Robin Williams and Zach Sanchez of 'World's Greatest Dad'
Robin Williams and Zach Sanchez of 'World's Greatest Dad'
Credit: Joyce Rudolph

Sundance 2009: 'World's Greatest Dad'

Robin Williams delivers jet-black laughs in the best comedy of the festival.

When "Shakes The Clown" came out in 1991 I was quite taken with it.  It's a genuinely dirty little movie, gross and absurd, set in a surreal world that doesn't really make a lot of sense, but there was a real filmmaker's sensibility at work in the film.  I remember telling people about it at the time, and more often than not, as soon as I mentioned the writer/director/star of the film, people would just tune out.  "Oh, you mean that guy from the 'Police Academy' films who screams a lot?  No.  No, thanks."  And while I may not have that same kneejerk reaction to the name Bobcat Goldthwait (I liked his stand-up a lot), I can't blame them.  Goldthwait created a distinct comedy persona onstage, and for some people, that's still how they define him, no matter how much time has passed.  The truth is, though, he's made several features now, with a filmmaker's voice that has nothing to do with that howling spaz identity, and with "World's Greatest Dad," he's made a major leap forward, delivering one of my favorite films at Sundance.

Dark comedy... truly dark comedy, where laughs are wrung from the skeeviest side of human behavior... is incredibly hard to get right.  Part of the problem is that one key component of successful comedy is empathy.  And I don't mean it in the way that studio executives are always saying that characters have to be likable.  It's just that if we feel nothing at all for the people onscreen, good or bad, its hard to invest in anything that happens.  Laughter is about recognition or shock or discomfort, and it's always an emotional response, involuntary.  Goldthwait's greatest accomplishment here is the way he populates the entire film with characters who are amoral opportunists at best, and in some cases, they're not even that.  And while I can admire that on paper, that doesn't automatically translate into laughs.  That requires a deft touch, and for the first time, Goldthwait's put it all together in a way that feels effortless.

Part of that is the casting of Robin Williams in the lead.  I've always thought of him as one of those performers who can soar or sour based on the material.  I'm not much for sappy Williams movies, or the broad and goofy kid's fare.  I prefer when we see the anger behind that clown's mask of his, when those rubber cheeks flush with fury, or when he plays characters who threaten to collapse in on themselves.  Lance Clayton's a bit of both, and the character fits Williams like a glove.  He's a high school teacher who spends most of his time writing novels like "Door-To-Door Android" that have, so far, made it no further than a desk drawer or a garbage can.  He's a single dad, raising his teenage son Kyle, played by Daryl Sabara, best known as Juni from the "Spy Kids" movies.  I guarantee that no one who sees this film is ever going to think of "Spy Kids" again first.

See, Kyle is an asshole.  A raging piece of shit.  And he's not just a kid going through a little bit of teen angst.  This isn't a phase... it's a personality disorder.  And Goldthwait shoots him so he always looks shiny, slick, like a zit about to pop.  Kyle takes enormous pleasure in torturing his father.  Their conversations are miserable, traps where Lance can do nothing other than stare at this alien sitting next to him, horrified and disappointed.  Since Kyle attends the school where Lance teaches, they have plenty of opportunities to collide each and every day, and Lance does what he can to soothe the humiliation of knowing that he's failed completely with this kid.  He's in a secret relationship with Claire (Alexie Gilmore), the school's art teacher, and she seems to be the one good thing in Lance's life.  Even so, she doesn't want him to tell anyone about them being together, supposedly for professional reasons.  Besides, she sort of seems to be keeping her options open, flirting with Mike (Henry Simmons), one of the other teachers.  Lance does his best to stay emotionally afloat as his boss, Principal Simmons (Geoff Pierson) threatens to cut his class load and ship Kyle off to a special education program.

And he may need it.  The first time we see him, he's jerking off with a belt around his neck, and he seems to be into porn to a disturbing degree.  He's one of these post-Stile Project kids who think that the more extreme and degrading something is, the better.  Kyle talks about sex is such brutal, grotesque terms that it's almost an abstract.  His one friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), is a slight little guy who knows that Kyle is all talk, and he seems to be the only person who can tolerate the barrage of filth.  Kyle's close to expulsion, prone to violence... basically every parent's nightmare.  Still, Lance does whatever he can do to try and get through to him, to reach some detente with his son.  And there are hints in a few scenes that he's getting close, that he might be on the verge of really connecting with Kyle...

... and then a stupid accident changes everything.  There's an incident that happens about 1/3 of the way into the film that flattened me.  I thought for sure that the laughs were over, and that the rest of the movie would have to be dramatic to accomodate such a disturbing choice.  Yet somehow, Goldthwait almost immediately gets back to the laughs, and if anything, the film gets sharper and funnier after the big event.  Lance makes a series of monstrous decisions, unfathomable ethical decisions, and suddenly, he finds himself getting all those things he's always wanted.  The more he abandons his basic human decency, the better his life becomes.  The film raises some real questions in this age where Oprah and publishers are embarassed by false memoirists and where celebrity is more important than dignity, but Goldthwait never once tips his film into being "about" anything.  This is a comedy.  A dark, dark, dark, dark comedy.  More than anything else, Goldthwait wants to push you to laugh at things that no one should laugh at, and I'm shocked at how well it works.

The film's got a bright pop candy look thanks to cinematographer Horacio Marquinez, and the world is well-designed.  The entire supporting cast is perfectly in-tune with what Goldthwait's doing, and they all strike the exact right tone.  One weak link could have derailed the film, but instead, this horrifying display somehow turns into an oddly moving display, with an ending that tied me in absolute moral knots.  I've never been so proud of someone for such a despicable act, and I'm curious to see what audiences make of "World's Greatest Dad."  I hope some bold distributor sacks up and releases this one, because it is an uncommon achievement, and one of the highlights for me of the last eight days.

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Sundance 2009: That's A Wrap

Okay, Sundance... you win.

I am officially done with movies in Park City.  And I don't say that in a huffy "I'm taking my ball and going home" sort of way... just a realistic admission that it's 6:00 in the morning, I haven't slept, I'm flying in about seven hours, and I'm not going to that screening of "We Live In Public" at the Temple at 9:00 no matter how much I'd like to.

My last film seen this year is "Mystery Team," while my first was "Mary and Max," which seems by my recollection to have been something I saw about eleven years ago.

I've got about five more reviews written in my Moleskine I carried with me all week, and I'm going to work on getting those in the computer the moment I get home.  Typing on the laptop is a skill I haven't quite perfected yet (damn youse, thumbpad), and I have a plan for how I can keep the Sundance coverage flowing like water all weekend long as I catch up on all the reviews for all the films I've seen as well as interviews with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, Greg Mottola, and Bobcat Goldthwait.  It's going to be a flood of stuff, but that's the great thing about having been here this year... I'm set now, part of the conversation that starts every year at this time, something I haven't been for the last six or seven years, and I'm so pleased.  As we welcome new readers every day, I want you to feel secure in the idea that HitFix and Motion/Captured are going to be participants in the annual festival conversation, and this year is just the start of what we've got planned.

For now, I've got to close my eyes for three hours or so, and then get up and pack and get out of here.

Best part?  I get to hug my kids and my wife about 12 hours from now.  Man, I've been missing them this week.

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Jordan Ladd gets maternal and mental in "Grace"
Jordan Ladd gets maternal and mental in "Grace"

Sundance 2009: 'Grace'

Strong performances and real subtext elevates disturbing dead baby horror film.

Q:  How many dead babies does it take to freak out a Sundance audience?

A:  Just one.  Just one.

David Cronenberg is, and always will be, the king of body horror.  Honestly, until his work, I don't think anyone had every approached the creeping dread we all experience about our own bodies at one time or another.  Cronenberg helped create this sub-genre of horror, and these days, the avid horror fan with a region-free player has plenty of options for seeing crazy films that play on these primal biological fears of ours, films more explicit than even Cronenberg's grossest day.

Sad truth is, though, most of those films are terrible.

That's why I find myself impressed by what Paul Solet has pulled off with "Grace," a movie that is alternately impressive and too filthy to bear, as visceral an experience as I've had with a horror film in the theater in recent memory.  And this is one of those horror films that you absolutely should see with a crowd of strangers in a theater.  The way other people react is part of the fun with a movie like this.  I know after our screening, Devin Faraci told me how glad he was he saw it with me, since I'm sort of a wuss regarding anything that has to do with babies, and I spent most of the movie practically crawling out of my skin.

See, I'm wired differently since the birth of my sons.  And I'm sure that's a common experience for parents.  I find I get far more emotional with far less prompting now in certain films, and, unsurprisingly, I find that there are also certain images or ideas that just plain freak me out now, or that I can't watch.

"Grace" is pretty much a laundry list of all the things that I find almost impossible to watch, and if all the film consisted of was grotesque events and vile moments, I wouldn't be able to recommend it.  But the fact that all the viscera is in service of this smart, sad little story of a woman who, after two miscarriages and the loss of her husband, decides that absolutely nothing is going to take her child from her during this third pregnancy.  She's determined to do everything right, to maintain perfect health, and to see this baby to term.

And, of course, the baby dies two weeks before she's supposed to deliver it, and Madeline, unable to let go and beside herself with grief, decides to carry the dead baby to full term and deliver it.  She knows it's dead, thanks to the same accident that took her husband from her, and yet she wants to carry something to full term... just once.  Even during the set-up for the film, Jordan Ladd does a nice job of playing a woman who wishes desperately to be a mommy, only to realize that the job isn't what she thought it would be.  And neither is her not-quite-so-dead baby.

This is the sort of film that starts pushing your buttons right at the start, but then it keeps pushing them, and keeps pushing them, and keeps pushing them some more.  The film doesn't really kick into "oh my god!" mode until the second half, but once it does, it delivers a steady stream of images that are so profoundly unpleasant, particularly if you've actually been through the harrowing emotional rollercoaster that is the first year of a child's life.  As a parent, your one thought, your one responsibility is "Don't let anything happen to the baby," and it's enough to send you into a shrieking nervous breakdown.  This movie preys on those fears, preys on the responses that are hardwired into us, and it demonstrates real control on the part of Paul Solet as both writer and director.  When this comes out (I'm not sure it has theatrical distribution lined up yet, but it should), I'll make sure to go back with a group of friends.

Doubt I'll take my wife, though.  There are some audiences who I believe really would be too upset by some of the content here.  I know how extreme my reaction was to the craziest ideas on display here, but I'm curious to see just what this would do to someone who's actually given birth and nursed for the first few months.  I have a feeling that even if they made it through the majority of the film, the last line would push them screaming into the night.

And for my money, that's exactly what a horror film should do.  Disturb.  Upset.  Offend.

Mission accomplished.

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Sundance 2009: Missing In Action

Okay, so that's not how I thought the last few days were going to go.  At all.

When I left here after posting the "Paper Heart" interview, I was on my way to do a bit of "Adventureland" press, feeling confident about my Park City navigation skills, happy with the piece I'd just put up and the pace we were keeping and... well... pretty much everything.

So of course that's when everything fell apart.  First, there was the issue of just plain finding the house where the "Adventureland" stuff was being done.  Now that I've been there, I can tell you it's actually very conveniently located, and should have been an easy matter.  But because I made the mistake of asking one of the many volunteers who aren't that familiar with the way Park City's laid out, but who act like they are locals, I got completely turned around and dropped off at the Library instead of the Main Street stop.  The Library, for those of you not here, is at the very bottom of a very tall and steep hill.  And the house where the interviews were turned out to be at the top of that very tall and steep hill.

Keep in mind, I'm not exactly a small mammal to begin with.  But when you realize you are in the exact wrong place, and you have six minutes to get somewhere, and the only way that's going to happen is if you run in heavy boots and mountain air up a hill covered in snow and ice... it is a moment that tests what you are physically capable of doing.

So when I finally did stagger into the "Adventureland" house, I must have looked like I was going to have a heart attack.  I guessing, anyway, since I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.  And of course they immediately hand me over to Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, while I'm pouring sweat and gasping to try to get my lungs to start working.  I don't run at sea level, so running in this kind of altitude was just punishing.

The interviews ended up going well, and we'll have those for you here next week.  I wish I could just post the raw audio, because they're really great together, but I don't think the sound quality would hold up.

By the time I finished the interviews, I realized I'd left my phone at the room where I'm staying, which meant I was out of contact completely.  No Twitter.  No nothing.  And the rest of the day was so packed that I never had a chance to even get close to the room again.  I ran from there to see "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," then over to the not-so-secret Steven Soderbergh screening of "The Girlfriend Experience," then back to the Yarrow for "Black Dynamite."  When I finally made it back to the room, I was worn out, and I had both hours of "Lost" to watch and recap for the Wednesday airdate.

Then Wednesday saw me using the morning for some personal business, trying to catch up on a few things that I've neglected while I was up here, and then off to see my first film by 2:00.  Normally that would mean a non-productive day, but I managed to fit in five films anyway, going from "Grace" to "Nollywood Babylon" to "Five Minutes In Heaven" to "World's Greatest Dad" and, finally, to "Thriller In Manila."

And now here we are in my last full day at the festival.  I'm probably seeing three films today and one tomorrow morning, then I'm on a plane and on my way out of here.

And I haven't even punched anyone in the face yet.  Sheeeesh.

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Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera in the most sexually explicit scene in "Paper Heart"
Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera in the most sexually explicit scene in "Paper Heart"
Credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment

Sundance 2009: Michael Cera And Charlyne Yi On 'Paper Heart'

Cera talks 'Scott Pilgrim' fight training

Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Charlyne Yi was in the Judd Apatow movie "Knocked Up," where she played the girlfriend of Martin Starr, one of Seth Rogen's bizarre roommates.  She had such an unusual presence that even in a very small role like that, she made an impression.  About three months ago, I was sent a link by a friend to one of her YouTube videos, and I went and checked out her channel, which is basically just her singing covers of barely-known songs she likes.  Again... once you've seen one or two of the videos, you won't forget her.

And as soon as I was given my credentials for this year's Sundance and started getting publicity materials, there was Yi's face everywhere, front and center, a picture of her in a wedding dress.  She was one of the iconic images of the fest even before we got here this year, and I knew next to nothing about the film that image came from, something I tried to maintain until I walked into the Yarrow's press screening.  I'll have my full review up soon (or you could read Devin Faraci's very good one right this moment if you're really curious), but suffice it to say "Paper Heart" is a movie that you really, really want to hug.  Yes, it's adorable, and it's a complete refutation of the idea that today's twentysomethings are already practiced cynics.  No cynic could make a movie like this, and no cynic will be able to love it.

I'm not doing a lot of interviews here at Sundance this year... and frankly, I don't want to.  I've always felt that a festival was about seeing movies, about the combinations and the collisions that can only occur when you're watching four or five films in a day, and the moment you start giving up time slots to interviews, your day can fall apart.  Even so, when I was approached about talking to the creative team behind "Paper Heart," I moved my morning around, and at 10:30, I walked into the Stella Artois lounge that's on Main Street, ready to chat.

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Sundance 2009: Inauguration Morning

About five and a half hours sleep last night, and I'm planning to use today for catch-up more than anything.  There's the not-so-secret secret screening at 6:15 at the Eccles, and "Black Dynamite" later, but I'm blowing off "The Informers" for now so that I can write up yesterday's "Paper Heart" interview and some more reviews.  I'm way too behind, and I'm starting to feel like a fat guy who keeps going to the buffet table without finishing the giant plates he's already taken.  I've got too many good reviews that need to be posted to spend today running from one end of town to the other.  I'm not leaving the condo until it's time to go sit down with Bill Hader and Greg Mottola, and then I hope I can have those conversations up tomorrow for you.

I had the first really decent food of the week so far last night when I stopped by Main Street Pizza & Noodlle and got some sort of southwestern burrito pizza, with jalepenos and sour cream and guacamole.  Pretty crazy good, and carrying it back on the bus, I kept getting looks from other Sundancers like I was about to get pizza-jacked.  I'm finally comfortable getting around town, which of course happens just as the festival starts winding down.

I'm willing to bet whatever screened this morning was like a ghost town.  I'm listening to all the speeches from the other room, and it's all very inspirational.  I sincerely hope that we are seeing history being made, and not the launching of more disappointments, and as I spend the rest of today playing catch-up, I'm going to let myself believe in the hope and the optimism, if only for today.  If you haven't seen the new White House website, it's a pretty startling thing considering the inaugural address ended about 20 minutes ago.  Bold strokes.  That's the only way all of this is going to work.

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Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna face off in "Rudo y Cursi"
Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna face off in "Rudo y Cursi"
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Sundance 2009: Diego Luna And Gael Garcial Bernal Reunite In 'Rudo Y Cursi'

Will This Mexican Box-Office Sensation Play As Well Internationally?

When I first saw Alfonso Cuaron's wonderful "Y Tu Mama Tambien," it seemed like a fairly radical decision for him to step out of the Hollywood system where he'd already made "A Little Princess" and "Great Expectations" to go back to low-budget Spanish-language Mexican filmmaking.  I know many people who saw it then as a sign of surrender, like the system had beaten him, run him out of town.  Nonsense, of course, and "Y Tu Mama Tambien" turned out to be an early harbinger, along with "Amores Perros," of a revitalized Mexican film industry.  That "nueva ola" obviously encompasses the work of Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Innaritu as well, and as we've heard more about the remarkable sense of community that exists between these talented artists, it makes sense that a joint production company would eventually exist.

The first production by Cha Cha Cha is already in theaters in Mexico, where it's been a huge hit.  Little wonder.  "Rudo y Cursi," which marks the directorial debut of Carlos Cuaron, is a deeply felt and frequently hilarious look at the dynamics of brotherood and the wicked gallows humor of fate.  Reuniting Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal for the first time since "Y Tu Mama Tambien" is a commercial masterstroke, but it pays off in huge creative dividends as well.  The two play brothers living in a tiny (fictional) Mexican town, where Rudo (Luna ) is the foreman at a banana plantation while Tato (Bernal) works under his brother, dreaming of a career as a singing star.

And, of course, the one real respite for the two of them is football.  Or soccer, if you only speak American.  Rudo's the goaltender, and Tato's a shooter.  Both of them are fairly great players.  One afternoon, a dude in a sports car who introduces himself as "Baton" (Guillermo Francella) breaks down on the road, and as they're walking to a soccer game, Rudo and Tato walk by.  He asks for some help, and they take him and his ruined tire into town with them.  As the mechanic works on the tire, Baton watches them play.  He reveals to them that he's a scout for football talent, and he's got room for one of them to go with him to Mexico City for a chance at a spot on a professional team.  They agree to decide it in the most logical way possible:  a shoot-off.

Everything that unfolds afterwards comes down to Tato's interpretation of which way is right, both literally and figuratively.  And it's a great, funny, occasionally painful ride for both of them.  The title doesn't really speak to American audiences, but I think it's pretty great.  Spanish slang fascinates me, since I live in a primarily Spanish-speaking household, although I sort of remain a bit of a pelotudo. One word can have so many interpretations, so many degrees of emotion and intensity.  My favorite word in heavy rotation in the house is beludo, and I love how it can be harsh or affectionate or silly or furious.  "Rudo" means rude or rough, and that's exactly what Diego Luna's problem is in the film.  He's a combination of bad luck and no self control, chasing a high at the expense of his own family.  Since gambling is his drug, the potential for damage is enormous, and all that can stop Rudo from burning down his whole family for his habit is Rudo, and he may not be capable of it.  "Cursi," on the other hand, is a more elastic word, meaning cute or sweet, but with an emphasis on the feminine.  It's a nickname Tato hates as soon as it's given to him by the media.  As his fame grows as a football player, his childlike charm is what earns him the name, as well as his singing and dancing.  Tato's a very pure soul, and he breezes through life in a way that Rudo just can't.  When he ends up dating Maya (Jessica Mas), a preposterously sexy model from TV, Tato is convinced he's got everything he could ever want.

The way the fortunes of the brothers constantly reverse and switch and the way they're interconnected... that's the heart of the film, and it's fiendishly clever the way the entire film revolves around these legendary skills they both have as footballers, but you never really see either of them play.  It's not a sports film, so Cuaron simply hints at the sports, mentions things in passing.  This is a relationship comedy, and as such, it really delivers.  I think there's a chance this film could play to a larger crossover audience, and I hope SPC makes full use of the stars and the producers in promoting the movie in the US and abroad.  It's a charmer, and Carlos Cuaron's obvious talent shines through here.  I'm willing to bet this is the start of a much larger career for him, finally out from under the shadow of his own brother, giving "Rudo y Cursi" a very happy ending indeed.

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Sundance 2009: Three Days To Go

Mid-afternoon, and in a rare moment where I don't have to be somewhere else, I'm actually in my own room during daylight hours with a few minutes to write before I have to leave for the next film.  I have to say, overall, this is an enjoyable, solid line-up of films I've seen since I've been here.  I'm done writing some reviews in my notebook I'm carrying around, and tonight I'll be able to finally type them up and post them, but by the time I'm home from my last screening this evening, I'll have seen 17 films total.  Not great.  Not bad.  I can still maybe hit 30 for the whole time I'm here if I'm really aggressive about it.

There are films that I really wanted to see that I'm less interested in now that I'm here ("When You're Strange," for example), films I've wanted to see but can't seem to work out timing-wise ("World's Greatest Dad"), and films that I'm dying to see that I really wasn't thinking about before I hit down ("The Cove" seems to be hugely popular).  Seems to always work this way.  And I've seen some themes emerging, like autism ("Boy Interrupted" and "Mary and Max") or women who don't believe in love ("Paper Heart" and "500 Days Of Summer") or even cloning ("Moon" and "The Clone Returns Home").  I'm sure that's by design, but it's always fun to realize what these echoes are as you're making your way through your schedule.

It really struck me the other day as I was walking through the fast-moving ticket-holder's line outside the Eccles that this is all just Disneyland for movie nerds.  Having spent so much of my formative era in childhood at the Florida park, that's exactly what Sundance feels like to me.  Some good rides.  Some bad rides.  But you're always running from place to place, hoping to get on Space Mountain.

The films I've seen but haven't reviewed yet are "Humpday," "Rudo y Cursi," "Brooklyn's Finest," "Spring Breakdown," "The September Issue," "Treevenge," "Dead Snow," "The Carter," "Paper Heart," "500 Days Of Summer," and this morning's film, "Big Fan."  I'm on my way out for "Adventureland" and "Bronson" tonight, and maybe "The Clone Returns Home" if I time it right.

Tomorrow, there's an event at the Eccles that will either turn out to be a really groovy surprise if the rumors are right or a really interesting conversational panel that will nonetheless disappoint most of the people there if the rumors are wrong.  I'll be there to report on it either way.

And I've still got Wednesday and Thursday after that.  So Sundance isn't over yet, definitely... it's just that we've sort of turned the corner, and I can already see a lot of people disengaging.  I still have too much to see, too much to write, and I want to make sure to share my interview with the team behind "Paper Heart" with you tonight as well.  Good folks.  Good film.  We'll get into it then.

 

 

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Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey in "I Love You, Phillip Morris."
Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey in "I Love You, Phillip Morris."
Credit: Europa Corp./Mad Chance

Sundance 2009: Jim Carrey And Ewan McGregor Get Close In 'Philip Morris'

The question is, will audiences love them as well?

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are probably best known as the writers of "Bad Santa," Terry Zwigoff's scabrous Christmas comedy with Billy Bob Thornton.  That process was legendarily contentious during the post-production process, and Zwigoff's cut of the film was dicked around with by Dimension Films to a degree that would have killed most writers from frustration.  Little wonder that they would eventually make the jump to directing their own material so that, maybe, they can fight for their work directly instead of having to watch someone else mangle it, even if the intentions were good. 

Their script for this film, adapted from a non-fiction book by Steve McVicker, is a delight, clever and funny and emotionally open, and it gives both Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor rol es that allow them to do some of the best work they've done in a quite a while.  For Carrey, it's the best thing he's done since "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," and McGregor works so infrequently that it's nice to see him show up in something where he's given such an appealing role to play.  If "I Love You, Phillip Morris" is a romantic comedy, then Ewan McGregor's the one playing the objet d'amor, and it's a reminder of just how charismatic and charming he can be.

The film's a hard one to describe.  The plot details people told me before I saw it are actually a very small part of the film overall, mainly from the second half, and just listing a few beats doesn't really explain the film as a whole.  It's the story of Steven Russell, played by Carrey, a guy with a knack for making people trust him.  We see Steven's childhood, where he learned he was adopted, setting some very strong impulses into play for Steven.  He dedicates himself to living a certain idea of a "good" life, becoming active in his church and marrying a beautiful woman (Leslie Mann) and working hard as a police officer to provide for his family.  But Steven has secrets, and when a car accident nearly kills him, he completely reprioritizes, coming out of the closet, leaving his family, and moving to Miami to live with his new lover, played by Rodrigo Santoro.  He swears he's done living with secrets, but just because he's open about his sexuality doesn't mean he's telling the truth about who he is.  He's a con man, a manipulator, and he keeps getting himself into trouble until he eventually is thrown into jail.  Which is where he finally meets Phillip Morris (McGregor), who Steven immediately identifies as the love of his life.

The film never follows what I would call a traditional dramatic arc.  It's got crazy twists and turns in it, but the film's a really approachable dark comedy, considering how much gay sex and bad behavior is on display.  Ficarra and Requa never shy away from anything about Steven, and what really makes the film work is that they never judge or mock him, either.  This is a character study, not a condemnation, and although Steven's behavior is sociopathic at times and incredibly damaging to the people around him, he's not presented as either a bad guy or a hero.  He's just a guy in love, a guy who is unhappy with his childho od, a guy with unresolved issues.  The film plays some games with your sympathies, and there's one narrative trick in particular that I expect will infuriate some people, especially if they have a real emotional reaction to it.  That's what I loved, though... as well-directed as the film is (and they do make a strong debut, with a simple, clean visual approach and a great touch with actors in general), it's a writer's movie.  There are a thousand ways this story could have been intolerable, and yet these guys found the one way it really works, just the right tone and sensibility.  Their own fascination with the story kept them from turning it into some sort of morality play or playing the characters as broad grotesques.

Underneath all of Steven's insane behavior, there is a very simple desire for connection, for belonging.  His adoption obviously weighs heavily on him ("I WAS A MIDDLE CHILD!" he wails angrily when he finally meets his birth mother), and he suffers a fairly destructive loss as an adult as well.  By the time he meets Phillip, he is desperate.  He needs to give this nearly overwhelming love he has to someone, and Phillip seems made to order.  It's quietly hilarious the way McGregor has the "girl" role here, slightly underwritten, always shot as eye candy, there more as a reflection of Steven's desire than as a fully realized character.  It's especially funny if you happen to see a more standard-issue romantic comedy like "500 Days Of Summer" right before it.  Zooey Deschanel isn't a person in that film... she's an idea being chased, and the same is true of McGregor here.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing... it's just the way these films tend to work, and it's uncommon for an actor like McGregor to be the one playing the part.  He does it well, and they've worked hard to make him as good-looking as he can be, all sunshine and perfect hair, his smile always on full wattage.  He plays Phillip fragile, a guy who needs someone like Steven, someone eager to please.  They fit.  Their love makes sense, no matter how outrageous some elements of it are.

Carrey is always at his best when a director figures out how to harness that manic sad clown quality and make it simultaneously scary and angry and lonely and funny, and this is one of those roles.  I think he's always presented himself offscreen as someone who almost depends on his job as a way to escape the reality of who he is, and he brings that personal understanding to how he plays Steven.

I'm not up here predicting what will or won't sell, but I can tell you that I personally enjoyed this one a lot, and I think there's an audience for it.  It's an engaging ride, and there's a real tenderness underneath the sort of crazy con-man raunch of much of it.  It's not my favorite film that I've seen here so far, but it's a film that I think will sit well with me from now until I get to see it again, whenever that is.  I hope it's sooner, rather than later.

 

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Sam Rockwell in "Moon"
Sam Rockwell in "Moon"

Sundance 2009: "Moon"

Sam Rockwell stars in an ambitious indie Sci-Fi debut from director Duncan Jones

I seem to be in a bit of a minority when it comes to "Moon" here at the festival, but I'm willing to bet that if the film does get a general release (and I'm hearing Sony Pictures Classics picked it up), I won't be in the minority anymore.  "Moon" is a first feature from Duncan Jones, a commercial director from the UK who also happens to be the son of David Bowie.  There's an odd synchronicity to the idea that Bowie's first success was the 1969 single, "Space Oddity," and now, 40 years later, his son makes his directorial debut with a film that very well could have carried the same title.

Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, employed for a three-year contract as the caretaker of a lunar station responsible for the mining and export of an element called Helium-3, a fuel source that has helped transform Earth as we see in a commercial at the start of the movie.  There's so little to do, since most of the station's work is automated, that they only ever send up one person at a time, and for the last three years, Sam Bell's been it, the one guy.  He pines for his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and his baby daughter Eve, and he's counting down the days until he can go home.  His isolation's been made even worse by a faulty satellite relay that won't let him speak in real time to anyone on Earth, meaning all his messages from home are on tape delay.  Watching his baby grow up on a video screen and missing his wife intensely, he's slowly starting to be eaten alive by the loneliness, so much so that he has become attached to Gerty, the base's computer/robotic arm system, which is voiced by Kevin Spacey in a fitting bit of casting.  Spacey always sounds like an artificial intelligence annoyed by all the imperfect meat he's forced to share the world with, anyway.

But Sam's fragile hold on reality is starting to slip more aggressively now, and as hallucinations and odd memories become more frequent, he finds himself distracted from the work at hand, and he has an accident in one of the surface rovers that leaves him grievously injured.  When he wakes up from the accident, back in the infirmary, things get much stranger very quickly, and Sam finds himself wondering if he's lost his mind completely or if maybe, just maybe, nothing about his time on the moon is what he believes it to be.

I'll say this for the film... it's real science-fiction in a way that very few films are.  For the most part, what we call "SF" on film is actually action movies dressed up with sci-fi trappings or horror movies or even just outright fantasy.  "Moon," though, jumps off from a hard science premise, and it posits an ethical rabbit hole that we may well vanish down one day if certain technologies are ever perfected.  The film gives Rockwell the chance to play multiple roles, and he rises to the occasion with the sort of arresting, eccentric choices that have always marked his best work.  Duncan Jones proves to have a confident eye as a filmmaker, and his technical command even on a limited budget like this is impressive.  He creates a persuasive environment for Sam to live and work in, and there are some invisible effects that are used to give us several Rockwells onscreen at once that are baffling at times, even if you account for the use of a photo double.

But the script by Nathan Parker, from a story by Jones, just isn't very good.  It's a series of unexplored opportunities, loose threads that never quite cohere.  Characters do things because the story needs them to, not because of any internal logic, and there are things that the script introduces that are simply abandoned for no reason.  Even when the big reveals of the film take place, it's all played muted, and there are only a few moments where someone behaves in a way I genuinely believe based on what we're seeing.  And the ending is rushed, culminating in a lousy piece of voice-over exposition wrapping it all up over a shot that would have worked much better without any dialogue at all. 

I don't think it's a bad film, but I think the weak script keeps it from being a great film.  More than anything, it's a case of someone's ambition and technique proving to be more impressive than the actual end result, and I find myself curious to see what Jones does next.  "Moon" should end up as a decent calling card for this director, as well as a reminder of just how interesting Rockwell can be in the right roles, but it's a cult item at best, and it may leave many viewers frustrated.

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