‘Damned United’ shines, ‘Couples Retreat’ flops

Becquer Medak-Seguin

“The Damned United”

Like an inverse of one of those recent, contemptibly out-of-touch American sports dramas (see “Glory Road” or, I suspect, the upcoming film “The Blind Side”), Tom Hooper’s little British film “The Damned United” subjects the fall of a sporting hero to its patient cinematic gaze.

Here, the hero is Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), an English football (no, not “soccer”) manager who has taken the position at Leeds United: at the time, perhaps the Premiership’s top club: vacated by Don Revie (Colm Meany), who was asked to manage the English national squad. Clough, however, is not alone in his coaching duties; he’s accompanied by his right-hand man, assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), who turns out to be the seldom-recognized genius behind Clough’s victories.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t revolve around the sticky power dynamics at work in the manager-assistant manager struggle. Rather, it is an unambitious study of how egos of the magnitude of Clough’s cope with possibly career-ending setbacks: He led Leeds to only one win in the first six matches of the 1974 season, giving the club its worst start in decades.

The film, clearly and purposefully, jumps between Clough’s time at Derby County, where he and Taylor led the club from the pits of the second division to promotion and to a first division championship and his time at Leeds, thereby juxtaposing the almost congenital bipolarity of the love-or-hate manager.

The audience, however, doesn’t really ever get to love Clough, adding the depth of character sorely lacking from tight and glossy films such as “Coach Carter,” “We Are Marshall,” etc. Frankly, Clough is an entitled, egotistic asshole whose second-hand teddy bear, Taylor, is much more likable. Yet, the film goes so far as to complicate that reductive characterization of a man perhaps still regarded as the greatest English football manager to have never coached the national team.

“The Damned United” will likely disappoint sports-nuts yearning for some bone-crunching slide tackles and acrobatic goals: at best, there may be 10 minutes of football (soccer, by U.S. standards) footage in the whole film, most of which is in the form of actual footage spliced into the narrative. But, for those attentive and appreciative enough to view the film as an investigation of pride, achievement and, most of all, legacy, “The Damned United” presents a more than satisfying departure from yet another botched sports story at the hands of Hollywood filmmakers.

“Couples Retreat”

The ridiculous and random montage of people celebrating such disparate activities as marriage and a night at the dance club that opens “Couples Retreat” may best serve as a pathetic synecdoche for the rest of this wide-eyed, vile romantic comedy. It is as haphazard and implausible as it is absurd and iniquitous.

For some reason, though, the Walla Walla Grand Cinemas: your wonderful, local movie theatre: decided to keep it around for this long: It was released back on Oct. 9. Perhaps it is because of the film’s compelling stereotypical characterization of everything it lays its lens on: man, woman, child, African-American, Eden, the Caribbean, Latino/a, ad infinitum. Or, perhaps, it is because, unfortunately, cheap laughs are remunerative in the long run.

Hyperboles aside, maybe I should stick to the film’s inane plot (written by Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, who play Joey and Dave, disrespectively). Joey, Dave, Shane (Faizon Love) and Jason (Jason Bateman) are all friends. The latter is married to Cynthia (Kristen Bell), but they are close to getting a divorce. To try to save their marriage, Jason and Cynthia have booked a trip to Eden, some idyllic resort in the Caribbean. The resort, somehow, treats couples through therapy. The catch is that this retreat costs a lot of money. So, Jason and Cynthia convince all their friends: Joey and Lucy (Kristen Davis), Dave and Ronnie (Malin Akerman) and Shane and his new girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk): to come with them to save money on the trip. They go on the trip, say ignorant things and do stupid things. The end.

Don’t take my condescending estimation at face value, though; listen to the other critics. Apparently their consensus is that “despite a talented cast and some reliably pleasant interplay between Favreau and Vaughn, ‘Couples Retreat’ leaves viewers stranded in an arid, mirthless comedy.” I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the cast never was talented, there is no interplay between any characters (everything is discordant, believe me), and that viewers shouldn’t be left as stranded as they should be left insulted, embarrassed and inflamed that this film was ever produced.

Enjoy at your own risk.