Scary Dunst; Empty ‘Words’; Brilliant ‘Lights On’: Movies

Adam Scott, from left, James Marsden, Kyle Bornheimer and Hayes MacArthur in "Bachelorette." The film is based on writer and director Leslye Headland's 2010 play. Source: RADiUS-TWC via Bloomberg

“Bachelorette” views straight men and women as different species, violently antagonistic and equally deadly. It’s such a cruel comedy that the first laughs it shocks out of the audience are too hateful to be much fun.

The movie doesn’t soften up, exactly, but eventually, like the women at its center, it admits to something other than ice cubes under its spiny shell.

Written and directed by Leslye Headland, based on her 2010 play, it takes place mostly on the eve of a wedding. Ten years after high school, the clique is reuniting.

There’s the lethally efficient one (Kirsten Dunst); the self-hating, substance-abusing one (Lizzy Caplan); the dumb one (Isla Fisher, who’s like a young Bernadette Peters); and the fat one (Rebel Wilson) -- who, to the others’ outrage, is the bride.

Adding salt to their wounds, the groom is a hunk.

The bland bride is the movie’s weak link, but it isn’t Wilson’s fault -- the others have all the good lines.

The premise is that she’s landed what they so desperately want because there’s something special about her. Headland never shows us what it is, though. She does far better by the other three.

Dunst, playing a vicious, angry shrew, tears into the role with a carnivorous joy that’s infectious. So do her cohorts. There are points where you may gasp -- before you burst out laughing -- at what actresses this good can do with lines this mean.

“Bachelorette,” from Radius-TWC, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ****

‘The Words’

The main distinction of “The Words” is its stories-within-stories construction.

The one at the center involves a couple (Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder) in postwar Paris, and the brilliant autobiographical novel the young husband writes (in two weeks!) after a crisis.

In the surrounding one, set in the present, a failed New York writer (Bradley Cooper) finds the lost typescript and passes it off as his own, with alarming success.

Jeremy Irons plays the real author, now an angry old codger who looks 100, though in truth Irons is a mere 63.

Hot Writer

In the story that forms the thin shell (if it were removed, no one would notice), Dennis Quaid is a successful novelist reading his latest book, “The Words” -- which contains the two other tales -- to an attentive audience.

Olivia Wilde is an ambitious student who has the bad taste to ask him later, when they’re alone, how the book ends. Evidently her foxiness forestalls the standard response: You’ll have to read it, honey.

Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, the team who wrote and directed “The Words,” have dredged up some harsh themes -- failure and the greed for unearned prestige. Yet they’re too timid to confront them.

The delicately faded tones of the flashbacks, the celebration of sweet young love, the somberly romantic music by Marcelo Zarvos all push the picture in a safer direction, toward niceness, gentleness, blandness.

“The Words,” from CBS Films, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **

‘Lights On’

You know Paul probably isn’t going to make a very good boyfriend the first time the crack pipe comes out.

But you’ve seen the misery Erik tries to hide on his hook-ups with a series of guys who have no interest in a second date. Paul is closeted, passive, charming and smart. And his habit is private.

“Keep the Lights On” follows their relationship for a decade. The film is a downer, but it’s also a phenomenon. Its sex scenes, many and graphic, are unsettling less for their frankness than for their intimacy.

The writer-director, Ira Sachs, and his two leads, Thure Lindhardt as Erik and Zachary Booth as Paul, work at a stratospheric level of risk.

In truth, the actors are somewhat opaque through most of the picture, largely because the dialogue (Sachs’s co-writer is Mauricio Zacharias) doesn’t attempt to do much more than advance the plot.

The conversations sag; none of the other characters comes into focus. The artistry begins when the words stop.

Back Story

“Keep the Lights On” has been much talked about since it was shown at the Sundance Festival in January, partly because its back story is so widely known.

The plot is drawn from Sachs’s 10-year relationship with the literary agent Bill Clegg, who has published his own well-received memoir, “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,” and a sequel, “Ninety Days,” about his recovery.

Sachs’s compassion for Erik feels a bit less exquisite once you know how completely Erik is a stand-in for him. I found myself disliking -- and judging -- both of these self-involved, career-obsessed New Yorkers. But I couldn’t tune out their misery.

I understand that this may not sound like a ringing recommendation, but potential viewers should know what they’re getting themselves into. The movie is rough.

Its subject is dependency, emotional as well as physical, and it burrows deep into feelings that few movies even acknowledge. It’s a spectacular piece of filmmaking.

“Keep the Lights On,” from Music Box Films, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: *****

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Very Good
**     Good
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham and New York Weekend.

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