Starbuck is a Tremendously Touching Comedy That Doesn’t Forget to Laugh

Starbuck, a terrifically entertaining comedy from our friendly neighbors to the north in Quebec, Canada opened March 22 and continues to play in theaters such as the Landmark and Laemlle in Los Angeles and Pasadena. It’s a completely funny and charming film from start to finish that captures the essence of the aging X-generation as it hits mid-life crisis in the form of a Peter Pan type character suddenly forced to face the responsibilities of adulthood – in spades. Although the plot centers around a concept geared toward mature audiences it is not beyond the appreciation of young adults, and in fact offers a solid (yet lighthearted) message about family and identity that should resonate well with younger viewers struggling with issues of belonging and self awareness.

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Patrick Huard (a French-Canadian actor, producer and writer) stars as David, a 42-year old lovable but perpetual screw up who lives the life of an irresponsible adolescent. From the first scenes we learn that David coasts through life with minimal effort, evading loan sharks, while working as a delivery man for his family’s meat market and maintaining a relationship with a policewoman (Julie LeBreton). Just as his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant, David’s past resurfaces in a spectacular way. You see, twenty years earlier he was a sperm donor to a fertility clinic that apparently relied exclusively on his abundant donations. Now he discovers he’s the father of 533 children, 142 of whom have filed a class action lawsuit to determine the identity of their biological father, who up until now has been known only by the pseudonym Starbuck.

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Because he has been viscerated by the press and faces the real possibility of financial liability David decides to hide his identity from everyone except his best friend who is also his lawyer. But he just can’t help himself and decides to secretly observe a few of his offspring. The encounters range from the thrilling to the tragic, the banal to the hilarious as David discovers the satisfaction of selflessly being there for more than one of them in a well-timed moment of need. And although it has its moments of seriousness, Starbuck never forgets that it is a comedy first and foremost. Making even the heaviest of moments a little lighter with just the right amount of awkward silliness. Of course, complications arise and what started out as an anonymous gesture becomes very involved as David’s good deeds bring him closer and closer to 142 people who were once total strangers, to him as well as to each other. Ultimately the group forms into the most unusual and untraditional family you’ve ever seen. That’s a pretty heavy concept for a comedy, but Starbuck manages to strike the right cord at every beat, often prompting a smile even in the most touching of moments.

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Plain and simple Starbuck is a fun watch. It’s not the funniest film ever made but it’s one of the most entertaining I’ve seen in a very long time. Most importantly it doesn’t try desperately hard to get you to like it. It just is a good, straightforward likeable film led by the irresistibly charming Huard who is completely winning as David, who when backed into a corner and forced to think fast on his feet, is most particularly charming. I urge you to take a date, your friends, and family to what is likely to be everyone’s favorite film of the season. It’s no summer blockbuster, nor does it try to be. But Starbuck is perfect for a fun and memorable movie-going experience that will spark many lively and enjoyable post viewing discussions.

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And FYI, upon seeing the first few scenes of this particularly engaging French language comedy I just knew that someone was going to want do an American version. And sure enough, as it turns out Vince Vaughn has already completed production on the Hollywood remake. He’s a very good choice for what is now titled Delivery Man as Vaughn personifies the character Huard so deftly establishes in Starbuck. However, it’s going to be a very different film regardless of the fact that you have the same director, Ken Scott at the helm. Good or bad, a Hollywood film just can’t help taking on certain aspects that makes it, well, very Hollywood. I have nothing against remakes or Vince Vaughn, and in fact will likely see the Hollywood re-do just to see how it compares, but I urge you to see this original before the remake which is set to be released later this year on October 4. I promise you won’t be disappointed, and very likely will make you appreciate the Americanized version all that much more.

“A Better Life”: A Better Summer Film if You Like Good Stories

 

A father and son go on a journey in “A Better Life”

“A Better Life” tells the tale of an illegal immigrant father and his American born teenage son. The father is a sincere and honest man who works exhausting hours as a landscaper so his fourteen year old can live a better life than what would have been available to him back in Mexico. Their relationship is a strained one, as the boy is at an age of natural rebellion and is embarrassed by his father’s profession. But the father quietly endures, not minding the subtle indignations as long as his son stays out of trouble and gets an education. He even buys the truck from his retiring employer so he can carry on his work without standing on the corner waiting to be selected as a day laborer. Unfortunately, the truck is stolen, and the father and son go on a near impossible journey to get it back. Through the course of their search together the son gains a better understanding of his dad and learns what it means to be a father, and an American.  

The father sees a beautiful view just before seeing something shocking.

The story of “A Better Life” is a simple one, but don’t let that put you off. As this well executed tale will prove, simple is sweet. The very first thing you notice about “A Better Life” is the stillness and quite beauty of the cinematography and acting. Unlike other summer releases, this one is not loaded down with a bunch of fancy camera tricks or any kind of special effects other than those provided by the subtle and heartfelt performances so lovingly caught on film. And I do mean film, for this production used an old fashioned camera, providing a warm and intimate feel one can only get when shooting with actual film stock. The choice seems poignantly fitting. An old fashioned feel for an old fashioned film that offers something you rarely get from a Hollywood product anymore; a well-constructed story that entertains and satisfies. This rare achievement is particularly impressive considering that Chris Weitz’s first two films as a solo director include the fantasy extravaganza  “The Golden Compass” and the second installment of the Twilight films, “New Moon” (Weitz’s other directing credits are shared with his brother, Paul). That’s a huge swing of the pendulum; one few would expect from someone use to hundred million dollar budgets. Of course the budgets may have been very large, but the decisions were not always his to make. With a smaller budget the director gets to make more of the decisions, and in this case it appears to have paid off. One of the decisions was to shoot on real locations in Los Angeles with a bilingual cast and crew, even though Weitz himself could not speak Spanish before shooting began. It was a choice he made in order to pay honor to the cohesive intent of the film, a conscious nod to the coming together of different worlds. This thematic homage really shows through, lending the film an added depth of authenticity in every single frame.  

Although seemingly impossible, the father must try to find his stolen truck.

I will not spoil the experience of this film by giving away its ending, or even mentioning one of the most thrilling moments of the film that prompted the audience I watched it with to explode in to applause. I will tell you that the film has similarities to the classic film “The Bicycle Thieves”, which is not surprising since Weitz has mentioned watching a lot of Italian neo-realism and De Sica before beginning production. That being said there is no neat, happy ending. The conclusion is a complicated and realistic one that leaves room for possibilities. But I think intelligent audiences will appreciate the opportunity to think for themselves. Better yet, intelligent audiences will appreciate a good film without a bunch of fancy frills and post-production sweetening. Without a doubt, “A Better Life” is the best bang for the buck so far this summer. With filmmaking this clean and simple, how can you go wrong?  

October 2015 update: By the way, I predicted that the lead actor, Demian Bichir would be nominated for an Oscar for his performance.  And even thought this was a small film that almost no one saw, he was.  Unfortunately, it was the same year a s “The Artist” and Bichir lost the Best Actor statuette to Jean Dujardin.  Hopefully, we will see more of Bichir on the big screen soon.