When fall begins, so does the new movie season, and it all happens at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival, a.k.a. TIFF. This is the biggest, friendliest, most organized film fete in the world and a launching pad for both Hollywood Oscar contenders and small low-budget independents, which in the downturn of today’s economic meltdown amounts to the same thing. The crowds seem larger than ever this year as 300,000 people beg, fight and grovel for tickets to see in seven days 336 movies made by everyone from Madonna to Francis Ford Coppola. Politely, of course. This is Canada, not Cannes. For one whole week, you say goodbye to sleep and nutrition and learn to live on pizza and Dove bars. The Scotiabank Theatre, where most of the press screenings grind out from 8 a.m. to midnight, has even installed a Burger King. Nobody says you come to TIFF to get healthy.
Since the circus moved from plush Yorkville, with its Fifth Avenue shops and four-star hotels, all the way across the city to the seedy downtown entertainment gridlock of trattorias, discos, nightclubs and discount marts, a nonstop chorus of bitching and moaning about the “good old days” now competes with the noise of traffic gridlock. Screenings are held all over this vast city, with no fewer than 20 films per hour in every venue, forging an overcrowded schedule of events that often leaves you only a few minutes between movies. If you catch W.E., the roundly panned new film about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor amateurishly directed by Madonna (my advice is “Don’t!”), you miss the red-carpet arrival of Rob Lowe on an elephant. If, shortly after dawn, you wander with bloodshot eyes that might serve for target practice into an early-morning screening of a controversial Austrian film called Michael, you miss the Robert DeNiro press conference. Michael, a demented shocker about a mousy insurance salesman whose quiet, lonely existence without a friend, wife or significant other evokes sympathy until the neighbors discover he’s actually a child molester who keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in the cellar, outraged viewers for treating a pedophile with normal compassion (his mother loves him and his sister worries that he will spend Christmas alone). A lot of curiosity seekers on the scent of a festival scandal headed for this one but mistakenly ended up in another film from India, also called Michael, about a police officer destroyed by guilt after he kills an innocent child in a crowd of protestors who ends up illegally selling pirated Bollywood films. It’s not a comedy.
Confusion reigns, but you grab your survival kit of eye drops, noiseless candy with no plastic wrappers and (if you’re lucky) a friend to talk to while you stand in line, and head for the movies. President Obama’s job recovery package and eyewitness memories of 9/11 compete for crawl space sandwiched between headlines chronicling rock concerts and the arrival of Madonna. You give up trying to see everything faster than you can say “It looks like the entire Russian Army spent the summer in Keira Knightley’s hair,” but since no Canadian taxi meter ever registers less than $20 a fare, if you try to see even three films a day, you can spend a month’s rent before you get out of Toronto without maxing out your credit card. That doesn’t stop anyone from trying. The city is famous for its rabid film buffs, camping out in the streets before dawn waiting for the box offices to open. And the stars themselves are as much drawn to the chaos as the fans. Kathleen Turner, Jane Fonda, Ewan McGregor, Glenn Close, Albert Brooks, Allison Janney, Nicolas Cage, Antonio Banderas, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling, Gina Gershon, Clive Owen, Woody Harrelson, single-at-last Robin Wright (she finally dropped the Penn), Ralph Fiennes, bizarre Tilda Swinton, they’re all here, and new celebrity faces arrive on every plane. At a party celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sony Pictures Classics, I accidentally knocked a glass of merlot out of the hands of a comely dish who turned out to be Bryce Dallas Howard.
George Clooney is here, as both an actor and director, competing with Brad Pitt to prove who was the most bored and miserable at their press conferences. Mr. Pitt premiered his new baseball film and continued his campaign to disfigure his good looks as much as possible. With days of whiskers and long greasy hair resembling a rat’s nest, and looking like a Bowery bum in a homeless shelter, he was terrific as the fast-talking, quick-thinking, risk-taking Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane in Moneyball, but a real mess in person. It was hard to tell who was more uncomfortable—Mr. Clooney, Mr. Pitt or Angelina Jolie, who trailed six feet behind her husband, acting shy, her purse attached to her tattooed arms with a gold chain, refusing to talk to reporters or pose for photos, and giving an unconvincing performance as an “I just came along for moral support” trophy wife. At Mr. Clooney’s press confab, he said nothing of any importance and seemed annoyed with any reporter who expected more. Ironic, isn’t it? Mr. Clooney lives the fantasy life of a 13-year-old boy in public, yet gets testy if anyone brings up his personal life. Color him one of the luckiest actors alive. Of his two current acting jobs, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, a clumsy soap opera about a wealthy family in Hawaii, was a mixed blessing. Playing a man who has built an empire out of real estate law and neglects his wife and two daughters until they hardly know him, he experiences a reversal of conscience when his wife suffers brain damage in a boating accident and ends up in a coma. Playing remorse, guilt, the responsibility of a late-blooming parent and rage when he discovers the wife was cheating on him and planning a divorce at the time of her hospitalization, the role requires more depth and emotional range than Mr. Clooney is able to convey with much realism, but he looks good in a colorful wardrobe of gaudy Hawaiian shirts and beach shorts. Although he works hard to master a complex role for which he is basically miscast, The Descendants succeeds unevenly and disappoints hugely.
More satisfyingly, he has directed a very fine political film, The Ides of March, a tough, realistic and cynical morality tale about a popular liberal governor running for president whose political future is jeopardized by the dark, hidden weaknesses in his personal life. In a role as relevant as election-year headlines, Mr. Clooney gives a believable, chilling performance of slick duplicity and deceit, and his direction smoothes out the details with riveting relish. The role is a composite of all the camera-ready politicians who have done us wrong in recent years, and with easy smiles, self-deprecating humor and a tongue sugar-coated with crowd-pleasing liberal rhetoric, Mr. Clooney falls into the role without much labor, doing what he does easily. He isn’t required to do much more than dazzle with charm. It is really Ryan Gosling who steals the film as the Democratic candidate’s ambitious and ruthless press secretary who will stop at nothing to climb the ladder and take over as his boss’s chief campaign manager. This is a star in the making who is showing unimpeachable signs of his own rise to power in two films causing a sensation at TIFF. He is also Canadian, so this is something of a victorious homecoming.