FILM REVIEW – ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. With Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Pena. Written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari. Directed by Peyton Reed. Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence. 118 mins.
My favorite thing about the “Ant-Man” movies is that nobody has to save the world. While the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues “raising the stakes” to diminishing returns with increasingly apocalyptic punch-outs, over here in the insect corner they thankfully still seem content to coast on breezy banter and clever chase sequences. This past May’s “Avengers: Infinity War” was about as miserable a moviegoing experience as I’ve had all year, a bludgeoning conundrum of losing battles and monotonous self-mythologizing with the fate of the universe (yawn) hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is a high-spirited lark of enormous appeal and blessedly little consequence.
Affable everyman Paul Rudd returns as Scott Lang, the bungling burglar with a heart of gold turned shrinking superhero. He’s just served two years under house arrest for his amusing extra-legal shenanigans in the otherwise desultory “Captain America: Civil War” and despite the suspicions of his punctilious parole officer (a very funny Randall Park) it looks like he’ll be a free man in a few days, just so long as Scott steers clear of fugitive scientist Hank Pym (the delightful Michael Douglas) and the doc’s daughter, Hope van Dyne (former Ford model Evangeline Lilly.)
A small pileup of plotlines conspires to keep that from happening, including but not limited to the machinations of a shady tech-pirate-slash-farm-to-table restaurateur played with lip-smacking relish by Walton Goggins, a phase-shifting, dimension-hopping ninja with a grudge (Hannah John-Kamen) and Laurence Fishburne as a prickly former colleague of Pym’s. There’s also the matter of Scott receiving something like a distress signal from the inter-molecular quantum realm where Hank’s wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) disappeared three decades ago. Oh yeah, and Lang’s old jailbird buddies (David Dastmalchian, T.I., and the movie-stealing Michael Peña) are running a failing security company that sorely requires some expert assistance.
“You guys are just adding the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything, right?” quips Scott as a way of cutting through the pseudo-scientific gobbledygook deployed here to provide arbitrary timelines and obstacles to the adventure. As with the previous picture, Rudd is one of several credited screenwriters and is presumably responsible for a good deal of the self-deprecating humor that keeps things humming along. He’s got a terrific rapport with Lilly, who spent too much time on the sidelines last time around (for reasons that movie openly admitted were stupid) and here emerges as such a credible, competent hero in her own right that by the opening reel she’s already crime-fighting circles around Rudd’s goofball galoot.
Shot in bright, primary colors by the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” isn’t exactly elegant when spinning out all the various story threads, but returning director Peyton Reed is smart enough to prioritize the chemistry of his cast over assorted plot nonsense. A scene in which Pfeiffer employs unorthodox methods to make Rudd deliver a message is the kind of sublimely silly and strangely moving scene you only get when a filmmaker fully understands how movie stars can provide their own sort of special effects.
Of course, the digital trickery here is also top-notch, with our heroes’ oddball superpowers forcing the action sequences into far more clever contortions than the usual skyscraper-toppling slug-a-thons. From using giant Pez dispensers as weapons to Hot Wheels-sized car chases, the action beats are orchestrated with a level of wit and invention too often lost in the genre’s typical spates of CGI porn. (An extended homage to Dirty Harry in “The Dead Pool” is also a surefire way to warm this cranky critic’s heart.)
Alas, since this is a Marvel movie everything must eventually tie into this summer’s earlier bummer, but thankfully here not until a tacked-on post-credits scene. (Basically, if you bolt out right after the poppy, Partridge Family-scored happy ending you’ll have just seen one of the season’s sweetest treats.) Funny, for a story full of small things getting big and big things getting small, the most satisfying thing about “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is its human-scaled sense of proportion.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper, and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.