2007 TIFF Update #6: "Footloose and Fancy Free"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
For Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11, 2001.

For better or worse, that day will be associated with the Toronto Film Festival in my mind. Even in future years when I don't attend the festival, I will recall the moment when I emerged from a screening of Joy Ride at the Cumberland Theater and learned that the Twin Towers had collapsed. On days like this, it's only natural to dwell a little in the past. For eleven consecutive years, I have "vacationed" for a week (or more) in Toronto during the first half of September. I have spent more time here than in any other place except three (New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago, for anyone who cares to know).

When I first attended the TIFF in 1997 it was big but not as big as it is today. I was one of the first accredited Internet critics (I believe that had something to do with a letter of recommendation written by Roger Ebert). I was single at the time and lived in a town house. Now, I'm married and have been in my current home for seven years. In eleven years, I have come here seven times with a friend, once or twice with a fellow critic, twice with girlfriends (one of whom became my wife - Toronto was actually our second date in an odd courtship), and a few times alone. Ten trips were made by plane. This year, no longer able to stomach the lack of common courtesy found in airports, I elected to drive.

Two memories stand out clearly from 1997. The first was meeting Roger Ebert face-to-face after corresponding with him by e-mail for a while. The second was the huge number of flowers placed outside of the Princess of Wales Theater on King Street. That was only a week after Princess Diana's death.

Over the years, theaters have come and gone. Of the Uptown triplex, all that remains is a brick fašade and a vacant lot. Condos were set to be erected there, but I don't know when. I saw a lot of films at the Uptown. The most memorable might have been Monsoon Wedding, the life-affirming movie that re-opened the festival after its abrupt, temporary closing on 9/11/2001. I was also at the Uptown on the afternoon of September 11 when, after a screening of From Hell, it was announced that the festival would show no more films for at least the rest of the day. For many years, the Uptown was an integral part of the TIFF experience. Now, it is no more. Like all destroyed movie palaces, it is still mourned (even more so since someone died when it was being torn down).

Everyone has their own memories of September 11, 2001. The shock and horror of the day will forever be associated with the date. It has gone down in the recent annals of infamy alongside December 7, 1941 and November 22, 1963. I will see five movies today, but every time I glance at my watch to check the time and see the date, I will remember.

Movies are supposed to be about imagination, and that's the case with the three titles I'm going to discuss below. All three have unique visions; unfortunately, only in one case was that vision realized in a pleasing manner.

Lars and the Real Girl is an example of how even the most absurd premise can be used to construct a smart, touching motion picture. The film sounds like it was developed with Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell in mind, but the key here is that, while there are laughs to be had, Lars and the Real Girl is intended to be taken seriously. This is not a rude, crude, lewd comedy. It takes an idea that could easily be reduced to a series of sex jokes and pratfalls and develops it into something intelligent and thoughtful. But, yes, even taken seriously, it's nothing less than absurd, and the filmmakers know that.

So what's it about? Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a socially awkward man who spends his days huddled in a cubbyhole at work and his nights hiding out in the garage-turned-apartment he calls home. Ryan's sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), is worried about him, but Lars' big brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), doesn't think it's a big deal. He changes his mind when Lars brings home a girlfriend. She's Bianca - a life-sized, anatomically correct sex doll. Lars treats her exactly as he would a real woman, although he concedes that she doesn't speak much English, is in a wheelchair, and is shy. Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), the local psychiatrist, believes that the best approach to Lars' delusion is to play along with it. Soon, the entire town is treating Bianca with respect, including Margo (Kelli Garner), a girl who is hoping Lars will dump Bianca for her.

Craig Gillespie has infused his film with equal parts comedy and pathos. Arguably, the funniest moments of the movie come when Karin and Gus are introduced to Bianca. There are other introductions as well, but Gillespie resists the temptation to overplay the hand and overuse the joke to the point where it is no longer funny. There's sadness here, too - sadness that Lars' upbringing with a cold, broken-hearted father left him feeling unloved, and sadness that Lars is too afraid of real intimacy to let anyone physically touch him. To him, a hug isn't a comfort. It feels like a burn.

Ryan Gosling is wonderful as Lars, playing the part completely straight. As far as Lars is concerned, Bianca is the best thing to happen to him, although the brief glimpses provided into Lars' psyche by the actor hint that he knows how fragile his fairy tale world is. Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer are excellent in supporting roles. One could argue that they have it tougher since their characters see Bianca for what she is but must pretend she's something else.

Gillespie navigates the tightrope so well that he doesn't even need a balancing pole. Lars and the Real Girl hits all the right notes, never allowing the humor to become too broad (Bianca's primary intended function is only referenced a couple of times and we are not subjected to the kind of physical humor we saw in A Weekend at Bernie's) or the drama to become too serious. While "quirky" is a good descriptor for the production, Lars and the Real Girl isn't so bizarre that mainstream movie goers will reject it. Like Juno, this is a festival film that could become one of those big little fall surprises.

Moving on, one could never argue that Across the Universe isn't ambitious. However, like many ambitious movies, this one fails spectacularly. Glenn Kenny of Premiere magazine called it "the perfect disaster" and, while I think that's a little harsh, I understand where he's coming from. Elements of Across the Universe are shockingly awful and the film lasts at least 30 minutes past the bearable stage. But if you like the Beatles and the idea of hearing about 20 covers of their work fills you with a perverse joy, this may be the movie for you.

The film has a troubled production history. It was reportedly taken away from Julie Taymor after advance preview screenings resulted in an ugly response. The producers re-cut the movie and it was received a little warmer, but Taymor went public with her gripe. Apparently, the 133-minute cut shown at Toronto (which is the same cut that will receive theatrical distribution) is Taymor's version. If it's not, I shudder to think how much worse a longer edition could be.

The lack of anything resembling a compelling narrative is part of the problem. It's the 1960s and Liverpool native Jude (Jim Sturgess) has traveled across the Atlantic in search of the dad he never knew. He is befriended by Princeton drop-out Max (Joe Anderson) and falls in love with his sister, Lucie (Evan Rachel Wood). Soon, these three are doing road trips, fighting against the War in Vietnam (or, in Max's case, fighting in Vietnam), and experiencing everything the era has to offer.

Taymor has always been best known for the imaginative visual aspects of her films, and there's no shortage of tricks in her bag this time: animation, puppets, underwater sequences, psychedelic imagery, and more. Somehow, however, it all seems gratuitous - a way to distract from how pointless the story is. Like the shot of Wood's left breast, it's all a bit of a tease. And none of these elements show much in the way of technical achievement - they're the kinds of things any reasonably adept graphic designed can accomplish on a properly equipped home PC.

The songs are a bigger distraction than the visuals. With only a few exceptions, most of them are out-of-place. They are shoehorned in simply to increase the film's Beatles music content. The expected approach in a musical is for the songs to advance the story. In Across the Universe, the narrative pauses roughly every seven minutes so the characters can break into song, then resumes when they're done. This approach makes it impossible to identify with the characters or be interested in their circumstances. And, while the singing is of variable quality, most of the dance moves are amateurish.

Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson were obviously chosen more for their singing ability than their talents as actors. To their credit, they make a credible Lennon/McCartney pair. Evan Rachel Wood has a surprisingly strong set of pipes. The vocal stylings of the supporting performers is variable, and includes a torturous version of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" by T.V. Carpio which may destroy your ability to ever again hear that song cleanly. Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker, and Bono have cameos.

I have heard Across the Universe being referred to as this generation's Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I can't refute the argument. There are also times when the film evokes memories of Xanadu. Neither of those stinkers is the kind of company any self-respecting musical wants to keep. It's hard to argue that the idea behind Across the Universe is a bad one - after all, Baz Luhrmann did something similar with Moulin Rouge and the Beatles music is incredibly versatile. The problem, therefore, must be in the execution, and it's a big problem. With a shorter running length, it might have been possible to appreciate Across the Universe as an entertaining failed spectacle. But, at 2:15, the word "entertaining" no longer applies in any context.

The King of California also features Evan Rachel Wood and, while it's better than Across the Universe, it's not that much better. Wood's performance is at about the same level, albeit without the singing. Here's she's paired opposite Michael Douglas, who plays her father. This is the art-house answer to National Treasure - it's about a mentally ill man who believes he has found a treasure map. The movie develops in two pieces - one dealing with the quest for the hidden riches and once concentrating on the relationship between father and daughter. The latter works; the former doesn't. The ending is touching without being too melodramatic.

Charlie (Douglas) has just been released from a stay in a mental hospital but to his older-than-her-16-years daughter, Miranda (Wood), he doesn't seem much better. She admits that in their relationship, she has always been the responsible one, and that hasn't changed. However, during her two years living without parental supervision, she has become comfortable and self-sufficient; Charlie's return makes everything harder, especially since he's convinced he has broken the code that will lead him to Spanish gold. With Miranda mostly at his side (except when he does something to alienate her), he doggedly pursues the clues, until he finds the spot: directly under the concrete floor of a local Costco's. In order to get to the treasure - if there is any - Charlie and Miranda will have to break into the store after hours and jackhammer through the floor. Meanwhile, as Charlie dreams of glory, Miranda yearns for something much simpler: a dishwasher.

The chemistry between Wood and Douglas is unforced, and the role reversal is in full swing. Still in her teens, Miranda is in the "parent" part. Despite being in his 60s, Charlie is the moody, irresponsible "kid." As the movie progresses, their prickly relationship softens, helped in part by Miranda's growing understanding of how important the treasure quest is for her father, and by his increasing awareness of what a profoundly bad parent he has been.

Unfortunately, director Mike Cahill spends an inordinate amount of time dealing with the nuances of the hunt and caper, and it's not interesting. It's dull and repetitive and feels like filler, but it occupies at least 50% of the running time. Maybe this is a reaction to the success of features like National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code, but the process of chasing clues doesn't work any better here than it did in those films. As the movie progresses, there's a mounting sense of frustration because valuable screen time that could be used further exploring the Charlie/Miranda dynamic is being funneled into using a backhoe to dig up some broken bits of pottery.

© 2007 James Berardinelli