2005 TIFF Update #6: "Adaptive"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Now that the weekend is over, things are quieting down at the festival. With so much front-loaded, there's a feeling that, once the Sunday hurdle has been cleared, we're in the home stretch. Few critics stay around for the second weekend. The press screening schedule is reduced after Wednesday. Unless you're in Toronto for a vacation or need to do more interviews, getaway day is usually Wednesday or Thursday. Those who stay longer don't have to worry about getting to screenings early; there are no lines.

Something similar occurs on the public side. All weekend, long lines were everywhere. By yesterday and today, the lines (and waiting times) were shorter and more manageable. The main box office line Saturday morning was 90 minutes. Yesterday (Monday), it was 25 minutes. Many Toronto natives will give up a weekend to attend the festival, but weekdays are another matter. If you attend the festival and want to know when to find shows not sold out, look at the Monday through Friday schedule, 9:00 am until 4:00 pm.

One thing I have noticed about this year's festival is an increase in the number of adapted films. That's not to say there weren't any in past years but, for whatever reason, there seem to be more in 2005. Generally speaking, adaptations derive from four media: other movies, television, books, and plays. I don't believe there are any re-makes this year, and I can't recall Toronto ever screening a TV adaptation (Welcome Back Kotter: The Motion Picture didn't make the cut), so that leaves books and plays.

I want to give actor-turned-director Liev Schreiber credit for making his behind-the-camera debut a film that means something to him. One can easily see how Everything Is Illuminated could be a deeply personal film. Unfortunately, the meaning a project has for a director is not always conveyed to an audience. This is such a case. This movie is sloppy and disjointed - an unsatisfying melodrama built upon a shaky foundation of contrivances, coincidences, and plot holes. Although there's an aura of sincerity that keeps the picture from teetering into the "bad" category (it stays rooted in mediocrity), it fails more often than it works, and sitting through the 110-minute running length can be a tedious experience.

Jonathan (Elijah Wood, post-Frodo Baggins) is a "collector." He obsessively catalogs items pertaining to his family, then pins them to his bedroom wall - everything from old photographs to his grandmother's false teeth. When he is given a photo taken in 1940s Ukraine of his grandfather with the mysterious woman Augusta, his curiosity is piqued. So he travels to the Ukraine and hooks up with Heritage Tours, a family-owned business that specializes in helping rich Jews locate their dead ancestors. With the aid of twenty-something Alex Jr. (Eugene Hutz) and his grandfather, Alex Sr. (Boris Leskin), Jonathan begins a road trip into his past.

For a while, Everything Is Illuminated achieves a witty tone and moves along at a decent pace. During the first half-hour, there's unforced humor as Jonathan and Alex Jr. (whose grip of English is not the greatest) struggle to communicate. Unfortunately, like most road trips, this one doesn't take long to begin meandering. The trio's final destination, and the revealtions that occur there, are anti-climactic. These are supposed to bring an emotional catharsis, but I had to stifle a yawn. I never connected emotionally in any way with these characters, and such a bond is necessary if the "surprising" climax is to have meaning. Beyond that, Everything Is Illuminated doesn't know when to end. Like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps going and going and going, dragging on for at least 10 minutes longer than it needs to. And the screenplay demands that everything be spelled out for the viewer. Less exposition and a few more quiet moments might have lent a sense of tragedy to a climax that is polluted with too many words and too little emotional power.

The acting is spotty. Elijah Wood is stiff, but that's probably because he's playing someone who is closed off. Jonathan has some sort of obesssive compulsive disorder, but the movie isn't interested in exploring that subject, other than to use it as a device to get him to the Ukraine. The two non-English actors are credible, with Boris Leskin filling the grumpy old man role while Eugene Hutz is the occasionally bumbling sidekick. The best parts of the movie have nothing to do with the dramatic aspects; they occur early as Hutz does an amusing voiceover describing his character's likes and dislikes. (He's a big Michael Jackson fan, and can dance like John Travolta.)

For Everything is Illuminated to work, the viewer has to care about the characters, but there's not enough on screen for the bond to be formed. Jonathan is a hollow shell - there's nothing there except a strange guy who puts things in ziploc bags. And the two Ukranians aren't much better fleshed out. Perhaps part of the problem is the degree of cutting necessary to cram Safran Foer's 2002 novel into less than two hours. Or perhaps the problem is that Liev Schreiber's aptitude in front of the camera does't translate to the other side of the production. Regardless of the reason, Everything Is Illuminated left me cold and in the dark.

When Hollywood adapts, we get Bewitched and The Dukes of Hazzard. When the British film industry adapts, we get Shakespeare and Austen. This explains why there is another version of Pride and Prejudice to be digested. And, while nothing will come close to matching the 1995 BBC-TV version, Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation is arguably the best Pride and Prejudice one can make with a two-hour time limit. Kudos to screenwriter Deborah Moggach for selecting the perfect cuts to Austen's novel without gutting the heart and themes or making the production seem rushed. While I'll stop short of calling this movie "magical," I have no problem labeling it as very good.

Anyone who has interest in the movie probably knows the story, so I'll keep the recap short. Pride and Prejudice tells of the romance between the smart, sassy Elizabeth Bennet (Kiera Knightley) and the handsome, reticent Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). At their initial meeting, they leave mutually unfavorable impressions but, as events continually bring them together, their opinions change. Darcy falls first, then hamstrings himself with an insulting marriage proposal. But, as he makes amends, Elizabeth finds herself falling for him.

The book contains numerous sublplots, all of which have either been truncated or eliminated for this version. The relationship between Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) and Jane Bennet (Rosamund Pike) remains, but in condensed form, and only because it is necessary to the fabric of the central love story. Also suffering greatly is the character of Wickham (Rupert Friend), who appears in only two scenes. The impact of Wickham's character (running off with Lydia Bennet, then marrying her after Darcy buys him off) is more important than his presence. Most of the rest of Pride and Prejudice is left intact, and much of Austen's dialogue is retained. Wright and Moggach add an epilogue that may annoy Austen purists - it's not from the book, but it's in keeping with Austen's style and represents a good way to conclude the film. (Although I daresay no one would take such liberties with one of Shakepeare's plays.)

Kiera Knightley makes a dazzling Lizzie, on par with Jennifer Ehle's interpretation. Knightley is at times playful, at times tempestuous, and at times vulnerable. And she speaks every line of dialogue with conviction. Her co-star, Matthew Macfayden, doesn't shine as brightly, but he handles the role and exhibits chemistry with Knightley. Of the supporting players, Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as Mrs. and Mr. Bennet deserve notice, as does Jena Malone as Lydia. Judi Dench has a small part as Lady Catherine De Bourgh, but she only makes a couple of appearances. The only acting disappointments are Simon Woods and Rupert Friend, but since neither is on screen long enough to cause serious damage, they're easy to ignore. (Friend, in particular, appears to have been chosen more for his looks than his acting ability.)

We're past the era of Jane Austen that gripped movie theaters during the mid-1990s, but this production is as worthy as anything to have come out a decade ago. Period detail is impeccable, so the movie looks as good as it feels. Of Austen's novels, none is more beloved than this one, so it's good to see it once again brought to the screen with the pride of which it is deserving.

Maybe it's my math/engineering background, but I found Proof to be fascinating both on the stage and on the screen. Actually, appreciation of the film demands little math knowledge (aside from recognizing that a "proof" is a logical set of equations designed to explain and defend the veracity of a theorem). Proof is less about math than it is about the ins-and-outs of intellectual property and the relationships of one women to those around her (father, sister, lover).

When we first meet Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow), it's the day before her father's funeral. During the last years of his life, Robert (Anthony Hopkins) - once a revered mathematician - was caught in the grip of dementia, with Catherine as his lone caregiver. Now, with his death, her sister, Claire (Hope Davis), has jetted in from New York City to pick up the pieces and bring Catherine back with her. And her father's dissertation student, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), is poring over Robert's old notebooks, looking for something brilliant amidst all the ramblings. Meanwhile, Catherine, who believes she may have inherited her father's madness as well as his talent, is slowly coming apart.

Where is the line between madness and genius? That's a key qustion posed by Proof, but not the only one. By introducing elements of mystery and uncertainty, it adds a sense of urgency to a topic normally reserved for dry seminars: intellectual property. Or, to put it another way, when a radical proof exists without confirmed authorship, to whom does it belong?

The focus of the movie is Catherine. Is she going mad, or is her erratic behavior the result of grief, stress, and the natural eccentricity of a genius? The screenplay, co-credited to David Auburn (who wrote the play) and Rebecca Miller, leans in one direction, but allows the viewer to make the final determination. It's not clear-cut. Regardless of your position, however, you won't be able to deny the force and vibrancy of Catherine's character. Gwyneth Paltrow, once again working with director John Madden and reprising the role she played on the London stage, is a powerhouse of raw emotion. (Oscar nomination?) This may be her most mature performance to date. Her trio of supporting players hits the right notes.

The material is intellectual, but the treatment is not. Proof is a stirring motion picture that challenges our views on a great many things about life, some of which we take for granted. And, by opening up the play, Madden has made it less talky and more cinematic without losing the quintessential elements that made it such a success on stage. As adaptations go, this may be the best that Toronto 2005 has to offer, regardless of the medium from which the adapting is taking place.

A quirky character piece that could just as easily go by the title of Ritalin Nation, Thumbsucker boasts a strong character arc, some nice performances, and an understated message about the overprescribing of drugs to American youths. But Mike Mills doesn't want this to turn into a soap box sermon, so he avoids sensationalization and melodrama. Thumbsucker may have something to say, but it doesn't need a hammer or a bullhorn to make its statement.

17-year old Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) has an oral fixation: he never stopped sucking his thumb. It has become a secret addiction - a dirty secret he tries to hide from everyone. In school, between classes, he sneaks into the bathroom for a quick suck. At home, he does it behind closed doors. It infuriates his father, Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio), who can't understand why a teenager won't give up such a childish habit. His mother, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), is more supportive. His orthodontist, Dr. Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves), hypnotizes him in an attempt to sort out the situation. But Justin is not "fixed" and his unwillingness to conquer his addiction causes him to lose a chance with a potential girlfriend, Rebecca (Kelli Garner), another member of the school debating team. The answer to all of Justin's problems falls into his lap when he is diagnoses as having ADHD. His is given a prescription for Ritalin (or a Ritalin-like medication) that focuses his concentration, makes him more upbeat, and allows him to give up thumbsucking. Suddenly, he's the star of the debating team, but his teacher, Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn), is alarmed by the radical changes to Justin's personality. The next time Justin encounters Rebecca, she has become a stoner, and he's looking to add both marijuana and sex to his list of new experiences.

Those who appreciate strong character development will like what Thumbsucker has to offer. Justin is a believable individual, not a Hollywood type, and he undergoes several credible transformations during the course of the film. Other characters touching his periphery grow as well, and not all for the better. Mike must confront the responsibilities of being a parent and acting his age. Audrey finds something more fulfilling than dreaming of winning a contest that offers a date with a TV star. Perry confronts disillusionment head-on. And Rebecca shows a side that many socially inept teenagers will be all too familiar with. During the course of Thumbsucker, Justin learns a number of lessons, and not all of them come easily.

Thumbsucker has an interesting cast. Relative newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci is a standout in his first lead role - this could be the start of a career worth watching. Kelli Garner, a late replacement for Scarlett Johansson, builds on the promise she showed during her brief exposure in The Aviator. Tilda Swinton continues to amaze with her chameleon-like ability to fill any role - is there a more accomplished female character actor working today? Vincent D'Onofrio is given a rare chance to play an everyday sort of guy, and Vince Vaughn is allowed to underplay a part. Finally, there's Keanu Reeves, who doesn't try to exceed his limited range. He's like an adult version of one of his best-loved parts, Ted Logan.

I won't go so far as to decree Thumbsucker to be an exceptional coming-of-age drama, but it's a solid contender. The film captures many of the nuances of enduring high school as an outsider without falling into the common trap of exaggerating the experience and turning the protagonist into an unlikely hero. Thumbsucker is true to its nature, and that makes Justin's eventual transformation all the more rewarding.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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