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What We Do In the Shadows
Reviewed by Joe Morganstern in The Wall Street Journal
Marketing campaigns can bring moviegoers into theaters to see what the fuss is all about, but they can’t generate the excitement of those rare occasions when audiences discover a movie on their own. That’s what happened recently with “American Sniper.” The film certainly benefited from marketing, but no one expected the huge crowds that showed up on the first weekend of national distribution. Now a very mini version of the same phenomenon may be taking place—for very different reasons—with “What We Do in the Shadows,” a charming curiosity from New Zealand. After commercial success at home and in Australia, followed by screenings at film festivals here, this mockumentary opened last weekend in only two theaters, one each in New York and Los Angeles. Yet its spectacular per-screen business forecast more of the same during the current national rollout. Did I mention that the subject is vampires? No deep meaning or social relevance, only welcome diversion from these troubled times—i.e. superbly silly fun.
Genre prodigies like this one sometimes elicit guarded responses along the lines of “I liked it”—pause and/or shrug—“for what it is.” And yes, “What We Do in the Shadows” is one more riff on mythical bloodsuckers, one more pseudo-factual sendup in the hallowed tradition of Christopher Guest. That said, it is also deadpan-droll, tonally flawless, graced with comic acting of an extremely high order and elating from the very first scene, which runs a witty variation on all those movies that start with an alarm clock going off. The time is 6 p.m., and the slugabed who awakens hasn’t been sleeping in a standard bed.
His name is Viago, he is 379 years old and he’s played—as a fairly fresh-faced 17th-century dandy—by Taika Waititi, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Jemaine Clement. Mr. Clement is no stranger to American TV audiences, thanks to “Flight of the Conchords.” Mr. Waititi directed, wrote and played in the endearingly odd “Eagle vs Shark,” and the touchingly odd “Boy.” In this new film his Viago serves as host and guide for a film crew that, in the scheme of the mockumentary, has been granted special access to a secret society of vampires in Wellington, New Zealand, and to the society’s social event, The Unholy Masquerade.
Viago is an affable host, even if he’s occasionally off the wall, or ceiling, in a blissed-out mode that faintly recalls the who-am-I-what-planet-is-this persona of Andy Kaufman. And he’s as tolerant as possible of the long-in-the-teeth friends with whom he shares a grubby flat—it isn’t easy to be a vampire in the modern world. Yet he’s also a taskmaster who insists that the floors must be swept free of spinal cords, and the bloodstained dishes must be done more often than once every five years.
The most vigorous of those friends are Mr. Clement’s stern-faced Vladislav, who is 862 and, according to Viago, a great guy, if “a bit of a pervert”; and Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon, too cool for this world or any other and, at 183, “the young bad boy of the group.” There’s also the implacably hostile Petyr (Ben Fransham), who, at the ripe old age of 8,000, is exempt from household chores. The main human of the piece, Stuart Rutherford’s Stu, has forged cherished bonds of friendship with his undead companions, which makes sense since he’s a software analyst who is short on social skills. Werewolves play subsidiary roles, though none of them come close to being fully fleshed-out.
I could go on, and will, without giving away any more jokes except for one of the many throwaways, a smartphone app that warns of nearby crucifixes. One reason to see the film is, I suppose, its value as an antidote to the brainsucking powers of the “Twilight” series. Yet “What We Do in the Shadows” has nonmedicinal virtues that many large-scale movies lack: unflagging energy, entertaining inventiveness, sustained ridiculousness and even, dare I say it, a spasm of eloquence in Deacon’s twisted tribute to the frailties of the human race. I won’t reveal how the story ends, but I can tell you that the movie ends with more thank-yous than I’ve ever seen before—three whole screens of them, beginning with such eminent Wellingtonians as Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Richard Taylor, and culminating in a tip of the hat to the otherwise unheralded Sifty the cat.
While We're Young
Reviewed by Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post
Noah Baumbach delivers a precise, amusing and deeply felt missive from the most anxious depths of mid- adulthood in “While We’re Young,” a comedy of manners in which the manners themselves are maddeningly in flux.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a 44-year-old documentary maker and his wife, who, as the film opens, are helping their best friends welcome home a new baby. Bemused, unsure exactly how to differentiate between “The Three Little Pigs” and “This Little Piggie,” they’re clearly not yet parent material. Later, over wine and while ordering takeout, they extol the advantages of the freedom they promise they’ll take full advantage of as soon as Josh finishes the six-hour film he’s been working on for eight years.
Still, it’s clear that something has shifted. But the nameless unease that has suddenly overtaken them disperses just as quickly when they meet 25-year-old Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried), who after attending one of Josh’s lectures at the New School enthusiastically invite him and Cornelia to dinner. The couples enter into a kind of group folie à deux, with Josh flattered by Jamie’s guileless admiration for his work and Cornelia soon ditching the exquisite torture of a mommy-and-me music class with an old pal to dance hip-hop with Darby and her cohorts.
Does it come as any surprise that all of the above transpires in Brooklyn? “While We’re Young” possesses all the visual and lifestyle cues audiences have come to associate with that milieu from tutorials ranging from “Girls” to “The Slap.” When they’re not lunching at bespoke farm-to- table restaurants or attending a “street beach” party where normcore 20-year-olds quaff PBR, the couples hang mostly at Jamie and Darby’s loft, appointed with a vast collection of vinyl, an assemblage of old-school typewriters and vintage board games and a live chicken — whose eggs, presumably, help Darby concoct her small-batch artisanal ice creams and almond-milk sorbets.
In any other hands, this many post-millennial signifiers in one film would be insufferable. But Baumbach has such an assured touch that what might have been a lazy burlesque becomes instead a thoughtful and resonant depiction of midlife anxiety — including but not limited to regret, compromise, envy and aspiration. (“What’s the opposite of ‘The world is your oyster’?” a dejected Josh asks Cornelia at one point.)
Like last year’s big Oscar winner “Birdman,” “While We’re Young” taps into the fear and loathing that accompany inevitable obsolescence. As in that film, its subject is a privileged, mostly white creative class whose practitioners have the luxury of agonizing over the tensions between careerism and artistic truth. But Baumbach isn’t content simply to chronicle the malaise: Just when you think “While We’re Young” is going to be a pleasant bagatelle with predictable, if well-executed, gags about Kids Today, the filmmaker injects a provocative dose of ambiguity, turning the tables with an elegant, if slightly preposterous, flourish.
Baumbach and Stiller embarked on a courageous collaboration in 2010 with the bitter comedy “Greenberg” (which, come to think of it, took its own elegant emotional U-turn). Here, they’re once again completely in tune, with Stiller delivering one of his warmest, most appealing performances in years. In fact, the entire cast has been impeccably assembled, from subtle doppelgangers Watts and Seyfried to former Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz (playing a besotted, sleep-deprived new dad) and Charles Grodin, who plays Josh’s prickly former mentor and father-in-law, adding yet another reflective surface within the hall of mirrors Baumbach so artfully constructs. But if there’s a standout performance in “While We’re Young,” it belongs to Driver, who may have been typecast as a freewheeling boho artiste but who nonetheless skillfully conveys his character’s winsome charisma, which becomes exponentially more engulfing as his relationship with Josh grows more complex.
“While We’re Young” has been beautifully photographed, its version of New York sparkling with the wish-fulfillment gloss of Woody Allen in his heyday. At slightly longer than an hour and a half, the film also benefits from sprightly pacing, even including a bizarre, somewhat baggy interlude involving Peruvian hallucinogenics and some choice Vangelis cuts. Baumbach judiciously calibrates fantasy and realism throughout “While We’re Young” and winds up sharing impressions about parenthood, friendship, ambition and aging that viewers themselves most likely have harbored, whether they admit it or not. Even at its most confected, this is a film that tells the truth.