Friday, March 23, 2012

Depressed People Theatre Returns With Meet Bill, Aaron Eckhart's Magnum Opus To Mid-life Crisis’s

The Good: Good acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Oppressive mood, Light on plot, Surprisingly light on DVD bonus features
The Basics: Difficult to watch and hard to care about the protagonist, Meet Bill
presents a middle aged man whose wife cheats on him and thus inspires him to change his life.

Do you know how when you learn a new word, all of a sudden you tend to hear it everywhere? I am convinced that a similar thing happens with actors and actresses; once you become aware of an actor, they suddenly pop up everywhere. In my little film appreciation series for Aaron Eckhart, I have noticed Elizabeth Banks, specifically when she appeared in Meet Bill. And then there she was on my television in previews for the new Kevin Smith movie, Zack And Miri Make A Porno (reviewed here!) and checking out the IMDB, it turns out she has been in several movies I have seen. It's enough to make me wonder what I was paying attention to in The 40 Year Old Virgin if not her!

Well, Elizabeth Banks shines in Meet Bill and her performance in this is making me look forward to Smith's new movie even more than I already had been. And Aaron Eckhart continues a generally winning tradition of proving to me he has some serious acting ability, forsaking his trademark smile and any light in his eyes for one of his most bleak, difficult-to-watch performances yet. Meet Bill, alternately titled simply Bill, is a movie that is somewhat tough to define, but I suspect the closest I will get is that this is combination of American Beauty (reviewed here!) and Charlie Bartlett.

Bill is a man who pretty much loathes working for his father-in-law at the bank and after a groundbreaking ceremony for a new facility the bank is sponsoring, he discovers his wife is having an affair with the local news anchor, Chip. This comes more or less at the same time that Bill is dragooned by his father-in-law and brother into mentoring a drug dealing high school student. After covering for the kid when the principal pursues him into the bathroom, Bill and the teen he is tagged with mentoring begin to bond.

Determined to win his independence from his father-in-law, Bill quits his anxiety eating, begins swimming to lose weight, tries to dye his hair (mimicking the guy his wife is having an affair with) and investigates opening his own Sweet Sweet doughnut franchise. As he continues to feel pressure to live up, he takes a cue from the irresponsibility of the kid he is supposed to be a role model for and he kicks back, uses a lingerie saleswoman, Lucy, to pose as his wife for the Sweet Sweet franchisers and turns the course of his life in a different direction.

Part of the reason American Beauty worked as well as it did was that Lester Burham is treated as a loser, but from the outset, it seems like he has essentially been screwed over. He has a wife and child who do not love him, but he works hard for and random, unfortunate things happen to him (like his briefcase falling open and scattering his papers when he is in a hurry for work). Bill, unfortunately, has no such empathetic qualities. He's just flat out pathetic.

Bill opens the movie with whining about being married to Jess and having to put up with her father. The problem here is that, one assumes, no one put a gun to his head and forced Bill to marry a Hollywood beautiful woman whose father was absolutely loaded. Bill never in the course of Meet Bill shows any inkling toward anything that he might be good at outside the bank. The Sweet Sweet franchise is one that he becomes interested in because he loves sugary snacks and because he hopes it will buy him the financial freedom to be rid of his father-in-law, but it never is illustrated that he might have an actual aptitude for it (and indeed, the resolution to the movie suggests he is just aimless, if not talentless).

Similarly, there is nothing that illustrates or explains what Jess saw in Bill originally. In the course of Bill's exercise regimen to lose his gut, Bill slims down and gets fit in a way that seems quite new to him. One suspects that from the lack of hair management and the persistent frown on Bill's face that he has never been much of a catch in a physical sense and that when Jess met and married him, he was not exactly a model for the Atlas folks. So, why Jess initially hooked up with Bill, who seems to have no dreams or ambitions that aren't reactive to the situation he finds his marriage in, is a complete mystery to the viewer. But the better question is why has Jess stayed with him this long if she was so unhappy with him?

Jess is a character who makes little sense in this regard and her fury over being caught on tape by Bill having sex with Chip reads as false. I'm not saying her indignation does not make sense, because it does. But here's a woman who has been lying to her husband and is caught having an affair and she acts like only her anger about being caught ought to matter.

The other half of the story is the mentoring bit with Bill and the Kid. Bill is, naturally, a pathetic mentor and the dynamic quickly becomes the Kid corrupting Bill. It is, for example, the youth's idea to try to have Bill win Jess back by getting her jealous through Lucy. The Kid also leads Bill into a situation where they get high and Bill has sex with one of Lucy's friends. In general, I am not so keen on films where the kids are smarter or more emotionally connected than adults, but there was something watchable about this scenario in Meet Bill. This probably comes down to the kicker lines as far as the Kid is concerned, when he observes to Bill that he will not be the same guy in ten years, so he is simply enjoying who he is now. That maturity to realize and accept that people constantly grow and change might not read quite right coming from that character, but it is a worthwhile message regardless and deserves to be expressed, lending some value to Meet Bill.

I tend to be one who argues for realism in film and Meet Bill seems to almost be a counterargument to that. I like movies where people struggle and there is a realism to that. The problem with viewing Meet Bill as that sort of film is that it still struggles with the basic reality of everyday problems. In other words, it is one thing to watch a common person suffer and struggle and either overcome or be destroyed by the circumstances they find themselves in. It is entirely a different thing to watch a guy who has a huge house, knockout wife, great job, and access to do pretty much what he wants complain and eventually change his life when the people around him get sick of him. Within five minutes of starting Meet Bill, I was sick of Bill, too!

One of the nice things about Meet Bill is that it does have a generally positive view of gay relationships. Writer and co-director Melissa Wallack provides a rescue for Bill in the form of his homosexual brother and his partner, Paul. Craig Bierko and Reed Diamond play the couple with minimal camp and a generally decent embodiment of a normal, loving relationship (which, despite the presentation in many films, it more like reality than what we see in the movies). I use "generally decent" because some of the usual anti-gay pejoratives are tossed out and it would have been nice if Wallack could have gotten through the film without making an issue of the

What makes Meet Bill watchable is the acting. Craig Bierko and Reed Diamond give solid supporting performances that make clear differentiations from the characters they played on Boston Legal and Homicide: Life On The Street, respectively. Logan Lerman illustrates a lot of potential as the Kid and one suspects that when directors stop using him for his youthful smirk, he will actually be able to carry scenes with real gravity. As mentioned before Elizabeth Banks is vital and engaging as Jess, even if her character is a somewhat annoying cheat.

But it is Aaron Eckhart that ultimately pulls Meet Bill up out of obscurity. Eckhart tends to have active, verbose roles and in this film he is constantly somber and dead-eyed. He is completely convincing in the part, as well, making the viewer believe completely in his pathetic reality, even if it is hard to empathize with his character.

On DVD, Meet Bill is presented with minimal DVD extras. After a bevy of previews for other films, there is only a collection of about ten deleted scenes, some of which are actually noteworthy enough to be missed from the actual film. But for the most part, the DVD is as barren as the protagonist's trademark expression.

For other works with Kristen Wiig, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Despicable Me
Date Night
How To Train Your Dragon
Whip It
Forgetting Sarah Marshall


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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