Heading into last week’s homestretch at the 28th Toronto International Film Festival, I began to realize, somewhere between The Best of Youth , a six-hour challenge about an embattled Italian family told against the unraveling social and political events of the last 40 years, and The Saddest Music in the World , one of an endless array of Canadian bores, with Isabella Rossellini playing a Winnipeg baroness and double amputee (I couldn’t make this stuff up) who hops around on two glass legs full of beer, that it was time to throw in the towel. I think my retreat happened somewhere during the first three hours of the 10-hour Chinese documentary West of the Tracks , a grim, paralyzing endurance test, narrated in Mandarin, about the desperate lives of post-Maoist laborers dying of lead poisoning in a smelting plant, an electrical-cable manufacturer and a sheet-metal factory. By the time I hit the exit door, my eyes had finally surrendered to the strain, and I won’t even go into the damage to my tailbone. At least I knew what I was missing: some good old American narrative storytelling, jazzed up with just enough razzle to let you know you’re no longer at home in your reclining La-Z-Boy with the microwave popcorn, running out of Caviar Helper. It used to be called entertainment-an element so sadly missing from film festivals that you couldn’t spot it with a telescope on loan from the Hayden Planetarium.
This, according to hard-core festival mavens, is as it should be. You go to Cannes or Berlin or Toronto, they remind you, to see innovative visions of the world you will never see again, not the standard Hollywood fare coming soon to a shopping mall nearby. I’ll buy that, but doesn’t anybody have any fun anymore? Toronto’s idea of an antidote to persistent Sturm und Drang was the deadly Mambo Italiano , a popular Montreal stage play hoisted onto the screen, possibly by a derrick. Flooded with shrieking Italian clichés, it drones on with tongue-in-cheek titters about a cop and a travel agent, two gay sons of old-country immigrants, who can’t tell their parents they are lovers. “Is your son gravely ill?” asks the priest. “No,” says the sobbing mother in the confessional, “he’s gravely gay.” With ugly furniture, ugly clothes, ugly hairdos and ugly wall paint (they all live in houses the color of fruit cocktail), these Italian stereotypes would put you to sleep in or out of the closet. Their noise and hand-waving are punctuated by hyperventilation, sitcom one-liners and lasagna. No tragedy is so hopeless it cannot be cured by a fresh batch of cannelloni. The butch cop bails, and the deserted travel agent who refuses to move back home to Mamma solves his dilemma by writing a lousy TV show about his experiences. My Big Fat Gay Italian Wedding ? Not very much to applaud here, except the producers’ clever merchandising techniques. Thanks, guys, for the pound of fettucine and the can of Contadina tomato sauce you sent me. I liked them better than everything else in Mambo Italiano put together.
More unveilings which have since moved on to mass consumption: Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men is a highly enjoyable caper comedy about a scam artist (Nicolas Cage, whose neurotic charm is shown to much better advantage here than in last year’s abysmal, overrated Adaptation ) whose life is turned into an upside-down cake when a teenage daughter he’s never met (the terrific Alison Lohman, who electrified audiences as Michelle Pfeiffer’s abandoned daughter in the underrated White Oleander ) shows up to invade his space and talk her way into a partnership in crime. The fact that Mr. Cage falls for fatherhood despite the fact that he has ignored his kid for 14 years, and despite the potential danger to a profession that could be embarrassing as well as compromised, comes as a shock to his affable, long-suffering partner, a fellow con artist (versatile, charismatic chameleon and rising superstar Sam Rockwell) who already has his hands full trying to collect on all the tax-free swindles and worthless products the pair have sold in exchange for bogus prizes that don’t exist. For a 14-year-old with larceny on her mind, Ms. Lohman is also a bit too sexy for her own good, which may lead viewers to suspicions I was too busy being entertained to entertain, if you know what I mean. Anyway, the trajectory of the witty script by Nicholas and Ted Griffin builds with consummate ease and more plot twists than a pretzel, thanks to Ridley Scott’s humorous action style-a refreshing change of pace from the director of Alien, Blade Runner , and Gladiator . This is a film that never lags in the number of shameless surprises it pulls off with panache. The first three-fourths of Matchstick Men seems to be a domestic drama about two flim-flam supremos and the girl who moves in on their hearts, with Mr. Cage delivering a colorful, bouncy performance as a chain-smoking, obsessive-compulsive agoraphobic overwhelmed by so many ticks and neuroses that a leaf in his swimming pool or a cracker crumb on his carpet can lead to panic and cardiac arrest. Then the film shifts gears again when the ultimate con backfires and all three of the “matchstick men” get mixed up in a murder which may or may not be what it seems-like the characters themselves. For a tough cookie who usually figures out everything in advance (when everyone was on the edge of their seats in The Sixth Sense , I was yawning), this film’s climax and postscript were so shocking I was knocked right out my socks.
Better still was Lost in Translation , Sofia Coppola’s careful, focused study of two lonely Americans with too much time on their hands in a Tokyo hotel. Bill Murray is superb as a faded film personality who may be over the hill in Hollywood’s changing youth market but still has fans in Japan, where his old movies dominate every digital Sony on the Ginza. Getting paid big bucks for a Japanese whiskey commercial, he wanders around with a face like raw limburger, a tall man among midgets, bemused by the culture clash, confused by the production crew that says L’s instead of R’s. Bored but unwilling to return home to a career and a marriage that are both on the skids, he runs into a bimbo plugging her new movie with Keanu Reeves, orders a prostitute who begs him to “Lip my sockings,” and gets subjected to a humiliating talk show with the “Johnny Carson of Japan.” Understandably, he becomes infatuated with another bored (and much younger) hotel guest, a neglected wife whose photographer husband is in Tokyo shooting a rock band (the enchanting Scarlett Johansson). With restraint, sweetness and a May-December camaraderie that is totally believable, this mismatched couple gets to know each other against a backdrop of the most splendid guided tour of Japan since Sayonara . Exploring the strangeness of the country, from its odd video parlors and exotic after-hours social clubs to its breathtaking tea houses and scenic postcard views of Mt. Fuji, two people touch each other in time and place and spirit, in ways that are understated and touching. The film is superbly lensed by Sofia Coppola, who has many of her father’s directorial flourishes, but an intimacy with actors he often eschews. I used to scratch my head over Bill Murray’s appeal, but the sallow, pock-marked complexion, the sad moo-cow eyes and the poker-faced blankness that make him the perfect pessimistic victim in comedies that are out of sync with the rest of the world are growing on me. He can stare motionless at the bizarre dimensions of an impossible miniature toilet in a Japanese men’s room and make me laugh. Many things in the cultural tangle between East and West are indeed Lost in Translation , but not Bill Murray’s subtle, wrinkled brand of rancid humor. His heavy-lidded Robert Mitchum eyes seem to be asking questions even when they are closed. We’ve got all sorts of unconventional contemporary movie heroes. Why not a querulous one?
But light pleasures were few. Signifying a return to the unique visions and unconventional styles of the 70’s, Toronto featured a plethora of U.S. films dealing with massive social confusion and the search for personal freedom in the sadness and injustice of marginalized American society. Movies about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that say: “We don’t care if you don’t like us-we don’t like you, either!” Movies that take on the church, the government and the military-industrial complex, defining new standards of virtue, sexuality, heroism and gender identity. In Gus Van Sant’s Elephant , non-professional teenagers re-enact the carnage of the Columbine high-school massacre. In 11:14 , horrible events on a night in American suburbia are told from different points of view as Hilary Swank helps rob a convenience store to pay for a girlfriend’s abortion, Rachael Leigh Cook is in the middle of an orgasm in a cemetery when a headstone falls off a statue and cracks her partner’s head wide open, Patrick Swayze as her overweight father throws the head off a bridge and smashes the windshield out of Henry Thomas’ S.U.V., causing a boy in a passing car to lose his penis while hanging out of the window in the confusion. In Pieces of April , the prolific actress Patricia Clarkson plays the terminally ill matriarch of a dysfunctional New Jersey family trying to make a Thanksgiving dinner with their estranged goth daughter on the Lower East Side. (Big comedy scene: Cancer-riddled Mom stops to vomit in a filthy highway gas station and loses her wig in the toilet.) In the disgusting Wonderland , Val Kilmer plays the heroin-addicted porn star John Holmes (a.k.a. Johnny Wadd), who was suspected of a group of savage murders in his twilight years between X-rated stardom and death from AIDS. Since he was never convicted, what’s the point?
Sex made a big comeback, and it was amazing how graphic it was. Meg Ryan, Ewan McGregor, Mark Ruffalo, Sean Penn and Naomi Watts all turned up naked onscreen. But nothing emerged from the New Age moral abyss in quite the same way as The Brown Bunny , a catatonic self-indulgence by the hugely talentless actor Vincent Gallo that was, in May, already formally labeled “the worst movie in the history of the festival” by critic Roger Ebert. (He must have forgotten the year Isabelle Adjani had sex with an octopus in a freak show called Possession .) Anyway, The Brown Bunny was heralded in Toronto as “audacious”, “innovative” and “quintessentially American,” but quickly became more accurately described as “The Epic Fellatio Movie.” It opens on about 10 minutes of repetitive shots of a motorcycle race, followed by an unshaven, glassy-eyed, greasy-haired bum who drives around the country in the rain with his motorbike strapped to his truck, silently observing America through his windshield wipers. He is played, more or less, by Mr. Gallo, the director-writer of small abilities and actor of none. He picks up a gas-station attendant named Violet and deserts her in the dust. Then he picks up Lilly and leaves her in the dust. (All of the wilted women are named after flowers, which constitutes the film’s only irony and prompts a lot of derisive audience laughter.) He drives some more. The camera closes in on the hundreds of hair follicles in his earlobes. He stops at a pet store and talks about the life expectancy and eating habits of bunnies. He drives some more in the rain. He stops at a motel, takes a shower, takes a nap. Several more encounters with girls. By this time, hordes of laughing people are walking out, making rude remarks. They all miss his arrival home. His girlfriend Daisy is not there. He goes to another seedy motel. Daisy shows up, hooked on crack. She is played by Chloë Sevigny, who ends the film with the Epic Fellatio Finale, filmed in detailed close-up in real time. He moans. He screeches. Is it acting, or what? Two and a half minutes later, it’s over. He calls her a whore and starts driving down the road again. It starts to rain. The End. All I could think of was, “Could this happen to Barbara Stanwyck if she was alive today?” At the press conference, Mr. Gallo was asked if the film had an American release date. “Are you kidding?” he answered. He also said he used to live with Ms. Sevigny when she was 14 years old, but her Epic Fellatio technique had improved since then. Ms. Sevigny giggled and said she didn’t like it when they were together but she likes it better now. I mean, you learn the damnedest things in Toronto.