2005 TIFF Update #10: "American Tales"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Saturday, September 17, 2005

Although Toronto has its share of international titles, it's typically the North American ones that get the most attention, especially from distributors. This is understandable, since most buyers are from the United States and Canada, and they view homegrown and/or English-language features as the ones most likely to find an audience. Almost any movie going to Toronto without a distributor that is in English and possesses a "name" star is likely to get a deal.

A controversy developed earlier this week over the distribution rights to Thank You for Smoking (for which I wrote a lukewarm review in an earlier update). The players were Paramount Classics and Fox Searchlight. The film was sold to the latter for around $6.5 million, but Paramount claimed they had a "handshake" deal in place before Fox pulled the rug out from under them. The producers denied this, claming that nothing with Paramount had proceeded beyond a negotiation stage.

The biggest sale I'm aware of is of Trust the Man (see below), which was gobbled up for around $8 million (also by Fox Searchlight). That's a nice piece of change for Bart Freundlich, whose previous films have drawn limited interest on the indie circuit, but not the kind of attention that would warrant this outlay. Obviously, someone thinks they have found the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Here's a trio of "American Tales" (by that, I mean movies that take place in the United States). All are likely to reach a theater near you in the not-to-distant future.

Trust the Man is the latest feature from Bart Freundlich, who came to many people's attention in 1997 with The Myth of Fingerprints. Since then, Freundlich's resume has been spotty, but, based on the $8 million payout by Fox Searchlight for this movie, there are people out there who like it more than I do. As far as I'm concerned, this is a sporadically entertaining motion picture that overstays its welcome. Its strength is its humor, which is half-Seinfeld and half-Sex in the City. There's a reason why those shows ran for only 30 minutes each - it's difficult to sustain comedic momentum for longer, as becomes apparent here.

The film is about two couples in jeopardy. From the outside, Tom (David Duchovny) and his actress-wife Rebecca (Julianne Moore), appear to have a perfect marriage. But there is a problem - Tom loves sex while Rebecca abhors it. This leads him to stray elsewhere. Meanwhile, Tom's best friend (Rebecca's brother), Tobey (Billy Crudup), is having difficulties with his long-term girlfriend, Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal). She wants marriage and a baby; he like the status quo. Then another complication enters the relationship in the person of Faith (Eva Mendes), who has designs on Tobey.

When the men of Trust the Man get together, it sounds like Seinfeld. When the women congregate, it's Sex in the City. Although much of Freundlich's comedy works, especially during the first hour, the movie's drama is inert. These characters are not likeable. They are spoiled, lazy, and self-centered (except perhaps Elaine). There's some voyeristic amusement inherent in watching people like this struggle with life's simple issues. But when we are expected to identify with them, Trust the Man loses us.

The performances are all solid, and well-adapted to the material. David Duchnovy gets to shed his Muldur image and and play an (almost) average guy. Tom's a loving dad and a grounded individual who just wants more sex. Julianne Moore (Freundlich's real-life wife) had no problems with her character's shifts from comedy to drama. (Rebecca's describing porn to Tom is a highlight.) Billy Crudup, who normally plays serious roles, shows a capacity for comic timing. And Maggie Gyllenhaal glows.

Most of the flaws in Trust the Man come in the third act, when Freundlich allows the narrative to overwhelm the lighter, wittier moments. Some directors, like Woody Allen in his prime, can meld drama and humor seamlessly. There are times in Trust the Man when the transitions are awkward, and the final 30 minutes seem stale. Like a few too many of Toronto's offerings this year, this one is a diversion. It's not unpleasant, but it doesn't offer a "must see" night at the movies.

If Trust the Man falls into familiar rhythms, the same cannot be said of Romance and Cigarettes, although the films both confront infidelity and are similarly structured. Like Trust the Man, Romance and Cigarettes starts out light before turning serious in its final third. Unlike Trust the Man, Romance and Cigarettes pulls it off. You're not likely to leave the theater with tears streaming down your cheeks, but you won't feel cheated by the third act.

It's almost unfair to make the comparison becuase there are so many fundamental differences, but the closest recent movie to Romance and Cigarettes is Moulin Rogue. The key likeness is easy to spot: the charcters sponteously break into familiar pop songs. However, where in Moulin Rogue, the actors did their own versions, in Romance and Cigarettes, they "accompany" known artists. (For example, James Gandolfini gets to do a "duet" with Tom Jones.) It's singing along to a record rather than karaoke. Some actors sing louder than others, meaning that for certain numbers, the recording artist drowns out the on-screen performer.

The director is John Turturro, whose previous directorial outings (Mac and Illuminata) show a progression toward the tone he adopts for this one. Mac was a small, straightforward drama. Illuminata, while fundamentally a serious movie, incorporated offbeat humor. For Romance and Cigarettes, Turturro tweaks the comedy, sending it spinning in a new direction, and adds about nine musical numbers. The Coen Brothers, with whom Turturro has collaborated in the past, function as Executive Producers. It's not clear whether they had input into the film or found its content to be a match for their sensibilities. Also re-joining Turturro from Illuminata are Susan Sarandon, Aida Turturro, and Christopher Walken. They are joined by James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Eddie Izzard, and Elaine Stritch. Talk about a dream cast!

Not only do we get to watch these great actors in one place, but we have to opportunity to observe them doing something they don't normally do: sing and dance. It is, for example, worth the price of admission to see Christopher Walken act out the lyrics of Tom Jones' "Delilah," then engage in a choreographed production number with a group of dancing police officers. Other song-and-dance pieces include frolicing garbagemen and welders, a church choir, a catfight, and an underwater sequence. Turturro keeps changing things up to prevent them from becoming stale.

Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, a blue-collar working stiff who has been married to the same woman, Kitty (Sarandon), for decades. Against his better judgment, he's having an affair with the brassy Cockney Tula (Winslet). Inexplicably, she thinks he's hot and, since she's not interested in a long-term relationship, the age difference doesn't bother her. But Kitty gets curious, and Nick is busted. His three children (Moore, Aida Turturro, Parker) take their mom's side, and Nick's only confidante is his fellow contruction worker, Angelo (Buscemi). Things take a turn for the worse when Nick learns that his lifelong smoking habit has resulted in a health problem.

Romance and Cigarettes is good, not-so-clean fun. (Tula, whose every other word would be censored on television, makes sure there's no question that the MPAA will award this film an R.) The eccentricity, along with the musical numbers, are toned down in the final 30 minutes to allow for some character and relationship building. Without this act, Turturro would have given us a big-screen variety show. The concluding segment is what makes Romance and Cigarettes more than a disposable musical. And the opportunity to see Kate Winslet with flaming red hair, James Gandolfini dancing with the garbagemen, and Christopher Walken acting like Elvis is what makes this more than just another dysfunctional family drama.

The next movie I'm going to write about is a polar opposite from Romance and Cigarettes, at least in terms of originality. Like shoes? Like false sentimentality? Like something that mistakes generalizations for insight? Then In Her Shoes is the film for you. Curtis Hanson's follow-up to his rapper hero-worship outing, 8 Mile, is a disappointing look at sisterhood based on the chick novel by Jennifer Weiner. A frequently saccharine and false motion picture, In Her Shoes wants to elicit tears it never earns and tie everything together into a tidy bundle that leaves no cliché untouched. Artificial in both its dialogue and its construction, the film only works - on those occasions when it works - because of the sincere performance by the underrated Toni Collette.

This has been a festival of big-name directorial disappointments. Terry Gilliam and Tideland. Guy Ritchie and Revolver. Cameron Crowe and Elizabethtown. Atom Egoyan and Where the Truth Lies. Now Curtis Hanson and In Her Shoes. The filmmaker who dazzled us with L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys is missing in action. Even the director of the less edgy but nevertheless respectible 8 Mile is nowhere to be found. Instead, we have a screenplay and result more in line with something to come out of Garry Marshall or Nancy Meyers' workshop.

Maggie (Cameron Diaz) and Rose (Toni Collette) are sisters with diametrically opposite personalities. Rose is sweet, timid, and dedicated - a top lawyer who works long hours. Maggie is sexy, lazy, shallow, and self-centered - an unemployed party girl who ends her nights passed out on someone's couch. After being kicked out of her home by her wicked stepmother, Maggie moves in with Rose. She quickly wears out her welcome (sleeping with her sister's boyfriend is not an ideal approach to foster goodwill), so she heads to Florida to meet her long-lost maternal grandmother, Ella (Shirley MacLaine). In Maggie's absence, Rose finds a new beau and learns to have fun. Meanwhile, during her stay with Ella, Rose grows up and becomes responsible.

The screenplay is a plot-by-number production that feels like a cross between a Lifetime made-for-TV movie and an episode of The Golden Girls. On the acting front, in addition to the wonderful Toni Collette, there's Cameron Diaz doing a convicing job as a spoiled brat, and Shirley MacLaine playing the same role she always plays these days. Collette steals the movie. It has life when she's on screen but becomes inert when she's not around. And, at 135 minutes, it's too long for the slight material.

Tomorrow, a couple of late straggler reviews and a wrap-up of the most disappointing film festival I have attended north of the border.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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