Mr. Popper's Penguins (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
The 1938 Newbery-honored children's book Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater, was an economically composed, Jazz Age paean to small-town nostalgia. Charged through with the narrative electricity of its authors' esteemed literary backgrounds, it was a work of sophistication in which a dreamer of derring-do writes to his Richard E. Byrd-inspired hero and in return receives a live penguin. The bird and its numerous hatchlings take Mr. Popper on just the adventure he's always wanted, from jail to the big city to the circus and, finally, to the life of his dreams.
Mr. Popper's Penguins, the new film starring Jim Carrey, isn't an adaptation, it's a crime scene.
From Carrey himself, who can't bounce out of the punching-bag role he Yes Man'd himself into, despite his recent Phillip Morris bob-and-weave, to the choice of Mean Girls director Mark Waters and sex-comedy screenwriting team Sean Anders and John Morris (Hot Tub Time Machine, Sex Drive), there seems to have been no effort given toward maintaining a specific tone.
Instead, Waters attempts to end-around Penguins' toxic producer, Derek Dauchy, a top purveyor of Hollywood aggro-bland (Marmaduke, Daddy Day Camp), by encouraging Carrey to darken Mr. Popper's demeanor around the edges. In an otherwise broadly lit, hyper-inoffensive film, the choice reads as a desperate plea from drowning talent.
This material deserved the Big Fish treatment, something with scope and intimacy, absurdist flourishes and a warm palette. Instead, Mr. Popper (Carrey) is now an over-the-hill developer for a powerful firm intent on remaking the New York skyline in its greedy image. Just as Popper is given his partner-making assignment — convince Tavern on the Green's octogenarian owner (Angela Lansbury) to sell them the longtime holdout restaurant — his largely absent adventurer father dies, leaving him only a single live penguin.
This penguin ("The Captain") floods Popper's bathroom and poops on his face. Then another box shows up at Popper's doorstep, this one a kind of clown container, out of which appears another five penguins!
Now, Popper's kids don't really care for him, since his divorce from Mom (Carla Gugino, who somehow retains a bit of class here). But kids love penguins, so if their father suddenly fills his apartment with snow, claims ownership of six live-in penguins, and throws some flirtation Mom's way, well, it's a win-win, right?
That certainly seems to be this movie's answer, at least until an egg crisis threatens to reverse Popper's perky persona.
The lovely Ophelia Lovibond is a welcome diversion as Popper's alliterative assistant. Also taking a hit for the kiddies are the reliably shady Clark Gregg as Popper's zoological foe, David Krumholtz as a schvitzing neighbor, and Jeffrey Tambor as a businessman coerced into retirement by a sale-hungry Popper.
If the proceedings sound somehow both overly cynical and illogically happy-go-lucky, you're close to visualizing just how confused this movie is about its tone. Although its titular birds are fake enough to execute some jazz-tap on command (apparently the film used a mixture of real and digitized penguins), it's the humans who behave as if they were spit out of a lunch-meeting-fueled rendering process.
Cue Vanilla Ice.