SUNDANCE 2015: PART TWO

A Walk In The Woods

A WALK IN THE WOODS  * *

GRANDMA  * * *

TRUE STORY  * 1 / 2

I SMILE BACK  * * *

Before the screening began, Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper sheepishly admitted that he programmed A Walk In The Woods behind Robert Redford’s back. Despite it being his festival and all, Redford remained conspicuously absent from the Park City Premiere, leaving co-star Nick Nolte to amble through the audience in full hobo regalia – demonstrating once and for all that it’s pretty much impossible for Nick Nolte to enter a room inconspicuously. (Which was awesome.)

Gotta side with Bob on this one though, as the film is somewhat dreadful. Adapted from travel writer Bill Bryson’s memoir about hiking the Appalachian Trail with an estranged high school friend, A Walk In The Woods is broad, sitcommy and would by all rights probably be unwatchable if it didn’t happen to star Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. A spiritual sequel to the Grumpy Old Men franchise, this often ignominious effort from Dunston Checks In director Ken Kwapis offers the not inconsiderable pleasure of two old pros outclassing their surroundings at every turn. Sheer charisma compensates for hacky gags, almost.

Redford is a deft comedian, and the mountainous wreck that is Nolte mines regret from shopworn lines like: “I spent half my life getting drunk and chasing pussy. The other half I wasted.” A shame these talents are in service of such a slapdash vehicle, with one particularly chintzy soundstage papier-mâché “nature” set rivaling The Bucket List for barely disguised, Burbank “location” shooting.

A much more tolerable version of this sorta thing can be found in Paul Weitz’s Grandma, which isn’t what you’d call a well-made movie but at least has the good sense to let Lily Tomlin run wild for ninety minutes or so. Amusingly, during the Q&A, Little Fockers director Weitz admitted that while shooting the otherwise lamentable Admission he wanted to see a film that allowed bit player Tomlin to star in every scene – a sentiment already echoed by pretty much anybody who sat through Admission – so he went out and made one.

Here’s Lily as a down-on-her-luck, mean old lesbian trying to help her ungrateful offspring (Julia Garner) drum up six hundred bucks for an abortion. Tomlin’s playing the Billy Bob Thornton role here, as a tough-talking, take-no-prisoners sort on a journey through her checkered past asking for money on her own terms. It’s a klutzy picture, but sometimes a surprising one. Sam Elliott is missing his moustache and has some shockingly moving moments as Lily’s former flame.

Like A Walk In The Woods, Grandma benefits from giving big showcase roles to legendary movie stars we’re probably not going to see too much of anymore, so enjoy them while they’re still around.

Which is odd because Sundance is usually a place where actors go to play against type, and this has never backfired so much in my experience than in the case of True Story. A lousy, ripped-from-the-headlines procedural about a disgraced former New York Times journalist falling under the hypnotic spell of an accused child-murderer, writer-director Rupert Goold’s debut feature stars Jonah Hill and James Franco. It’s also not a comedy.

Now I happen to think Jonah Hill turned out to be a very good actor (a pal recently pointed out that his turn in The Wolf Of Wall Street was the most legitimately dangerous, anything-can-happen performance in a Scorsese picture since Pesci in GoodFellas) and James Franco can be quite decent whenever he quits mucking about with the multitasking. But this thing is a dud for reasons that have nothing to do with the casting, much as the trailer might look like a Funny Or Die sketch.

True Story is pedestrian at best, the two stars so much sharper than Goold’s hackneyed material and semi-competent staging they actually lend it a gravity the rest of the film never earns. The laughably telegraphed revelations wouldn’t cut it as CBS prime-time fodder. It’s like a Joe Eszterhas movie without the sex.

Speaking of sex and comedians, Sarah Silverman makes quite an entrance in I Smile Back. With a nose full of blow and her face smushed into a pillow, this is a chilling portrait of a have-it-all suburban soccer-mom’s spiral into depression and self-destruction. She wrecks everything because she can — because she needs to — masturbating with her daughter’s teddy bear before collapsing in a heap of tears.

Adapted from Anna Koppelman’s novel by director Adam Salky (Koppelman co-wrote the screenplay with Paige Dylan), I Smile Back dodges most pitfalls of the addiction-recovery-relapse genre and has the decency to not try and explain away the character’s behavior with pat Freudian excuses so common for this sort of picture. It’s a slim, shadowy one-woman-show, with Silverman shedding every last vestige of her onstage persona and gazing long into to the abyss.  A tough sit, but that ending sticks in your gut.

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