Movie Reviews

'Nut Job': 'Ratatouille' this ain’t | 2 stars

Updated: 2014-01-17T06:06:06Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

“When you’re an animal, life is a balancing act,” says opportunistic squirrel Surly (voiced by Will Arnett).

“The Nut Job” also offers a lesson in balance. The movie is engaging about half the time. Half the jokes land. And about half the characters make sense.

It’s certainly a fine springboard of an idea: To survive winter, some park-dwelling critters try to rob a nut store, while the store’s shifty owners have really set up shop to rob the neighboring bank. Kind of brilliant, really. But the movie never fully capitalizes on the layered premise, never distinguishing itself in the overcrowded genre of animated animal adventures.

“Ratatouille” this ain’t.

Surly is the typical loner antihero, his only friend a mute rat named Buddy. The purple squirrel skirts around the edges of the park while the other creatures follow the sagacious rule of Raccoon (Liam Neeson). These include a vain daredevil squirrel named Grayson (Brendan Fraser).

After a minor nut heist goes wrong, Surly gets banished to the city — a harsh environment populated by vicious city rats. (Studebakers, cable cars and squeaky clean billboards reveal the story is set in the 1950s.) It’s also home to Maury’s Nut Shop, which has been commandeered by mob kingpin King (Stephen Lang) and his bumbling thugs.

As Surly homes in on this big score, his former park acquaintances learn of the prospect and enlist in the action. Double crosses, mishaps and fart jokes ensue.

“The Nut Job” puts together a solid mix of voice talent, from the unmistakable Neeson to chameleonic performers Maya Rudolph as a combative pug and Jeff Dunham as a consigliere-type mole.

One crucial misfire is casting Katherine Heigl as Surly’s supportive “love interest” Andie, especially following a Hollywood Reporter expose that earned her the title “Hollywood’s most-hated actress.” It’s hard to listen to Heigl give peppy encouragement while simultaneously envisioning her screaming at a production assistant for not making her cafe au lait right.

But voice work can take things only so far if the script is wonky. “The Nut Job” (credited to Daniel Woo, Lorne Cameron and director Peter Lepeniotis) feels pulled in different directions. It’s clearly set decades ago, yet the animals speak with modern lingo and the humans don’t.

Surly is a plain old jerk — not in the faux jerky Disney way, but genuinely callous in his treatment of Buddy. There’s no reason to root for him. But at least this squirrel is consistent compared to Grayson, who is brave one minute, timid the next, clueless after that, then back to brave. It’s one of many aspects that look to be in a state of constant rewrite.

The tonal clangs that thwart “The Nut Job” are exemplified (and perhaps explained) during the screwy end credits. Out of nowhere, an avatar of international pop star Psy emerges and starts dancing alongside the cast to his so-two-years-ago hit “Gangnam Style.” (Keep in mind, this movie is ostensibly set during the Eisenhower era.) Meanwhile, at least half the names in the credit roll are fellow South Koreans. A title card proudly trumpets that the country financed the film.

Nutty, indeed.

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