2000 TIFF Festival Daily Update #9: "Dreaming and Dancing"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 15, 2000

In every film festival, there seems to be one film that kicks you in the stomach and leaves your head reeling. Last year in Toronto, it was The War Zone. This year, it's Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, one of the most forceful anti-drug motion pictures to come along in a great while. To call this movie a cautionary tale would be to apply a label that is too tame -- Requiem for a Dream presents the darkest, most gut-wrenching take imaginable on a story of hopes and dreams shattered by drug addiction.

As he proved with his art house success, Pi, Aronofsky is not afraid to take chances, and Requiem for a Dream represents a big one. Based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr., this movie was granted the MPAA's NC-17 "kiss of death". Undaunted, Aronofsky appealed the rating, claiming that cutting any portion of the film would destroy its message. The appeal was denied and Artisan decided to release the film unrated.

Every actor with a major role in this film - Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto, and Marlan Wayans - should be commended not only for the strength of their performances but for the courage they exhibited in putting themselves on the line the way Aronofsky required. Each of them is shown in a state of physical degradation that definitely does not present them in the most attractive light. (Connelly especially goes all out, appearing fully nude in a shot and participating in a lesbian orgy scene.)

The movie starts slowly, introducing each of the characters and establishing their relationships. The central figure is Harry (Jared Leto), a young man who lives hand-to-mouth because nearly every cent he saves, earns, or steals goes towards buying something he can inject into his veins. His best friend and business partner is Tyrone (Marlon Wayans, playing it straight and doing so effectively), who shares many of Harry's aspirations. His girlfriend is Marion (Connelly), who, like Harry and Tyrone, is an addict. The fourth significant player is Harry's widowed mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), who is as addicted to television as Harry is to drugs. When she learns that a marketing company may be able to offer her a spot in the studio audience of a live TV broadcast, she decides to lose weight. Following a visit to the doctor's, she is on her way to dropping 30 pounds and becoming hooked on the uppers and downers that comprise her diet.

Everyone in this film has their own dreams. For Harry and Tyrone, it's to be able to make one big score and build a financial nest egg. For Marion, it's to start her own dress business and live with Harry. And for Sara, it's to appear on her favorite TV show and to be proud of her son. As the movie opens, each of these dreams can be realized. By the end, they are nebulous and unfulfillable. Requiem for a Dream is a bleak motion picture that offers little in the way of relief as it depicts the devastating consequences of addiction and the unwillingness of addicts to seek help. Like Trainspotting, it offers an uncompromising portrait of the effects of drugs on the mind and body. Unlike the British film, there is little in the way of grim humor to offer comic relief.

Requiem for a Dream certainly isn't the first recent motion picture to offer an unpleasant picture of what happens when an individual becomes hooked on drugs, but its quadruple portrait is unsparing and devastating. This is in large part because of the brilliant final fifteen minutes, which is a tour de force of direction and editing. Employing hundreds of cuts, Aronofsky careens back and forth between his four main players, showing their increasingly dire circumstances and allowing those to escalate to a brutal climax. This is easily the most startling and memorable extended sequence in any film this year, and, for raw power, it exceeds any scene I can recall from other films about addiction. Requiem for a Dream is headed for theaters soon, and, for those who can stomach this kind of difficult material, it is not to be missed.

After sitting through an experience like Requiem for a Dream, it was necessary to see something significantly lighter, and my choice was an ensemble British romantic comedy called Born Romantic. Light, frothy, and likable, this film arrived at the Toronto Film Festival "with the print still damp." It doesn't yet have a North American distributor, but discussions are underway, and, based on the favorable audience reaction, a deal should be closed soon (although the film likely won't show up in U.S. theaters until some time next year).

Born Romantic is from theater and TV director David Kane (who has made motion pictures before, none of which have been released on this continent). He has gathered a reasonably high profile cast for this project, including such notable names as Craig Ferguson (who suddenly seems to be everywhere), Ian Hart, Jane Horrocks, Adrian Lester, Catherine McCormack, Olivia Williams, Jimi Mistry, and David Morrissey. Born Romantic essentially tells three loosely connected romantic stories set against the backdrop of a salsa club that is visited by all of the principals.

Fergus (Morrissey) is an ex-musician who is scouring London for his One True Love (Jane Horrocks), a woman he jilted eight years ago. Eddie (Mystry), an inept thief, unexpectedly falls for shy Jocelyn (McCormack), who has a fetish for morbidity. And Frankie (Ferguson) is hot for the aloof Eleanor (Williams), who seems to have no interest in him whatsoever. In the background are a group of cab divers who act almost like a Greek chorus, offering differing opinions on such diverse subjects as life, love, and blowjobs.

Kane keeps things moving, and it doesn't hurt that there's a great deal of lively salsa music to elevate the energy level. All of the characters are likable; it's virtually impossible not to wish for them to hook up with their soul mates. The screenplay is a shade smarter than that of the average romantic comedy, and there are plenty of funny lines and scenes. And, unlike in many British films, Kane doesn't seek any dark tangents for his characters to explore. This is a straightforward film - enjoyable and fresh, but not terribly deep.

There's more dancing to be found in Michael Radford's Dancing at the Blue Iguana -- alas, the moves in this film are far less accomplished than they are in Kane's feature. It's a little surprising and sad, considering that Radford opened hearts and tear ducts with his beautiful Il Postino, one of the best-received foreign films in recent memory. Dancing at the Blue Iguana more closely resembles a Cinemax Friday Night After Dark movie than something from a respected British director. Movies about strip clubs often turn into soap operas with plenty of T&A - and, despite its artistic pedigree, Dancing at the Blue Iguana is no exception. This ain't no Exotica (despite an appearance by actor Elias Koteas, one of the leads in Egoyan's masterpiece).

When introducing the film, Radford talked a little about how it was made, and the production history probably goes a long way towards elucidating why the final result is so lackluster. Dancing at the Blue Iguana began life as an experimental improvisation, with all of the actors developing their characters and scenes on their own during a five week rehearsal period. After that, Radford took pen to paper, tied the storylines together, then started filming. 23 days later, he had his movie - a cliched and confusing affair that routinely drops plot threads and characters without explanation on its way to a trite conclusion. This is the sort of innovative process that might have worked with accomplished actors, but not with the likes of Daryl Hannah and Jennifer Tilly.

Dancing at the Blue Iguana, which runs a too-long two hours, has four major characters (there are other individuals who float into and out of the picture, but, to be frank, I couldn't figure out what most of them were doing). There's Angel (Hannah), a vacuous dancer who wants to adopt a child but is being stymied because of her lifestyle. Jasmine (Sandra Oh) hides the heart of a poet beneath the hardbody exterior of a stripper. Jo (Tilly) has hostility issues that are exacerbated when she becomes pregnant. And Jessie (Charlotte Ayanna), the newcomer at the club, is the victim of an abusive boyfriend. There's also something really bizarre involving a Russian hit man, but to call this aspect of the film underdeveloped is an understatement.

Dancing at the Blue Iguana is engaging in the same way that all T&A movies are engaging - as eye candy. Those with a craving to see the breasts of Hannah, Tilly, Oh, and Ayanna won't have anything to complain about. On the other hand, anyone in search of a compelling story will. The "script" is pure drivel, with little character development or coherence. This, I suppose, is what happens when a director allows his actors to put together a movie - it's sort of like letting the inmates run the asylum. To be fair, there are a few nice performances, particularly those by Oh, Ayanna, and Kristen Bauer as a porn star. Tilly is engagingly over-the-top, and Hannah's role as a ditz seems well-cast. Overall, however, Dancing at the Blue Iguana is a little too slow to allow it to be embraced in the classically "so bad it's good" vein, although there is some campy fun to be had. Oh well, at least it's more honest than Coyote Ugly and more watchable than Showgirls -- not that such comparisons should be considered complimentary.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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