'Failure to Launch' Floats Many a Boat

Sarah Jessica Parker is a
Sarah Jessica Parker is a "professional girlfriend" hired to get Matthew McConaughey's aging slacker to grow up in "Failure to Launch." (Frank Masi)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2006

Karma or coincidence? After months of brilliant evasion, I was trapped into writing one of those little preview box things for the Sunday paper (tip to journalism students: Never look a news aide in the eye); on the same exact day, just a few hours after my ordeal, I saw "Failure to Launch."

The common denominator is the great Viennese American director Billy Wilder, he of "Some Like It Hot" and "Sunset Boulevard" among many other classics. I wrote my blurb (it's soooo unfair) about the AFI's upcoming Billy Wilder Centennial Retrospective, and then saw "Failure to Launch," which turns out to be the only American comedy in a long time that could be called Wilderan in its concept and execution.

Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, abetted by director Tom Dey, take off from a situation that is archetypally Wilderan, based on the astringent perception that the human species is universally, eternally, perdurably corrupt and will always act in sneaky, mendacious, self-aggrandizing ways when the chance arises. Wilder loved sin; he loved lies, duplicity, the clammy helplessness of the nominal moral man before an all-too-great temptation -- and the later resolve, somehow, desperately, to make it all right.

That's exactly the conceit of "Failure to Launch," and it's why the movie is one of the best American films in months and months and the best comedy since I don't know when. It even makes you sorta kinda like Matthew McConaughey, and if that's not the miracle of Morgan's Creek, I don't know what is.

The film takes off from the slightly sordid reality that all too many young men of the bourgeoisie -- bright, reasonably prosperous, and also well pleased by the indulgences of liberal parents (Want to have the little date spend the night? No problem!) -- have no incentive to leave home, and their parents who, wanting to be loved more than they want to be respected, lack the guts to kick them out.

So it is with Tripp (McConaughey), a beautiful 35-year-old boy-man, a Peter Pan who'd wear diapers and let Ma do the changing if he could. He brokers yachts for a nice if not overtaxed livelihood (the setting is an amorphous coastal area, composed of bits of Maryland, New Orleans and Alabama), hangs out with his loser buds, gets enough girly action to keep from turning into a suicide bomber, and drives a Porsche. But he lives in the same room he's lived in for 34 years, and his high school trophies are still gathering dust on the shelves. Mom Sue (Kathy Bates, good-natured and shlumpy) vacuums his floor, makes his bed, does his laundry and cooks pancakes for breakfast. She must think he's the Beaver and she's June Cleaver.

Meanwhile, his dad, Al (amiable Terry Bradshaw, less mobile than when he was with the Steelers, less hysterical than when he's on "Fox NFL Sunday"), just smiles amiably and feeds the fish while deciding which crewneck to wear with which plaid. Later -- Terry, with four Super Bowl rings, did you need to do this? -- he shows a little much of himself. Can't wait to see Howie and the guys grind him up in the fall.

What Sue and Al need is a professional. They find one in Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker in her best movie role), a specialist in emptying nests. She's what you might call the quintessential GFE -- girlfriend experience, for those not in a certain know -- who contrives a meeting with Mr. Forlorn, gets him to fall in love with her, pumps up his self-esteem and confidence, and gets him to move out. Her only rule for this type of exchanges is: No sex, please, I'm not sluttish. But she really is a non-sexual prostitute, which is something like being a non-alcoholic beer. What's the point?

Thus the older folks hire her. Thus she sweeps into Tripp's life, and her view of love is both shrewd and cynical based on sound psychological principles. She so knows guys. Cry against his manly shoulder when your fake dog dies a fake death. Reach out for his strength and maybe he'll actually develop some strength. Let him teach you something and maybe he'll learn it first. Get along with his buddies, even though they're arrested morons. She's used to success: She gets "the client" to follow her to the ends of the Earth or, more to the point, out the front door. It's unstated that once he's fled the coop, she dumps him.

On this simple, sturdy frame, the writers work all kind of comic riffs. Of course, Tripp's two buddies -- Justin Bartha and Bradley Cooper -- try to be loyal to him for at least four and possibly as long as seven seconds, and then sell him down the river in order to get small benefits for themselves. Everybody, in fact, sells everybody out and poor Tripp is swatted this way and that as all kinds of hostilities manifest themselves in nominal good deeds. (Ever notice how every deep screwing begins with the words, "This is for your own good"? Well, so have the filmmakers.)

Then, cue mutt, stage left, that dog from hell: love. Tripp falls for Paula and she for him, to the horror of her snarly roommate, Kit (Zooey Deschanel), who is (literally) trying to kill a mockingbird in the backyard. (This leads to something you never thought you'd see: an adult male giving mouth-to-mouth resucitation to a dead bird.) The movie is expertly, professionally calibrated. I loved the way it played the main relationship between Tripp and Paula off against a minor one (Kit and Bartha's Ace), one for laughs with a little poignancy, the other for sheer laughs.

Every character has been given enough quirk to make the movie sublimely enjoyable, but not so much that it becomes precious. It's so relaxed and assured one is stunned to discover that Dey is directing for only the third time and Astle and Ember are primarily TV guys. I wish there'd been a little less of an orphaned kid who hangs out with Tripp -- that's a misjudgment; it's meant to make us love Tripp, but it makes him seem condescending -- and a gimmick where he seems to attract animal bites isn't that funny. But the movie is so swift and sure, you can say: It achieves liftoff.

Failure to Launch (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo.

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