Two Excellent Holiday Movies, But Hold the Talk of Heroism

Before we move on to the Earnest and Important, a word about Father Figures. I didn’t expect it, but this movie is smart, witty, and even moving. Owen Wilson and Ed Helms star in a film that fits squarely in the Hangover genre (there will be swearing) and director Lawrence Sher makes it work. Happily, Father Figures sets itself apart from Vacation, a 2015 Ed Helms vehicle so heinous it made this beloved genre — beloved by me anyway — look terrible, while threatening to end Helms’ career.

But combining the worried-looking Helms with Wilson, the ultimate dude who appears eternally high, is an excellent move. They play estranged twin brothers in their forties, who re-connect when their mother (a glorious Glenn Close) gets married again. A chain of events at the wedding sets off a search for their father, the man they never knew.

A road trip fraught with logistical nightmares and hardship ensues. Not to mention some entertaining drama between Peter (Helms), an emotionally stunted physician, and Kyle, the laid-back Hawaiian brother living the high life because he once made a fortune when his surfer likeness was used on salsa bottles.

It’s hard to believe this is Sher’s directorial debut. While the movie is nearly two hours long, the story flies by, well paced and well timed. Moreover, the four possible dads whom the brothers track down were cast with inspiration. The funny Terry Bradshaw plays himself, which football fans will enjoy. Ving Rhames makes a wonderfully foul-mouthed appearance on a South Florida beach as Bradshaw’s friend. J.K. Simmons is the creepiest of the maybe-fathers, while the great Christopher Walken, a weird veterinarian, turns out to hold the key to the puzzle in the final scenes.

Meanwhile, two bit parts offer eye-opening performances. Katie Aselton slyly steals her scenes playing a woman who Peter picks up a bar, then sleeps with before realizing she may be his sister. Similarly, the stand-up comedian, rapper, and actor Katt Williams brings some more mystery and absurdity to a movie bulging with both. Playing a slightly off hitchhiker, he convinces the brothers he is not a serial killer. Just to be sure they tie him up before letting him on the back seat. After the three narrowly survive a car crash, the hitchhiker joins the ecstatic brothers in slow motion: a ridiculous and epic scene I cannot wait to see again.

My advice would be to get in a great mood by seeing this movie before moving on to The Post, which is also very good but takes itself so very seriously.

As a journalist, I can only laugh when journalists speak of our profession as “heroic.” In the age of Trump we are heroes, it is said. If you believe our fundamental freedoms are under siege, if Trump is Richard Nixon’s evil twin, this might make some sense. For those of us living in reality journalists are still — at best — curious folks trying to tell a story based on the facts they can find as they write the first draft of history.

To his credit, that is the profession director Steven Spielberg portrays here. He tells the tale of the Pentagon Papers, putting Katharine Graham squarely in the center of the story. This first female newspaper publisher ever is played by Meryl Streep — like her politics or not, she is a masterful actress here once again. In the story Graham is the one who must allow or forbid editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks at his best) whether to publish the top-secret history of the decision-making process leading into the Vietnam War: the Pentagon Papers. She has to do this while also taking the Washington Post company public.

That is a good story about people doing their job. Nothing more, nothing less. If you can forget the self-important banter about “heroism” and see this film as a strong period piece about journalism in the Nixon era, you will enjoy it. We have three of the best in their craft, who made this film inside of a year, which is very fast for a major motion picture. And the surrounding cast includes some of the best actors working in Hollywood today: Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford and the kid who made me love Friday Night Lights, the TV show: Jesse Plemons plays a frightened young lawyer trying to talk sense into Graham and Bradlee.

However hard this will be to imagine, The Post depicts a somewhat classy version of Washington, so the temptation will be to see the movie as “relevant” and “current” and a “warning signal” about “democracy under siege.” In fact, it’s a well-done workplace movie. Trump is no Nixon, Graham’s Post of the 1970s is nothing like Jeff Bezos’s activist version of today, and journalists simply doing their work have become rare. In that sense, The Post is a reminder — not of any sort of heroics, but of the value of just doing your job, preferably with skill and conviction. Graham and Bradlee did it, and Spielberg does it here.

Father Figures and The Post are rated R. Both films open nationwide on December 22.

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