Cowboys & Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens is the highest of high concepts. Its entire premise is contained in its title, which, in the classic manner, could be scribbled on the back of a postcard. Unfortunately, the filmmakers have mailed that postcard off to nowhere.

Remarkably, it required six writers (and 16 producers, among them Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) to turn a slim 2006 graphic novel into a movie. The book, by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Fred Van Lente, and Andrew Foley, takes an interesting narrative stance, setting up an alien invasion of the Old West in 1873 as a mirror of the earlier invasion of North America by European settlers. For some reason—presumably time constraint—the movie has ditched this element of the story. Which leaves us with, well, cowboys and aliens.

The picture begins with a man named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) waking up bruised and wounded in some parched canyon lands. An intricate metal cuff is affixed to his left wrist, and he’s also carrying a photograph of a woman he doesn’t know. But then he doesn’t know his own name, either. When three surly lowlifes approach on horseback, Jake, being Daniel Craig, overwhelms them in a spasm of furious butt-kicking. He makes his way to a shabby mining town that has fallen on hard times (the gold ran out). After a violent encounter with a gun-waving punk named Percy (Paul Dano), Jake draws the attention of both a mysterious young woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) and the town sheriff (Keith Carradine), who recognizes Jake from a wanted poster and tosses him in jail. Then Percy’s angry father, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the local cattle baron, arrives in search of the man who whupped his no-good son…among other things I’ll not go into.

While all of these characters are contentiously interacting, a big spaceship cruises in over the mountains and unleashes alien fighter planes that begin strafing the town and lassoing (!) its inhabitants for transport back to the mothership for more intimate examination. Before long, the townsfolk have allied themselves with an Apache warrior tribe to ward off the extraterrestrial attackers. And so forth.

Director Jon Favreau seems hobbled by the necessity of making two different sorts of movie here. One is an old-fashioned western, with all the familiar signifiers—colorful cowpokes (best among them Walton Goggins, of Justified), barroom showdowns, and a hero who’s even more grim of lip and squinty of eye than Clint Eastwood ever was. There’s also one of those shamanistic Indian rituals, this time enabling Jake to remember who he is (with the help of a cute CGI hummingbird, which struck me as sort of odd). Favreau does a nice job of getting all the Old West atmosphere right, but there’s nothing new about it; and viewers who come for the alien action may feel that the cowboy stuff is just marking time.

The digital aliens, who are about 10 feet tall and suitably unlovely, are expertly embedded in the live action, which is complex and abundant. (In this respect the movie somewhat resembles District 9.) But the interstellar beasties themselves will be un-startling to anyone familiar with the Alien and Predator films. In addition, the reason for their determination to conquer the Earth (they’re gold miners too!) is a little weak; and the related mystery of Ella is never all that mysterious. (“I’m from a different place,” she finally explains.)

Some good actors are wasted here, chiefly Sam Rockwell as a timorous saloon-keeper. Harrison Ford deploys his rote scowl and crooked smile to routine effect, and Daniel Craig spends a little too much time glowering wordlessly from beneath a rather droopy Stetson. And while the dialogue’s generally fine, there is an occasional clunk. (“You can control it with your mind. Stop thinking.”)

Mainly, though, the movie is undone by its divided intentions. The western and the alien-action elements are adequate for their genres, but neither would stand alone as a particularly engrossing film. Given its title, you’d expect the picture to be a lot of fun. The most surprising thing about it is that you’d be wrong.       

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Before it stumbles into a bit of narrative miscalculation toward the end, Crazy, Stupid, Love is one of the year’s funniest pictures, cleverly structured, perfectly paced (for the most part), and enlivened by a cast that’s pretty well unimprovable.

Steve Carell is Cal, a California suburbanite long and happily married to his high-school sweetheart, Emily (Julianna Moore). Driving in their car one night, out of nowhere, Emily tells Steve that she has slept with an amorous coworker (Kevin Bacon), and that she wants a divorce. Cal is devastated, but he dutifully moves out of the house they share with their two kids and into a soulless bachelor apartment. Beset by loneliness, he makes a few feeble attempts to pick up women at an upscale singles bar. His hilarious lack of success at this draws the attention of an observant pickup artist named Jacob (Ryan Gosling). Jacob is strictly into one-night stands—actual romance is never on his menu—and he volunteers to give Cal a studly makeover, starting with his clothes (“Be better than the Gap”) and especially his footwear. (“Are you in a fraternity?” he asks, checking out his new protégé’s puffed-up Nikes.)

Soon Cal is scoring—most uproariously with a love-starved high-school teacher named Kate (Marisa Tomei). Meanwhile, back at Cal’s former home, his 13-year-old son (Jonah Bobo) is lusting after the family babysitter, an endearingly gangly 17-year-old named Jessica (Analeigh Tipton). But Jessica is in turn crushing on Cal, who’s still making occasional household visits. At the same time, a young law student named Hannah (Emma Stone, sharp as always) is slowly submitting to the come-ons of the chick-magnet Jacob, who for the first time is feeling the stirrings of something other than lust, in a place other than his pants.

The movie is an exuberant roundelay of misfiring desires. Carell is at his most eloquently reactive in the midst of the nonstop zingers whizzing by all around him. Up-and-comer Tipton has the awkward charm of a startled woodland creature; Tomei has a fabulously scabrous meltdown scene; and Gosling is once again effortlessly charismatic.

There’s a big reveal near the end of the picture that seemed to me to come out of nowhere, and a scene involving some photographs that’s a little queasy (as if the characters had never heard of Internet photo-posting). But these are quibbles, and the movie in its entirety rises above them. As a weekend alternative to, oh, Cowboys & Aliens, I’d say this one’s the way to go.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin’s Press.