"I just want this fucking day to end!"
The average film director manages to avoid this, as most first efforts tend to be lesser than their subsequent efforts. Some examples of this are P.T. Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, Hal Ashby, the list is endless. Then there are the directors who manage to avoid the sophomore slump. While a much smaller group, they are no less diverse, including The Coen Brothers, Orson Welles, Brad Bird, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese. Then there are the ones who fall victim to it, and again, it's a diverse group that includes Lars VonTrier, Steven Spielberg, Stephen Soderbergh, Michael Mann, Bryan Singer. As you can see, it doesn't doom a filmmaker to future failure, but all of these directors rebounded quickly, often by their third feature.
I would also add Ruben Fleischer to this group of filmmakers who've fallen victim to the sophomore slump. His first feature was 2009's Zombieland, one of the most original and funny films of the last few years and one that dealt with an almost boring convention (zombie apocalypse) in a new and original way. It didn't hurt that he had a pretty great cast and the most talked about cameo of the decade, but there was clearly talent being exhibited behind the camera and I looked forward to what he might do next. This summer gave us 30 Minutes or Less, his sophomore feature, and while the previews looked promising, it was greeted with disdain from most critics and apathy from audiences. Could it possibly be as bad as all that? I'm here to answer with a resounding yes.
The premise has potential, two losers need $100,000 to hire a hitman to kill the one loser's dad and get his inheritance, so they strap a bomb to a pizza delivery guy and force him to rob a bank to get them the money. The movie runs 83 minutes, with credits, and has nearly 20 minutes of filler. There's at least 20 minutes of scenes that have no impact on the story and mostly consist of the two losers sitting around, talking. The two losers are played by Danny McBride and Nick Swardson. Swardson has proven with virtually every film he's in that he was better suited to stand-up than acting, and maybe that has to do with not being given a role that plays to his strengths (his character on Reno 911 is one example of him being very good in a role that plays to his strengths).
Danny McBride is another animal altogether. He was very good in his early supporting roles in Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, and Hot Rod, but as he began to get put front and center, his considerable weaknesses began to manifest themselves, namely, he just kind of does the same thing over and over again (plays a doofus with a filthy mouth). I like both of these actors, I just wish they would do something else. I don't think I laughed at a single thing they said because it was nothing but a variation on something they'd already said in another movie.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the pizza delivery guy, and again, here's an actor I usually like, but here he just flounders. First of all, I don't buy him as a loser who would work at a pizza delivery place. It seems he was cast because the director had worked with him before and could therefore rely on him to infuse the character with the required empathy needed when he gets the bomb strapped to him. The problem I had here was that the film wants to have it both ways. It wants you to laugh at how buffoonish and unrealistic the characters are, but then wants you to empathize with them as you realize that they're all just victims of circumstance. I won't say I didn't laugh at all, but I certainly didn't laugh as much as they were trying to make me laugh.
Comedies, no matter how low-brow, can elicit other emotional reactions from you besides laughter. However, they have to be rooted in reality and truth in order to achieve that, and when they are, they can transcend being a mere comedy and turn into something else. Many directors have achieved that, and Fleischer is one of them. Hopefully years from now, we can look back at this as a misstep in an otherwise brilliant career, but if this is a harbinger of things to come, at least he made one good movie which is more than some directors can say.
Tomorrow I'll review Bottle Rocket, I just got sidetracked by the opportunity to see this movie.