Either it’s a trend or a freak coincidence (or some mixture of both), but December has found A-list stars cashing paychecks and slumming it in sub-par material. Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie and their silly putty faces floated through the turgid romantic thriller, “ The Tourist,” that was neither sexy nor exciting, and audiences smelled their half-hearted participation from a mile away. Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Reese Witherspoon and Jack Nicholson failed to convince anybody to see James L. Brooks‘ over-populated, people-talking-on-telephones comedy “How Do You Know.” Opening this week is “Little Fockers,” the terrible forthcoming installment in the Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller franchise that only seems to have gotten made because of contractual obligations and a senior production executive who tittered at the punny title. And now, we have “Guillver’s Travels” arriving on Christmas weekend with a starry cast — Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Billy Connolly — and pays them for doing a bunch of reaction shots against a green screen.
We should have thought better for trying to have any scrap of hope for this one, but god bless our foolish hearts, we did. Why? We figured that with Nicolas Stoller (“Get Him To The Greek,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall“) co-writing and Jack Black and Jason Segel horsing around, there might some kind of fun to be had from a premise that while not totally original, could lend itself to some comic highlights. How naive we were.
The film centers on Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black), a mail clerk who works for a big New York newspaper that is essentially the New York Times without actually saying so. Gulliver is basically Dewey Finn from “School of Rock,” a slacker with little ambition and a heart of gold who doesn’t hesitate to show his new, ambitious and by-the-book co-worker Dan (a woefully miscast T.J. Miller; dude get a new agent) the ropes of the job. He introduces him to everyone around the office, including Darcy (Amanda Peet), the hottie travel editor that Gulliver has a thing for. In order to try and impress Darcy, Dan leads her to believe that he’s a struggling freelance writer looking for a break and after submitting his samples — some carefully cut and pasted travel guide write-ups — Darcy sends him on his first assignment to the Bermuda Triangle where a source claims that rumors of mystery, supernatural happenings are bogus.
So Gulliver heads to Bermuda, snags a boat and is pointed in the direction of the Bermuda Triangle when he disappears…and wakes up on the island of Lilliput! He is quickly jailed by the Lilliputians and forced into a life of hard labor by General Edward (Chris O’Dowd). However, when Gulliver successfully prevents the royal palace from burning down by peeing on it (yes, there is a big long extended piss gag) he is declared a hero and is freed. In turn, he demands freedom for his new friend Horatio (Jason Segel), a man whom he meets while he was imprisoned. Gulliver soon becomes hugely popular in Lilliput, much to the chagrin of General Edward, as he regales them with tales of his derring do mostly culled from popular culture (which means, mostly from “Star Wars“). General Edward, upset at Gulliver hogging the spotlight, shuts down the city’s defence systems of the city leading to an attack from the Blefusceans. But the gambit doesn’t work as the giant Gulliver easily shuts them, further cementing his stature. Meanwhile, Gulliver is helping Horatio win over Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) all while showing the stuffed shirt Lilliputians how to hang out and live a little.
And all of this might be somewhat interesting or even amusing if the film wasn’t constantly building its jokes around dated punchlines or bodily humor. An elaborate early sequence ends with Jack Black, butt crack exposed, landing on tiny Lilliputian with deadly accuracy. Meanwhile, in Gulliver’s home theater (sigh, don’t ask) he puts on stage plays based on his life story that are actually the plotlines lifted from “Star Wars” and “Titanic.” And it’s in the this manner than the barely 90-minute movie slogs on and on and on, testing the patience of most viewers including the legions of kids who we joined in this early morning press screening. The kid sitting beside us spent about a third of the picture utterly fixated on getting all the ice from the bottom of her slushy cup into her mouth. We were so bored by the movie that we couldn’t be annoyed by the noise it made and secretly made wagers in an elaborate Vegas casino we invented to see how long it would take her. We lost out to Slim “Lucky Knuckles” O’Keefe, a drifter and gambler of ill repute. And then we had to focus back on the movie. Eventually, the whole story culminates in a grand battle between Gulliver and General Edward for reasons that are too stupid to explain here and everyone ends up with the girl they’re supposed to be with. Once that was tediously resolved, we were able to leave the theater, and if the screen could have talked, it probably would have said it was glad it was over too.
Making his live action debut, animation helmer Rob Letterman (“Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Shark Tale“) hardly makes a case that he has any idea what to do with live humans or CGI effects. The whole cast seems utterly disinterested; even Jack Black’s spasmodic style of acting which involves doing little more than air guitaring and making funny faces seemed half-hearted. Jason Segel looked utterly embarrassed to be involved while Emily Blunt does her best to retain whatever dignity she and the rest of the film has (which isn’t much). Oh yeah, and the the 3D has to be the worst conversion job of the year, hands down, bar none. The picture was clearly made without 3D in mind (none of the action sequences have anything that remotely engages 3D or the audience directly) and so the conversion merely highlights how the visually lacklustre film already was in 2D.
We’ve seen a lot of shitty comedies this year — “When In Rome” and “Grown Ups” topping out the list — but even those showed a level of energy, interest and engagement from the players involved that is totally absent here. “Gulliver’s Travels” is a movie that no one seemed to want to make except for the Christmas bonus they could cash with it. But be warned, your $20 check from Grandma can be much, much better spent this holiday season. [D]