Failure to Launch: Comedy Starring McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker

A nice premise for a romantic comedy with poignant sociological foundations gets a crude treatment in Tom Dey’s Failure to Launch, starring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker. The film draws on the reportedly growing trend of adult children still living at home, which has resulted in a new terminology, such as “aduletscents,” “the boomerang generation,” and “failure to launch.”

The comedy reverses gender and genre expectations. All three guys live at home–albeit for different reasons–and are fine with it. In contrast, the saga’s two women share their own apartment and seem (at least at first) to be more independent.

At the center the tale is Tripp (McConaughey), a handsome, energetic man who, at 35, has never been able to leave the nest. His desperate parents (Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw) decide that they have had enough of his presence and hire a gorgeous and talented professional consultant named Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker) to “help” Tripp move out of their house.

A big-hearted, red-blooded guy, Tripp’s got it all figured out, from a career that allows him to indulge in his passion for sailing, to living at home, which allows him a nice place to live and home-cooked meals with his parents. As far as he is concerned, there’s no reason to change–you don’t fix what isn’t broken. Tripp is living in the best hotel on earth–he has a great room and a mom who cooks, cleans, and does the laundry.

However, things change when Tripp meets Paula. Smart, talented, and sexy, she represents everything he’s been looking for in a woman. For her part, on paper, Tripp’s case seems open-and-shut. However, upon meeting him, Paula finds a well-adjusted, perfectly normal guy who smarter and more handsome than all her other clients; we get to meet some of them.

Tripp and Paula’s attempts to out-maneuver each other cause their mutual attraction to snowball. On one level, the romance is effortless, as they’re each trying to one-up the other, show the other the best they have to offer. Up to this point, both have been experts in keeping their attraction in check, but this time, it gets completely out of control.

Elaborate lifestyles have been fabricated by the couple in order to protect themselves from being hurt. That’s what makes Tripp and Paula so perfect for each other. They’re cruising through life thinking they have it all worked out, until one day they collide and expose each other’s blind spots. They’ve pushed aside the possibility of ever falling in love again, which is one thing that can’t be pushed aside.

As Tripp pulls the rug out from underneath the people who have deceived him, his emotional pain registers underneath the comedy. By the end of the film, he and Paula have forced each other to take a leap.

Much of the movie’s fun stems from the chemistry between Tripp and Paula–and the actors who play them. Tripp isn’t passive about the fact that he lives at home–“he champions not having left the nest! Conversely, Paula knows that ‘failure to launch’ is a real problem, and she’s the cure. The more each character is convinced of his/her point of view, the more sparks fly between them.

The script is too calculated for its own good. It’s as if the screenwriters had a conference and discussed ways to get Tripp out of his folks’ house; here, the plot’s complications are based on drawing the haphazard world of dating into the mix. The central relationship is based on deceit and mistaken identity. Following the structure of a classic comedy, Failure to Launch consists of three chapters, with the first being the strongest, and the last, in which the protags are forced to socialize, the weakest.

It has become a requisite for romantic comedies to feature secondary characters that are eccentric and idiosyncratic, and Failure to Launch is no exception. The supporting characters include Tripp’s friends since childhood, Ace (Justin Bertha) and Demo (Bradley Cooper), and Paula’s sarcastic roommate, Kit (Zooey Deschanel).

Take Demo, the world-wanderer and cultures student. As played by Cooper (of Fox’s Kitchen Confidential), Demo is a guy who has an anecdote for every situation and seems diffuse, but occasionally, out of nowhere, he’d say something shockingly wise and perceptive.

The comedy benefits from its gifted ensemble. Sarah Jessica Parker is by now a master of playing strong women who find themselves in unanticipated, embarrassing situations (the very premise of her TV series Sex and the City and last Xmas comedy, The Stone Family). She’s a talented physical and verbal comedienne, and her confidence lends credibility to her crazy job. Parker is able to walk this tightrope of farce, while still keeping it funny and realistic.

Showing his customary easy-breeze and cool, McConaughey is also well cast as the romantic leading man, or rather boy; Failure to Launch like 40-Year-Old Virgin is about guys who refuse or can’t mature. An old-fashioned kind of a movie star, for half of the film, McConaughey walks and acts like a peacock, as if under pressure to justify his recent People Magazine’s title of “The Sexiest Man Alive.” He displays his muscular suntanned body, in and out of context, in the same way he did in Two for the Money.

Seeing Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates socialize onscreen, you believe they were high-school sweethearts who got married and have been together ever since. Bradshaw’s Al is big-of-heart, energetic, and yet down-to-earth. When it comes to the delivery of one-liners, Kathy Bates has few competitors (remember About Schmidt), and her character Sue’s ability to swing from vulnerable to domineering mode is always pleasure to watch.

Both Cooper and Bertha are appealing and gifted actors whose with distinct persona and styles riff with McConaughey’s. Same goes for the friendship and acting of Paula and Kit.

For me, the film’s best scenes belong to Zooey Deschanel. Sassy, sardonic, and too smart for her own good, Kit has trouble making friends because she finds most people stupid. The job of the script is to soften Kit, force her to give up her high standards, if she’s ever going to be attached–or even get laid. Deschanel is rapidly and deservedly becoming a much sought-after actress, though hopefully she will get to play lead roles and won’t be typecast as second banana.

In tackling his first romantic comedy, following the disappointing Shanghai Nights and Showtime, British director Dey shows some technical improvement. His staging is still crude and lack stylishness, and his handling of tonal variations, from broad comedy to more serious and dramatic situations, is not entirely successful, but the movie represents a step in the right direction.