ALONG CAME POLLY (PG-13) As its title more than suggests, what we have here is a romantic comedy that feels like a series of slapped-together outtakes from There's Something About Mary. The relationship at the center of the movie is a by-the-numbers case of opposites attracting (Ben Stiller's uptight insurance analyst falls for Jennifer Aniston's free-spirited eccentric), with semi-funny physical humor and Farrelly Brothers-ish toilet jokes abounding. There's even a blind ferret subbing for the little pooch in Mary. On the plus side, Aniston makes her underwritten character feel surprisingly real, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Alec Baldwin deliver a few solid chuckles on the sidelines. Stiller plays the same character he always plays, and is usually much better when reacting to situations than when he's trying to drum up some laughs on his own. Also stars Debra Messing and Hank Azaria.
BAD SANTA (R) Billy Bob Thornton stars as the world's most horrible department store Santa in this wonderfully disgusting new comedy from Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World). The closest modern equivalent to the movie's brand of sick-sick-sick humor might be There's Something about Mary, but Bad Santa turns wallowing in ugliness into something not only very funny but also very sad and real in a way that the Farrelly Brothers rarely manage. Things get a little gooey at the end (when Thornton's relationship with a weird little kid blossoms) and chirpy Lauren Graham of The Gilmore Girls seems a bit out of place here, but the rest is solid gold, dipped in blood, booze and puke. Also stars Bernie Mac, Tony Cox and John Ritter.
BIG FISH (PG-13) Tim Burton's new movie often appears to be one absurd image and taller-than-tall tale after another. Strip away all the baroque detours, though, and you'll find a simple saga about estranged sons making peace with absent fathers, a scenario that trades in a familiar Hollywood sentimentality straight out of any number of so-so movies with names most of us have already forgotten. It's a meticulously crafted movie and, in its way, an immensely enjoyable one, but that instantly identifiable, auteurist hand behind Ed Wood and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is almost nowhere to be found. You might say that Big Fish represents a more mature Burton, a now nearly fully domesticated filmmaker capable of creating mellower movies that don't feel the pressing need to assert their originality with every frame. With its kinder, gentler quirkiness, Big Fish has the unmistakable feel of a fairy tale, but one told by a grown-up. Stars Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange and Helena Bonham Carter. 1/2
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (R) Ashton Kutcher stars as a troubled young man who discovers he can travel back in time to "fix" the childhood traumas that screwed him up so badly. Only problem is that once Kutcher gets back to the present, he finds that things haven't necessarily changed for the better. The Butterfly Effect is a less-than-inspired What If project, in which the principal pleasure is supposed to lie in watching the various alternate versions of the main character's reality unfold. Unfortunately, neither the main character nor his realities are particularly interesting, the movie's way too clumsy and silly to handle delicately the themes it touches upon (such as child abuse), and Kutcher simply can't act his way out of a paper bag. Also stars Amy Smart. Opens Jan. 23 at local theaters.
CALENDAR GIRLS (PG-13) For those who just can't get enough of The Full Monty, here's a new British comedy about a group of proper middle-aged ladies who decide to raise money for a hospital by posing in the all-together for a calendar. Any questions? Stars Helen Mirren and Julie Waters. (Not Reviewed)
CHASING LIBERTY (PG-13) Life is tough when you're a pretty teenage girl who just happens to be the only daughter of the President of the United States. Mandy Moore stars as the First Teen, trying to get on with her social life while being followed by squads of secret service types. Also stars Jeremy Piven, Mark Harmon and Annabella Sciorra. (Not Reviewed)
CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (PG) Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt star as the loving but harried parents of 12 children in this remake of the 1950 comedy of the same name. Chaos ensues. Also stars Piper Perabo and Hilary Duff. (Not Reviewed)
COLD MOUNTAIN (NR) There's more than a whiff of dread hanging in the air in director Anthony Minghella's wildly tragic-romantic opus, and it won't be giving away much to mention that it all ends badly. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman (sporting not-too-embarrassing Southern accents) star as a pair of absurdly clear complected, Civil War-era lovebirds buffeted by the cruel winds of destiny. He's been to hell and back in the war, and spends most of the movie's two-and-a-half hours trudging through the ravaged countryside, encountering various colorful characters along the way, as Kidman's voice-over periodically implores "My love, my love, where are you?" The film practically begs for consideration as Minghella's Gone With the Wind, or maybe his Pilgrim's Progress, a panoramic study of a vanished America, bolstered by handsome cinematography and oodles of lively performances. Even at 150 minutes the movie feels rushed, though, visibly straining to cram in too many characters and events. For all the epic sprawl, there's a scattered, episodic quality to the film that makes even the better performances feel a bit like cameos. And even though everyone's faces are dutifully smudged and fingernails are appropriately dirty, Kidman and Law rarely fail to look like fashion models striking poses out in the wild. Also stars Renee Zellweger and Natalie Portman.