Toronto Film Festival Update #7

September 10, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Today is Wednesday, and it's already possible to start feeling the stirrings of the end. It's like this every year. The festival has its most active and chaotic days early then, on Sunday, settles down to a slow, contented bubble for the first half of the week. But, by Wednesday, the light is fading. The excitement is diminishing. Most of the anticipated, high-profile movies have been shown and the biggest stars have left the country for their next projects. The media is deserting Toronto as well. The festival's second weekend is a pale shadow of its first - a testimony that, if you want to attend for only a few days, come early. As the festival makes the turn into the final straightaway, I feel a sense of melancholy. Although covering a film festival is exhausting business - seeing four or five movies per day then spending three hours at a laptop writing observations and commentary doesn't leave time for much else, let alone sleep - it's also a tremendous high. From this perspective, the thought of going back to see Hollywood movies at regular screenings isn't especially appealing.

Today, I'll begin with something about as mainstream as one is likely to uncover at this film festival: a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy. (To be fair, it's a Jennifer Aniston/Steve Zahn romantic comedy. I wouldn't want to slight Zahn.) Although Aniston obtained her indie credentials in The Good Girl, she is still (and likely always will be) best known as one of the Friends ensemble. That's the double-edged curse/reward of being part of a television phenomenon. At any rate, the Aniston we see in Management is more the Friends version than the Good Girl one. This film isn't seeking art house distribution - it wants to play in multiplexes, and debuting director Stephen Belber makes this apparent from the outset.

The film is a standard-order romantic comedy with many of the expected twists and complications. It suffers from the flaw of not giving the lead characters enough time together. To me, one of the greatest pleasures of any rom-com is watching the characters fall in love, and vicariously experiencing the emotions with them. Films that clog the storyline with extraneous subplots and unnecessary secondary characters rob the audience and do themselves a great disservice. That's pretty much what happens here and, in addition to this sin, Belber does some really strange stuff toward the end that ends up removing one of the leads from the storyline for a protracted period of time.

The film opens in the small town of Kingman, Arizona, population 27,000. Visiting businesswoman Sue (Aniston) stops at a roadside motel for two nights while she's in town making a presentation. The hotel's night manager, Mike (Zahn), is instantly smitten with her. He knocks on her door and makes a present of wine the first night and champagne on the second night. They connect, but what to Sue is a casual encounter means a lot more to Mike. Before she hops on her plane to Maryland, Sue invites Mike for a spin cycle in the wash room. Now hopelessly in Sue's thrall, Mike goes into full stalker mode, purchasing a one-way ticket to the East Coast and showing up unannounced and uninvited at Sue's place of work.

One might not think a creepy stalker movie would work well as a romantic comedy, but Mike is obviously harmless and Sue brings his increased attention on herself by first inviting him to "touch her butt," then compounding the error by having sex with him. One can forgive the guy for getting the wrong idea. Aniston and Zahn have an easy, unforced chemistry. One can see how this film could have worked had the filmmakers not been determined to pollute the story with Woody Harrelson as an ex-punk rocker, a parachuting expedition, and a side trip to a Buddhist monastery. I would never claim that the potential exists within the basic framework of Management for a great romantic comedy, but a good one wasn't out of the question. Unfortunately, poor scriptwriting decisions and a failure to advance the romance in a gradual, credible fashion doom whatever chances this could have had to enrapture audiences.

The film with the loudest buzz at this year's festival is Darren Aranofsky's The Wrestler - quite a change for the man who brought The Fountain here a couple of years ago to almost universal indifference. The Wrestler, on the other hand, has excited interest from all corners and, just before its first screening, it was announced that Fox Searchlight had purchased the North American distribution rights. Look for this movie to be coming to a theater near you before Christmas so that Mickey Rourke can be eligible for Oscar consideration.

Rourke, in what may be the defining performance of his rocky career, plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a one-time wrestling great who has been relegated by the rigors of declining health and advancing age to performing in small venues and doing autograph signings. Randy dreams of one day regaining his glory of 20 years ago, but even a lyric from a song on his radio - "Don't know what you got till it's gone" - tells a different story. When a heart attack fells Randy after a low-level bout, the doctor's advice is unequivocal: give up wrestling or risk death. This compels Randy to re-assess things. He gets a job at the deli counter of a local supermarket, makes attempts to re-connect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and tries to start a relationship with a stripper (Marisa Tomei) with whom he is friendly. The stripper's story parallels Randy's own. Both are past-their-prime performers who find their services in ever-decreasing demand. (Note: Kudos to Aranofsky for showing a stripper who actually takes her clothing off, and to Tomei for performing the requisite nudity.)

As character studies go, this one is among the most powerful and compelling I have seen in some time. The film is meticulous in the ways it delves into Randy's life, and it does so with verisimilitude and a lack of melodrama. The film provides a lot of fascinating information about the behind-the-scenes goings-on at professional wrestling matches - how the violence may be choreographed but is often real. If this doesn't reflect what really happens, it is presented in such a way that it's completely believable.

Mickey Rourke, who has been flying under the radar for quite some time, makes this a comeback to remember. Randy is a fully three-dimensional individual, afflicted not only with the foibles common to human beings, but the better impulses as well. He is in many ways a sad case - a man whose entire identity and self-worth are defined by the sport that has ruined his health and cast him aside. He lives in a trailer park in Northern New Jersey and can't make the rent. His daughter despises him. He lives for the adulation of those few fans who still remember him. Rourke does not play Randy as someone who craves pity; he holds his head high and rolls with the punches (both literally and figuratively), even when they leave him broken and bleeding.

It's not hard to understand why The Wrestler is the talk of the festival. If it's not the best movie being shown here, it's among the best. For Aranofsky, it's an opportunity to regain the "critic's darling" crown he lost after The Fountain.