Three Chipmunks and a Divorcée

What do singing varmints have in common with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin? The sweet smell of success.

If you’ve read other sections of this week’s Express, you might have noticed that 2009 has been declared the Year of Animation. Movie audiences have been treated to an oversupply of bright, innovative, technologically advanced, and most importantly, well-written animated features from practically every point of view.

But who’s going to speak for the ordinary animated kiddy show that always pops up at holiday time, the one that may not win any awards but which delights theaters full of tots and pre-teens with fast, colorful, Saturday-matinee laughs? In other words, who will speak for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel?

The Squeakquel picks up where 2007’s Alvin and the Chipmunks left off. The three miniscule animated critters — bespectacled Simon (voice of Matthew Gray Gubler), chubby Theodore (Jesse McCartney), and babe-magnet star Alvin, the personality kid (actor and Apple pitchman Justin Long) — have revived their singing careers after ditching their rotten manager Ian Hawke (David Cross, in live action), and are giving a concert in Paris. Their pal — “dad,” “keeper,” “wrangler” — Dave Seville (Jason Lee, in the part originated by the Chipmunks’ late creator Ross Bagdasarian aka “David Seville”) has an accident, breaks some bones, and is confined to a Paris hospital. (This happens a lot with the Chipmunks. They generally leave a trail of destruction wherever they go.)

So the boys fly home to Los Angeles and end up staying with their slacker relative, Toby (Zachary Levi), who packs the little varmints off to West Eastman High School (ha!) to continue their studies. Two kinds of trouble now dog (you’ll excuse the expression) the Chipmunks: the reappearance of their crooked ex-manager Ian, a classic Hollywood hustler; and the appearance of a rival female chipmunk act named the Chipettes, who as fate would have it sign on with sleazy Ian.

The cute Chipettes, voiced by Ana Ferris, Christina Applegate, and Amy Poehler, are an exact physical matchup with the Chipmunks (one cute, one fat, one with glasses) and they excite the boys immensely. But before any hint of chipmunk sex, there’s a parade of messes involving various snack foods, a lone fart joke, a football game, a tussle at the zoo, a talent contest, and the school principal, Dr. Rubin (Wendie Malick), who despite her strict exterior just lo-ooo-ves the Chipmunks.

Like the Three Stooges, McHale’s Navy, and the Brides of Funkenstein, the Chipmunks are a true pop-cultural sleeper sensation. Neither you nor anyone you know likes the Chipmunks, yet they’ve got ninety million fans who remember all the words to “Christmas Don’t Be Late” and “Alvin’s Harmonica,” and who’ll go to this movie with their kids who all love Alvin, too. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel will undoubtedly sell more tickets than Brothers, Up in the Air, and A Single Man combined. Remind yourself that while watching the boys sing “You Really Got Me,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “We Are Family.” They should have made Pirate Radio with the Chipmunks instead of live actors.

The Squeakquel was directed by Betty Thomas, a former actress (TV’s Hill Street Blues, Used Cars) who switched to directing such unassuming crowd-pleasers as The Brady Bunch Movie, Doctor Dolittle, 28 Days, and I Spy. Sometime in the Eighties, she guest-starred on SCTV in an extended skit with John Candy called “South Sea Sinner,” set in a dive called Cognac’s Bottom of the Barrel Club. The club’s host, a mock-sinister, white-suited fugitive named Cognac (Candy), books the all-time loser acts — washed-up showbiz refugees from the States: Paul Revere from Paul Revere and the Raiders featuring Mark Lindsey, Sandler and Young, etc. Moral of this story: Alvin and the Chipmunks will never join the Bottom of the Barrel Club. Despite blistering our ears for 51 years, they’re as popular as ever.

Nothing too complicated about It’s Complicated — it’s just as much an entertainment formula as the Chipmunks flick, the main difference being that it’s aimed at that audience’s grandparents.

Jane (Meryl Streep) runs a successful (what else?) Santa Barbara restaurant and bakery — but she’s unhappy, a lonely divorcée. Streep most often plays a “successful” character these days (the mother superior in Doubt notwithstanding). She’s a major star despite being of a certain age, and she’s earned the right to portray characters tailored to flattering specifications if that’s what she wants.

Joan Crawford portrayed a successful restaurant owner in Mildred Pierce, but Mildred’s daughter ended up cheating on her with her mother’s man — none of that rough stuff for Streep’s Jane. If some producers want a divorcée that lives in a trailer, works a minimum-wage job, and has to smuggle illegals across the frozen Canadian border in order to pay her bills, they call Melissa Leo. But if they’re looking for someone to play a woman who owns a thriving business; lives in a beautiful, rambling ranch home set into the Santa Barbara hills; has three almost-grown, soon-to-be-successful children; and yet pines for the masculine presence that’s missing from her life, Streep’s the smart choice.

It’s Complicated is written and directed by Nancy Meyers, whose bubbly chick flicks have set a dubious but, yes, successful standard in lightweight rom-com fare (Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, etc.) about women getting into the kind of trouble most women can only dream about.

Jane’s predicament is this: Her ex-husband, a well-fed lawyer named Jake (Alec Baldwin), decides that he misses Jane’s talents — in bed as well as in the kitchen — and so when they coincide in New York for their son’s college graduation, they accidentally on purpose start an affair. Divorced ex-mates reuniting adulterously, tsk tsk. Jake’s current wife is a young harpy named Agness (Lake Bell), and we can see instantly that they’re wrong together. We might say Jake deserves Agness for cheating on Jane in the first place, but let’s let that pass for a moment.

Also courting Jane is Adam, a meek architect (a subdued Steve Martin) who’s helping her add a new wing onto her home. Adam clearly needs someone like Jane, and Jake wants to get back to her home-style pies, but Jane doesn’t quite know what she wants. If anyone other than Streep, Baldwin, and Martin were playing these cardboard characters, we’d retch. But, amazingly, the actors win us over. There’s a moral to this story, too: As Mr. Natural once advised, get the right tools for the job.

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