2003 TIFF Update #7: "Full Frontal"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Sex sells. Everybody, including festival programmers, know that. So, while a film festival like Toronto is a good place to see edgy and/or intellectually stimulating motion pictures, it's also an excellent opportunities to see naked bodies. And, if you choose the right films, you can see lots of them. Some of the nudity comes in small, unheralded movies like Prosti, an export from the Phillipines that tells the sad story of an innocent young girl who enters a brothel. The film is dreadful, but there's plenty of nudity and simulated sex, so that kind of makes it bearable. However, there are numerous mainstream motion pictures to feature bare breasts and uncovered genitalia. I have previously mentioned two of these: The Human Stain (with a nude Nicole Kidman) and The Cooler (Maria Bello and William H. Macy without clothing). But there's an even more high-profile movie to talk about.

For those who wonder whether sex and/or nudity is a big draw at a film festival, consider the case of In the Cut, one of the hottest tickets of the week. For the most part, viewers were not attracted to the movie because of the subject matter or the "name" director, Jane Campion, but because the lead actress, Meg Ryan, displays just about every asset that God gave her. Ryan has gone on record that she accepted this role, with all of the nudity that accompanied it, because she was interested in completing the image transformation begun with Hurlyburly and continued in Proof of Life. One can hardly deny that the film is racy. We see Ryan's breasts and buns, observe her simulating intercourse, masturbation, and oral sex, and get to determine how closely her "serious" fake orgasms match her most famous one. If your reason for seeing In the Cut is to watch America's sweetheart stripped bare, you'll get what you're looking for. On the other hand, if you're looking for a good movie, this one will disappoint.

The dramatic failure of In the Cut illustrates two things: (1) that women are not necessarily more restrained than men when it comes to making this kind of formulaic production, and (2) that it's virtually impossible to make a compelling mystery/thriller as a movie. Whodunnits are fine for books and mini-series, but the time and crowd-pleasing constraits of a motion picture severly hamstring such a project (to the point where it's virtually unworkable). Not only is there a need to sensationalize, but the law of economy of characters comes into play, meaning that "surprise" revelations are usually either cheesy or predictable. Such is the case with In the Cut. I won't give away the ending, but I can say that it is profoundly unsatisfying because it demands a few too many coincidences, and, even granting that those could happen, it still doesn't make sense.

Ryan is Frannie, a mousy New York City teacher who is looking for sex, but is too shy to go out and get it. One day, she meets Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) while he's scouring the neighborhood looking for body parts from the latest victim of a serial killer. Malloy asks Frannie out on a date, and, after a little prompting from her half-sister Paulina (Jennifer Jason Leigh), she agrees. Things don't go well, and Frannie walks out of the bar before Malloy is ready to leave. On the way home, she is mugged, and this brings her once again into contact with the policeman. This time, the sparks between them cannot be denied, and they end up in bed together. But even as Frannie finds herself falling for Malloy, she begins to have doubts about him. Meanwhile, a mentally unhinged former lover (Kevin Bacon) is stalking her, and the serial killer has struck again.

This is certainly not Ryan's best peformance (from a dramatic perspective, that would be in either Flesh and Bone or Hurlyburly), although it is her most revealing. For the material, it's certainly adequate, although it lacks energy. Mark Ruffalo does a good job convincing us that his alter-ego is a self-centered jerk, although I'm not sure that's the intent. I think we're supposed to grudgingly like Malloy, but I never found him remotely affable. Kevin Bacon is amusing in a manic sort of way. And - surprise of surprises - Jennifer Jason Leigh (who has stripped numerous times in the past) keeps her clothes on (and arguably gives the best performance in the film).

One has to wonder why Campion would move forward with such a contrived, regurgitated script. In approach and style, if not in substance, it's very reminiscent of Basic Instinct. The main point here, as in the earlier film, is to use sex and violence to sell a motion picture that doesn't stand well on its own merits. The storylines for both films are implausible (even within the mystery thriller genre) and end with a cheat. The expectation is that Campion, who made The Piano would be more discriminating, and that Meg Ryan would choose something with more intrinsic value in which to put her breasts on display. This is a bad movie, and no amount of erotic content can obscure that simple truth.

Young Adam is another thriller featuring plenty of nudity, but this one is compelling. One of the reasons the movie works is because the question really isn't "Whodunnit?" but "What Really Happened?" The movie is a little slow moving and claustrophobic (many scenes take place in the cramped below-decks quarters on a barge), and the time line can be a little confusing at first. (There are no easy cues to identify flashbacks, which occur with some frequency, and not necessarily in chronological order.) The screenplay is more character-driven than plot-driven, which means that the cinemascape is not littered with contrivances. Plus there's lots of sex. Four women (including Emily Mortimer and Tilda Swinton) show as much or more than Meg Ryan, and, in a piece of news that's not exactly a first, Ewan McGregor allows the camera to capture a glimpse of his penis.

Joe (McGregor) is an apparently harmless young man who prefers reading a book or sitting quietly by himself to having a drink at the pub. Currently, Joe is working with the husband-and-wife team of Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella (Tilda Swinton) loading and unloading a barge that they pilot through the streams and canals of Scotland. Joe has a mysterious past that includes a relationship with a free-spirited woman named Cathie (Emily Mortimer), who we learn more about via flashbacks as the movie progresses.

When we first meet Joe, he and Les are fishing the naked dead body of a woman out of the water. Soon, Les is down at the pub boasting about the discovery (which has made the evening paper), while Joe remains behind with the objective of seducing Ella. Although the older woman resists at first, when she surrenders, she does so passionately, and soon she and Joe are involved in a sex-drenched relationship in which they can't keep their hands off of one another. But, just as Ella announces her intention to divorce Les, Joe turns his attention to Ella's newly widowed sister, Gwen (Therese Bradley). Meanwhile, the investigation into the body discovered by Joe and Les takes an unsettling turn.

Young Adam, directed by David Mackenzie, uses the Scottish locales to good effect. The seemingly perpetual gray day scenes and dark night scenes (often with rain) establish an oppressive tone. This is a motion picture that relies as much upon mood as plot and characterization. In many ways, the film is a morality play, but it is equally valid as a thriller or a character study. Mackenzie's screenplay (based on the novel by Alexander Trocchi) reveals one alarming detail after another about the seemingly meek Joe, until we have an entirely different picture from what we initially envisioned. This presents an acting challenge for Ewan McGregor. The other actors, despite not having as much screen time as McGregor, are all good - the chameleon-like Tilda Swinton as repressed, frustrated Ella; Peter Mullan as gruff Les, and Emily Mortimer as vulnerable Cathie.

Young Adam has far less broad-based appeal than something along the lines of In the Cut, but it's a better movie. The is one scene of sexual kinkiness that may elicit some nervous chuckles, but it is important in illustrating the depths to which Joe can sink. Young Adam is darkly effective, and its grip lasts longer than that of an average thriller. (This is often true of films that are strongly atmospheric.)

There's no nudity whatsoever in James Cox's Wonderland, which is ironic, since it's about events from the life of the first big-time porn star, John Holmes (Val Kilmer). Unlike Boogie Nights, which was loosely based on the rise and fall of Holmes during his time in front of the camera, Wonderland takes a look at things "once the legend was over." By 1981, Holmes was no longer doing X-rated movies. His drug habit had forced him out of the industry, and, with no money to spend, he was scrounging and borrowing, trying to scrape together enough to buy the next hit. He had moved out of the house he shared with his wife, Sharon (Lisa Kudrow), and was on the road with a teenage junkie named Dawn (Kate Bosworth). That's when events spun out of Holmes' control.

On July 1, four of the six members of a gang of drug dealers were brutally murdered in a house on Wonderland Ave. in Los Angeles. Holmes was tied into the crime, as was gangster Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian). The police brought in the only uninjured survivor of the massacre, David Lind (Dylan McDermott), for questioning, and his version of events was damning to Holmes. The ex-porn star's account was much different, and left the police stuck in a web of contradictions. Unfortunately, since neither Holmes nor Lind was deemed reliable, it was virtually impossible to arrive at the truth.

Borrowing a leaf from Rashomon, Wonderland shows two completely different intepretations of the same basic events. One represents the story Holmes tells; the other represent's Lind's tale. However, while in Rashomon the discrepancies occur because of legitimate differences in points-of-view, here they are the result of lies. Neither Holmes nor Lind can be considered a reliable narrator. Cox also gives us glimpses of the "objective truth" - that is to say, events as they really happened.

There isn't a likeable character in Wonderland. Even Dawn, who could have been portrayed as a victim, is shown to be less than innocent (in one scene, she allows herself to be pimped out to Nash so that the drug supply to Holmes isn't shut off). Everyone in this film is a bottom-feeder - individuals whose lives revolve around money, drugs, and violence. If there's no nudity in Wonderland, it's because sex doesn't enter the equation. These characters are much deeper in the muck. This is not one of those films where you're going to identify with a character. Some will find the experience of watching this picture to be an uncomfortable one. Others, like me, will be fascinated by the perversity of the characters and the intriguing way in which Cox has pieced together the storyline.

One could argue that Val Kilmer does his best work when portraying someone who actually lived. Alongside his incarnation of Jim Morrison, John Holmes represents the actor's most vivid character. Kilmer revels in the sleeze, showing how Holmes ingests it like a pig at his trough. Some may not appreciate what Kilmer does here, because Holmes comes across as such an unlikable, untrustworthy, and thoroughly reprehensible individual. As good as Kilmer is, however, there are a few times when he is almost upstaged. Josh Lucas is ferocious as the drug gang's leader and Eric Bogosian has some scary moments. Kate Bosworth has perfectly adapated the mannerisms of a junkie. And Lisa Kudrow plays Sharon with an air of defeated weariness.

Cox uses different amounts of grain and various levels of color desaturation in an effort to make the film look more gritty and give it a stronger "you are there" feel. He is successful, although one could argue that this is the kind of world that viewers may want to distance themselves from. Once you leave Wonderland, you may feel like you need a shower, but, while you're in the moment, it's a compelling journey into the depths of hell on earth.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

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