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Savoring The Subtext 

Fantasy flicks aren't as lightweight as they appear

Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis may well continue to make movies deep into the 2020s or even 2030s, but for many moviegoers (myself included), they will always be first and foremost remembered for their 1980s output.

The '80s may be disparaged in some quarters for giving us eight Friday the 13th installments and the notion of Judd Nelson as a movie star, but it also provided us with endless hours of imaginative, unpretentious fun in the form of roller coaster movies that left audiences breathless rather than exhausted (compare Raiders of the Lost Ark to the current Pirates of the Caribbean sequel to understand the difference). Spielberg and Zemeckis were two of the leading practitioners of this form of slam-bang entertainment -- Spielberg with E.T. and the Indiana Jones trilogy, Zemeckis with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit -- so it makes complete sense that they're attached as executive producers to the new animated adventure Monster House. At its best, this film harkens back to the fantasy flicks of that period, movies in which innocent children leading sheltered suburban existences often had to cope with the supernatural terrors that lurked around every corner and often even under the bed (other examples include Poltergeist, Fright Night and The Lost Boys). There were times during Monster House that were so reminiscent of the period that if I closed my eyes, I could almost hear a John Hughes comedy or Chuck Norris actioner playing in the adjacent auditorium.

Monster House's protagonist, DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso), is recognizable from just about any cinematic time period: a shy outcast who's light on the brawn but heavy on the brains. He's the only one in his neighborhood who realizes that something's not right within the creepy house that's directly across the street, a rotting mansion owned by a nasty old man named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). After Nebbercracker suffers a heart attack and is whisked away to the hospital, DJ, his obnoxious best friend, Chowder (Sam Lerner), and savvy new pal, Jenny (Spencer Locke), all come to the realization that the house itself is alive, perhaps inhabited by Nebbercracker's cranky spirit. People as well as objects begin to disappear, leading the three kids to summon up the courage to put a stop to these otherworldly occurrences.

As with many of the '80s titles, there's more here than meets the eye. What initially appears to be a straightforward haunted house tale morphs into a haunting tale about love, retribution and acceptance, complete with a backstory that's as affecting as it is unexpected. This is that rare toon flick that's been slapped with a PG instead of the customary G, and while that's because the material might easily frighten very small kids, it also signals that, when it comes to its themes and emotional content, this mature movie isn't mere child's play.

LIKE THOSE SUPERHEROES who hide their costumes under unassuming street clothes in order to protect their true identities, My Super Ex-Girlfriend likewise masks its intriguing subtext under the surface charms of a romantic comedy. A more incisive screenplay would have brought all that material more prominently to the forefront, but there's still enough here to earn this a passing grade.

Luke Wilson, whose film couldn't help but be better than his brother Owen's current stinkbomb (You, Me and Dupree), stars as Matt Saunders, a mild-mannered guy whose new girlfriend is art gallery employee Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman). Jenny appears to be deeply insecure and hopelessly neurotic, but Matt digs her and the sex is great -- so great, in fact, that her violent gyrations end up breaking his bed. What Matt eventually discovers is that Jenny Johnson is also G-Girl, an admired superheroine who's always on hand to capture fleeing bank robbers and reroute rogue missiles.

As their relationship progresses, Matt begins to realize just how emotionally needy Jenny/G-Girl can be, and their romance isn't helped by his friendship with sweet-natured coworker Hannah Lewis (Anna Faris, appealing in a role that doesn't draw enough on her sharp comic skills). Also complicating matters is G-Girl's arch-nemesis, Professor Bedlam (nicely played by Eddie Izzard), who tries to talk Matt into betraying his increasingly violent and unstable girlfriend.

The characters of Matt, Hannah and Matt's sleazy best friend, Vaughn (Rainn Wilson), are just what you'd expect in this sort of rom-com fare, yet Jenny/G-Girl is something else all together. Superhero movies -- and certainly superhero comic books -- frequently center on the personal travails of their main characters, and how difficult it is to balance saving the world with establishing meaningful relationships. My Super Ex-Girlfriend takes that notion to more realized extremes, detailing how the awesome responsibility of perpetually being expected to make things right can weigh heavily on a person's psyche, turning them into an edgy, paranoid and lonely individual. Thurman locates the inner angst in this character, and while she's effective in full-on comic mode, she's even better in the scenes in which we see the madness peeking out from behind the super-facade. It's a performance of unexpected poignancy, and it's a shame that scripter Don Payne (a frequent writer for The Simpsons) wasn't allowed to further explore this dimension. Instead, the movie keeps whipping back into slapstick mode. Yet even here, it's hardly a painful watch (occasionally shoddy effects aside), thanks to the agreeable cast and some choice set pieces (the shark in the apartment is a highlight).

For all its scattered pleasures, the movie's hardly super. But Uma Thurman certainly is.

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