2007 TIFF Update #4: "The Estrogen Solution"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
For Sunday, September 9, 2007

To be successful, a film festival must cater to all comers. Unlike multiplexes, whose #1 customers are teenage boys, film festivals draw from all aspects of society, including those who often do not visit movie theaters. While there are plenty of festival offerings focused on strong male characters, women are also fairly represented, both in terms of on-screen visibility and in terms of a targeted audience demographic. Or to put it another way, some movies have strong leading ladies and others fall into the “chick flick” category. It’s time to discuss a few of those.

The Jane Austen Book Club is an example of how a movie can follow the general plot of a book yet fail to capture the spirit. The problem is a simple one to identify: much of the enjoyment derived from Karen Joy Fowler's novel comes from the way in which it is written, and the manner in which she interweaves subtle references and asides to Austen. Robin Swicord's adaptation is stripped-down and straightforward, and something has been lost in translation. The film comes across like a soap opera and there are too many characters and storylines for any one of them to grab the heart and imagination. The film isn't painful but it is disappointing.

A group of five women and one man decide to meet once a month for six months to discuss the Jane Austen canon: Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. That there are echoes of Austen in the lives of some of the group members is unsurprising. Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the organizer of the book club, has been married numerous times and would like to try once more before she dies. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) loves her life as a single woman and views her beloved dogs as being more suitable companions than men. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is brooding over her failed marriage to Daniel (Jimmy Smits), who has left her after 20 years of marriage. Allegra (Maggie Grace) is Sylvia's lesbian daughter. Prudie (Emily Blunt) is a young, unhappily married school teacher. Her husband (Marc Blucas) treats her like an ornament and she finds herself attracted to one of her students (Kevin Zegers). Finally, there's Grigg (Hugh Dancy). He's a science fiction fan but he's smitten with Jocelyn and agrees to come to the club when she invites him. She sees him as a match for Sylvia, not her, but fails to see that she could be Emma to his Mr. Knightley.

To her credit, Swicord tries to incorporate as much Austen into the movie as she can. The film is divided into six chapters (each named after an Austen novel). Excepts are provided from the book discussions. And there are the inevitable parallels between the readers and the characters they're reading about (the strongest ones being Emma and Persuasion - not much Pride and Prejudice at all, but we have Becoming Jane for that). In the end, however, the movie's Austen aspects seem more like window dressing than integral elements of the story. One senses that this could have been the Ursula Leguin Club (named after Grigg's favorite novelist) and not a lot would change.

The story that's the most interesting is that of Grigg and Jocelyn, perhaps because it is given more care and attention than the others. Hugh Dancy, who was annoying as a drunk in Evening, is more charming here as the rich, clueless male in a sea of females. Maria Bello's Jocelyn seems like a modern-day version of an Austen character, and Bello and Dancy click. Second most interesting is tragic Prudie, who is played with great pathos by Emily Blunt (with an American accent). Less compelling is the trite breakup between Sylvia and Daniel - he leaves her for a "more interesting" woman then discovers he made a mistake. Allegra's story never really gets off the ground and Bernadette doesn't really have one.

Too often, The Jane Austen Book Club feels crowded and rushed as characters and stories vie for screen time. Although the movie doesn't demand familiarity with Austen, it's hard to imagine anyone being attracted to film with this title unless they have an affinity for the 18th century writer. Like other female bonding movies (The Joy Luck Club and Waiting to Exhale leap to mind), this one works only to the degree to which the individual viewer bonds with the characters. The superficiality of the protagonists makes this is a difficult movie to feel more strongly about than a passable diversion.

For years, Helen Hunt came into our living rooms as the female lead in the TV sit-com Mad about You. Motion picture fans may be more familiar with her for The Waterdance, Twister, and As Good as It Gets. Now, in addition to appearing in front of the camera, she’s behind it. Then She Found Me is not only Hunt’s directorial debut, but it’s the first time she has tried penning a screenplay (adapting Elinor Lipman’s novel along with co-writers Vic Levin and Alice Arlen). She has also brought aboard a respectable cast that includes Colin Firth, Better Midler, and Matthew Broderick.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of movie that gives “chick flicks” a bad name. It’s a cross between inept melodrama and a bad sit-com. The “comedy” (for lack of a better word) is obvious, poorly timed, and not especially funny. The “drama” (again, for lack of a better word) is sloppy, sappy, and ineffective. I imagine we’re supposed to feel empathy for these characters but, with one exception, they are self-absorbed whiners who pretty much deserve what they get. The big emotional catharses at the end are intended to make us smile with delight that everything has turned out okay.

April Epner (Hunt), teacher and all-around child-lover, is having a bad time. Her husband, Ben (Matthew Broderick), has announced that he doesn’t feel comfortable being married. He wants out of their union so he can go back and live with his mother. Meanwhile, April’s mother has died and her birth mother (she was adopted as a baby) chooses this opportunity to make contact. Essentially, April’s life has turned into the refrain from a country song. Things don’t get better when she meets with her new old Mom, Bernice (Bette Midler), who wants to make up for 39 years of lost bonding by smothering her daughter and prying into every corner of her crumbling life. For April, things are about to change. She discovers that a bout of “goodbye sex” with Ben led to the conception of a baby, which puts a crimp into her fledgling relationship with Frank (Colin Firth), the divorced father of a boy in April’s class.

Of the actors, only Colin Firth gets a pass on this one. He invests Frank with a lot of passion. In fact, this is perhaps the most emotive I can recall the normally laconic British thespian ever being. Helen Hunt is okay, but she’s really just playing a variation on her normal theme. Bette Midler’s brassiness is toned down a little, although she’s still irritating. And Matthew Broderick is so low-key that there are times when one forgets he’s even in the movie.

If there’s a tearjerking trick that Then She Found Me misses, someone will have to enlighten me as to what it might be. As far as I can tell, Hunt pulls out all the stops her attempts to irritate the tear ducts, but it doesn’t do her much good. It’s necessary to care about the characters for the tragedies in this movie to have any impact. There’s more genuine pathos in the one tear that runs down Hal Holbrook’s cheek in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (to be discussed in a day or two) than there is in the whole of Hunt’s motion picture. The degree to which this movie fails may not be shocking but it is disappointing.

On the other hand, Juno is one of the year’s festival pleasures. The film almost came out of nowhere - almost, but not quite. After premiering last week at Telluride, Juno rode a wave of positive buzz to Toronto. The marketers were out in full force, giving away boxes of orange Tic-Tacs (if you see the movie, you’ll understand). The result (of the buzz more than the breath mints) were packed press and public screenings. And, unlike some festival films, this one should have enough widespread appeal to take it into multiplexes when Fox Searchlight releases it.

If one was to categorize this, it would fall into the hybrid coming-of-age/teen romantic comedy category. But, as movies like Superbad have shown, such labels aren’t necessarily negatives. Juno, directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) is smart, witty, and engaging - three ingredients that, when applied to any film, comprise a recipe for success. Juno has a great heroine and is blessed by a screenplay that doesn’t try to do too much and finds the perfect ending.

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is sixteen years old and pregnant. She takes three home pregnancy tests to be sure, but the results can’t be denied. Her boyfriend, Paulie (Michael Cera), is as befuddled by the news as she is. After all, they only did it once, although that’s obviously enough. (And, to his credit, he doesn’t do the most insensitive thing imaginable and ask if she’s sure he’s the father.) At first, Juno considers an abortion, but she doesn’t like the vibe she gets at the clinic. So, after revealing the truth to her supportive father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney), she goes to the “Desperately Seeking Spawn” section of the penny saver to try to find a good Mommy and Daddy for her unborn child. “Someone is going to get a blessing out of this garbage dump of a situation.” Enter Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful. They’re ready to adopt - or at least Vanessa is. Mark, on the other hand, seems more interested in watching old horror movies and discussing music with the prospective mother of his future child.

Juno isn’t one of those “laugh riots” that will have audience members rolling in the aisles, getting fake popcorn butter and spilled soda all over their clothing. Instead, it’s funny in a sassy way - the kind of humor that causes a lot of smiles and chuckles to go along with the occasional stomach-jiggling laugh. The script is polished to near perfection. Almost everything that Juno says is worth listening to, whether it’s dialogue that comes out of her mouth or her thoughts expressed in a voiceover narrative.

While plenty of credit can be heaped upon director Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the lead actress deserves as much praise as either of them. I’m not of the opinion that this is a star-making turn for Ellen Page - that distinction goes to last year’s searing Hard Candy - but Juno confirms that she is much more than a flash in the pan. She’s someone to watch. She may not get a Best Actress nomination for her role here (that depends a lot on the marketing and release strategy), but if one comes in her direction, it’s no fluke. She gets able support from a strong cast that includes Superbad’s Michael Cera, but this is Page’s film from start to finish.

Juno is the kind of the film where a viewer almost needs to go into the film looking for a reason to dislike it for it not to work. It’s charming without being saccharine. It’s funny without being rude or dishonest. It’s smart without being smart-assed. And it’s got enough heart to keep the comedic elements in check. When I was done smiling, the movie gave me something to think about, as well: Where were girls like this when I was in high school?

Want another film with a strong lead female performance? As Monty Python often says, “and now for something completely different...” If you’re chuckling and smiling during the next film, you may want to consider seeking professional help.

The Brave One is a revenge flick, but it's an uncommon one. Although it is bloody and at times brutal, it doesn't revel in the violence. There's more to the movie than initially meets the eye for an eye. This is about the psychology of revenge and whether a person who takes a stance as a vigilante has crossed over an ambiguous moral line. Few would argue the statement that there's a difference between law and justice, but where do the two diverge? And what price of conscience and sanity is paid when a person decides they must act because the law has failed them? The Brave One becomes not about the act of revenge but the consequences of it. The difference might seem subtle but, in the way it is played out, it's profound.

Erica (Jodie Foster) is a forty-something New York City talk show radio personality who is rapidly approaching the happiest day in her life: the day she will wed David (Naveen Andrews), her loving partner and companion. Those hopes are shattered one night when the two are attacked and brutally beaten. David dies; Erica survives, at least physically. Emotionally, she's a hollow shell. She spends three weeks in the hospital recovering, then it takes time before she gathers the courage to venture outside of her apartment. One of her fist acts is to buy a gun - both for protection and revenge. It doesn't take long before she uses it, first once then a second time. The police, led by Detectives Mercer (Terrence Howard) and Vitale (Nicky Katt) realize they have a vigilante on the loose, but they don't come close to understanding what they're dealing with.

The role of Erica might have been intended for Nicole Kidman, but Foster makes it her own. After watching this performance, it's difficult to see anyone else in the part. Playing Erica requires the actress to walk a tightrope between sanity and insanity, between fear and courage, between horror and fury. Part of Erica wants to lash out, but the other part is appalled by the way in which she is doing it. On more than one occasion, she cannot decide whether what she is doing is right or wrong. She voices arguments for both sides. Foster's acting is The Brave One's single most unassailable asset. Terrence Howard is solid and steady, but his purpose is purely supporting.

The Brave One doesn't try to provide facile answers to complex quandries. It permits us to explore them by forcing the characters to confront them. The acts of revenge and vigilantism are filmed with cold, clinical detachment; they are not presented in a way intended to whip the audience into an orgiastic frenzy of violent wish fulfillment. Instead, they offer a clear-eyed, clear-headed perspective of what has happened. Acts that might cause cheers and applause in a more exploitative motion picture result here in an introspective reaction. Jordan is not condemning vigilantism - in fact, one can make a case that the film is a stinging rebuke of law enforcement ineffectiveness - but he wants us to reflect upon the consequences and collateral damage. For Erica, each shot that she fires represents the sacrifice of a piece of her soul. But she considers herself to be a different (and inferior) person than who she was before the attack. She is now a stranger to herself and does not believe she will ever find the path back. The film's last act provides a note of hopefulness as well as one of closure. The Brave One is a smart and thought-provoking motion picture that re-examines a genre without violating its conventions. Not since The Crying Game has Jordan crafted as compelling a motion picture.

© 2007 James Berardinelli