With star vehicles for actors becoming endangered and for actresses practically extinct, it's worth celebrating a comic tour de force in even a film as minor as Smiley Face (2007). Gregg Araki's likable stoner comedy is a remarkably sustained eighty-five minutes of Anna Faris doing a series of creative sketches on her feckless pothead protagonist, Jane F., who would be experiencing the worst day of her life were she lucid enough to notice. Well-meaning yet breathtakingly irresponsible, Jane runs afoul of both her creepy nerd roommate (Danny Masterson) and her judicious drug dealer (Adam Brody), arrives late to an audition for a TV commercial (where she encounters a spiky Jane Lynch cameo), shamelessly exploits a mild-mannered young man in the throes of a misguided crush (John Krasinski), impersonates a union rep at a slaughterhouse (long story), and is pursued by the LAPD on account of a rare manuscript of The Communist Manifesto in her unreliable hands (an even longer one).
Thankfully, Smiley Face is a screwball comedy instead of a romantic one, and Jane F. a terrific part for one of our most inspired screen comediennes. Turn on the Comedy Channel when any of the Scary Movie series is playing and you'll see Faris consistently getting laughs where none exist. In The House Bunny, she did a spirited impression of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch ("Who knew steam could be so hot?"); in Lost in Translation, her impersonation of Cameron Diaz was so uncomfortably accurate nobody likes to mention it. Araki's farce is a solid cut or two above most of Faris's filmography, hilariously uncompromising, and features a showstopper sequence where Jane launches into a Norma Rae monologue that is rousing from her perspective, incoherent babble from ours. There is also a curious recurring motif of pigs -- including an uproarious voice-cameo from Babe narrator Roscoe Lee Browne -- that might mean something profound, or may simply be (like the rest of the film) amusingly random.
I wouldn't have bothered with Salt, the origins of an action-hero franchise for Angelina Jolie, were it not for first a string of rave reviews followed by a series of you-gotta-be-kidding pans, with critics I respect highly on both sides of the fence. Suffice to say I found the effusiveness of the movie's admirers more infectious than the movie itself, which is rather imbecilic, not terribly offensive (though an attempted assassination of the Russian president comes close), yet simultaneously too serious to be any fun and too absurd to take seriously. A couple of action set-pieces contain a few welcome jolts but come nowhere near the Bourne series, their obvious source of inspiration. What makes those films compelling (especially the last two, directed by Paul Greengrass) is how the camerawork conveys mental action as well as physical: fleeting images -- a pen, a window, a fire escape -- seemingly arbitrary at first, combine to show how Jason Bourne is always three steps ahead of everyone else, and has to be in order to survive. Evelyn Salt moves as fast as Bourne and has a MacGyver-like touch with household objects, yet rarely do we see Jolie thinking her way out of a jam. Virtually the only times we're in her head are via a couple of gauzy flashbacks where she makes goo-goo eyes at her husband, scenes that have all the earmarks of an unsuccessful test screening. ("Main character not sympathetic enough.")
Phillip Noyce, who directed the best of the Tom Clancy adaptations, Patriot Games, is a somber, dutiful filmmaker with a scant sense of mischief. He must be puzzled by the purported high spirits attributed to his movie, what with all the trouble he took to establish its drab interiors, heavy-handed themes, and lukewarm performances. None of this quite distracts from the idiocies and groaning obviousness of Kurt Wimmer's script. (Is Salt really the villain? Could the actual villain instead be the most duplicitous-looking actor in the movie? You'll never guess.) Jason Bellamy has thoroughly and wittily vivisected the plot so I won't echo his salient points here. We did, however, have an interesting exchange in the Comments, where I pointed out that many of the most prominent critics who found fault with Inception are showering Salt in a rain of roses (Seitz, Edelstein, Zacharek, Taylor, Emerson, O'Hehir). As Jason surmised, I don't think it's a conscious collective effort to praise one movie at the expense of another. I believe their reactions are sincere, if wildly overstated. I can even imagine Noyce, in response to the chorus of hosannas, scratching his head and muttering abashedly, "Really, it was just a paycheck."