2001 Sundance Film Festival Update #3: "A Funny Thing Happened Half-Way Through the Movie"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 22, 2001

All I wanted after an unpleasant day on planes and in airports was a nice evening with a couple of entertaining, provocative films - you know, the kind you're supposed to get at a film festival like Sundance. Then reality set it. In divergent ways, both movies I saw during the same evening ran into problems half-way through. In one case, it wasn't the director's fault, but it's questionable whether that's going to mean anything when festival-goers are filling out their ballots and voting for the 2001 Audience Award.

The opening night feature for the 2001 Sundance Film Festival was Christine Lahti's My First Mister, and the reaction to this picture seems to be unanimous across the board: great first hour, then it all comes crashing down. It's as if the screenwriter and director both resigned a little beyond the midpoint, and people without a clue were brought in to wrap things up. Rarely have a seen a motion picture with such a promising start finish so badly. 60 minutes into My First Mister, I was thoroughly engrossed. A half-hour later, I desperately wanted the whole mess to end - immediately, if not sooner.

LeeLee Sobieski and Albert Brooks play the participants in what develops into a March/August romance. They are (of course) polar opposites. Brooks' Randall, the owner of a men's clothing store, is an anal, regimented individual who keeps his feelings locked up tighter than a strong box. Sobieski's Jennifer, who starts work at the store on a trial basis, is a fairly typical Goth. Her face is adorned with piercings, her untamed mane of hair is a mixture of purple and black, and her garb is appropriate for a funeral. In fact, she spends a good portion of her spare time brooding and writing different versions of her own eulogy. She also lacks a sexual identity, saying, "I don't think of myself as a teenage girl or a woman - I'm just the opposite of a boy."

Randall and Jennifer's relationship, which starts out as a contentious one between an employee and her boss, develops into a sweet friendship, then a bit more. The actors are wonderful in these roles, treating their characters with the dignity they deserve, but the script isn't as kind. Just as things are starting to get interesting, with a low-key sexual tension and feelings of romantic love intruding into the mix, melodramatic plot twists and bizarre tangents take the movie way off track. Suddenly, My First Mister is less about the characters and their relationship than about subplots and supporting players. And, once it starts down this unpromising road, the movie never recovers. Sobieski and Brooks are still around, but their performances become muted and the easygoing humor that marks the first half of the movie takes on a strange and unnatural feel.

Ultimately, Lahti and her screenwriter, Jill Franklyn, deserve the blame. They take the audience to the brink of where the characters are forced to confront some difficult issues, then cheat us by shying away from them. It doesn't matter whether or not Randall and Jennifer consummate a sexual relationship, but, by never dealing with this situation in a convincing or straightforward way, My First Mister comes across as a tease. Another thing that doesn't work in the film are Jennifer's relationships with her mother (played by Carol Kane), stepfather (Michael McKean), and father (John Goodman). These individuals are initially represented as caricatures, so later attempts to position them as key elements of an emotional catharsis for Jennifer simply don't work. The payoff fails, like most of the film's second half.

My First Mister certainly isn't a complete disaster, but, considering the film's status as the Opening Night Feature, it is a disappointment. Had the film's latter portions proceeded along the arc begun by the endearing first hour, this might have been a movie worth lauding, but, given the entire package as it actually exists, the only thing worthy of consistent praise are the performances of the leads. For her next directorial effort, Lahti needs to make sure that she has a complete script in place, rather than something that fails to deliver after a strong start.

Donnie Darko, the debut feature from writer/director Richard Kelly, was a significant improvement over My First Mister, but the second public screening of the film did not pass without a significant hiccup. Roughly halfway through the two-hour film, as the movie switched from the third to the fourth reel, the worst nightmare of any director occurred. Suddenly, everyone was moving backwards with herky-jerky motions. And, as if that wasn't a big enough clue that something wasn't right, the picture was upside down. As Kelly later confessed, it looked like something out of "Twin Peaks" (which is okay if that's the intention, which it wasn't). Now, technical difficulties occur in film festivals as well as during regular screenings, but the degree of ineptitude shown by the Sundance staffers in fixing the problem was inexcusable. Not only did it take nearly ten minutes (or about half the reel) for someone in the booth to shut off the projector, but it subsequently required nearly an hour to fix things. As a result, Donnie Darko turned into a two-part movie with a song-and-dance intermission.

During the unexpected break, Kelly came to the front of the theater and did an impromptu Q&A about the 50% of the film that had been shown. However, even the most talkative director can't fill up an hour, so, with help from one of the actors in the film and several members of the audience, we were soon treated to a musical revue, complete with breakdancing, rapping by Stu the Jew, and sounds from the mouth of Anuj the human beat box. To say that the experience was surreal is to understate things. The intermission also effectively broke the film's somewhat ominous and creepy mood. But I stayed around because the first half of Donnie Darko had aroused my interest. And, although hanging around in the theater until 1 am led to serious sleep deprivation, I'm I didn't depart.

Donnie Darko is part psychological thriller and part science fiction mystery. The title character (Jake Gyllenhaal), a teenager in his last year of high school, is suffering from all manner of delusions and hallucinations. He sees and does the bidding of a six-foot high rabbit wearing an insect mask, and, at times, appears completely dissociated form his surroundings. He is visiting a therapist and taking medication, but neither solution is working. Donnie is getting worse, but is it because he's descending deeper into a web of mental instability or because he's really seeing and experiencing these things? These are questions that the movie leaves unanswered until the end.

For much of the running length, Donnie Darko focuses more on Donnie's relationships with his sisters, parents, and girlfriend than on the science fiction aspects. This is meant to humanize a non-traditional protagonist and make him more "accessible" to viewers. It also allows the climax to have an emotional component (in addition to explaining the storyline's assorted, convoluted weirdnesses). Donnie Darko has a slow, methodical pace that allows the narrative to breathe; unfortunately, there are times when Kelly falls prey to the easy trap of self-indulgence. Selective edits would have made Donnie Darko tighter and more gripping, and, as a result, a better motion picture. As it is, there's a little too much redundancy in what's on screen. In addition, the highest-profile actress in the cast, Drew Barrymore, is playing a part deserving of less screen time - but, of course, since Barrymore is Donnie Darko's biggest selling point, her supporting character is featured more often than is necessarily good for the movie.

One aspect of Donnie Darko's production that's definitely worth mentioning is the special effects. The movie was made on the kind of low budget typically associated with independent films, yet the visual effects are first-rate (one in particular looks like it was lifted out of James Cameron's The Abyss). With the price for this kind of CGI work in a steady decline, it is now becoming possible for all directors - not just those working with $50 million-plus budgets - to employ convincing, and occasionally eye-popping special effects. Tools that were cutting edge a decade ago have now become commonplace. Donnie Darko proves that it's possible to do science fiction with visual effects in the independent film arena. This is just another area where the line between mainstream and indie movie-making has become increasingly blurred. Perhaps the only remaining difference is that smaller efforts like Donnie Darko use effects in service of an interesting story, while too many Hollywood productions think of the plot as a bothersome adjunct to their CGI eye candy.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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