Review: ‘Mr. Popper’s Penguins’ Shamelessly Calculated Studio Fare

by Mark Zhuravsky
June 17, 2011 1:59 AM
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Jim Carrey must have taken "I Love You Philip Morris" languishing on the shelf for two years while hankering for a release date to heart. Enter "Mr. Popper’s Penguins," a film that when set alongside the gay con man comedy can demonstrate the “one for me, one for them” philosophy with crystal clarity. ‘Penguins’ is lazy, calculated, overlong and most importantly, lacking even a bit of genuine fun.

The fault falls with the screenplay, penned by no less than three writers – Sean Anders (co-writer/director of "Sex Drive," a long way from home), John Morris (who co-wrote "Sex Drive," "Hot Tub Time Machine" and "She's Out of My League" with Anders), and Jared Stern (who contributed "additional script materials" to "Bolt" and "The Princess and the Frog"). With this unholy trinity in tow, the original children’s book gets re-calibrated into under two hours of watching a rich white man gallivanting with a collection of CGI-looking penguins in an impeccably furnished Manhattan apartment.


Carrey plays Tom Popper, a divorced businessman whose work has gotten the best of him. A first-class manipulator, Popper’s first order of business is to run a thankless Jeffrey Tambor cameo out of business. Next up, a meeting with the big wigs (Philip Baker Hall, what are you doing here, pick up the phone and get Paul Thomas Anderson on the line!), who want the only privately owned piece of property in Central Park added to their roster. That would be Tavern On The Green, run by Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury, feisty and disarming). When his regular shtick goes belly-up, Popper retires to his sweet crib and receives several packages from his recently deceased father, an old-school world traveler.

Inside are six penguins, creatures whose constant yelping and defecation we’re supposed to be enamored with. Here the screenplay shows its true colors, as Popper’s son unquestionably assumes that the penguins are a birthday present, and no one, including his seemingly astute ex-wife (Carla Gugino) seems to wonder at the impossibility of obtaining and maintaining these animals. Nevermind that Popper, in a quest to maintain his family’s affection, suddenly forgets about his sharking business ways and turns into "Liar Liar" era Jim Carrey.

There’s something genuinely uneasy about watching the lengths Popper goes to in order to keep the penguins. David Krumholtz shows up in an impossibly thin role as a jealous tenant who rightly attempts to uphold the no-pets policy. His plot strand goes nowhere but its not nearly as grievous as Clark Gregg’s – here seen slumming it as a straight-laced New York zoo penguin expert, pegged as a villain because he wants to take the penguins away from Carrey, a man who has no knowledge whatsoever for how to take care of them. When Carrey educates himself and literally shovels snow into his apartment while permanently consigning himself to a parka, this writer groaned.

With director Mark Waters at the helm (no stranger to these high concept “comedies”, with the actually-pretty-decent “Freaky Friday” remake and “The Spiderwick Chronicles”, as well as crowning achievement “Mean Girls” under his belt), 'Penguins' barrels down to one of most asinine climaxes in recent memory, culminating with a press announcement that unites all the major and minor characters, and involves plot twists that ring of desperation to wrap up on a self-congratulatory note.

Does Popper learn the lesson that family always comes first? Does he reunite with his ex-wife and become a better father to his hormonal teen daughter? Does he keep those darn penguins? If you can’t answer these questions, I suggest you see the movie – on the plus side, it’s nicely lensed by Florian Ballhaus, who is making a killing at making the average romantic comedy look good. [C-]

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