2000 TIFF Festival Daily Update #4: "Send In the Clowns"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 10, 2000

It's said that laughter is the best medicine, but film festivals aren't always the ideal place to quaff a hearty dose. That's because about 90% of the features on display tend to be serious with a capital "S". However, for those who are willing to look hard enough, movies can be found to tickle the funny bone. In a short span of 24 hours, I saw two motion pictures that had me laughing as hard or harder than the two funniest mainstream features of the year (for the record, those are, in my book, Scary Movie and The Original Kings of Comedy).

The first didn't come as a surprise. It's Christopher Guest's Best In Show. Arguably the King of the Mockumentary, Guest goes that route again with his latest endeavor, using the familiar format of This Is Spinal Tap (which he co-wrote) and Waiting For Guffman (which he both wrote and directed) and applying it to the unlikely subject of dog shows. As with Guffman, Guest's satire is pointed and occasionally hilarious, but it is not mean-spirited. The film is a parody, but it displays knowledge and understanding of the subject it is satirizing, and it never takes cheap shots. All of the humor comes from slightly exaggerating (and, in some cases, not exaggerating at all) certain aspects of human (or dog) behavior, then putting them under the microscope for all to see.

The story is simple, as befits a movie of this sort. By using "interviews" and manufactured documentary-style footage, Best In Show follows the travels of several groups as they converge upon Philadelphia (where they make the cream cheese) for the Mayflower Kennel Club's annual dog show. There are Hamilton and Meg Swan (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey), a yuppie couple who met at a Starbucks and share a love of J. Crew and L.L. Bean catalogues; Gerry and Cookie Fleck (SCTV vets Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), a mild-mannered businessman and his wife, whose "loose" reputation precedes her; gay couple Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean), who pamper their dog incessantly; Pinenut, North Carolina native Harlan Pepper (Guest), who runs a shop called The Fishin' Hole and hits the road in his RV with his bloodhound; and Sherri Ann Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), who shares a love of soup and snow peas with her rich, old husband, and is carrying on a lesbian affair with the handler of her dog.

The screenplay for Best In Show is funny in ways that are both subtle and overt. It's hard to imagine anyone sitting through this movie and not laughing on a fairly consistent basis. Although Guest and Eugene Levy share the official SAG writing credits, it's clear that the film is an ensemble effort, with a fair amount of improvisation being used. Guest is working with a number of familiar actors - more than half the cast was in Guffman, so they're familiar with the director and each other. Posey, Levy, and O'Hara in particular stand out, each offering performances that are highlights of comic focus. Then there's the incomparable Fred Willard, who is in top form as the TV commentator for the dog show. Throwing out one-liners left and right, Willard takes an already funny movie and elevates it to the next level.

As in all of Guest's films, we come to care about the characters - perhaps not to the same degree that we might in a well-constructed melodrama or tearjerker, but, during the short span of 90 minutes, they become surprisingly real. And, while there's not a lot of tension surrounding the question of who eventually wins the "Best In Show" competition, Guest keeps us guessing, and rewards us with an unexpected twist or two. It's not great drama, but it keeps the story from dissolving into a series of loosely-connected comedy sketches. Best In Show will be released next month across North America by Warner Brothers. If you are in need of a good laugh, this may be your best bet for the fall.

The second movie at this year's festival to truly tickle my funny bone is Kevin Lonergan's feature debut, You Can Count On Me. Although the film has officially been classified as a drama by whatever powers make that distinction, the movie is actually more noteworthy for its comic sensibility than for its dramatic structure. Lonergan is no stranger to comedy - he wrote the screenplay for this year's The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and co-wrote Analyze This. Along with Girlfight, You Can Count On Me took top honors in the 2000 Sundance dramatic competition, and Lonergan walked off with the Best Screenwriting award. With its sharp character development, compelling storyline, and smart dialogue, it's not hard to understand why. Girlfight is the better film, but, during a weak year in Park City, You Can Count On Me deserved some sort of recognition. (It parlayed the Sundance win into a distribution deal with Paramount Classics and a "Special Presentation" slot here in Toronto.)

You Can Count On Me is one of those simple family dramas that turns out not to be so simple. The film opens with a short sequence in 1982 that shows two young children attending the funeral of their parents, who were killed in a car accident. Fast forward 18 years. Sammy (Laura Linney) is now a single mother, trying to cope with raising a precocious 8-year old, Rudy (Rory Culkin), and holding down her job at the local bank. Brian (Matthew Broderick), the new manager, has come aboard with Gestapo-like tactics that are driving Sammy crazy. (At one point, after declaring that each employee shall fill out a time sheet every day and being reminded that such a procedure will generate a lot of paper work, he states, "I like paper work," which pretty much sums up his personality.) Out of the blue, Sammy's brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo), decides to visit his sister. She is overjoyed, but he has an ulterior motive for coming home - he needs money. And his arrival in the small upstate New York town where he grew up causes a few minor waves.

In terms of broad plot, You Can Count On Me doesn't offer much that's new. The film uses some fairly standard building blocks: the brother/sister angle, the single mother struggling to raise a child on her own, and the contentious at-work relationship between two people who are attracted to and repelled by one another. However, instead of relying exclusively on formulas, Lonergan gives his characters and their circumstances some room to breathe. He is also a talented screenwriter. The dialogue in this film is not written for a least-common-denominator audience, and there's plenty of humor (some of it laugh-aloud funny) peppered in between the more dramatic episodes. Lonergan also brings religion into the mix in a way that is not condescending or preachy - a difficult thing for any filmmaker to accomplish.

The cast does a superlative job. Laura Linney, who almost certainly deserves to be better known than she is, portrays Sammy with an appealing mixture of strength and vulnerability. Confident, believable female characters are at something of a premium in movie theaters these days, and Linney imbues Sammy with traits that make her worth spending a couple of hours with. Mark Ruffalo finds the right balance between self-interest and selflessness, and Matthew Broderick re-creates virtually the same persona he brought to the screen in Election, affirming once again that Ferris Bueller has grown up. Finally, the latest of the Culkin clan to start a career in acting, Rory, is almost a dead ringer for Macaulay in Home Alone, although his role here has a little more depth and a few less smart alecky one-liners.

On the whole, You Can Count On Me is a pleasant motion picture, offering a solid evening's worth of entertainment. The film probably wouldn't have suffered had a few minutes been trimmed from the running length - the final cut seems a little protracted. As far as dramatic comedies (or comedic dramas) go, this one offers everything one might expect from a successful entry into the genre, delivering laughs and some genuinely moving instances of character interaction. It won't score big when it reaches multiplexes, but most of those who plunk down a few dollars to see it will walk away pleased.

Another movie to deliver an occasional laugh is the latest from Icelandic filmmaker Frederick Thor Fridriksson (Movie Days, Cold Fever). Called Angels of the Universe, Fridriksson's movie enters the often-uncertain realm of dramatizing mental illness. Fridriksson calls the movie a comedy, at least in part, but the humor is often dark and is brought in as a means of comic relief. The story is so intense that some means of release is necessary, and what better outlet than laughter? Although, as if often the case with movies like this, many of the chuckles are far from hearty and there's often a nervous edge to them. From the beginning, we suspect that all is not going to turn out well.

During the post-screening Q&A, Fridriksson admitted that this was a film he knew he was destined to make, but which he had been putting off because he was so close to the situation. The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Fridriksson's best friend, Einar Mar Gudmundsson, and is the true story of Gudmundsson's brother. As a result, Fridriksson felt compelled to do the story justice. He didn't merely want to be doing an Icelandic version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; he intended to bring something new, both in perception and approach, to the genre.

Part of that was achieved by personalizing the story. We get closer to Angels of the Universe's main character, Paul (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson), than we do to anyone in the whole of Cuckoo's Nest. At times, we see and hear things from his perspective (Fridriksson does some eerie things with the soundtrack to give us the sense of hearing through the ears of an insane man). When we first meet Paul, he seems like a normal person with normal problems - for example, his girlfriend has decided to dump him because he doesn't meet her family's standards of what her future husband should be. Soon, however, Paul's behavior becomes inexplicable and erratic, and he is committed to an asylum with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Over the next several years, Paul is in and out of the hospital. On the inside, we see him interact with other patients - one who thinks Hitler is a great guy and another who believes he wrote all of the Beatles' songs - and on the outside, we see him try to live a normal life, although, as one friend points out, the world's madness is not confined to within the walls of a madhouse.

Most movies of this sort focus on the relationships between patients, doctors, nurses, and orderlies within the hospital. Fridriksson breaks the mold by allowing much of the action to transpire beyond the walls of the asylum (when the characters have escaped or have been allowed to leave). This gives us an opportunity to see the interaction between "normal" individuals and "insane" ones. In truth, there are times when it's difficult to tell the difference. With Angels of the Universe, Fridriksson has created an intense and disturbing motion picture - one that lingers in the mind even in the midst of a film festival, when cinematic images sometimes last no longer than the opening credits of the next feature. In addition to this being the director's most personal work, it is one of his most accomplished efforts. Whether or not it will pique the interest of a North American distributor remains to be seen. Films of this sort - those that deal with mental illness as a "sickness" (rather than a personality quirk) and don't offer easy answers - are difficult to sell, so it's unclear whether Angels of the Universe will receive attention beyond the film festival circuit.

Finally, there's a small Swedish film called Swedish Beauty that offers a few gentle laughs amidst a story that contains many truths about maturing, growing older, and the differences between the two. Like You Can Count On Me and Anglels of the Universe, this film does a good job of interweaving comedy and drama. Director Daniel Fridell clearly intends to tell a serious story, but understands that there are times when injections of humor and whimsy are the best ways to keep the barriers to audience enjoyment down.

One of the things I appreciated about this film is its unpredictability. Every time it seems to be falling into the comfortable rhythms of a formula, it does something unexpected. I doubt that many American films would have the courage to do some of the things that Swedish Beauty does. The movie also explores male adolescent sexuality in a refreshingly frank manner. There's no coyness involved here. The narrator begins the movie by remarking that "the only thing boys think about is nudity." Sports, games, and movies all represent diversions (or, in the case of movies, a chance to see naked women on screen). One of the reasons foreign films were once popular was because they contained scenes with unclothed women. And how many people really buy Playboy just for the articles?

Anders (Francisco Jacob) and Borje (Victor Kallander) are two 15 year-old boys living in a small village in Sweden. Of the two, Borje is the more aggressive, forever scheming to see naked women and openly masturbating in front of his friend. Anders, who is more sensitive (albeit no less curious), is basically along for the ride. The long, lazy summer takes a turn for the better with the arrival of teenage beauty Sofia (Jenny Ulving, looking a lot like a younger Charlize Theron). Both boys are bewitched and hatch a scheme by which they will be able to see Sofia naked - they'll make a movie, cast her as the lead, and include a scene where she will swim in a river without a suit. Sofia sees through their motives, but, once she believes that Anders is serious about making the film, she agrees to star. What follows is an exploration of love, sex, and how one boy's obsession about seeing nude women turns into a fascination for filmmaking.

Swedish Beauty is a gentle and touching film that expands beyond the boundaries that the initial premise suggests. Director Fridell should be given credit for developing two well-rounded characters (Anders and Sofia) and for allowing real-life complications to drive their relationship. Although the film sometimes seems divorced from reality (especially in the way Anders' amateurish movie is greeted with such warmth and praise), it has more substance than a fairy tale, and there are dark implications to some of the events that transpire. Anders has difficulty separating love from lust, and therein lies the area where he receives the most rude awakening. Yet Fridell does not dwell on the bleak aspects of his film. After showing glimpses of the darkness, he always returns to the light. It's too early to say whether Swedish Beauty will receive any sort of North American distribution, but I doubt it. Maybe the title, so close to this year's Best Picture Oscar winner, will give it a little help.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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