining trait (she dances), the performance is genuinely bad; I'm concerned for the young actress and wish her all the best, but something must be done.

In smaller roles, the men fare significantly better. Ted Danson gets a lot of good lines here, and it's always nice to see him in movies again (I don't think I've seen him on the big screen since the way underrated "Mumford," but I could be wrong). As the one voice of reason within the group, he plays nicely off of Keaton and is a welcome presence whenever he's on screen. Still, the always great Stephen Root manages to steal every scene he's in as the villainous bank manager with refined phonetics. As he always seems to be, Root (also currently seen in "No Country") is having a lot of fun here, and brings significantly more to the part than was on the page.

Of course, there are a plethora of contrived directorial decisions that perhaps make the movie feel a couple decades older than it is. Did we really need multiple scenes of the three women throwing money at each other and dancing in it to tune of "Money (That's What I Want)"? "Money" is only one track on a very dated soundtrack filled with songs that were overused even 30 years ago when they debuted. And I can't quite put my finger on what it is about the production values exactly that does this, but everything looks resoundingly cheap (from the sets to the cinematography), giving the impression of a production done on the fly.

Still, these drawbacks aren't considerable, just noticeable. While the pacing, and the chemistry of Latifah and Keaton are the film's strong points, its light-hearted feel and charm goes a long way, especially for a movie that's ultimately about grand larceny. In fact, the initial heist sequence is probably the high point of the film; with just a slight hint of suspense, the sequence is cleverly executed and the plan itself seems borderline-ingenious, and I, at least, was eager to see how it was pulled off.

The first movie from Overture Films, "Mad Money" could've been a really strong piece of entertainment. Instead it's a diverting, flawed time-killer, and that's okay. Some people don't like their movies intelligent, highbrow or witty, and this crowd-pleaser doesn't deliver any of that; but it also avoids insulting the audience's intelligence (for the most part), and is certainly more of an entertaining, easy sit than you might have imagined from the marketing. Rather than shooting for the moon and falling flat, "Mad Money" has modest aims and good intentions, and for the most part, they're fulfilled. If you go in with low expectations to a matinee (or renting it when it arrives on DVD), it's hard to imagine you'll be very disappointed.


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