Remember Steve Martin's hilarious "Let's get small" bit from 1977? Many of you will be too young to recall when he was the biggest standup comic on the planet. It's a shame you know him only as the anything-for-a-buck Hollywood hack from remakes of The Out-of-Towners, Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther. Take my word for it: He was something before he sold out.
I mention Martin for a couple of reasons. First, how could the creators of Ant-Man not have given him at least an honorary writing credit? This is a movie about nothing but getting small. And second, all kidding aside, the latest from the ever-expanding Marvel-verse offers something I never thought I'd see: the specter of Paul Rudd taking the first steps down that path of becoming an anything-for-a-buck Hollywood hack.
What a dispiriting experience it is to watch this great comic actor go through the motions in a by-the-numbers superhero origin story. Rudd doesn't look a day older than he did in his Clueless debut 20 years ago, and he's gone on to do some of the most genially subversive work in modern cinema. Now he's filming Captain America: Civil War, due next year.
My hopes that Rudd had become part of the corporate comic-book system to change it from within, or at least to screw with it a little, were dashed early and permanently. Ant-Man starts with a merciless marathon of exposition. Michael Douglas plays goateed super-genius Hank Pym, who invented a formula capable of shrinking a human being in the 1980s, then promptly went into seclusion so it couldn't be used for evil.
Pym's protégé, played by Corey Stoll (his head is shaved, so you know he's evil), has succeeded in duplicating the formula after years of failed attempts. He plans to sell it to, I think, the military for billions. When Pym gets wind of the scheme, he does what any responsible scientist would do: He recruits a reformed cat burglar (Rudd), outfits him with a special suit that gives him the ability to shrink and pop back to normal size at will, and instructs him in the ways of controlling armies of ants with his mind. Why does the ex-con go along with all this? To save the world and become a hero in the eyes of the daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) whose love he wants to win back. Are we tearing up yet?
Aside from a psychedelic sequence in which Rudd goes subatomic, little imagination is on display in this overlong production. It's a gabby asterisk to the Avengers business plan, and, as an admirer of Rudd's work, I cried on the inside a bit every time he soared in that suit and stuck his landing in the same pose trademarked by Robert Downey Jr. in his many Iron Man outings. Call me crazy, but I believe there are entertainers you're meant to go to the grave having never seen in a spandex costume. Sadly, the list of actors of whom one can say that is getting shorter by the day. Who's next — Jonah Hill as Fat Cobra?
I should mention that this formulaic effects-fest was directed by Peyton Reed. You may be familiar with such testaments to his talent as The Love Bug and Down With Love. The filmmaker's vision and special touch are without doubt among the reasons the pay-off for sitting through two hours of Ant-Man is so small. To say the least, this is a movie with a few bugs in it.