Somewhere in the last two years, "Meet Bill" earned two reputations: one calling the midlife crisis dramedy a poor man's "American Beauty," another calling it a troubled production doomed to remain in movie limbo, one of those movies that seem to always be "coming soon" yet never quite arrive. It's a better film than either of those statements suggest, but not by much. The cracks show in all the wrong places, creating a faulty foundation that can't hold up solid performances or interesting standalone moments.
Originally titled "Bill" when it debuted last fall at the Toronto Film Festival (the "Meet" was tacked on afterward for its barely-there limited theatrical run), the movie finds Aaron Eckhart woefully miscast as the dumpy, potbellied Bill, a sad sack stuck in a cushy but unfulfilling job in his father-in-law's bank. In scene after scene, Bill laments his doughy figure, while others around him find him unattractive and a pushover. Eckhart does his best to thrust out his gut and slouch into quiet submissiveness, and he's a good enough actor to sell the broken-down emotions of the character, yet we never once buy him as being some sort of unkempt fatty.
Perhaps the husband-wife director team of Melissa Wallack (who also penned the screenplay) and Bernie Goldmann figured the character's late-movie transformation into a reasonably more confident, better dressed fella needed a more clichéd kick, the male equivalent of the bookworm who takes off her glasses, slaps on a fancy evening gown, and voila, she's a babe. If that's the case, it explains just how off the mark the filmmakers are. Bill's eventual new look isn't the result of an Extreme Makeover, but just a regular schmuck who gains a bit more confidence. When his wife comments that he looks good, it should translate to "hey, you finally tucked in your shirt." He shouldn't suddenly look like a movie star. He should still be a schmuck, just one who finally combed his hair and dropped a pound or two, tops.
To his credit, Eckhart does his damnedest to underplay any sort of outward renovation. Indeed, he understands the heart of the character and manages to internalize Bill's problems. Eckhart leaves Bill at times with a depressed stare, and it works - even if he can't match the intended physical frumpiness, he can match the intended psychological haze.
Bill's problems begin when he catches his wife Jess (Elizabeth Banks) sleeping with smarmy local TV news reporter Chip Johnson (Timothy Olyphant). A videotape of the affair - which includes Jess' discouraging remarks about Bill's, ahem, assets - goes public, as does news footage of Bill assaulting Chip. At the same time, Bill gets talked into participating in a mentor program at his old prep school, which sticks him with an overachieving, fast-talking pot dealer (Logan Lerman). Somehow, inexplicably, Lucy (Jessica Alba), a twentysomething sales clerk at a lingerie store, also enters their lives, and the two youngsters force Bill to reconcile his issues.
This sudden trio of new friends never feels anything less than forced, especially once they begin Bill's quest to open a donut franchise, forcing them into some sitcom shenanigans in which Lucy pretends to be Bill's wife and the kid (simply called "The Kid" in the credits) pretends to be, I dunno, their son or something as they try to impress a couple of executives (Jason Sudeikis and Kristen Wiig). This subplot - Bill hopes to escape from his father-in-law's clutches and be his own boss for a change - acts as a cheap illustration of Bill's muddled dreams, and it never quite works, either on its own or as part of the larger picture.
In fact, too many threads in the script seem clipped short. Bill's complex relationship with Jess (despite the affair, he wants her back) lacks a much needed depth; his physical improvement is offered in schizophrenic fits and spurts, sometimes like an afterthought, other times like it's the main theme; we never truly buy the idea of this loudmouthed kid having such an effect on Bill's new worldview. (Worse, we never see Bill affecting the kid's own behavior.) Thoughtful character moments are ignored as the script instead takes the easy road, with scenes of Bill and the kid lighting fireworks, or getting high, or running through a department store while stoned.
These scenes suggest Bill's only problem is that he needs to reconnect with his inner child, but that doesn't fit the rest of the film - Bill's issues don't come from him being too uptight (hell, the guy munches on candy, slouches, and otherwise acts like a kid before we even meet the teenager), but from him being a doormat. And he fixes that dilemma all by himself, really, the first time he punches Chip.
The screenplay seems blind to such problems, barreling from one hackneyed setup to the next, and the co-directors seem willing to engage in wild mood swings to manipulate the audience. An excellent cast and a few decent aside moments (scenes involving Bill and his brother, played by Craig Bierko, offer a welcome familial touch) can't stand up for long on such flimsy ground, and by the time we get to the fireworks-and-big-decisions finale, the whole thing gives out from underneath.
For those who like keeping track of such things: The single-disc release of "Meet Bill" comes with a clear plastic slipcover that features Frumpy Bill; remove the cover to reveal Cool Bill underneath.
Video & Audio
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is quite crisp, revealing a nice amount of detail. (While colors aren't as sharp as they could be, I didn't find the image to be washed out, as fellow critic Brian Orndorf claims.) The Dolby 5.1 mix is decent, if unassuming, with dialogue coming through nicely. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Nine deleted scenes (14:04 total) reveal some strange editing choices - one extended scene featuring a stoned Bill discussing life with the kid would've worked quite nicely in place of the generic "high in a department store" scene that made it into the final cut, while a conversation between Bill and Jess helps fill in some essential character gaps by fleshing out their relationship. There's nothing here that could've truly saved the movie, but a couple of these scenes surely might have kicked it in the right direction. Presented in 1.85:1 flat letterbox, with visible time code.
The film's trailer and a batch of previews for other First Look releases are also included. The extra previews also play as the disc loads. All are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
There's enough fine work from Eckhart to earn the movie a peek, although not even such a solid performance can keep the script's problems at bay. Rent It.