‘The Emoji Movie,’ Like its Main Character, is Simply Meh

The Emoji Movie poster

This never seemed like a good idea for a movie. Sure, there was “Toy Story” which brought those toys we grew up playing with to wonderful life, and we had “The Lego Movie” which featured those building blocks in a story which had profound things to say about the power of our imagination. But emojis? Seriously, where can you go with those things? They are just faces with one single emotion to exhibit. How can you possibly make a movie out of them?

Going into “The Emoji Movie,” I was reminded of an episode of “Hollywood Babble-On” in which Ralph Garman and Kevin Smith ranted about the news of this movie being made following a bidding war between three studios.

“To go into a room and say, ‘Guys, I got the idea. You know the fucking face at the end of your text with the fucking tongue out and one eyebrow is up and shit? You know that shit? Here’s my idea. Hey, bring out my Power Point presentation. See that fucking round yellow face? That’s going to be my new movie!’ WHO FUCKING THINKS LIKE THAT?!”

“We could go pitch ‘Hieroglyphics: The Movie!’”

“But ‘The Emoji Movie?’ A movie about the emojis? What’s it going to be, the fucking family of emojis going on vacation together and, oh no, Tongue-Out is upset because Cross-Eyes is pissed off that Thumbs-Up is hogging the backseat? WHAT THE FUCK?! Seven figures they paid for this idea! Seven figures!”

Actually, what Garman thought the story would be could have been more interesting than this. ‘The Emoji Movie,” like its main character, proves to be a meh affair with jokes which fall flat more often than not, a voice cast which cannot lift the material up beyond its banal confines, and ideas which were dated by the time this movie went into pre-production. The fact it is coming out at a time when GIFS are proving to be very popular doesn’t help either.

For the most part, “The Emoji Movie” takes place within the cell phone belonging to Alex (Jake T. Austin), a human teenager who lives and sleeps with his phone like every teenager does to where kids colliding with each other because they can’t take their eyes off their devices is to be expected. Fortunately, there are no scenes of teenagers texting while driving which is a relief. Imagine how traumatic it would be for children to watch them getting into a car crash because the characters were texting each other about the latest school gossip.

Anyway, inside Alex’s phone live the emojis who are always around to help provide him with text responses which need no description with words, and among them is Gene (T.J. Miller), a meh emoji, who is super-excited about going to his first day at the office. Gene just wants to be a normal emoji like everybody else, but we soon discover he is capable of exhibiting multiple expressions and ends up having a panic attack which shows him to be anything but meh. Smiler (Maya Rudolph), whose infinite smile cannot hide her vindictive nature, orders Gene to be deleted from the phone. Of course, Gene manages to escape her cheerful façade and goes on a mission to become a normal emoji like all the others.

Director Tony Leondis was interested in exploring life inside a phone, and he also explored the plight of being different in a world which unrealistically expects everyone to be the same. The latter part is noble as we need movies which remind us all of how we should not exclude those who are different (you listening Donald Trump?) as this world is hard enough without people ostracizing others who are not seen as the norm. Even in this day and age, we need these stories as life seems to mostly be about conforming to societal norms, and not everything can or should be the same.

Regardless, this movie never has enough to work with. The problem with emojis is they, as characters, are far too simplistic. You cannot do much with them as their role in life or, in this case, Alex’s phone has been decided from the get go to where, even if they tried to do something, there’s no real reason to expect anything different from they are already programmed to do.

The plot of “The Emoji Movie” also suffers as it is the same kind of story where the underdog goes on a journey which will eventually lead him to becoming the hero, at which point everyone will accept him for who he is. It sucks a lot of times when you know the outcome long in advance, and it really tears away at the inspired movie this one could have been.

Leondis was clearly inspired by the “Toy Story” movies as well as “The Lego Movie,” but those movies managed to surprise us not just with their splendid animation, but with their stories which took audiences on rides they weren’t really expecting to go on. “The Emoji Movie,” however, isn’t much more than your typical outsider movie, and this is a shame as so much more could have been done here. This could have been an insanely inspired movie, but instead it travels down a road many of us have already traveled one too many times. Kids may get a kick out of it, but adults will be left wondering why this one couldn’t be as good as anything Pixar puts out.

Many shots are taken at various mobile apps like YouTube, Instagram, and even Candy Crush, a game for which I still get countless invitations to play (FYI, I’m not interested). Even Pikotaro’s “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen” video makes a brief appearance, reminding us it was 2016’s most viewed video on YouTube. However, Leondis and his screenwriters, Eric Siegel and Mike White, don’t mine this material enough for all the satirical value it holds. Moments like the reveal of Candy Crush generate a chuckle, but nothing in the way of real laughs.

It’s a real shame because the voice cast is nothing short of terrific. T.J. Miller of “Silicon Valley” fame makes Gene an emoji we want to follow along with, and Anna Faris lends her everlasting charm to the codebreaker emoji Jailbreak. Maya Rudolph makes Smiler a wonderfully devious presence as her infinitely cheerful demeanor and pearly white teeth reveal her to be anything but truly happy. James Corden brings the same giddy energy he brings to his late-night CBS show to the role of Hi-5, and he steals just about every scene he has. I also have to say the casting of Steven Wright as Gene’s father, Mel Meh, was priceless.

Sir Patrick Stewart, however, is wasted in a role I expected to be the real scene stealer here, the poop emoji. Stewart has some choice moments which had me chuckling a bit, but he disappears from this movie too often to where I wondered why the filmmakers bothered to cast him. And the scene where poop is in the cube shouting “red alert!” makes me pine for another “Star Trek: The Next Generation” movie which will probably never happen. Regardless of how you felt about “Star Trek: Nemesis,” the “Next Generation” crew still deserves a better curtain call.

There was an animated movie which came out earlier this summer called “Captain Underpants: The Epic First Movie” which I wasn’t expecting much from when I walked into the theater. I came out of the movie pleasantly surprised as it proved to be very entertaining, full of imagination, and wonderfully subversive. I was hoping “The Emoji Movie” would surprise me in the same way, but the cards were stacked against this one right from the start. Emojis only have one function, to show a specific emotion. While Gene can show off many different emotions, it doesn’t change this fact. What we are left with is a thin story with jokes which are as funny as the hopelessly corny ones at all those Disneyland park shows, and animation which, while not at all bad, never comes across as the least bit wondrous. And yes, there is a post-credit sequence, but don’t bother waiting for it. All it does is show the fate of a certain character, and the moment is over in a flash.

“The Emoji Movie” does have a short-animated film preceding it called “Puppy!” which is based on the “Hotel Transylvania” franchise. It has Dennis getting a puppy, albeit one which is almost as big as King Kong. This short might pale in comparison to the ones Pixar makes, but it is very funny and playful and everything “The Emoji Movie” could have been.

Perhaps Garman was right. It would have been better to do an emoji road movie. Leondis would have had more luck with this genre than “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” did.

* * out of * * * *

‘Observe and Report’ is the Blackest of Black Comedies

Observe and Report movie poster

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times which had an interview with Jody Hill, the writer/director of “Observe and Report.” Reading it was the best preparation I got for watching the movie as the trailers made it look like the typical Judd Apatow produced, Seth Rogen starring comedy. However, director Hill didn’t really see it as a comedy, and he said the term “dark comedy” didn’t really apply to the film the way he envisioned it. Hell, even Rogen went out of his way to call the film a “dangerous comedy.” I never would have guessed from the trailers which made the film seem like the average formulaic comedy I was more or less interested in seeing. I should have seen it coming it was not going to be what I expected it to be when I realized that Apatow had nothing to do with this.

If you’re thinking “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” redux, you’re dead wrong. With “Observe and Report,” you need to go in expecting “Taxi Driver” or “One Hour Photo” as if they were comedies. This is a very black comedy. We’re talking Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” black. It touches on several ever so touchy subjects such as drug abuse, date rape, alcoholism, delusional, and racial stereotypes among others. It is also proof of how comedy can be mined out of places and subjects you would never expect to find it in. Hill and Rogen prove to have a large pair of cojones on them as they take big risks with their subject matter and come out of it with many moments which are frickin’ hilarious. It says a lot about this movie how it can break taboos, many of which will easily offend people, and still have you laughing your ass off at the same time.

Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of Forest Ridge mall security. From the start, we can see this is a guy with a few screws loose. Along with his fellow mall cops, he laments at the fact none of them are allowed guns on the job. Ronnie is a hero in his own mind, and no one takes the job of what is essentially a “rent a cop” position as seriously as him. Ronnie also longs to join the police force, but he is kept from being accepted due to his bi-polar illness which he treats with the typical medication Scientologists rally against. This is not your typical Rogen character where you wonder if and when he will get the girl. Instead, you wonder if this guy is going to have a psychotic break and end up killing someone before it is too late.

Ronnie’s mission in life, however, becomes crystal clear to him when a flasher exposes himself to the girl of his dreams, makeup counter employee Brandi (Anna Faris). So distraught she is after this attack, Ronnie makes it his mission to catch the flasher before he can attack her again. But then the local police department gets involved in the form of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta at his overplaying best), and Ronnie sees this as a threat to his mission. The way Ronnie sees it, this is his case and no one else’s. To let the local police take over would be the same as giving up control of the mall. Paul Blart may have taken his job as a mall cop seriously, but he has got nothing on Ronnie Barnhardt.

For Rogen, this movie represents a sharp change of pace. Through movies like “Knocked Up” and “Zack & Miri Make a Porno,” he has perfected the role of lovable loser to the point where you could not see him in any other role. This usually results in a career which starts big and then crashes in record time. I was hoping to see him play some other role because I found him to be one of the funniest actors in quite some time, and I was in no mood to see him crash and burn. With his role in “Observe and Report,” Rogen finally breaks out of his comfort zone to play someone who is anything but lovable. He also never plays the role just for laughs which is a major plus. As Ronnie Barnhardt, he manages to find the heart of this delusional character, and he keeps the audience up with him even as Ronnie’s mental state continues to get worse.

Among the supporting cast in “Observe and Report” is Michael Pena. As Dennis, Ronnie’s second in command and best friend, Pena also goes against type to play a role we have never see him in before. He has proven to be the most dependable of supporting actors in movies like “Crash,” “Shooter,” and “World Trade Center” to name a few. As Dennis, he steals scenes from Rogen as his character ends up taking directions you never expect him to take. This is an inspired performance by Pena, and he serves, however briefly, as Ronnie’s conscience when he sees Ronnie is taking himself WAY too seriously. Dennis’ methods of loosening up Ronnie, however, are anything but safe and legal.

Another inspired performance in “Observe and Report” is from Celia Weston who plays Ronnie’s alcoholic mother who still lets her son live under her roof even though he is well into his 30’s. There is no doubt of how much Weston’s character loves her son even when she is hopelessly drunk, and it leads to where she tells one of Ronnie’s fellow mall cops of how she slept with his friends while he was in high school. This could have been a cruel and clichéd character, but Weston makes it a lot more.

You also have to give a lot of credit to Anna Faris who proves here she is not afraid of going to extreme lengths to get laughs. Throughout the movie, she never tries to sweeten her character of Brandi up like many actresses would. Brandi will easily remind you of all those spoiled rotten bitches you had the misfortune of going to high school with. Many may hate the way her character is treated in the movie, but to a large extent, Brandi brings a lot of it on herself. Like Rogen and Hill, Faris does not shy away from the unpleasant extremes of her role.

Then there is Ray Liotta, who will always be best remembered for playing Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” As Detective Harrison, Liotta is the perfect counterpoint to Rogen’s mentally unhinged mall cop. His strait-laced character has his shit together, but it doesn’t necessarily make him much better. One of the movie’s best moments has him taking Ronnie on a ride along which ends with him stranding Ronnie on a bad corner with a bunch of crack head drug dealers. How Ronnie ends up handling these dealers is something I would prefer not to spoil for you. Just when you think you know where the scene is going, Hill and Rogen pull the rug right out from under you.

Another really nice performance comes from Collette Wolfe who plays Nell, an employee at the mall’s coffee shop who is somewhat hindered by her leg being in a cast. While Brandi really wants nothing to do with Ronnie, Nell pines for him every time he comes to get his free cup of coffee. She also has to deal with an unsympathetic boss (Patton Oswalt) who picks on her whenever given the opportunity. She is a sweet presence in an otherwise nasty movie which seeks to make you uncomfortable and laugh at the same time. For a moment, I thought this would turn into another tale of unrequited love a la “Rules of Attraction,” but Collette’s character gives Ronnie the emotional grounding he DESPERATLEY needs.

Hill’s biggest success with “Observe and Report” doesn’t lie in just the laughs he gets, but more in the fact he and the actors never just play everything just for laughs. There is no winking at the camera in this film. The actors don’t play it completely straight in this movie, but they take their roles seriously and never appear as if they all know they are in on the joke. If they did, the movie would not be anywhere as effective.

Hill’s breakthrough directorial effort was the movie “The Foot Fist Way” which served as the breakthrough for Danny McBride who went on to appear in “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder.” It is clear Hill revels in the portrait of people who live in their own world and are oblivious to what the world thinks of them. What Hill does here is ballsy to say the least.

“Observe and Report” also serves as a biting satire of the mall culture which serves as the movie’s setting. It ends up being symbolic of the melting pot which is the United States of America. Cultures of all kinds rub up against each other in the mall, and it unsettles our main character at times. Ronnie ends up having a tense moment with a character he thoughtlessly nicknames Sadamn (played by Aziz Ansari) who has filed a restraining order against Ronnie for past transgresses. This leads to one of the movie’s most insanely funniest moments as they say a barrage of “fuck you’s” to each other. The F-bomb is uttered almost endlessly in this scene to where you think they are going to give “Scarface” a run for its money in terms of how much the word is uttered.

This movie also continues the trend started with movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” of showing the penis in all its tiny glory. The audience I saw it with seemed more shocked by the “throbbing python of love,” as Robin Williams once described it, than they were with Rogen’s character holding a gun in his hand. After all these years, American audiences still prove to be an unknowingly hypocritical bunch as they find themselves more comfortable with the sight of a gun than with the appearance of a sexual organ.

Suffice to say, not everything in the movie works perfectly. The ending where Ronnie defends his place in the mall falls a little flat despite the use of Queen’s music from “Flash Gordon.” And granted, the mix of comedy and action and violence is a tricky road, but it is a road bound to have some inescapable potholes.

Still, when all is said and done, “Observe and Report” is a comedy with big cojones which cannot be easily ignored. It is not a movie for all tastes, but for those who are willing to travel a darkly comic path, there is much to find in this crazy film which dares to imagine a Travis Bickle-like character as a funny person despite himself. Do not say you weren’t warned.

* * * ½ out of * * * *