Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2015


The road most traveled

'Home' tames its idiosyncrasies in a disappointingly familiar buddy movie

20th Century Fox
Director: Tim Johnson
Screenplay: Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, based on the novel The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex
Starring: The voices of Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Matt Jones and Jennifer Lopez
Rated PG / 1 hour, 34 minutes
March 27, 2015
(out of four)

This was my reaction to Home: "Yep, that was definitely a DreamWorks movie." And while I appreciate the value of a well-cultivated brand identity, I doubt very much anyone's ideal identity is, "Passable family entertainment that soullessly goes through the motions and has a pop soundtrack."

But there you have it. Home, if you hadn't guessed it yet, is passable family entertainment that soullessly goes through the motions and has a pop soundtrack. It is a reflection of its studio through and through, a film - like so many others in the DreamWorks stable - that zips through its plot as briskly as possible, pausing for emotional beats it hasn't earned and resolving narrative arcs that haven't been properly explored. This is pure assembly-line product, constructed out of platitudes and bullet points masquerading as a full-fledged story. Movies like this are among the most cynical because they pander to their audiences with what amounts to warmed-over versions of superficially similar movies.

This one, an adaptation of Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday, is a road movie revolving around a pair of mismatched outcasts - one alien, one human, the former looking for redemption, the latter just trying to get home to her mom. The backdrop is the looming threat of Earth's obliteration at the hands of a different alien race. All of that is fine, but the film moves along in rote, disinterested fashion. Every note you expect it to hit, it hits, and at the exact moment you expect it. Every comical misunderstanding is telegraphed from a mile away. Every lesson you expect to be learned will be learned, and in exactly the way you predicted. This is a movie that is practically immune to spoiler alerts, because you know precisely how everything is going to play out. Aside from a few details here and there, Home has no surprises up its sleeve.

There are worse transgressions than predictability; it's the lack of distinct personality that gets me, the lack of flavor. This is a movie about an alien race we've never seen on screen before, who invade the planet in a way we haven't seen on screen before, and yet it all feels so uncomfortably familiar, like it's fitting superficially weird and cool ideas into a rigid template. It feels like your garden-variety animated movie when it should feel idiosyncratic. You may not have seen this movie ... but yeah, you kinda have.

This may feel like a hacky joke, and perhaps it is, but it's only too appropriate that a film that explicitly satirizes an alien race - the Boov - for their pathological risk-aversion should, itself, be so pathologically risk-averse. Some of Home's best jokes involve dramatic scenarios in which well-established movie logic is thwarted or undermined simply because the Boov's calculations suggest a more statistically prudent course of action. Instead of running toward danger to save a loved one, the Boov suggest running away from it, to save oneself.

But ultimately the joke is on the film itself. If director Tim Johnson and writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember showed the same kind of intrepid spirit their script's message ostensibly promotes, maybe this whole enterprise wouldn't have felt so compulsory. It's a bit frustrating because there are ideas and creative flourishes here that I really enjoy - like the way the Boov's bodies change color according to their emotional responses, like living, breathing mood rings. Or the animation that accompanies their altogether non-violent invasion of Earth, each Boov's belongings floating along to its final destination in a giant bubble, each bubble vaporizing the physical matter with which it comes into contact. (For lack of a better comparison, it's a bit like the way Eddie Valiant uses the rubberized portable holes to escape from the clutches of the giant magnet during the climax of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.)

But that inventiveness rarely finds its way into the story, or into the character dynamics that drive it. Our protagonist is Oh (voiced by Jim Parsons), a Boov outcast who has no friends among his people, despite (well, because of) his extreme eagerness to be friendly. Already disliked, he becomes a genuine fugitive when he accidentally sends an email to the entire galaxy - an email that will reveal to the Boov's enemies, the Gorg, their exact location, Earth, which they have only just gotten settled into as their newest home. (They colonized Earth on the understanding that the human inhabitants were primitive creatures who could easily be shuffled off to their own private sanctuary, which looks amusingly like an overcrowded suburban housing complex.)

The Boov - whose look, shape and apparent texture suggests they belong in the Claw machine from Toy Story - are led by their incompetent, megalomaniacal leader Smek (Steve Martin), who gets by on pure bluster and showmanship, remaining in power despite the fact that he never has any ideas of his own nor any clue how to wield the power he holds. It is he who has put out an all-points bulletin to find Oh and bring him in for what amounts to a public execution.

While in hiding, Oh runs into one of the last humans who hasn't yet made her way to human territory, a 15-year-old girl named Tip (voiced by Rihanna) who wants only to reunite with her mother Lucy (Jennifer Lopez). The alliance between Oh and Tip is fraught with personality conflicts and trust issues, but of course they come to need each other, both logistically and emotionally. But Home doesn't offer the kind of complexity that would make any of that ring true. The final half-hour or so is especially conspicuous because all of its "big" moments are so clearly unearned. These are presumptively the culmination of the characters' emotional journey, but the film has skipped over all of the in-between moments and character nuances that would make those climactic moments really land. That problem speaks to Home's tendencies at a whole. It's keenly aware of its destination, but it chooses to take the fastest, most mathematically efficient way, when it really should have chosen the scenic route.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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