Failure by the numbers

Times Staff Writer

Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker look and act, quite attractively, like grown-ups, and their easy rapport makes them convincing and appealing as an on-screen couple. So all throughout “Failure to Launch,” I found myself wishing they were in a different movie, maybe one as sophisticated as “The Philadelphia Story,” which the movie references, but doesn’t remotely live up to.

The premise requires that we accept the rakish McConaughey as a luxury boat salesman who still lives with his parents, played by an underused Kathy Bates, looking as if she’s not quite sure what she’s doing in the movie, and NFL commentator Terry Bradshaw. It might have worked had Tripp, McConaughey’s character, been drawn as a lazy charmer, with no compunction about mooching off his parents for the rest of his life. Instead, this being paint-by-numbers romantic comedy, he is given a back story with a big, sympathy-grabbing explanation embedded in its chewy center.

Parker plays Paula, a “transition consultant” hired by Tripp’s parents to lure him out of the nest. Having pinpointed the problem -- which in the world of the movie, is epidemic -- to lack of self-esteem, Paula has developed a technique whereby she coaxes the apron-bound thirtysomethings into bonding with her and moving on. (She pulls it off without sex, the minx, and nobody seems to mind.) What happens when the newly bonded former mama’s boys find themselves ignominiously dumped after the job is over is never addressed. Like Tripp, she is given a rudimentary single-issue back story, and otherwise left to fend for herself. More than a character, she’s a stand-in for the soon-to-be upended status quo: Business is smooth sailing until Paula gets Tripped.


I suppose that once a character as thin as this has made it all the way to the screen, it’s pointless to call attention to the other areas in which she rings hollow. But what can you do? Paula shares a large suburban house with a roommate, Kit (Zooey Deschanel), who looks and acts 15 years her junior. Although this comes as no surprise -- Deschanel is, after all, 15 years Parker’s junior -- it raises questions the movie doesn’t really intend to raise: Namely, why are these two friends, and why are they living together? Deschanel is charming and quirky as the sullen twentysomething, but she’s given nothing to do other than obsess over a mockingbird that’s driving her crazy. She eventually falls for Ace (Justin Bartha), one of Tripp’s best friends who, like their other friend Demo (Bradley Cooper), still lives at home as well. (As with Deschanel and Parker, the boys are far too young to appear credibly as McConaughey’s friends and peers.)

Had it been at all developed, Deschanel’s character might have warranted a movie of her own. Not that it seems likely we’ll see a comedy centered around a surly 25-year-old girl anytime soon. The studios’ attitude toward women, young ones in particular, is unstintingly grim. But “Failure to Launch” is a good example of the industry’s low regard for young men too. As if to compensate for the love story, the movie is peppered with teen-movie comedy cribbed from films like “There’s Something About Mary.”

This seems to be a trend in comedies -- movies with premises that promise comedic insight into the way we live now, and then assiduously avoid mining their interesting, culturally specific and infinitely humor-rich subjects. Rather than take an organic and timely premise -- the phenomenon of youngish adults returning home in their 20s and 30s -- the movie casts around wildly for comic set-pieces, coming up with things like aggressive chipmunks, hostile dolphins and a dad who longs to be naked at all times. It’s not exactly that the audience’s intelligence is underestimated, it’s that their relevance is.

You don’t have to be smart, after all, to connect to a comedy about a guy who has messed up his short foray into adulthood to the point that he has to revert to childhood; or to root for the girl who loves him against her better judgment. But when it comes to romantic comedies, studios seem inexplicably hamstrung by a host of conflicting received notions and biases that they combine and recombine to similarly unsuccessful effect in movie after movie.

It’s enough to make you think that Hollywood is run by the world’s last and most dedicated but least inspired alchemists, sealed off in primitive laboratories, doggedly trying to turn lead into gold.


‘Failure to Launch’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity and language

A Paramount Pictures release. Directed by Tom Dey. Screenplay by Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember. Produced by Scott Rudin. Director of photography Claudio Miranda. Editor Steve Rosenblum. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.