The Way Back () isn’t much of a Christmas film, but it makes you glad to be indoors. In 1940, a disparate band of characters, including Pole Jim Sturgess, Russian Colin Farrell and American Ed Harris, are gradually united by a desire to leave the Siberian labour camp where they are seemingly destined to work until they die. The journey, made on foot, takes them (or some of them) out of Siberia, across the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, into India. There have long been question marks over the veracity of Slavomir Rawicz’s book – published in 1955 as a memoir, billed here as a novel – but in terms of plainspoken economy, its title, The Long Walk, is not to be faulted.
The film is a sort of mish-mash of reality TV shows, with the gang, led by Sturgess, resourcefully overcoming challenges in a variety of environments. They make it through a blizzard by fashioning masks out of bark. In the desert they kill a snake and turn it into dinner.
Generally, the co-writer/director Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Master and Commander) resists the story’s potential for heart-racing excitement. We do not witness the escape itself or the slaughter of the animals that provide sustenance. Instead we get foreign-accented (yet confidently idiomatic) English, near-constant coughing, and helicopter shots of isolated figures trudging through mountain and desert.
Somewhere during the Russian leg of the journey, Saoirse Ronan, the girl from Atonement, turns up as a Polish orphan. Ronan helps things along at a point where the lack of conflict and incident begins to pall. She serves not as a catalyst for, say, macho jealousy but as an emotional conduit between the grunting men, and as one of the many small motors that power this honourable film over the finishing line.
Love and Other Drugs () is a pleasant surprise. Its director, Edward Zwick, specialises not in romantic comedies but in high-end action films along the lines of The Way Back – his last film, Defiance, was a tale of escape and survival in the second world war. But he made his debut with About Last Night . . . , an adaptation of David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, so he has form hereabouts. Zwick presides over two stars (Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway) who sit a little higher up the food chain than the usual B-list couplings. The script (which Zwick co-wrote) is based on Jamie Reidy’s memoir Hard Sell, about his time as a drug rep for Pfizer, selling first Zoloft and then Viagra.
So what we have here is a tale of a playboy who finds love – but one in which that familiar trajectory is given less emphasis than, say, the challenges faced by Zoloft reps keen to displace Xanax as the best-selling anti-depressant. A period setting (1996), a comparatively out-of-the-way city backdrop (Pittsburgh), and a plausible amount of sex and nudity give further distinctiveness to this smoothly handled, thickly textured film. The final scene is a flop, complete with reflective “what I learned” voiceover, but then we have Regina Spektor singing away over the credits, and goodwill is restored.
Gyllenhaal’s drugs-rep superior talks about Chicago as the place to get to, the ideal beat – and Chicago is where nurse-turned-administrator Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Ben Stiller) receives nuisance visits from a drugs rep in Little Fockers () , the frequently amusing, elaborately contrived second sequel to Meet the Parents. Greg is still having run-ins with his ex-CIA father-in-law Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and there is much else to contend with – his twin children and their imminent fifth birthday party, the financial pressures of parenthood, and the attentions of the glamorous Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba), who wants Greg to help her promote a Viagra knock-off called Sustengo.
From an enema at the beginning to a whoopee cushion in the closing moments, the film has a preoccupation with what Greg’s father (Dustin Hoffman), encouraging open exchange about bodily matters, calls “the things that make us human”. This anatomical concern can hardly be called a theme, but it nevertheless serves as a loose organising principle for the film’s gags. Owen Wilson returns, this time with eastern teachings to spout; Alba and Laura Dern, as the headmistress of an exclusive kindergarten, are sprightly additions. And there is a scene in which De Niro fights with Harvey Keitel about the latter’s slow construction job – probably not the old-age reunion the two envisaged when they worked together on Scorsese films in the 1970s.
Gulliver’s Travels () , loosely adapted from Swift’s novel by Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller, is reminiscent of Ben Stiller’s other franchise, A Night at the Museum, and it has much the same arch irony, whimsical inventiveness and antic charm. Gulliver (Jack Black) works in the mail room at the New York Tribune and looks on longingly at the travel editor (Amanda Peet). An article he plagiarises from Wikipedia lands him a commission to write about the Bermuda triangle, which in turn lands him in Lilliput.
Do children delight in anachronisms? Will they giggle when Emily Blunt, princess of the Lilliputians, tries to break up with her betrothed with the line “It be not you, it be me”? I doubt it, but they can stare happily through their 3D glasses while the accompanying adults laugh at the sheer silliness of pudgy, Converse-wearing Jack Black encouraging the Lilliputians to build a mini-Times Square in his honour or convincing them that the plots of The Empire Strikes Back and Titanic were merely episodes in his exciting life. It kept me amused but heed this health warning: the film may prove insufferable to those with little to no tolerance for Jack Black, or Billy Connolly, or Catherine Tate, or – in a small role, but it may prove enough – James Corden.
In Chatroom () – unwisely billed as “The Anti-Social Network” – teenage depression and suicide are treated as grist for thrills. Aaron Johnson, who has recently played a rock-star-in-the-making (Nowhere Boy) and a smug DIY-superhero (Kick-Ass), plays a depressive who starts an online chatroom called Chelsea Teens! Unfortunately, we find out far earlier than his fellow-chatters what he’s really up to so we just sit there waiting for them to find out.
The director Hideo Nakata (Ring, Dark Water) has designed a physical world for the chatroom. On the plus side, this means we are given more to look at than boys and girls tapping away. But the gimmick is so poorly conceived that we spend most of the film converting what we are being shown into what is actually going on. It isn’t worth the effort.
Nigel Andrews is away