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Haley Joel Osment Is Fine in Sex Ed Comedy Sex Ed

Adult virgins are held in pretty much the same regard as post-transformation Gregor Samsa. In real life, they’re fairly rare, though not complete unicorns, and are often considered peculiar by the sexually active majority.

So virginity makes for a pretty good existential device for storytellers to isolate a character from the rest of humanity without actually turning him or her into a bug. In Sex Ed, directed by Coca-Cola Refreshing Filmmaker Isaac Feder, Haley Joel Osment’s virginal Ed Cole is a science teacher who can’t find a job during the recession. Hired by a Tampa district as a new “after-school activities coordinator,” he quickly determines that means he’s a junior-high detention monitor.

He realizes that the preadolescent kids know nothing about sex, and takes the opportunity to teach basic health and human sexuality, which, in conservative Tampa, is akin to playing with fire and gasoline-soaked kittens. His efforts to convince his students’ parents that their kids are dangerously misinformed dovetail with his own efforts to lose his virginity to the adult sister of a student.

Some stuff seems pretty implausible, like the panicked girl who thinks she has cancer because “I’m bleeding out my hoo-ha,” but then you remember that the U.S. is a huge and under-budgeted first-world nation consisting of third-world populations, where anything can and probably does happen sooner or later. Mildly funny and about 15 minutes too long, Sex Ed has a funny cast, particularly a kid played by Isaac White, who gets some hilariously rude dialogue.

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I’ll Follow You Down Focuses on the Ethics of Time Travel

I’ll Follow You Down distinguishes itself from other science-fiction films by focusing on the ethics of time travel. Instead of acting first and thinking as they go, characters take time to consider whether they should go back in time — which turns out to be a problem, since writer-director Richie Mehta’s characters aren’t especially thoughtful.

Like their creator, they make massive leaps in logic before they do anything. Professor Sal (Victor Garber) tells grandson Erol (Haley Joel Osment) that he and his family are living in a “negative space” alternate timeline created after Erol’s dad, Gabe (Rufus Sewell), traveled back to 1946 to talk to Albert Einstein.

It’s not really clear how Sal knows this beyond the fact that he’s a scientist and has pored over Gabe’s theoretical notes on time travel. Erol is understandably skeptical at first, but after two successive family crises, he starts jumping to conclusions, too, as when he tells Sal that he senses that their lives just “[feel] wrong.”

Erol’s especially moved by out-of-the-blue speculation from girlfriend Grace (Susanna Fournier). She makes Erol realize that his actions will have consequences when she baldly bleats, “Can you look me in the eye and tell me with absolute assurance that if you go through with this, we’d be able to re-create the soul of this baby?”

But while Fournier’s understated performance gives I’ll Follow You Down some emotional heft, Grace is an otherwise indistinct character, making her concerns seem immaterial.

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Taissa Farmiga Is a Marvel in Horror Flick Anna

Every year, Hollywood churns out a handful of supernatural thrillers about precocious, haunted children who may or may not be homicidal, and the mind games they play on adult psychologists, detectives, and the like.

The suspense in these films lies in whether these supposed juvenile offenders are victims of parental or institutional abuse, innately insane, or just gifted at making outlandish shit up. The audience’s only clues in solving this dilemma tend to be muddled, flashy, echoey, clanging flashbacks, which abruptly end just when they’re starting to make sense.

The films’ success depends on you caring about these smart-alecky, never particularly likable little prodigies. So it’s not high praise to say that Anna, the debut film of Jorge Dorado, is a slightly above-average thriller that, to its detriment, shares all these cloying traits with its lesser ilk.

You can almost smell the dust on the screenplay, and the scare tactics — doors closing by themselves, mumbled surveillance video testimonies played in reverse, creepy self-portraits that seem to be drawn in blood — are more precious and irksome than frightening.

But Taissa Farmiga (sister of Vera) is a marvel in the title role; unlike, say, Haley Joel Osment’s character in The Sixth Sense, this troubled kid makes fun of her otherworldly ways, and she plays nicely off Mark Strong’s weary-eyed investigator, a widower who can enter his subjects’ memories. Such mind-bending experiences leave him with terrible migraines, and neither he nor his superior (a sleepwalking Brian Cox) can fathom the inconsistencies in Anna’s flashbacks. Dorado proves nimble at chase scenes, and the ending is immensely satisfying: not impossible to predict, per se, but probably the third or fourth possible outcome you imagined.

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Sassy Pants

Thanks to a cinematic intervention by Haley Joel Osment as Chip, a helpful, hopeful, and sparkly eyed best-gay-friend type, Sassy Pants gets rescued from the category of yet one more inconsequential coming-of-age tale. Hip homeschooling sketches and a nasty-mouthed grandma (Jenny O’Hara) also help in Bethany’s (Ashley Rickards) story—she’s an 18-year-old stuck at home with a control freak of a mom. Chip is her dad’s (Diedrich Bader) new lover; gay and girl bond when she visits them. And when Chip says “Girlfriend!” to Bethany, you know reclamation is at hand: father-kid relations, or clothing shopping at “Jail Bait.” Good thing, because Mom (Anna Gunn) is constantly angry at her ex, even dumping on Bethany’s choice of a bright-red satiny graduation dress: “That looks like something your father would wear!” Overplaying the moralizing and domesticity, Gunn makes June Cleaver seem a libertine; too bad John Waters didn’t guest direct the at-home scenes. Despite the improvisational air and occasional messy plotlines common to first-time efforts—by writer/director Coley Sohn—Sassy Pants does show that Bethany has her head screwed on right: She’s hard-working, sensible, and with enough self-esteem to hightail it when Mom goes berserk. With its positive gay images, and even a perfectly executed two-step line dance, Sassy Pants is a feel-good movie for girls of both sexes.

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The Problem With Tao Lin

In Tao Lin’s new novel Richard Yates, a 22-year-old named Haley Joel Osment and a 16-year-old named Dakota Fanning meet-cute, on the Internet, where they Gmail chat about the impossibility of giving a hamster a high-five. Eventually, despite the actionable gap in their ages and the depressing character of their banter (“My parents are divorced. Say something funny”), Osment rides a train out to the suburban New Jersey town in which Fanning lives. Standing on the platform, he sees her from a distance, walking toward him in rain boots and a black dress. In this moment, Lin gives us a glimpse into Osment’s mind:

“I am thinking about something,” thought Haley Joel Osment.
“We’ll make jokes,” he thought. “Sometimes we’ll eat food together.”

By now, we know Lin’s work well enough to expect this kind of stilted prose. In his free-associative first novel Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007), he fantasized about killing Sean Penn, Salman Rushdie, and Jhumpa Lahiri, letting his p.o.v. drift across multiple, interchangeable twenty-something narrators who all shared a kind of unhappiness, though they usually couldn’t say why. (Also, there were anthropomorphic dolphins. And bears.) By last year’s Shoplifting From American Apparel, Lin had his template fixed. Instead of a conventional narrative, we would be presented with a repetitive stream of mundane actions and objects: elaborately constructed smoothies, glasses of soy milk spiked with green-tea extract, idle threats of suicide, sets of pushups, organic fair-trade vegan chocolate nut bars. In lieu of interiority, he gave status updates: “I feel weird.” “I feel good right now.” “I feel okay.”

In Richard Yates, Osment and Fanning trade e-mails, text messages, phone calls, and, occasionally, visit each other in real life, where they have minimally described sex and commit petty crimes, like shoplifting. “I just want to walk around with you at night and sometimes ass and crotch rape you,” Osment says to Fanning. In turn, she looks at him with facial expressions that will be variously described as “worried,” “bored,” “calm,” “angry,” “shy,” and so on—there’s even a helpful index in back, to help you keep track of when and how many times each adjective is used.

Osment, perhaps not surprisingly, turns out to be almost psychopathically controlling and needy, telling Fanning, for instance, that he feels alone when she’s asleep. Her weight and desire to live fluctuate in response. The book climaxes with a three-page e-mail sent from Fanning to Osment containing every lie she’s ever told him: “I told you that I didn’t believe in Santa Claus past age 4. I’m pretty sure I didn’t stop believing in Santa Claus until I was like 7. I don’t know when exactly but it was definitely longer than 4. I lied when I wrote you a long email and said I couldn’t really listen to Bjork and Radiohead anymore. I could still listen to Bjork but was only trying to avoid listening to Radiohead.” Etc.

This torrent of uninflected detail is maddening, but there is a purpose to it. Lin’s partisans typically resort to kids-these-days platitudes in defending his work—”Lin’s writing . . . has perfectly captured the aimless malaise of the Internet generation,” Salon‘s Daniel Roberts recently wrote—but the author deserves more credit than that. He has a singular aesthetic. His relentless, near-autistic focus on the surfaces of social interaction belongs to a literary lineage that includes not just the frequently cited Bret Easton Ellis but also Alain Robbe-Grillet, Rudy Wurlitzer, and Dennis Cooper. “There’s something refreshing to me about Lin’s writing,” the smart Atlantic critic Hua Hsu wrote recently, “the way it manages to be wholly about him, but deny our craving for interiority or motive.” Indeed. As Lin himself recently told Interview: “I just actually don’t have opinions about society. I can discern that certain things have an effect on certain other things but I don’t view those effects as good or bad.”

These are the words of a brilliant, and successful, performance artist. (And make no mistake, at this Lin is supremely gifted—ask Gawker, whose office front door he arbitrarily covered with stickers that said “Britney Spears,” or the NYU security guard who recently arrested him for trespassing at a bookstore from which he had been banned after a prior arrest for, yup, shoplifting.) They are also, as a statement of writerly intent, deeply depressing.

The phrase “I don’t know” appears on nearly every passive-aggressive, noncommittal page of the listless Richard Yates, as it did almost as frequently in the two novels that preceded it. Lin’s characters really don’t know. They are depressed but can’t be bothered to figure out why. They are inarticulate, but to no particular end. The motivation and technique behind successful human connection—friendship, love, small talk—elude them, and they make no effort to learn. “Andrew had forgotten how to be happy!” goes one passage in Eeeee Eee Eeee. “He suspected that it involved unwarranted feelings of fondness for other people, too much self-esteem, a sort of long-term delusion that manifested itself as charisma, and a blocking out of certain things, like lonely people.”

Lonely people are Lin’s primary subject, a distinction he shares with practically every other novelist currently working. Fiction is a solitary pursuit pursued by solitary people. (David Foster Wallace wrote, he once said, to feel “unlonely.”) But where most writers see an abyss to be bridged, Lin confronts a set of limits faced by nearly every human on the planet, and reflexively affirms those limits. All of his tricks—singling out words that feel foreign or vernacular (“I thought they were going to ‘jump’ us”); reducing human interaction to a series of quantifiable exchanges (“After the giant email she sent three short emails.”); repeating variants of the same meaningless phrase (“We are fucked”)—boil down to a passive acceptance of the default wasteland that exists between us and other people. That distance is always going to be there, of course—we don’t need Lin to tell us that. It’d be nice if he helped us close it a bit though.

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MAMET MANIA

If you’re still cracking Jeremy Piven and/or Haley Joel Osment jokes over last season’s two Mamet revivals on Broadway, just imagine what this season will have in store. The ever-prolific David Mamet currently has two new plays up at the Atlantic, Keep Your Pantheon and School, and Broadway gets Race in November and Oleanna, which begins previews tonight. Though Mamet wrote Oleanna—about the heated relationship between a university professor and one of his female students—in the early ’90s, this production will mark its Broadway debut. One of its stars also gets such a distinction: Julia Stiles. Bill Pullman plays the prof.

Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Sept. 29. Continues through Dec. 6, 2009

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SPARE CHANGE

If we had a nickel for every time a child star appeared in a Broadway revival, we wouldn’t be very wealthy—but if we had a very rare American Buffalo nickel. . . . Erstwhile film tot Haley Joel Osment, who used to see dead people, will now see live ones as he stars in David Mamet’s numismatic classic American Buffalo about cons in a junk shop who plot a caper to steal a valuable coin. Co-stars John Leguizamo and Cedric the Entertainer add value to Robert Falls’s staging. Unless they have quite a lot of spare change, Mamet-loving theatergoers will have to choose between this production and Speed-the-Plow, playing just north on the Great White Way.

Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; Tuesdays, 7 p.m., 2008

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‘Just Like Heaven’

Good news for horror fans: Six years after Haley Joel Osment first saw dead people, the gimmick is finally safe for romantic comedy. Surely the end of the cycle is nigh. Reese Witherspoon stars as overworked internist Elizabeth, the latest movie character who can’t quite figure out if she’s dead or alive, after a 26-hour stretch at the hospital leads to a possibly fatal car accident. When lost and lonely David (a bewildered Mark Ruffalo) moves into Elizabeth’s San Francisco apartment, he soon discovers that he’ll have to share its spacious accommodations with a peculiarly energetic ghost playing the role of mother, AA counselor, and overall killjoy. Elizabeth, of course, is only visible to David, setting up lots of confused third-party reaction shots, awkward physical comedy, and repeated jokes about “seeing someone.” Witherspoon’s oft charming perkiness is merely patronizing here, but mid-’90s MTV staple Donal Logue steals every scene he’s in as an ethically challenged therapist. Fraught with anxiety about the spiritual consequences of overwork, Just Like Heaven feels contemporary enough, but the movie’s level of imagination is best captured by its painfully literal-minded soundtrack, which includes such topical material as “Just My Imagination,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and the theme from Ghostbusters.

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Toni Collette Lips Her Stocking in a Culture-Clash Road Movie

Japanese Story might be as accurately titled The Toni Collette Movie. The Australian actress (an Oscar nominee for her role as Haley Joel Osment’s mommy in The Sixth Sense) is on-screen in virtually every scene. Collette’s Sandy Edwards is a briskly unhappy geologist who takes an outback trip that changes the entire course of her life.

Basically, Sandy is stuck with the chore of babysitting a spoiled and diffident Japanese client, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima). Their antipathy is instant. She arrives late to collect him at the airport and fails to present the requisite business card. Her associates know the drill, but she seems hopelessly unaware of Japanese protocol. (There’s a funny scene in which she decides to study a bit of the language while sitting on the beach.) For his part, Hiromitsu is distinguished by his casual arrogance and barely concealed insecurity. After regaling a bar with his toneless karaoke version of “Danny Boy,” he gets sloppy, falling-down drunk, collapsing into Sandy’s unenthusiastic care.

In short, the two live out every possible cultural misunderstanding even as they venture deeper into the wilderness—a region that for Sandy is a nuisance to navigate but for Hiromitsu has all the terror and attraction of the cosmic void. For a time, Japanese Story is one kind of adventure story—Sourpuss and Wacko on Mars. She fixes him with her killer glare while he uses his cell phone to call his friends in Japan to complain about her. Then this odd couple get stuck in the middle of nowhere in a situation where they might easily perish.

More interesting than affecting, at least until it kicks in, Japanese Story presents problems for the reviewer. Indeed, the distributor has requested that accounts not describe the action past a particular point. Suffice to say that the characters bond—for a time—and that the road of their adventure continues through predictable territory and then swerves into a violent switchback. Cultural misconceptions continue to play out for the remainder of the movie, but in a more complex and surprising context.

Japanese Story is a suitably laconic title for a movie with more than its share of long, life-changing scenes played for maximum emotional content. Totally convincing in a physically demanding role, Collette carries the movie on her shoulders—and that weight is what it’s all about.

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Ursine Minor

Finally, it’s happened: a movie based upon a theme park exhibit rather than the reverse. Extrapolated from Disney World’s lifeless but kid-friendly Country Bear Jamboree robot show, The Country Bears (Buena Vista, in general release) was explicitly conceived by a Disney exec as a steal from The Blues Brothers: Disbanded pop group reunites on a road trip to play one last show and save the concert-hall homestead. However prosaic narratively, this ingrown mutant is easily the most bizarre children’s film made in this country since 1982’s lab-rat apocalypse The Secret of NIMH. Huge, semi-caricatured, Hensontronic talking bears pepper the otherwise realistic Southern landscape, occupying mostly service-industry jobs—the prospect of a truly berserk, Apes-type race-relations metaphor looms but then collapses in a drawling muddle of cheap jokes. (Many of the film’s humans cannot distinguish bears from people, but everyone recognizes the celebrity beasts.)

The unaddressed incongruities are as stupefying as the music; certainly, the heavily fanged bears are convincing and threatening enough to make you hope for a royal When Animals Attack maiming, particularly during dance numbers featuring Disney Records contractees Krystal Harris and Jennifer Paige. It would have been just as bracing to see showboating villain Christopher Walken sink his incisors into the throat of the Haley Joel Osment-voiced subteen ursus, but the only catharsis offered is a visit to a skid-row “honey bar” and the sight of Walken wearing a bandolier of rainbow-tufted tranquilizer darts.