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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kristina (A Concert Event at Carnegie Hall)


By Harry Forbes

It’s taken 14 years for Benny Andersson and Bjőrn Ulvaeus’ follow-up to “Chess” to reach New York. Show fanatics may know the score from the deluxe 3-CD Swedish set available as an expensive import way back then.

A truly epic musical based on Vilhelm Moberg’s “The Emigrants” novels (also the source of the early 1970s Liv Ullmann-Max Von Sydow film of that name, and its sequel “The New Land”), Andersson’s music is eons removed from the jukebox tunes of “Mamma Mia,” and only sporadically recalls “Chess” in brief pop-rock moments – most especially in declamatory recitatives – but on the whole, this is a lyrical, symphonic sound, with a folkish, highly atmospheric flavoring.

Original star Helen Sjőholm recreated her lead role, though this time singing the pat in English in Herbert Kretzmer’s translation which, on the whole, she enunciated clearly.

Beginning in the mid 1800’s, the narrative charts the courtship and marriage of Kristina and Karl Oscar, the droughts and other hardships in Sweden, decision to emigrate to America, the arduous sea voyage, their journey from New York to Minnesota where they eventually settle, and the pleasures and vicissitudes of life there.

Among their fellow travelers are religious rebel Daniel (David Hess) and his flock which includes the town outcast, former prostitute Ulrica. Her big act one number, “Never,” had a marvelously sinuous orchestration, and she immediately commanded the stage in a way her fellow cast members, till then, had not. Once in America, Karl Oskar’s younger brother Robert (Kevin Odekirk) ventures to California to find gold, and Ulrica weds the bachelor Jackson (Walter Charles).

Each of the leads had their chance to shine. Sjoholm’s plea to God, “You’ve Got to Be There,” generated the most vociferous ovation. The audience leapt to its feet almost as one, with prolonged cheering. But disillusioned Robert’s haunting “Gold Can Turn to Sand” and Karl Oskar’s “Wildcat Money” won prolonged ovations as well. Despite all these pearly moments, it was the overall musical tapestry that lingers.

Shorn of its spoken dialog, however, it was difficult to get a true sense of how the work might play out in a fully staged production. As it was, pregnancies, miscarriages, deaths and other life passages came and went in relatively quick succession. But it was sensible to give precedence to the music in this particular venue. Would that the hall’s recent “Show Boat” concert had offered a fuller version of the score, and eschewed the familiar drama!

It may have been too much of a good thing, but it’s hard to carp about an abundance of music when most of it is so ravishingly beautiful. Paul Gemignani led the 50-piece American Theatre Orchestra with exquisite delicacy. The orchestrations were outstanding, richly textured, and filled with exotic touches. The top level chorus – mostly Broadway pros – was well integrated into the action.

For once Carnegie Hall’s sound design, often so wretched for non-classical events, was decent, though supertitles would have been ideal for total comprehension of the unfamiliar lyrics. From what could be heard, Kretzmer has done a commendable job.

There was fine use of well written inter-titles which set the scene, in silent movie style, or provided other exposition. There was also a well-judged use of narration, mostly delivered by Pitre.

Director Lars Rudolfsson used just enough blocking to give a sense of the drama, with minimalist but telling interaction between the performers. Natasha Katz’s wonderfully apt lighting was another plus, adding to the mood immeasurably.

The packed audience – Swedish accents were ubiquitous – was ecstatic. This was truly one of the best musicals in concert events, outside the Encores sphere. The planned Decca CD should be a winner.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Surrogates (Touchstone Pictures)


By Harry Forbes

In this sometimes silly and illogical, but overall rather compelling, science fiction thriller, directed by Jonathan Mostow, Bruce Willis plays FBI agent Greer who, together with partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell), is assigned to solve the mystery of a young man killed outside a Boston disco while canoodling with a blond pick-up.

But this is no ordinary young man and no ordinary Boston. In this world, everyone has a surrogate – a more perfect, youthful version robotic counterpart – while the “owner,” studded with electrodes, sleeps safely at home, brain impulses transmitted to the alter ego.

The victim was, in fact, the surrogate of the scion of crusty billionaire Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), inventor of the surrogates. Though surrogates can be harmed, their owners cannot. Until now, that is.

Greer discovers the killer Strickland (Jack Noseworthy), wanted for armed robbery, is in possession of a weapon – a so-called “overload device” – capable of killing both surrogate and owner. Complicating Greer’s mission is the Human Coalition, a group of militant opponents of surrogates, led by a bearded Prophet (Ving Rhames.

We first see Greer in his surrogate form, and you’ll get a kick of out Bruce Willis with a blond hairpiece, and his facial lines digitally smoothed out. But when his surrogate is badly mutilated after a violent skirmish, Greer forgoes the surrogate, and it’s Willis, as we know him, for the rest of the film.

He gives a surprisingly solid performance, grief-stricken over the child who died years before, and yearning to connect with his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) who deals with that loss by taking refuge in her coldly perfect surrogate. Cromwell gets relatively little screen time – as his wheelchair-bound character usually speaks through his surrogates – but he’s excellent in his one extended scene.

Though special effects dominate – and visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson’s work is quite outstanding here – Greer’s personal dilemma is compelling on its own terms. John Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script was adapted from a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele.

There’s considerable action violence, with a couple of especially well done slam-bang chase sequences, but little in the way of actual blood.

In our increasingly technological world with its computers and cell phones, not to mention society’s obsession with perfection, “Surrogates” – though hardly profound -- can be viewed as a cautionary story with point.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene.)

Coco Before Chanel (Sony Pictures Classics)


By Harry Forbes

Audrey Tautou is the brilliant centerpiece of this understatedly sumptuous telling of the legendary Gabrielle Chanel’s colorful early life, starting in 1893, when she is an orphaned waif at the Aubazine monastery, poignantly waiting for a father who would never visit.

As she grows, she learns her craft as a seamstress, but finds entertaining at the café-cabarets more to her liking. And it is there she earns her nickname by singing the jaunty ditty “Coco qui a vu Coco.”

Sullen tomboy that she seems, she becomes an unlikely courtesan to a frequenter of the café -- racehorse owner, gentleman farmer, and overall bon vivant Ėtienne Balsan (a superb Benoit Poelvoorde) -- and observes critically his playing host to an idle, decadent crowd.

Their relationship notwithstanding, she finds true love with his pal, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). Their romance blossoms when the paternally indulgent Balsan allows Boy to take her away for a weekend to the shore. But the romance will end tragically.

The film gives us glimpses of Chanel’s burgeoning fashion sense, as for instance, when she advises one of Balsan’s former mistresses, the actress Emilieene (Emmanuelle Devos) – actually, an amalgam of two real-life performers -- not to overdress, showing her bias for simple designs.

The screenplay by Fontaine and Camille Fontaine , with the collaboration of Christopher Hampton, was loosely based on “L’irrégulière” by Edmonde Charles-Roux.

Tautou plays with total conviction: stubborn, headstrong, grave and serious until, that is, she experiences love for the first time. Throughout she conveys an innate conviction about her talent and unconventional worldview.

Tautou’s assured portrayal – and the quality of the production as a whole, sensitively helmed by Anne Fontaine -- makes this the definitive take on the genesis of the iconic fashion designer. Poelvoorde gives the film’s other great performance, his interest in his young protégé morphing touchingly from playful lust to tolerance and genuine love.

Some may be disappointed that the film takes Chanel just to brink of success as a world famous couturier, but they’ll find compensation in a breathtaking fashion sequence on the famous Chanel staircase at the end of the film that is all the more effective for our not having seen all that came before. Tautou, in tight close-up, looks on serenely, no longer an awkward gamin, but confident queen of her domain.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for sexual content and smoking.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Paris (IFC Films)


By Harry Forbes

Here’s another of those multiple storyline films so popular these days, though here the connections are rather closer than usual, with a central plot strand -- a dancer from the Moulin Rouge (played by director Cedric Klapisch’s frequent star Romain Duris) waiting for a heart transplant and contemplating mortality, while his social worker sister (Juliette Binoche), a single mom with three children, moves in to care of him -- dominating.

There’s also a history professor at the Sorbonne (Fabrice Luchini) who has a May-December affair with a pretty student (Melanie Laurent who plays the Jewish cinema owner in “Inglourious Basterds”) he’s been virtually stalking through text messages, his architect brother (Francois Cluzet) waits for the birth of his child and worries about his inadequacy.

Other characters include an illegal immigrant from Cameroon (Kingsley Kum Abang), two sisters in the fashion industry (Audrey Marnay and Annelise Hesme), a bakery owner (Karin Viard) never satisfied with her help, and various market stallholders, including a fishmonger (Albert Dupontel) whom Binoche’s character flirts with each day as she makes her rounds.

Though very much a paean to the titular City of Light, this isn’t the glossy Technicolor valentine of the old MGM mode, but a grittier multifaceted Paris – the old landmarks co-existing with the new -- but none the less intriguing for all that.

Klapisch succeeds in capturing the variety of moods that are part of the city’s makeup, and performances are generally fine across the board, but not all the vignettes are golden, and at 124 minutes, the film is somewhat longer than it should be.

(The has been rated R by the MPAA for language and some sexual references.)

The Burning Plain (Magnolia Pictures)


By Harry Forbes

Guillermo Arriaga – scriptwriter for “Babel,” “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” and “21 Grams” – has made a specialty of the multi-narrative structure with seemingly disparate plot strands (not necessarily in the same time frame) eventually neatly coming together.

He’s used this technique again with “The Burning Plain,” an assured directorial debut, though the synchronicity this time around seriously strains credulity.

Charlize Theron plays Sylvia, a hard-working restaurateur whom we first see emerge from bed with her married lover, a coworker at the eatery, and standing at her window stark naked for all to see. She’s clearly troubled emotionally, but we won’t know why till much later in the story.

Then there’s crop-dusting father (Danny Pino) and daughter Maria (Tessa Ia) who relocate to Texas. Shortly after they arrive, the man has a serious smashup in his plane, leaving his sad-eyed 12-year-old in the hands of his best friend Carlos (Jose Maria Yazpik) who sets out to locate the girl’s mother.

And in New Mexico, there’s the meeting of two teens, the Latino Santiago (JD Pardo) and blonde Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) who share a unique connection. Their parents – Nick (Joaquim De Almeida) and Gina (Kim Basinger), a cancer survivor, respectively -- were adulterous lover and they perished while having sex when their trailer hideaway went up in flames. Despite the racial divide, the youngsters bond through their mutual grief and curiosity about what brought their parents together.

The cast is uniformly excellent with Theron, who excels in these troubled working-class roles, delivering her usual good work and Kim Basinger also quite effective as the erring, needful adulteress.

The script’s Big Revelation, which you may guess well before it comes, is not quite plausible or satisfying when you connect the dots, but leisurely paced though it is, there's much that is compelling here, and the film holds your interest.

(Rated R by the MPAA for sexuality, nudity and language.)

The Informant! (Warner Bros. Pictures)


By Harry Forbes

Matt Damon again proves himself a fine character actor in director Steven Soderbergh’s entertaining riff on the man said to be the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history. That was Mark Whitacre, a vice president at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) who, in the early to mid 90’s, agreed to help the FBI gather evidence of a global price-fixing conspiracy for a food additive called lysine.

First hesitantly, then enthusiastically, playing secret agent for the Bureau, Whitacre – a biochemist in addition to his executive status -- comes to relish packing a wire and a tape recorder, and oh-so-cleverly getting his colleagues and associates to spill the beans about their unscrupulous activities.

Working with FBI Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), he naively believes his efforts will ultimately earn him the admiration of his company and almost surely lead to promotion when the wrong-doers are ousted. His sweetly long-suffering wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) has her doubts.

And indeed, there’s a twist in store, but even though this is a true story, it would perhaps ruin the fun to reveal it here.

What gives the film its distinctive tone, as well as the comic edge to a basically serious narrative, is the almost non-stop voiceover narration of Whitacre (brilliantly delivered by Damon), as he jabbers on in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion with a cockeyed logic that defies description. The sharp script is by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book of the same name by Kurt Eichenwald.

It’s quite an incredible story – and moored by Damon’s performance, and the handsomely shot international locales (Whitacre traveled the globe in his dealings) beyond his Decatur, Illinois home base – and an absorbing one. The Whitacre home in the film, incidentally, was their actual abode.

The 30 pounds added by Damon for the role, along with other facial alterations, show a worthy readiness to lose himself in character. It’s gratifying to observe this trend is shared by so many of his peers including Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, The willingness and ability to stretch often with such remarkable dexterity, I think makes today’s stars rank very much on a par with their Golden Age counterparts.

(The film has been rated R by the MPAA for language.)

Love Happens (Universal)


By Harry Forbes

The title suggests a breezy romantic comedy in which its leads – Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston – will meet cute, and then, bingo, fall for each other. But in fact, this is primarily a serious-minded drama about loss, the grieving process and ultimate acceptance of death and moving on.

Dr. Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart), a widower, has become a slick motivational speaker and writer, a sort of grief guru. He’s come to Seattle to give one of his popular seminars on the subject, and plug his book, the blandly-titled “A-OK!”

There, for the first time since his wife’s death, he finds himself attracted to Eloise Chandler (Jennifer Aniston), a florist shop owner, who (guess what?) has just broken up with her boyfriend. Their initial meeting is far from promising. They collide with each other in the hallway of his hotel, and later, when he works up the nerve to approach her in the lobby and suggest a date, she – assuming a sleazy pickup -- rebuffs him by pretending to be deaf. (Huh?)

When he discovers her ruse, they have a terrible fight – he even gives her the finger -- but somehow after their tempers cool, she senses she’s misjudged him, and agrees to dinner. A respectful friendship, burgeoning on romance, develops.

It soon becomes clear that for all his confidence in helping others cope with loss, Burke himself has never gotten over his wife’s death in a car accident three years earlier, and he’s emotionally blocked. The focus of the film – more a vehicle for Eckhart than Aniston – charts how he finally grapples with his loss.

To its credit, director Brandon Camp’s script (co-written with do-producer Mike Thompson) maintains a believable restraint in their relationship. They barely exchange a kiss through most of the movie. But the fact remains the script never gives their characters a chance to spark. It’s admirable that the script speaks seriously about loss and, but the glossy tone of the film is somehow at odds with that intent.

Still, their performances cannot be faulted and the film generally coasts on their easy-going appeal.

There are some other solid performances here, too, including Dan Fogler as Burke’s agent trying to land him a multi-media deal, Frances Conroy as Eloise’s mother, and most especially, John Carroll Lynch as bereft father shattered at the death of his son, and Martin Sheen as Burke’s crusty father-in-law. Sheen and Eckhart share the film’s climatic dramatic scene, shamelessly sentimental but undeniably effective.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for some language including sexual references.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Aftermath (New York Theatre Workshop)




By Harry Forbes

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, creators of that highly successful piece of documentary theater, “The Exonerated,” which concerned innocent people on Death Row, have done it again. Their take on the Iraq war, from the little-heard perspective of ordinary citizens, is another powerful eye-opener.

Though it avoids outright condemnation of the United States, the unpleasant facts speak for themselves. Taken from the testimony of 37 Iraqi refugees living in Jordan whom Blank and Jensen interviewed in June 2008, their play tells six stories (with a cast of nine) to illustrate the emotional and physical toll the war has exacted.

The characters comprise the translator, played by Fajer Al-Kaisi, whose presence provides the glue for the varied testimony, with some of the characters opening their narrative in their native tongue, and then segueing into English. These include a theater director (Daoud Heidami) and his wife (Maha Chehlaoui), a visual artist; a pharmacist (Laith Nakli); a dermatologist (Amir Arison); an Iman (Demosthenes Chrysan); husband and wife cooks (Omar Koury and Rasha Zamamiri); and a young mother (Leila Buck).

Among the accounts, all of them poignant, related here are the mother’s losing her entire family to a roadside bomb with all the pain, confusion and uncertainty that followed; the Iman, his faith ironically fostered on an American book about belief coexisting with science, incarcerated at Abu Ghraib and subjected to torture and degradation; the blood-phobic dermatologist forced to see tend to the wounded at Baghdad Hospital; and the pharmacist’s nephew – a student with no political connections – wakened in the middle of the night, and shot in cold blood.

The play bears some thematic similarities to George Packer’s “Betrayed,” presented last year by the Culture Project. That concerned the American exploitation of those Iraqis working for them as translators or in other functions. Like that play, this should be essential viewing.

We need to be reminded, as the pharmacist does, that the city of Fallujah, for instance, was a city whose inhabitants, for the most part, are educated – professors, doctors, pharmacists – and hospitable to a fault.

Performances are very fine and authentic. Blank’s economic direction helps the intermissionless 90-minutes pass quickly.

Blank and Jensen keep the tone varied, and stress the resilience and innate optimism of the human spirit. With all they’ve endured, Blank and Jensen remind us, these Iraqis haven’t lost their enthusiasm for a rousing soccer match, nor for hope in the future.
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(New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and Bowery, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Other Man (Image Entertainment)



By Harry Forbes

In its essentials, we’ve seen all this before. The devoted husband of a seemingly loving wife learns she’s having an affair and, in a rage, determines to track down the lover.

So here we have Liam Neeson – recently on the trail of his daughter’s abductors in “Taken” in Paris – now hunting a putative lover in Milan. Antonio Banderas – hair sliced back and looking every inch the dapper continental businessman – is his prey. Laura Linney is the errant wife.

With British theater director Richard Eyre at the helm, you begin to wonder why talent of this caliber would take on such a conventional story. Well, the narrative is not entirely what it seems, as things turn out, but by that time, you may not care.

It’s all little consolation for the choppy narrative and overheated passion (mostly courtesy of Neeson) on display here.

Without giving too much away, husband Peter hacks his wife’s email and with the help of a security expert at the office, he identifies the writer of the florid love notes and the subject of a few steamy photos, and takes off to Milan, seemingly with murder in his blood.

But no. Instead, he discovers lover Ralph’s daily routine of chess at a local café, and before long, they’re playing together. Ralph quickly spills the beans about his luscious lover (i.e. Linney), and it’s all Peter can do to contain himself. With every smug “check” and “checkmate” from Ralph, Peter seems closer to going berserk.

Eventually, Peter’s daughter Abigail (Romola Garai) finds further evidence of her mother’s infidelity, and leaves her shaggy husband behind, to join Peter. But when she observes her dad becoming more obsessive by the hour, heedless of her entreaties, she returns to London in disgust.

To say more would spoil what little suspense there is, but suffice to say, the source material – a story by Bernhard Schlink, author of “The Reader” – has resulted in something far more prosaic than that multi-leveled, morally textured work.

Neeson is reasonably compelling in a fairly one-note role, and so is Banderas with his more enigmatic character. Linney is reliable as ever, though she’s more talked about than seen.

All three are worth seeing, but this curiosity is far from their best work.

(Rated R by the MPAA for some sexuality/nudity and language.)

Whiteout (Warner Bros.)



By Harry Forbes

Antarctica, “the coldest most isolated land mass on the planet,” as we are forewarned at the film’s start, provides the desolate setting for this dull by-the-numbers thriller. It concerns a U.S. marshal (that’s Kate Beckinsale) stationed at a U.S. research station there, who investigates the murder (the continent’s first!) of a geologist whose frozen corpse is spotted lying in the middle of nowhere.

She and John Fury (Tom Skerritt), the base’s kindly doctor and Carrie’s principal confidant, were about to take leave of the base for the winter, but now, of course, they must remain. It is Fury, incidentally, who gets to describe for us the horrors of being caught in a blinding whiteout of snow and wind.

The geologist had been part of a team looking for the contents of a Russian cargo plane, downed half a century earlier. They had found, as we come to learn, something of interest in the plane’s storage box.

After she and her pilot Delfy (Columbus Short) go to an abandoned Russian base where the victim was stationed and discover another fatality, Carrie is nearly killed by a mystery assailant, his identity hidden by protective gear, There, they also encounter an enigmatic U.N. representative Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht) who becomes Carrie’s unwanted partner, and potential love interest.

The uninspired screenplay by Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber and Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes, was based on the 1998 graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber.

This is the sort of movie where every single character seems suspect. A repeated sepia-toned violent flashback of Carrie in her former career will eventually explain why she accepted this desolate assignment, but there is little otherwise in the way of character development. You barely care what happens to any of them, and the ultimate revelation of the killer’s identity is pretty predictable. (You may, however, crave a hot chocolate after two hours of raging snow, powerful winds, and chattering teeth.)

The arctic setting (actually, Manitoba, Canada) is convincing enough, and provides the film with its sole point of mild interest, though it’s sometimes difficult to tell who’s who in the all the snow and South Pole darkness.

Director Dominic Sera’s direction is strictly standard for this B-level material. There are quite a few gruesome shots of frozen corpses and such, and – spoiler alert – Carrie loses a couple of her fingers to the cold, the (mostly below frame level) amputation getting more of a rise out of the boisterous preview audience than any of the other sluggish proceedings on screen.

(This film has been rated R by the MPAA for violence, grisly images, brief strong language and some nudity.)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Extract (Miramax Films)



By Harry Forbes

This quirky off-beat comedy from writer-director Mike Judge – originally intended as a follow-up to his cult favorite “Office Space” nearly 10 years ago -- is far from perfect, but its low-keyed shenanigans involving labor and love in a small-town extract factory wins you over with its generally smart humor and some spot-on performances.

Jason Bateman is Joel, founder of the plant he has built into the thriving Reynolds Extracts thriving business. When one of his workers – Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.) – is injured, con artist Cindy (Mila Kunis), who’s drifting through town, sees an opportunity to cash in.

She contrives to take a job at the factory to find out where Step lives. In short order, she’s surreptitiously dating the loser, and cunningly convincing him to sue. If he follows through, of course, Joel will lose the factory.

Joel, whose sexual activity with coupon-designer wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) has frustratingly diminished, is a decent man but he fantasizes about a fling with the curvaceous Cindy about whose machinations he’s, of course, totally clueless.

His laid-back barkeeper buddy Dean – played by an almost unrecognizably bearded, long-haired Ben Affleck in a droll comic turn – convinces him to hire Brad (Dustin Milligan), a dimwit would-be gigolo to seduce Suzie, which would then ease Joel’s own conscience about moving in on his curvaceous new worker. Under the influence of a tranquilizer from stoner Dean’s pill arsenal, Joel agrees, to his morning-after regret.

Milligan’s one of several amusing supporting performances, which also include David Koechner as an obnoxiously pushy neighbor Nathan, J.K. Simmons as the factory supervisor who never remembers the employees’ names, and Gene Simmons of KISS as a shyster lawyer. But it’s the very appealing Bateman who holds the film solidly together, with Affleck proving a surprisingly deft comic foil.

Though the emphasis here is social satire, “Extract” bears a superficial resemblance to the blue collar milieu of the underrated Renee Zelwegger-Harry Connick, Jr. romance, “New in Town,” with its picturesque working class types, threat of big-city encroachment (here a buyout by General Mills), and even the presence of Simmons.

Not all of Judge’s gags are inspired, and some fall downright flat, but there are enough good bits to make the film worth your time. And underneath some crude language and morally dubious situations, the script shows compassion and decency even where some of the less admirable characters are concerned.

(Rated R by the MPAA for language, sexual references and some drug use.)

All About Steve (20th Century Fox)



By Harry Forbes

It would be tempting to label the latest Sandra Bullock vehicle, “All About Steve,” a vanity production, inasmuch as Bullock co-produced and is very much center stage of this endless 100 minute would-be comedy, despite a title that would suggest otherwise.

But vanity productions generally showcase their stars in a flattering and appealing light. Bullock’s character, Mary Horowitz, a loveless, work-obsessed crossword puzzle constructor at a small Sacramento paper, is almost unrelievedly annoying from start to finish, and her impersonation of a smart but clueless kook is decidedly unbecoming. (Watch her try to slide down a banister in her bath towel.)

Mary – half-Jewish and half-Catholic, we gratuitously learn late in the film – is temporarily living at home with her parents (Howard Hesseman and Beth Grant). Their daughter has no social life, so they push her into a blind date with the titular Steve (Bradley Cooper), a cable TV news cameraman. Better looking than her usual dates, she forthwith jumps him in the back seat and begins tearing off his clothes (and her own) before the car has even taken off, one of the most distasteful and unfunny such scenes ever.

A phone call from his newsroom gives Steve a quick escape from the randy lady, but her next crossword puzzle – a prankish one devoted entirely to her adoration of Steve – causes a furor among her perplexed fans, and she’s canned.

Free of obligation, she hits the road to find Steve, who’s out covering stories with aging, inept reporter Hartman Hughes. He’s played by Thomas Haden Church who rivals Bullock for unlikability here.

Kim Barker’s script has some mildly amusing jibes at the media’s love of sensationalism, but we’ve seen all this before. Barker never makes Mary anything but an irritating nut job. Barker, whose script for Robin Williams’ “License to Wed” was equally dire, includes gags about a three-legged baby and a bunch of deaf children who fall into an abandoned mineshaft, and includes such egregious lines as Mary’s cutesy-poo “Thank you for not raping me,” addressed to a truck driver who’s given her a lift.

Later, describing her trademark red go-go boots, Mary cloyingly reveals she wears them because they make her toes feel like “ten friends on a camping trip,” a head-scratching remark meant to be endearing, but just plain trite.

Phil Traill’s prosaic direction fails to compensate for the script’s inadequacies.

As she continues to stalk Steve, Mary picks up a couple of oddball friends, Howard, who sculpts faces out of apples, and his sweet friend Elizabeth, a likable pair as played by DJ Qualls and newcomer Katy Mixon. Steve's sidekick, field producer Angus, as played by Ken Jeong, is another minor plus.

The lame attempts at pathos and sentiment, as we observe Mary’s manic peculiarities bringing folks together, and the film’s ultimate lesson that it’s OK to be unconventional – register as flat and contrived. Chalk this up as a major misfire for the usually appealing Bullock.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for sexual content including innuendos.)