SUNDANCE 2017: PART ONE

Landline - Still 1

My first dispatch from Park City kicks off with an inconvenient celebrity slighting on opening night, followed by yet another dud that doesn’t deserve Melanie Lynskey. Obvious Child‘s team returns with witty and sophisticated follow-up, but I’m underwhelmed by the festival’s first big darling. Finally, founder Robert Redford and an all-star cast whiff on their way to Netflix.

I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE  * 1 / 2

LANDLINE  * * * 1 / 2

THE BIG SICK  * * 1 / 2

THE DISCOVERY  * *

Opening night of the thirty-third Sundance Film Festival took place the evening before the inauguration of America’s forty-fifth President, so it made strange sort of sense that my first celebrity sighting on my sixth visit to Park City was the former V.P. who won the popular vote in 2000. On a nervous night when most folks I encountered seemingly couldn’t stop talking politics no matter how much we wished that we could, I spotted a svelter-than-usual-looking Al Gore shaking hands on his way into the premiere of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power.

Alas, there weren’t enough seats left in the venue for your humble correspondent to snag one — which was actually fine by me, as the last thing I needed at that particular moment was another reason to be scared shitless about the future. Besides, anyone who attends a lot of film festivals will tell you that Opening Night Gala selections are almost always lousy and as far as movie-making goes An Inconvenient Truth wasn’t all that hot in the first place. (Sorry.)

Another fairly hard-and-fast rule of film festivals is that Melanie Lynskey is always better than the middling movies she’s stuck in. And boy, is that the case with I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore. Despite a title that sums up what most people here are thinking right now, the movie itself is a smug and stupidly violent Coen brothers knock-off that will once again have you wondering who picks Lynskey’s scripts.

The cherubic Kiwi actress stars as a sad-sack nurse battling depression with fantasy novels and Coors Light. After her house is burglarized she’s pissed off by the local police indifference and enlists her goofball neighbor (Elijah Wood, wildly miscast in a Danny McBride role) to help solve the crime herself. Wood wears retro 1970s fashions while fighting with nunchucks and Chinese throwing stars. (I honestly can’t fucking believe it’s the year 2017 and we’re still doing jokes about hayseed white guys using nunchucks.)

You might remember writer-director Macon Blair as the star of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, or maybe as the club manager in Green Room. He’s got his collaborator’s penchant for abrupt, splattery bloodshed but none of Saulnier’s seriousness of purpose. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World begins promisingly enough, focusing on Lynskey’s loneliness. But the movie rapidly degenerates into an unpleasantly jokey demo reel of sudden and grisly ways in which characters can get killed.

Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child was a huge breakout hit here three years ago, though personally I found the “abortion comedy” rather irritatingly over-indulgent of Jenny Slate’s protagonist — a standup comic who wasn’t nearly as funny as the film seemed to think she was. Robespierre has re-teamed with Slate and co-writer Elisabeth Holm for Landline, a far more interesting and ambitious follow-up that succeeds in part because this time Jenny Slate is *supposed to be* annoying.

Set in 1995, the film finds an upscale Jewish family in Greenwich Village knocked for a loop when their failed-playwright-turned-ad-exec father (John Turturro) is discovered to be having an affair. The movie meanders in a manner I found quite pleasing, willing to follow the characters through interactions at work or at home without imposing big thematic burdens on everything. It’s got the loose, urbane feel of eighties Woody Allen, a debt cleverly acknowledged when one character asks: “Want to get high and watch Zelig?”

It’s a real pleasure to watch Slate and newcomer Abby Quinn as bickering sisters brought together by the ordeal, especially since the former is having an affair of her own. And is there an actress who gets cheated on better than Edie Falco? (Turturro and Falco playing Jenny Slate’s parents is some genius-level casting.) Landline wasn’t well-liked amongst most of my colleagues here at the festival, but over the past few days I have at odd times found my thoughts returning to these flawed, funny characters and the movie that’s generous enough not to judge them.

So far “the big story” at Sundance has been The Big Sick, an entertainment journalist’s wet dream scripted by Silicon Valley‘s Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon about the early days of their relationship. (Nanjiani stars as himself, while Emily’s role goes to the luminous Zoe Kazan at her most glowingest.) Produced by Judd Apatow with his patented indifference to humane running times and pathological aversion to story structure, the movie begins with familiar, exhausted riffs about our immature, standup comic man-child hero, differentiated from the usual Apatow-vian slobbos only by his Pakistani background and old-world family trying to push him into an arranged marriage.

The hook — and it’s a very good one — is that a few weeks after a bad breakup Emily ends up in medically induced coma, and after a misunderstanding at the hospital Kumail is stuck chaperoning her parents through the most harrowing experience of their lives. Emily’s folks are played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano in a couple of performances so wonderful you’ll wish they had a movie of their own. It’s a brilliant pairing — long, lanky Romano and his low-pitched honk alongside the diminutive nuclear spitfire with a twang. Just looking at them together makes me smile.

But jeez, that screenplay. Much like its cousin Trainwreck, The Big Sick has so many endings I started to put on my coat at least four times thinking it was time to leave, only to discover with a sigh there was still a lot more movie to go. Kumail’s comedy career is a pretense for go-nowhere improvs with over-indulged and under-developed supporting players. (Remember what I was saying a few paragraphs ago about stand-ups in films?) This isn’t a *bad* movie per se, but it is an extremely frustrating one that left me longing for the days when rom-coms weren’t structured like The Return Of The King.

It was a cheeky bit of programming for Sundance to screen The Discovery, an upcoming Netflix Original Movie that stars Robert Redford as a charismatic cult leader running a secluded lab full of sycophantic followers in an off-season resort town. Alas, the fun stops there, as writer-director Charlie McDowell’s sophomore effort kicks off with a couple of massively awkward exposition dumps and never quite finds its footing.

It seems that Redford’s half-mad scientist has discovered definitive proof of an afterlife, resulting in an epidemic of suicides all over the world. Jason Segel is way out of his league as Redford’s skeptical neurologist son, playing off a similarly uneasy Rooney Mara as his bottle-blonde love interest. Like McDowell’s similarly inscrutable first feature, The One I Love, the sci-fi plot is just a barely-explained pretext for philosophical musings and drab cinematography.

I must confess that I briefly got excited because it feels for awhile like we’re headed for a gonzo Oedipal twist – but McDowell settles for an ending much safer and infuriatingly vague. This year’s Red Lights, The Discovery the kind of high-minded, star-studded belly flop one usually only finds at film festivals. And I guess now also on Netflix.

 

Advertisements

Comments are closed.