Failure to Launch stars Matthew McConaughey as Tripp, a playboy in his mid-30’s. Tripp thinks he has a pretty good deal going; he romances a variety of women for a short time, and when he’s ready to break up with them, he simply takes them home to reveal a big surprise: he still lives with his parents, Sue and Al (Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw), in the home he grew up in. His folks are not crazy about this arrangement, yet for some unknown reason they have never asked him to move out. With no real responsibility, Tripp is able to engage in carefree adventures with his best buds, Ace (Justin Bartha) and Demo (Bradley Cooper), who similarly live with their own parents.
It’s no secret that there is a whole legion of grown American men who are still living at home. This movie has a larger than average number of them. Sue and Al have a backyard barbeque with their friends – most of whom also have their sons still living with them. One lucky couple has just had their son move out, after hiring a “professional interventionist” to help. Sue and Al hire the woman, Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), to work her magic on Tripp.
Here is the exact moment where Failure to Launch goes hopelessly, irreversibly wrong. Paula’s modus operandi is to boost the self-esteem of her unknowing clients. She flirts with them and makes them fall in love with her. This, theoretically, gives them enough confidence to finally fly the coop. Having Paula be an interventionist is the complete wrong path for this story to go down. For starters, there is no such job. Even if there was such a career, the methods (as described here) are: 1.) implausible; 2.) immoral; and 3.) despicable. It is hard to like Paula because she’s not only a liar, but a liar who gets paid for lying.
Of course, Tripp is no hero either. He manipulates the feelings of women, gets sex from them, then throws them away. When he meets and dates Paula, he thinks he’s pulling one over on her. She thinks she’s pulling one over on him too. Is it any wonder these two detestable human beings eventually fall in love? They deserve each other.
Actually I’m digressing. The real problem with the premise is that it robs the film of any reality. From the get-go, the concept of a professional interventionist necessitates a series of similar contrivances just to stay afloat. This is why we get scenes in which Tripp is attacked by “peaceful” animals like chipmunks and dolphins. It is why there is an extended sequence where one character gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a bird. It is why the central couple’s big declaration of love is captured by hidden cameras and broadcast on a giant screen TV for dozens of spectators to see. These things do not happen in real life; they happen only in screenplays that are trying too hard to be clever and failing.
Watching Failure to Launch, I was reminded of last summer’s comedy hit The 40 Year-Old Virgin. That film also dealt with suspended adolescence, but in a much more appealing way. Despite being packed with crude, raunchy humor, Virgin also took its concept seriously. It dealt with how a guy could be forty and still a virgin. It showed us what his life might be like, and how he might be intimidated by the notion of making a belated leap into adulthood. In contrast, Failure to Launch shoots itself in the foot by refusing to take its premise seriously. The very thing that seems most interesting is the same thing that the film goes out of its way to avoid dealing with. Late in the game, the script tries to throw in a faux psychological reason why Tripp never moved out, but it rings utterly false. Like everything else here, it’s obviously contrived.
Here’s how this movie could have worked: Tripp is a guy who has never grown out of that adolescent frat-boy stage. He meets Paula, who has a normal professional job (a lawyer or a veterinarian, perhaps), and they fall in love. She is appalled to discover that he still lives with his parents and pressures him to move out. Tripp fears grown-up responsibility but doesn’t want to lose Paula. This is a funny concept. The movie could find humor in things like how the couple tries to get intimate with Mom and Dad sleeping across the hall. I know guys in their 30’s who have never moved out. There are reasons for this – some humorous, others kind of sad. Any of them would provide the basis for a movie much better than this one.
It’s really a shame because, on a casting level, Failure to Launch generally hits the right notes. McConaughey and Parker have no chemistry (probably because of the weak script) but they have the right personas to play these roles in a better film. By far, my favorite thing about the picture was Zooey Deschanel (Elf), who plays Paula’s moody, beer-swilling roommate. Her scenes feel like they’re from a completely different movie, although Deschanel brings a desperately needed shot of adrenaline to the proceedings. Bates and Bradshaw are also good, bantering back and forth humorously as Tripp’s parents. Too bad that, in a moment of painful desperation, the screenplay requires Bradshaw to drop his pants.
Incidentally, Failure to Launch is the second romantic comedy in which Matthew McConaughey and a female lead fall in love while conning one another. How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days was the other one. That film was no great shakes, but it had a certain charm that made it passable entertainment. Failure to Launch, on the other hand, is just frustrating. There is a terrific, funny, romantic, human comedy buried somewhere in this material. Too bad that the filmmakers were more interested in giving CPR to a bird than to mining the good stuff.
( out of four)
Failure to Launch is rated PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.
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