Failure to launch, successful to amuse

Posted: Mar 16, 2006 12:01 AM

Sometimes critics are a little harder on fluffy romantic comedies than the films’ modest aspirations deserve. Sure there are those rare masterpieces of the genre, your When Harry Met Sallys, Four Weddings and a Funerals, and Jerry McGuires, that permanently raise reviewers’ expectations. But that’s not to say that the occasional How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or, in this case, Failure to Launch, doesn’t also serve its purpose.

And we all know what that purpose is: to give women a charming little affaire d'amour wrapped up in a pretty package of lovely clothes, lovely scenery and a lovely man.

Matthew McConaughey, Sarah Jessica Parker, and company meet this need amiably if not brilliantly.

McConaughey plays Tripp, a handsome, thirty-something bachelor who’s living in the lap of luxury. Unfortunately, that lap is his mother Sue’s (Kathy Bates). She not only does his laundry, cooks his breakfast, and makes his bed, she also packs him snacks and lets him have his run of the second floor. His father, Al (Terry Bradshaw), is less amenable to his aging son’s presence, though in true modern-parenting style, he’s too passive to tell him so.

Desperate to pass the difficult task of ejecting their arrested adolescent from the nest on to someone else, Sue and Al hire Paula (Parker), a successful businesswoman who's cornered the market on a very specific niche — she seduces the sons of baby-boomers and gets the boy-men to move out of the house.

Though Paula’s promise that she can get any son to fall for her may seem a bit far-fetched, her method for achieving this feat is actually the movie’s most authentic element. Says Paula to Sue and Al, "I look nice; I find out what he likes; then I pretend to like it, too." (My married friends and I have deliberated, and we concur that, yes, it really is that simple.)

While Parker feels perfect in her role, charming as he is, McConaughey doesn’t fully inhabit his. He’s too confident, too tan. His teeth are too white. His absolute self-assurance rings false in the given circumstances.

On the other hand, it’s nice to see a real, athletic, predatory man up on the screen again and not some stammering Gen-X encyclopedia of pop-culture (I’m looking at you, John Cusack) or some awkward, stammering, ball of apologies (every English lead we’ve seen in the last 15 years).

McConaughey may not be Cary Grant, but he’s apparently the best we’ve got these days when it comes to rugged romantic leads, and beggars can’t be choosers (remember watching the effeminate Ralph Fiennes try to seduce Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan? We wouldn’t want that again, now would we?)

Besides, the fault for this sense of dislocation doesn’t lie entirely with McConaughey. It also lies with the screenwriters who were unwilling to commit to their timely set-up. Rather than allowing McConaughey’s character to revel in slacker glory, they provide him a maudlin excuse for his inability to grow up. Every moment the film focuses on it, it undercuts the setup’s inherent comedy. Worse, it still doesn’t go far enough in explaining why Tripp’s content to remain in such a humiliating and limiting circumstance.

But just when the improbability that a catch like Tripp would still live at home threatens to make the entire premise fold, the film cuts to its ace-in-the-hole, Zooey Deschanel.

In both good movies (Elf) and bad movies (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) Deschanel’s unique mix of deadpan sarcasm and lilting innocence elevate her surroundings. Here, she even makes the tired shtick of prickly female stereotype suddenly pouncing on and ravishing geeky male stereotype amusing.

Yes, Failure to Launch retreads some old ground (as all romantic comedies must, by nature). Both people are harboring secrets that jeopardize their newfound attraction. Both have wacky friends who mirror their own courtship, but in much more outlandish ways. But it also takes us on a few detours that present refreshing insight into modern problems. And despite the silliness of the odds, we still cheer when Tripp and Paula overcome them.

Another critic complained that Failure to Launch asks us to suspend too much disbelief for the sake of art. That’s the problem with the high-minded perspective on such movies. They’re not art. They’re just fun.