US movie review

Back when I was reviewing films full time, I would sometimes pull a movie quote from a particular film, brush it off, polish it and toss it into use. Not often mind you, only when it was really necessary.

Said quote comes from the 1981 camp classic, Mommie Dearest. In a scene of the film, Joan Crawford (as portrayed by the inimitable Faye Dunaway) throws a recently read script (one she’s been asked to star in) down to a table on her glorious patio, in total disgust, with a divine delivery of the dialogue, “It’s not good!”

Well, after seeing Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature film, Us, I’ve no choice but to put “It’s not good!” into rotation once more.

Really, Us is not a good film. Now, let’s examine why.

Family of four: Adelaide Wilson (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), their daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph of the forthcoming The Lion King) and son Jason (Evan Alex) take a summer vacation to a family getaway south of San Francisco. Years ago, in the beach/boardwalk community of Santa Cruz, Adelaide had a strange experience in a carnival hall of mirrors. This trauma keeps her from wanting to return to this area, but she does so to appease her husband (against her better judgment). And when a creepy family of four appears in their driveway one night, looking strangely like the Wilson clan, things turn weird and violent.

Visually, I thought the film looked great. Lighting and particularly camerawork (that overhead shot of the family walking on the beach was beautiful) are top-notch. And the slow lighting reveal, via the fireplace, of the family’s doppelgangers was fantastic! And speaking of that initial “doubles” reveal, that sequence was wonderfully memorable and borderline hypnotic (thanks mostly to Nyong’o’s performance in the scene).

The humor present throughout falls flat all but a handful of times. As filmmakers and filmgoers the worldwide know – mixing horror and humor is rarely an attainable goal. Peele didn’t accomplish it here.

I found the film’s tone to be deadly serious. And while bits of humor are always welcome in something so dark (comic relief eases the pressure of horror), the jokes have to be organic to the tone and flow of the film as a whole. It’s simply not the case in Us. One particular “joke” stands out as totally inappropriate, based on the situation in which the characters find themselves. There were plenty of these, but the moment when Jason picks up an object meant for defense, and his sister Zora gives him a “you’ve gotta be kidding” look – no. It doesn’t work. And the Home Alone reference (s) – awful.

These humorous misfires lead me to a bigger problem in the film overall. I never thought I’d live to see the day where I’d have to compare the idiocy, moronic actions and wholly incoherent character choices in a film (since I tore apart last year’s A Quiet Place), but here I am. Choices by any number of characters in Us, and in any number of tense moments – were totally nonsensical.

Look. The film didn’t set out to be an over-the-top fantasy. It’s grounded in reality. These people live real lives – conversations about Zora’s track-n-field aspirations, beach time with friends and talk about dead grandparents. If this is the world established, then these are folks we as the audience know and recognize. So the inopportune humor and ridiculous (and many times dangerous) moves taken by the characters – it never adds up.

Actions by the characters were constantly making me shake my head with a silent “no!” And that is simply a distraction. Yes. Horror films are known to highlight dumb actions by dumb characters. Such things are expected in something like Friday the 13th – but not here.

Other than Lupita Nyong’o, I was completely unimpressed with the performances from the ensemble. No one was completely horrible, of course, but I wasn’t buying much of what the actors brought to the game – but again, a lot of the blame lies at the feet of Peele. The wishy-washy tone couldn’t have been easy for the actors to navigate, no matter how good they are.

Nyong’o – despite the handicapped storytelling working against her – is magnificent in her dual roles. I’ve said it before in numerous venues (in person and online), if you can cry like that – at the drop of a hat, then I will automatically fall in love with you. And both of her characters require such impressive feats. And the fact that Nyong’o and the majority of the other cast members were very frequently playing opposite “themselves” (i.e. some talented stand-ins) – certainly makes their performances impressive, if (aside from Nyong’o) they didn’t come out complete winners.

I do want to call out the film’s exposition scenes. Setting up the easy relationships of this family of four, was a genuine delight. I do so enjoy seeing “real people” come to life on the screen (until they don’t, as is the case here). But at the film’s outset, I liked these people. Too bad this carefully laid groundwork came crumbling down as the film continued.

I didn’t care much for the film’s final revelation. By that point, I was already so bored, any possibility of impressing me was basically out the door. Interesting, but ultimately uneventful. Too little, too late. And it all felt a little convoluted and unfocused.

While the social issues tackled in Get Out were interesting, deliciously served the story and never felt heavy-handed to me, the attempt at a social message of “immigration” in Us was too much for me. The dual version of Adelaide (Red) says at one point, “We’re Americans.” I get where you’re coming from, Mr. Peele. Loud and clear. There’s no subtlety here.

The film had flashes of Signs, The Strangers and even Poltergeist III – notably in the use of mirrors, reflections and dual images in every other shot.

And if you missed the call-out to 1987’s The Lost Boys – you missed a genuine treat. I’m not talking about the Santa Cruz boardwalk location itself (which is of course, where the fictional Santa Carla of The Lost Boys existed) – just the mention of “a film being shot there” in the 1986 sections of Us – absolutely tickled me. Film nerd.

I’ll just add this. I watched the first two episodes of The Twilight Zone reboot (executive produced by Mr. Peele). While he didn’t direct “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” or “The Comedian”, the entire project is guided by his hand. And I found both of those premiere episodes severely lacking.

The point is: I was a big fan of Get Out. I thought it was fantastically conceived, executed, acted. Yes, Us is only his second feature, but frankly Get Out is starting to look like something of a fluke.

There, I said it.

As I left the theatre, I was pretty down. Other than some initial excitement over the trailer, I was able to stay in the dark about the various goings-on in the film. Thus, my expectations were right in the middle. Sure, I enjoyed Get Out heaps, but…

The fact that – what amounts to – an apocalyptic thriller (even one with a somewhat unique take on the idea) was overlong and boring – says it all. How can you make massive death, civil unrest and a breakdown of society at the hands of a foreign faction – boring? Can’t be easy.

Us is now playing in theatres everywhere.

1.5 stars out of a possible 5.