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Whip It

Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Daniel Stern, Alia Shawkat | PG-13 |

COMEDY

New Age gurus are always advising acolytes to “Follow your bliss.” First-time director Drew Barrymore does just that, with enjoyable results, in Whip It, as she follows the adventures of Bliss Cavendar (Page), a 17-year-old who learns to assert herself and finds happiness as the four-wheeling star of an amateur, all-woman roller derby team in Austin, Texas.

This comic, coming-of-age tale, which screenwriter Shauna Cross adapted from her own 2007 novel Derby Girl, breaks no new ground but has a jolly time skating over familiar territory: first love, mother-daughter differences and following a dream. As she did in Juno, Page gives a sassy, heartfelt performance; she is this generation’s Molly Ringwald. But Whip It is very much an ensemble effort, with each major cast member getting to shine in a scene or two, particularly Harden, as Bliss’s derby-disapproving mom, and Wiig and Lewis as Bliss’s teammates, whose noms de derby are, respectively, Maggie Mayhem and Iron Maven. And Barrymore herself has a blast playing Smashley Simpson, an überaggressive fellow teammate who, while quick on her skates, is even faster with her fists.

The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe | PG-13 |

COMEDY

Ricky Gervais needs a better director. The co-creator of the original British version of The Office is a brilliant comic performer and a clever writer, but he does himself no favors with the bland, unimaginative directing style—the cinematic equivalent of brown-paper wrapping—he brings (along with codirector Matthew Robinson) to Lying. And that’s a shame because this comedy, about a man (Gervais) who tells the world’s first lie and becomes rich and famous spinning even bigger whoppers, brims with intriguing ideas about creativity, storytelling and religion. And Garner is endearingly awkward as his dream gal, plus there are lively turns by Lowe and Tina Fey. I like Lying a lot, but—I’m being honest here—I can’t really make a strong case for it.

A Serious Man

Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin | R |

CRITIC’S CHOICE

COMEDY

To label sibling writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest distinctive offering—love the skewed camera angles!—a comedy is to say that pain is funny. But it is, as long as it’s someone else’s. That someone is Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a midwestern college whose marriage and career are falling apart fast. Man’s milieu is suburban, middle-class Jewish, circa 1967, and the humor, also distinctively Jewish, is predicated on the notion that bad things will happen, not sometimes but always. It’s oy vey 24/7, but all you can do is laugh.

Zombieland

Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone | R |

COMEDY

If you see just one zombie comedy this year, make it Zombieland. (Now that’s a sentence I’ve longed to write my entire career.) A smart, snarky take on battling the undead, this comic horror-thriller pokes fun at pop culture and piles on the gore. The film’s dual heroes, a nervous young man (Adventureland’s Eisenberg) and a hardened zombie killer (Harrelson), join a pair of con-artist sisters (Stone and Breslin) to journey across the country, now a barren wasteland populated by ravenous zombies. Transcendent bit: a cameo—I won’t ruin the surprise—in which a major star merrily plays himself, easily snaring the biggest laughs.