In this smash-hit comedy, a girl (Teri Polo) takes her potential groom (Ben Stiller) home to meet her parents (Robert De Niro, Blythe Danner). In the course of the weekend, he loses the cat, floods the garden and has his various weaknesses painfully exposed by her father, a former CIA operative. Given the set-up, this film from Austin Powers director Jay Roach could have been predictable and cliché-ridden, but the sheer class of the cast elevates it into something really special. Stiller gives the unfortunate beau humanity and realism; De Niro’s gravitas makes “dad” an intimidating presence; and Blythe Danner is a suitably quirky prospect as the mother-in-law; though arguably it’s the cat that steals the show. Ridiculously funny and somehow rather endearing, this is just the kind of fare to make the prospect of your own family festivities seem far less formidable.
This dissection of American social mores is the finest and most perfectly formed movie yet from director Alexander Payne. Middle-aged mates Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) take a trip to California’s wine country to celebrate the latter’s upcoming wedding. But Miles’s wine-tasting plans get sidelined by Jack’s desperation for a last fling and his attempts to set Miles up with an equally grape-savvy waitress (Virginia Madsen). Thanks to astonishing performances from Giamatti (a rumpled bundle of nervous self-loathing), Church (a deliciously deadpan but fading Casanova) and the Oscar-nominated Madsen, Payne’s richly rewarding comedy is of the best vintage. Finding a middle ground between his last two films – the explicitly satirical Election and the overly bleak About Schmidt – Payne’s gloriously picaresque analysis of midlife crises does exactly as the title suggests. It takes oblique glances at the buddy flick and road movie by skewering both with poignancy, truth and consistent wit to give a fresh vitality to each well-worn genre. It fully deserved every award it received, and a lot more.
Though rather worthy and self-important, director Phillip Noyce’s superbly photographed true-life drama is not without impact as it throws light on a shameful period in Australia’s past. In 1931, 14-year-old Molly (Everlyn Sampi) is interned by the Australian government as part of their policy to forcibly integrate mixed-race Aborigines into white society (a policy that continued up until the 1970s). Molly escapes with her younger sister, Daisy, and cousin, and walks the 1,200 miles back to their loving family using the fence that bisects the continent (it was erected to keep rabbits from the crops) as a guide. The children are wonderfully natural, Kenneth Branagh is excellent as misguided politician AO Neville – who apparently truly believed “racial cleansing” was for the greater good – and David Gulpilil is superb as the resentful Aborigine tracker employed to hunt down the youngsters. It’s just a shame that Noyce’s predictable direction often fails to emotionally engage us with this shocking “stolen generations” story – based on the book by Daisy’s daughter – that is given extra poignancy by the appearance of the real-life Molly and her sister in the heartfelt epilogue.