Thursday, August 27, 2009

Post Grad: Post-mortem

Post Grad (2009) • View trailer for Post Grad
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for brief profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.27.09
Buy DVD: Post Grad• Buy Blu-Ray: Post Grad [Blu-ray]

Much like its central character, this movie undoubtedly thought it knew what it wanted to be when it grew up ... but things didn't work out that way.

Kelly Fremon's "original" screenplay, blatantly derived from the dysfunctional-family sub-genre recently popularized by Little Miss Sunshine and Sunshine Cleaning, apparently transitioned into something else when star Alexis Bledel got involved.
It's that perfect moment -- the posed graduation photo -- when grabbing the
entire world still seems possible to Ryden (Alexis Bledel, second from right)
and her longtime friend Adam (Zach Gilford, far right). Alas, nothing will work
out quite right from this point onward, in part due to the involvement of,
clockwise from left, Ryden's father (Michael Keaton), grandmother (Carol
Burnett), mother (Jane Lynch) and younger brother (Bobby Coleman).

Bledel's strength  demonstrated time and again by TV's Gilmore Girls and both big-screen Traveling Pants adaptations  is as a winsome, mildly vulnerable romantic lead, which is pretty much the approach she takes in Post Grad.

Trouble is, the rest of the cast is making some other movie, and Vicky Jenson  an art department veteran and animation director (Shrek, Shark Tale) making her live-action directorial debut here  hasn't the faintest idea how to blend these two disparate halves.

The result is clumsy and unintentionally funny. Bledel's Ryden Malby reminds me unerringly of the role Beverly Owen played on TV's The Munsters back in 1964, as the conventionally attractive (i.e. "normal") teenage daughter who was such an outcast among her hilariously weird parents, grandfather and younger brother.

But this clearly isn't the tone Post Grad is seeking, as is obvious from the way Fremon's script proceeds.

The disconnect is unfortunate, particularly since Jenson opens the film cleverly, with Bledel's Ryden taking us through her computer-based networking activities to supply the necessary backstory. This quite engaging prologue sets up definite expectations, none of which are met as the film continues.

Ryden, having just graduated from college, is all set to sell herself during an interview for what she has regarded as a dream job her entire life: an entry-level position at a Los Angeles publishing firm, where she'll eventually rise to reader and associate editor, and then make her rep by discovering the world's next hot author.

Alas, the job is snatched by condescending college nemesis Jessica Bard (Catherine Reitman, daughter of Ivan Reitman, one of this film's producers), and Ryden's carefully orchestrated post-grad career path is shattered in an instant.

She commiserates with longtime guy pal Adam (Zach Gilford), who has quietly loved Ryden from afar for years; she, according to the requirements of such storylines, is oblivious to such attentions and sees him only as a friend.

Meanwhile, as Ryden fills out applications, sends out resumes and dresses up for countless interviews...

Her father, Walter (Michael Keaton), a walking billboard for ADD medication, flits from one impulsive scheme to the next. At one moment, to Ryden's horror, he decides to repair her badly dented car; in the next heartbeat, he embarks on a get-rich-quick scheme involving  wait for it  belt buckles.

It's impossible to avoid thinking about Alan Arkin's similar character's seafood scheme in Sunshine Cleaning.

Grandma Maureen (Carol Burnett) charges about sporting a circus clown's multiple layers of make-up, maintains a pharmacy's worth of medication in the family kitchen (a very funny sight gag) and tries coffins out for size and comfort. Burnett channels the sort of deliberately blustery performances she gave during the send-up skits on her classic TV variety show ... which is to say she's often quite funny, but not really part of the rest of this movie.

Little brother Hunter (Bobby Coleman) is slightly "off" and indulges in socially unacceptable behavior, such as licking his classmates' heads. Coleman basically repeats the "weird kid" performance he gave in Martian Child, without any of the emotional depth he brought to that film.

Then there's the harried but more or less ordinary mom, Carmella (Jane Lynch), who tries to ride herd on her unusual crew, much the way Toni Collette held her family together in Little Miss Sunshine.

At about this point, one begins to wonder if Fremon will put any original concepts into her screenplay.

With this crew of eccentrics so frequently stealing her thunder, Bledel has a hard time holding our interest in Ryden's fate. It speaks well of Bledel's screen presence that she succeeds to any degree, and, in fairness, she and Gilford work well together. A late-night sob session in an empty big-box store is sweet, as is a later heart-to-heart at the edge of a swimming pool diving board.

On the other hand, Ryden's sudden infatuation with a much older neighbor (Rodrigo Santoro, as David) is an extremely odd plot contrivance, obviously inserted solely to drive a spike into Adam's heart. And the event that brings Ryden and David together, involving the latter's cat, eventually leads to a close encounter on an inflatable couch that is right out of a bad TV sitcom.

Mostly, then, Post Grad is a vexing series of bad set-ups and missed opportunities: particularly disappointing in light of the fact that Bledel clearly could have held our attention for an entire movie that concentrated more on Ryden's efforts to find her place in the world.

Much more also could have been made of the uneasy relationship between Adam and his father (J.K. Simmons), but that's another nonstarter; why hire an actor of Simmons' considerable talent and then fail to use him?

It feels as if Jenson and Fremon, resenting the way Bledel became the focus of what they envisioned as an ensemble project, did their best to bury her. That was a mistake, particularly since Bledel's Ryden is the only original note in an otherwise shamelessly derivative also-ran.

Small wonder Fox Searchlight dumped this flick, absent much publicity, in the becalmed waters of late summer.

Bledel deserved better.

So do we.

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