Even George and Julia can’t rescue this romcom: BRIAN VINER reviews Ticket To Paradise

Ticket To Paradise (12A, 104 mins)

Rating: **

Verdict: Starry but feeble

Don’t Worry Darling (15, 122 mins)

Rating: **

Verdict: More Styles than substance

There are more stars in this week’s two major releases than I fancy will be bestowed on them by critics. Ticket To Paradise is a particular disappointment; an A-list cast — George Clooney and Julia Roberts — in a B-minus film.

It’s a romcom that relies far too heavily on the undoubted charisma and chemistry of its leads to sprinkle stardust on a hackneyed premise whereby two people who loathe each other end up in love.

We have seen it a thousand times before in better pictures; indeed, it’s the most whiskery of comedic devices, stretching right back to the likes of The Philadelphia Story (1940).

If the writing and plotting are sharp enough, as they have been through the decades in films such as The Goodbye Girl (1977), Groundhog Day (1993) and The Proposal (2009), it will always be a winning formula. But Ticket To Paradise, directed and co-written by Ol Parker (whose credits include 2018’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), doesn’t tick those boxes.

The set-up has a pair of bitterly divorced parents, David (Clooney) and Georgia (Roberts), finding rare common ground in an effort to stop their beloved only daughter, Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), from marrying a Balinese seaweed farmer she has met on holiday. They are aghast at the thought of her making the same mistake they did.

Practically by definition, of course, romcoms don’t need to be taken too seriously. That this film reunites two of the great twinkly stars of modern cinema might be enough for some, while others may well rejoice in the cosmic misfortune of David and Georgia being ‘unexpectedly’ seated next to each other at Lily’s graduation, then on the long flight to Bali, where, guess what, they are again horrified to be given adjacent hotel rooms.

For my money this is predictable fare, lazily plotted and scripted, and it gets even more predictable, as the visiting Americans are left wide-eyed by the quaint local customs . . . although not by the far more astonishing fact that Lily’s intended, dishy Gede (Maxime Bouttier), speaks English (after his lifetime of Balinese seaweed farming) more like a native of Indiana than Indonesia.

Still, if anyone can give all this nonsense a much-needed lift it is Clooney and Roberts, who first teamed up on Ocean’s Eleven (2001). This is their first romcom together, however, and they are somehow able to make its iffy dialogue sing, although not even Roberts can bring much dignity to fortune-cookie homilies about parenting, among them the solemn observation that ‘a parent will do anything for their kid, except let them be exactly who they are’.

It’s hardly a spoiler to let on that as David and Georgia realise how wrong it is of them to try to sabotage their daughter’s wedding, so they gradually rediscover the attractions that brought them together in the first place (a process mildly and not very amusingly complicated by her younger boyfriend, a French pilot). In a way, a similar equation applies to the film: little by little, its deficiencies seem less significant than its amiability.

That said, the release date, originally set for a week ago today, was pushed back until after the Queen’s funeral. I wish I could recommend it as the perfect cinematic tonic to cheer up a despondent nation. Alas, I really can’t.

Like Ticket To Paradise, Don’t Worry Darling, which I reviewed in more detail from the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, has faint echoes of much better films, such as The Stepford Wives (1975) and The Truman Show (1998).

It’s a psychological thriller starring pop superstar Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction, in his first leading-man role. He and Florence Pugh play a married couple, Jack and Alice Chambers, who live in the suburban utopia of Victory, California, a town of identikit 1950s homes and cars. The husbands all work for a mysterious enterprise called the Victory Project, run by a creepy guru called Frank (Chris Pine).

Everyone in town is in thrall to Frank, though Jack and Alice are equally in thrall to their loins. They can’t keep their hands off each other, with Jack especially interested in a certain sex act. Let’s just say that he has only one direction on his mind.

But this is a film more about the wives. The story gradually comes into focus: it’s about the subjugation of women, yet another expression of the feminist crusades exemplified by MeToo and Time’s Up.

There’s nothing wrong with that, even if a sudden narrative lurch into the modern day sends any pretence at subtlety crashing to the ground.

No, the bigger problem is that Don’t Worry Darling — directed by Olivia Wilde, who also plays Alice’s best friend and is said to have fallen for her leading man on set — just isn’t very good.

It’s a shame, because Pugh gives a fine, feisty performance as a housewife fighting social and psychological manipulation, and the film is great to look at throughout, with a cracking period soundtrack.

But it’s at least three parts style (and two parts Styles) to one part substance.

How Poitier traded the tomato farm for the Oscars

Some years ago, I asked Michael Parkinson the unoriginal old question: who would he love to have interviewed on his chat show, but never did.

Frank Sinatra came the reply, but his wife Mary was there and groaned. ‘You always say that!’ she said. ‘I wish you’d pick Sidney Poitier. That would have been much more interesting.’

Happily, Poitier (who died in January, aged 94) did give interviews, and plenty of clips pop up in Sidney (12A, 111 mins, ****), a respectful but richly enjoyable documentary produced by Oprah Winfrey (who also contributes as a talking head, along with Denzel Washington, Barbra Streisand, Halle Berry and Poitier’s many daughters). Talking of his poverty-stricken childhood in the Bahamas, where his folks were tomato farmers, Poitier recalls that he didn’t even see a car until he was in his teens.

He couldn’t read, either. But nor did he know what racial discrimination was until his parents, worried that he was hanging out with the wrong crowd, sent him to Miami, Florida.

The film chronicles his early steps as an actor (in the American Negro Theatre in New York, understudying Harry Belafonte) and then his steady transformation into an Oscar-winning movie star, as well as a figurehead in the civil rights movement.

‘Vote and the choice is yours, don’t vote and the choice is theirs,’ he counselled, in a 1960s commercial aimed at African-Americans. It’s fascinating stuff.

Juniper (15, 94 mins, ***), a debut feature for writer-director Matthew Saville, is about the relationship between a cantankerous, gin-quaffing elderly woman (Charlotte Rampling) and the teenage Kiwi grandson she doesn’t know until she arrives in New Zealand to recover from a badly broken leg.

It’s pretty formulaic but newcomer George Ferrier does a decent job as the boy, grieving the death of his mother and resenting the arrival of this belligerent old stranger until, predictably, they begin to bond. Rampling, as always, is terrific.

Sidney is in select cinemas and on Apple TV+. Juniper is in cinemas now.

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Showbiz Even George and Julia can't rescue this romcom: BRIAN VINER reviews Ticket To Paradise