Monday, October 24, 2011

The Royal Tenenbaums: The Next Generation - Peep World May Be Derivative, But It Is Solidly Funny And Interesting!

The Good: Funny, Wonderful performances, Interesting characters, Decent use of tone
The Bad: Derivative plot and performances, Light on DVD bonus features.
The Basics: Despite some performances that are strikingly familiar for fans of Michael C. Hall and Ron Rifkin, Peep World delivers a solid film with a family in decline.

About a week ago, I subjected my wife to The Other Woman (reviewed here!) without actually knowing what it was all about or whether or not it was truly worth getting out. Before the movie, virtually every other film IFC released was plugged including one that caught my eye. That movie was Peep World and I was very excited to get it in so quickly. I got out one of my favorite films, The Royal Tenenbaums (reviewed here!), the same day. I watched The Royal Tenenbaums before putting Peep World back up for a day. The reason for this was surprisingly simple; the trailer for Peep World made the film look a lot like The Royal Tenenbaums and I decided that I did not want my perceptions of Peep World to simply be based on how it compared to The Royal Tenenbaums. That and I was worried that after seeing The Royal Tenenbaums again, Peep World might just be a letdown.

Fortunately, Peep World delivered. With an impressive cast, Peep World is the story of a family falling down and how they struggle with their varied situations. There is an awkward, difficult quality to Peep World, but it does not mirror the level of discomfort that other, recent family tragedy films like Rachel Getting Married (reviewed here!) have had. Instead, Peep World is thoroughly entertaining, with a dark sense of humor and enough complexity in the various characters to keep even seasoned moviegoers guessing.

Following the publication of his best-selling book, Peep World, Nathan Meyerwitz is on the outs with his family, notably his three siblings who were portrayed poorly in his "novel." On the day the Meyerwitz family is coming together for Henry's seventieth birthday party, the family members find themselves on the verge of collapse. The eldest son, Jack, loses another architectural bid which effectively puts his company out of business. Loathed by his pregnant wife, he flees to the local strip club where Laura finds him. Cheri, Henry's only daughter, is struggling with suing Nathan for what he wrote in the book and tries to enlist other family members, like her mother, to join the lawsuit. Troubled by the filming of the movie version of Peep World outside her apartment, she tries to escape with thoughts of vengeance. Nathan himself is not having a great day as, prior to a reading, he gets an injection for his premature ejaculation problem and discovers himself in a whole new world of hurt as a result.

Arguably, no one in the family is having a worse day than Joel, the middle son. Dirt poor, his car breaks down on the way to court and the loan sharks he is deeply in debt to come looking for him to pay. As he works to process his girlfriend's divorce, he struggles with how Peep World utterly demoralized him and as the Meyerwitz family comes together, Joel fears for his very life.

Peep World culminates in one of the most deliciously difficult family gathering scenes ever to be put on the screen, but the movie soars because the pacing and humor in it - awkward as it frequently is - are audacious and clever. Moreover, it is in that scene that the characters one wants to root for are given their chances to articulate their grievances and it is entertaining, but not in a trashy - a la Desperate Housewives - type way. Instead, moments where Jack and Henry square off and Cheri and Nathan do more than just shout at one another read as very real and very true in a way that is easy to connect to.

Given the chance, Peep World more often than not takes a high road in its character development and that makes the movie feel very adult, even when characters like Cheri talk like spoiled brats who sound much younger than they are. But the truth is, even Cheri has a legitimate grievance and despite how she expresses it, she comes across as genuinely wounded in a realistic way. The entertainment value of Peep World is in how the characters stand back up and address their wounds. Fortunately, the film is not just about characters who are wounded, it is about a group of people who want to overcome their bad situations and go on to the better things they hoped for or were trained for.

Throughout this, there are spectacular performances. Kate Mara, Judy Greer, Stephen Tobolowsky, Taraji P. Henson, and (very late in the film) Alicia Witt give startlingly good supporting performances. Mara might trade on her cute smile and likable demeanor, but there are moments she delivers her lines with an underlying seriousness that makes the viewer believe she could credibly be Nathan's publicist for his book tour. Henson, more than in any other performance in recent memory, is vibrant as her Mary tries to boost Joel's self-esteem through an earnest sense of love. She has a firmness to her deliveries that infuses her character with a real force of will. Greer, one of my favorites, takes the bit role of Laura and makes it substantive when she must confront Jack on his passtimes outside work.

As much as one might expect Sarah Silverman to distract as Cheri, but she keeps the performance muted. Her body language is much more reserved than when she is simply playing herself and that was a relief for those of us dubious of her talents for anything outside stand up comedy. Ben Schwartz plays Nathan with a youthful exuberance, though most of his actual characterization comes from things Lewis Black, as the narrator, says about him.

One might expect, then, that Michael C. Hall and Ron Rifkin would blow Peep World out of the water with their performances, but that is not the case. Michael C. Hall's Jack is far too close to his performance of David in Six Feet Under (reviewed here!). When he starts yelling about not wanting to be a certain type son, it is impossible for those who have seen his breakout role to not hear that character instead of this one. Similarly, Ron Rifkin's Henry is Rifkin channeling Saul Holden from Brothers And Sisters with colder moments where he recalls viewers to his character from Alias.

It is Rainn Wilson who gives - and I am sure there have been many roles people have said this about for him with - the performance of a lifetime as Joel. Joel is especially damaged and Wilson brings the viewer into his plight with a universal problem - the flat tire - and then a more extreme variation. But throughout it, he is essentially human and Wilson's performance is subtly funny, uncomfortable to watch and emotionally tormented in a way that makes the viewer instantly empathize with both his plight and his inner strength. Wilson makes Joel from a potentially pathetic character on the page to a likable, must root-for character on the screen.

On DVD, Peep World comes with pathetically few bonus features, as it only has the trailer and a handful of deleted or extended scenes. But Peep World does not need much more to make it worth the buy and it is a surprisingly complex and entertaining movie that anyone who likes a good, dark comedy or drama with some truly quirky characters will enjoy.

For other stories of awkward families and relationships, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Step Brothers


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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