Busy time for movies and their critics, as our holiday movie preview coming Thursday in the Weekend section makes clear. That means so many screenings that double features are sometimes set up by studios, not always smartly for reviews' sake.
Case in disappointment: Monday's pairing of Secret in Their Eyes, a misshapen remake of an Argentine thriller, and The Night Before, which is essentially The Hangover Part III with mistletoe. Separately these movies would stink; seen back-to-back they're hazmat material.
First up was Secret in Their Eyes, Americanized beyond recognition from its Oscar-winning 2009 version. The central mystery has been drastically altered to fit Julia Roberts, its most telling clue diluted, and a signature sequence that made soccer exciting now makes baseball duller.
Roberts plays Jess, part of a crack counter-terrorism team in Los Angeles, until her daughter is murdered and Roberts' makeup team begins lathering on her crippling grief. Jess' colleague Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) found the body in a dumpster, spurring the movie's most (only?) effectively acted moment.
Secret in Their Eyes staggers between that event after 9/11 and now, when Ray's long search for the suspect who got away pays off. He takes his case to former flame Claire (Nicole Kidman), who advanced from counter-terrorism to a D.A. position. Writer-director Billy Ray sort of follows the original plot, struggling for suspense without the post-Perón dictatorship setting that made it hum.
Instead, Ray creates Jess, setting up Roberts as both detective and victim; two star vehicles in one, driven into a narrative ditch. Secret in Their Eyes is a guessable mystery even without seeing the original, imbued with the certainty of Hollywood casting. The only twist is that so much talent wasted.
Grinning isn't easy after such grimness, and the second part of Monday's double feature should've helped. A day after The Night Before, the jokes stuck with me aren't Seth Rogen's paranoid overdosings but the unexpected comedy stylings of Michael Shannon.
Yes, that guy; Boardwalk Empire, General Zod, eyes like a cobra and jaw tensely hinged. He's a riot as a pot dealing Christmas angel, saying more about the movie than him. The Night Before isn't anything Harold, Kumar or Billy Bob Thornton didn't desecrate before and better.
Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie don't declare war on Christmas; it's more like triangulated fire from Super Soakers, basically harmless and soon annoying. They play buddies sharing a last bawdy Christmas Eve together before growing up, no matter what other life sketch the screenplay offers.
The evening includes karaoke Run-DMC, F.A.O. Schwarz, a lot of THC and whatever the chemical abbreviation is for psychedelic mushrooms. Gordon-Levitt is saddled with the straight-man role, moping after an ex (underused Lizzy Caplan), while Mackie macks it up as an NFL juicer on a roll. Rogen is who he is in every movie except Steve Jobs.
Nice relief efforts by Shannon, Broad City's Ilana Glazer and Mindy Kaling, except she drags in James Franco and his genitals stand-in. Good to briefly see Tracy Morgan feeling better and behaving badly. Fleeting pleasures, or maybe I'm scraping to make four hours at terrible movies seem worthwhile.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.