The first big sales story out of the Toronto International Film Festival this year, James Gunn's "SUPER" derives much of its momentum from its positioning at the festival. Premiering in the midnight madness program, the movie operates in a more overt "fun" gear than the majority of that section, which also includes the Hong Kong fetish thriller "Red Nights" and the cliche-riddled eeriness of Brad Anderson's "Vanishing on 7th Street." By contrast, "SUPER" features Rainn Wilson in tights, nailing people on the head with a wrench. It's admirably wacky but savagely uneven, a factor lost on the scores of valiant defenders. "This is a very fucked up movie," said programmer Colin Geddes in his introduction to the world premiere, basically nailing the secret to its success.
As a maniacal farce about wannabe superheroes, Gunn's third feature (he anonymously co-directed "Tromeo and Juliet" in addition to 2006's "Slither") feels both strange and familiar. No matter how much Gunn would like to distance himself from the trend of indie stories about the everyman-turned-hero, "SUPER" bears marked similarities to the gleeful indulgence of violence in "Kick Ass," "Defendor" and "Special." But Gunn outdoes his predecessors in terms of sheer adrenaline rush alone. Noticeably low budget, "SUPER" raises the silliness to its breaking point. However, the brutality is never as amusing as Gunn thinks. Wilson's character, Frank, aims his wrench of justice at drug dealers and people cutting him in line, stabs one bad guy dozens of times and blows another to a million little pieces. Some satisfied viewers told me they found this graphic fixation "subversive," as if that excused the uninspired quality of the gags. I'm sorry, because I really wanted to like it, but a movie this audacious needs to land its punches with better accuracy.
I appreciate Gunn's hyperenergetic willingness to literally try anything regardless of whether or not it works (perhaps a remnant of his background making Troma films with Lloyd Kaufman), but the new movie is only intermittently amusing, overwhelmingly crude and always crudely assembled. That provides a sharp contrast to "Slither," his near-masterpiece of B-movie homage that's also legitimately scary. "SUPER" represents a step sideways for the filmmaker, although I can still admire the intensity with which he tries to bring a decent idea to life.
The movie's opening, for example, has plenty of promise: A trippy animated credits sequence shows Wilson's makeshift caped crusader, The Crimson Bolt, soaring through a collage of colorful urban imagery as he saves the day. Purposely upbeat, the credits form a fluid representation of the otherworldly fantasy that this broken man creates in his own mind. In truth, Frank has lived "a life of humiliation and rejection," as he explains in an early voiceover narration, and hits rock bottom when his wife (Liv Tyler) runs off with the local crime boss (Kevin Bacon).
And so the first signs of trouble come from the supporting cast: Tyler has virtually no lines of dialogue, spending most of the movie looking braindead, to the extent that she could have used a stand-in for the duration of the running time. Bacon simply plays a paper-thin bad guy. Later on, Ellen Page brings some welcome talent to the mix, showing up as an enthusiastic comic geek excited to join Wilson's klutzy mission, but so few people in Frank's world seem credible that his eccentric behavior gets normalized.
That's unfortunate, because the origin scene in which he has an epiphany to turn into a superhero is a twisted flash of genius. Cartoonish tentacles rip open Frank's skull and expose his brain; the hand of God reaches down from the heavens and endows his grey matter with sudden clarity. Watching this surrealistic absurdity in utter awe, I instantly wanted more. Yet right when he's getting somewhere, Gunn fires blanks.
The majority of "SUPER" involves thinly conceived slapstick and random, awkward developments. An abrupt sex scene between Wilson and Page (which might constitute rape) brings the appropriate silliness back to the table before Gunn retreats to an insipid finale with distracting racist overtones (a large, horny black man randomly appears as the head villain). Nevertheless, Page makes the most of an underwritten character bubbling with enthusiasm ("We totally fucking beat evil!" would be a nice line to include in the red band trailer), and Frank's demented persona suggests a promising direction for Wilson's movie career.
At the same time, his performance doesn't approach the potency of Seth Rogen in "Observe and Report," which strikes me as the steadier older brother to "SUPER." The stars of both movies portray crazy people convinced of their heroism, but the environment of "SUPER" is too flimsy to sustain the idea that Frank has gone nuttier than everyone around him.
TIFF's Midnight Madness program has a strong reputation for offering some of the more challenging genre movies to come out of the festival circuit, and also the source of the festival's greatest commercial appeal ("Saw" director James Wan's "Insidious" sold to Sony Pictures this year). Those two prospects are usually mutually exclusive -- the program's contents either push certain boundaries (such as the staircase abortion scene in "Inside" two years ago) or generate mass market thrills. Although its reputation implies otherwise, "SUPER" falls into the latter camp. Its impact amounts to a safe, if somewhat unhinged, commercial bet.
I wouldn't protest if "SUPER" gained major traction when IFC Films releases it in theaters, so that the wildly ambitious Gunn has the opportunity to stay in the game. Regardless, the overstated hype for his latest outing has gone far enough. "SUPER" is memorably unsatisfying, although I suppose that means it's just good enough to become a hit.