Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Happens in Vegas (20th Century-Fox, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was What Happens in Vegas, an advertising slogan that’s been used as a film title at least twice, once in 2005 and once, this time, in 2008 for a romantic comedy that hews surprisingly close to the 1930’s screwball style even though it’s marked as a modern product by the plethora of sex and bathroom gags (mostly, at least, genuinely funny sex and bathroom gags) and an absence of the sophistication with which a story like this would have been done in the 1930’s precisely because they couldn’t do openly sexual humor under the Production Code.

The story revolves around a quickie Vegas marriage entered into by Jack Fuller (Ashton Kutcher, who’s cute enough I’d find him watchable in anything even though I doubt if he’ll be doing a movie as good as the director’s cut of The Butterfly Effect for some time to come), who’s on the rebound from being fired from his father’s construction company for never finishing a job; and Joy McNally (Cameron Diaz, top-billed), a hot-shot stockbroker in New York who’s on the rebound from being dumped by her even more affluent fiancé, Mason (Jason Sudeikis), who bought her a $30,000 diamond engagement ring and then decided she wasn’t good enough for him. Anyway, our two rebound babies have a hard night of partying and end up married to each other, and just before they return to New York (where they both live and where, contrary to the impression you’d get from the title, most of this film happens) Joy loans Jack a quarter and he uses it to play a super-slot machine that earns him a $3 million jackpot. (It was interesting to be watching this just after having seen the Vegas-set episode of the 1973 TV series Banacek and noting how the Strip had changed in the last 35 years.)

The two sue each other for the money and the case comes before Judge Whopper (a surprisingly queeny Dennis Miller) — his name and that of Joy’s boss, Banger (a welcome Dennis Farina; nice to know there is life after his unceremonious and quite undeserved dumping from Law and Order!), are all too accurate reflections of writer Dana Fox’s sense of humor — who chews them out, saying that it’s straight people like them, not Gays, who are undermining the institution of marriage. He sentences them to live together for six months and make an honest attempt to make their marriage work — quite a trick because they’re shown as despicably hating each other — under the supervision of a marriage counselor/psychiatrist, Dr. Twitchell (Queen Latifah, once again playing an island of sanity in a movie in which it seems like all the white people are crazy).

They play a series of raunchy practical jokes on each other that to me recalled the marvelous 1933 comedy Rafter Romance, which used a different premise for getting the two hatebirds under the same roof (in that film they were Depression babies whose landlady forced them to share a space, he during the day and she during the night, because they owed her so much rent and that would at least cut their tabs in half; in that one the woman was Ginger Rogers, a far more personable and charming actress than Cameron Diaz — and the man was Norman Foster, a far less appealing male lead than Ashton Kutcher!) but otherwise seemed strikingly similar in the way it developed the antagonism between them which we know, of course — far before they do — will eventually blossom into love.

What Happens in Vegas seemed to borrow tropes from a lot of older movies, from relatively obscure ones (I found a hint of the 1930 Warners semi-musical Dancing Sweeties in the idea of a couple suddenly marrying without thinking it through and forced to live together under auspices that will turn decidedly unfriendly if they see any sign of disagreement between the two!) to more well-known ones, but it’s a charming film nonetheless and at least moderately funny even though most of the situations are so shopworn you can tell what’s coming at least a reel or two in advance. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder what this would have looked like if it had been a 1930’s movie, with Cary Grant and Carole Lombard as the leads, Ben Hecht doing the screenplay and Ernst Lubitsch directing (though Lubitsch would probably have wanted to relocate the story to Europe, setting the main part in Vienna and having them do their quickie marriage and win their jackpot in Monte Carlo!) — but What Happens in Vegas is a nice, amusing movie and the leads are well suited to their roles.