This week in local theaters 

On paper, the pairing of Maurice Sendak's 1964 mischief-making escapade and director Spike Jonze is a wild rumpus indeed. And sure enough, for the first 20 minutes or so, Jonze's movie version is miraculously good: a lyrical portrait of childhood to rival The 400 Blows in its empathy for a kid's keenly felt thrills, terrors and sorrows, alive in every detail and gesture. Then the wild things show up—and suddenly Sendak's delicate imaginary trip gives way to a bizarrely aggressive, overbearing psychodrama as appealing to tots as a Sid & Marty Krofft remake of A Woman Under the Influence. Jonze's method of firmly situating the surreal in the real world manifests here as oversized puppet creatures bickering in morose, petulant, vaguely hippie-dippie fashion. The result is fun, if your idea of fun is a mandatory food-cooperative meeting run by surly sports mascots. (I can't beat Jett Loe's comparison of the wild-thing section's tone to "a non-profit board.") The puppets are expressive and mobile enough (and faithful to Sendak's illustrations), but they've been imbued with grating personalities and star voices that range from pleasingly anonymous (Chris Cooper) to distractingly obtrusive (Catherine O'Hara). Most distracting, alas, is James Gandolfini as the wildest thing, who ruptures the fairytale illusion every time he opens his big furry yap and mutters like an abusive Cassavetes hardhat. (Want an inkling of the incongruity? Picture Barney as a wifebeater.) And yet, as off-putting as the movie can be, it's not a talent-starved failure of nerve. Even the most irritating sections abound with gorgeous images of matter-of-fact whimsy and haunting innocence, and the real-world ending lingers so lovingly over faces and unspoken feelings—the movie's remarkable Max, a young actor named Max Records, and mom Catherine Keener evoke a lifelong bond in just a single inestimably tender exchange—that you wish Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers had spent more time where the wild things aren't. (Opens Friday) JIM RIDLEY

The hero of Robert C. Siegel's scruffy character study lives crammed into his mom's side room, takes tickets in a parking garage, and spends his spare moments composing his off-the-cuff thoughts for a sports-talk call-in show. If he's a loser, he's never gotten the memo, no matter how much his family keeps trying to send it to him. In that, he's like Randy the Ram, the down-at-heels bruiser in Siegel's script for The Wrestler—a guy who steadfastly refuses to see why it's uncool for a 50-year-old man to get brained with folding chairs for a living. If The Wrestler was the story of a martyr, though, Big Fan is the story of a tested apostle—a mad-dog New York Giants devotee who finds out, brutally, that his love isn't reciprocated when the quarterback he idolizes beats him to a pulp. As the fan, the gifted stand-up comic Patton Oswalt gets a showcase role that plays against his strengths—his lightning-quick wit, restless intellect and Wikipedian knowledge of pop culture—yet he doesn't let vanity put any distance between himself and his lumpen character. Instead, he portrays conflicted fandom as a crisis of faith, leading to considerable suspense as his rivalry escalates past the point of no return with an irksome Eagles fan (Michael Rapaport). A former Onion writer and editor, Siegel has a ragged, homely directorial style that lets the movie's modest means show through like exposed ribs; long before the end you'll think you know where the movie's headed. But as in The Wrestler, he pulls off a cathartic twist on the expected ending while giving his put-upon protagonist a moment of hard-won (if costly) satisfaction. (Opens Friday at The Belcourt) JIM RIDLEY


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