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There aren’t a lot of movies I’ve genuinely dreaded going to see, but The Nut Job was one of them. The reason for my apprehension, I suspect, is the implementation of not one but two fart jokes in the trailer. Mind you, I generally find farts hilarious, but when they’re in the promotional material, it often signals that there’s nowhere left for the rest of the film’s humor to go. Even more depressingly, however, my suppositions were proved true by The Nut Job, a confused, puerile “family” adventure that may make children giggle, but flushes the prospect adult engagement right down the toilet.
Will Arnett (Arrested Development) plays Surly, a self-interested squirrel who lives on the fringes of a city park with his mute pal Buddy (Robert Tinkler) while the rest of its animal inhabitants band together for survival. When a plot to steal nuts from a human vendor’s cart ends with the community’s winter supplies up in flames, Surly gets blamed, and subsequently banned from the park.
Soon after, he spots a nearby nut shop that promises untold riches of food for his estranged companions, and Surly reluctantly teams up with Andie (Katherine Heigl), another squirrel, to restore their stash and usher him back into their good graces. But Andie finds herself in the middle of a simmering conflict when the park community leader, Raccoon (Liam Neeson), remains steadfast is his disapproval of Surly – whether or not he helps them.
If it tells you how timely this film intends to be, The Nut Job features a cameo over the end credits by a CGI Psy, the South Korean singer of “Gangnam Style,” dancing alongside its animal stars. Passable as that song may be, it came out in July 2012, and its pop-culture relevance is suitably symbolic of the freshness of the film’s ideas, much less its humor. The stuff that had the children rolling in the aisle in the screening I attended focused mainly on Looney Tunes-style physical humor – most of which involved the violent injury of animals – and, of course, those farts. And again, while I’m more than happy to laugh at a coyote as he turns himself into an accordion by running into a giant rock painted to look like a highway, that gag had whiskers on it the first time it was done, decades ago. Here, the abuse feels mindless and desperate.
But if adults are meant to see past the farts and the (literal) whack-a-mole gags, what is the film even about? In broad strokes, The Nut Job focuses on Surly’s acceptance that he needs other people, and acknowledges the larger value of trusting and interacting with others. But the park community is not only populated with but led by characters whose behavior actually reinforces the idea that Surly is right not to trust them.
After the first reserves are destroyed, Surly is presumed guilty – over objections from Andie that he deserves a trial – and ejected based solely on a majority vote. What are we supposed to take away from this contradictory tangle of ideas? Are other people important? Or can they not be trusted? We don’t know, and neither does the movie.
As Surly and Andie, Arnett and Heigl sound positively bored – their characters seem more like hamsters than squirrels, because the most they ever do is spin their wheels and make the plot move forward. The same is true of Neeson as Raccoon, although occasionally he at least appears to enjoy the prospect of being nonsensically cruel and rough in a movie whose edges have been sanded smooth everywhere else. Meanwhile, Brendan Fraser plays Grayson, another squirrel regarded by their community as a stud and a hero, and he’s basically unbearable, ping-ponging as a character and voice actor off of the other characters’ muted energy, doing little more than distracting audiences from the machinery of the story – which you think would be a good thing, but in his deplorably manic hands, it isn’t.
Oh, there’s also an entire subplot about the animals’ human counterparts, a gang of crooks that uses the nut shop as a cover for a tunnel it’s digging underneath the bank across the street. Although some of its details are meant to echo the journey Surly takes from outsider to hero – a “you can change who you are” sort of lesson – it needlessly complicates the film, and has nothing to do with anything, especially anything comedic. That said, I could empathize, deeply, with those crooks dreaming of great rewards just out of reach – because as soon as I sat down to watch The Nut Job and heard that first fart, all I thought about was getting through the end credits and out of that theater.
The Nut Job opens Friday nationwide.