It has been a long week, and the festival blues are kicking in; Many of the members of the industry have left town, the screenings are less frequent and the exhaustion of seeing five or six films a day has started to wear on me. There have been many surprises for me this year, but none more so than the steady stream of sturdy American independent films. Yes, there have been some real duds and yes, the documentary section has once again provided the majority of the festival’s thrills, but all in all, most of the films have featured very strong performances and have been enjoyable. Always on the lookout for a thematic hook upon which to hang my own festival experience, I also believe that Sundance 2007 will go down in history as The Year of The Asshole.
In almost every single fiction (and, come to think of it, non-fiction) film I have seen at this year’s festival, white American (heterosexual) masculinity has been exposed as the playground of self-serving, foul-mouthed, misunderstood pricks whose sole mission in life is to destroy the happiness of women and their fellow men. As a white American heterosexual man, I can understand how watching the constant parade of cultural and political douchbaggery might impact people’s perceptions of what the tropes and parameters of the white guy ethos actually look like, but are we really that bad? It’s almost enough to inspire introspection! Almost.
I was speaking to my good friend David after one particularly divisive screening, and as he excoriated a certain film for its unbelievable representation of female tolerance and forgiveness in the face of rampant numbskull masculinity, the pieces fell into place; It is a tough year for the boys at the movies, although maybe these guys are better than the neutered, incompetent drips that represent us on television. Where are the heroes? Ok, maybe asking too much; Where are the likeable men?
Let’s take a look at the long sad parade of assholes that have dominated this year’s Sundance…(Spoliers abound, but that’s why you’re reading, right?)
Expired by Cecilia Miniucchi
At the top of the pile, Jason Patric’s performance as Jay in Cecilia Miniucchi’s inspired romantic comedy Expired is perfection; The über-asshole to end all assholes. An emotionally detached internet porn addict with a self-regard that would make Friedrich Nietzsche blush, Patric’s Jay lives to send mixed messages to sweet, unloved Claire (Samantha Morton, in a lovely performance that reads like Sweet and Lowdown with the mute button off). His preening, sexually destructive self-involvement is perfectly played and well written; Jay is such a jerk, he somehow spins every compliment he receives into an insult, using each and every opportunity to claim victimization and prop himself up. Miniucchi knows men more deeply than most of us would like to admit; Fractured and damaged, unable to confront his own failure, Patric’s wonderful performance allows Jay’s vulnerability to somehow leak through the cracks in his armor and we can understand why Claire would seek his attentions. That said, this is a recognizable if depressing picture of American masculinity at its most deluded.
Dedication by Justin Theroux
Billy Crudup’s Henry takes the silver medal in Justin Theroux’s Dedication, the story of an OCD children’s book author who just can’t say anything nice to anyone, ever, until he meets Lucy (Mandy Moore), a young illustrator and unexpected collaborator who he humiliates for a month before realizing how great she is. That is, of course, too late because she’s already engaged to a two-timing scholar and author (Martin Freeman) who is a worse asshole than Henry because he’s British and polite. At least Henry lets Lucy know where she stands. In the race between a blunt needy jerk and a lying privileged prat, only one man can win Lucy’s heart. Who will she choose? The movie is stylish and terrific, with uniformly wonderful performances and Theroux shows some serious chops as a director (with great musical tastes), but we do see a trend emerging…
Snow Angels by David Gordon Green
Take an ex-husband and father with a violent history and a deeply misguided understanding of religion, mix in a new boyfriend (and the husband of your best friend) who can’t keep his hands off of anyone (not even the “fat” woman at work, gasp!), add a sprinkle of a husband and father who abandons his family so he can selfishly explore his own mediocrity during his midlife crisis and you have found yourself standing in David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels, a tremendous accomplishment of heartbreak and loss that brings the American asshole to the small town. Sam Rockwell’s performance as the ex-husband Glenn is as angry and tormented a performance as I have seen at the festival, and Green does a nice job of oscillating our sympathies between Glenn and his ex-wife Annie (Kate Beckensale), that is until Glenn, in his frustration, punches her in the face. Nicky Katt (a notorious on-screen asshole) plays a half-assed Lothario named Nate who can’t find a home he won’t casually wreck while Griffin Dunne’s mopey Don leaves his wife and teenaged son for a shitty apartment and an affair that goes nowhere (“She didn’t like the parts of you that suck,” his son shouts at him). As bleak and cold as a small town appears when buried under snow and unspoken desires, Snow Angels‘ vision of adult manhood is that much more depressing; The film has more bastards per capita than any other film at Sundance. A great movie with deeply flawed characters (and one of the best of this festival in my opinion), Snow Angels trades flair for human feeling and ultimately devastates.
Waitress by Adrienne Shelly
Maybe Jeremy Sisto and Nicky Katt could battle it out for most under-appreciated on-screen jerk, but in Waitress, Sisto (whose Billy on HBO’s Six Feet Under never failed to give everyone the creeps) rises above the fold to play one of the great cretins of this festival, Jenna’s (Keri Russell) needy, controlling husband Earl. Adrienne Shelly (who I miss so much already) understood the small, character-defining traits of the American asshole, giving Sisto plenty of wonderful material with which to work; The way the man’s car horn beeps over and over again before he has even arrived on the scene heralds the continuous arrival of a colossal imbecile. Earl also gets great dialogue, delivering one of the most awful statements any woman could ever hear: “Promise me you’ll never love the baby more than you love me.” Yeah, we don’t see where this is going. A straw man seemingly cut from the Dixie Chicks mold (with matching name to boot), it’s hard to begrudge anyone kicking this dick to the curb, so when the moment arrives (a faux-girl power moment that decisively brings Jenna to the promised land of single motherhood), the temptation is to cheer. The movie is a sweet fantasy that is part Like Water For Chocolate and part Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but it delivers a vision of men that is less than flattering; Male obsolescence is the path to female happiness.
Protagonist by Jessica Yu
No film at Sundance lays bare the global reach of male certitude like Jessica Yu’s exquisite Protagonist, a movie that examines the classical narrative path of four male lives; A bank robber, a kung fu enthusiast, a German terrorist, and a closeted gay evangelical. The key to understanding these men is in recognizing their self-delusion and their willingness to buy into ideas and take drastic actions in order to satisfy their self-understanding. Thankfully, and most amazingly, each man finds change through introspection; By questioning their inner-asshole, the men discover that the charade of masculinity is merely another repressive system to conquer. Yu structures the film around the categories of classical tragedy, highlighting the common stages of self-realization and change in each man by paralleling them to the ancient structures of great stories. The conceit works, and as each man describes the journey to find his true self (some more engagingly than others), the film captivates and forces the thoughtful viewer to question his or her own life’s narrative.
Teeth by Mitchell Lichtenstein
A companion, perhaps, to Waitress, Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth is a proto-feminist revenge fantasy straight out of a Freudian nightmare: A young virgin and teen abstinence advocate (naturally) named Dawn (Jess Weixler) is seized by sexual desire and begins to explore her feelings. When the overzealous object of her affections decides it’s time to go all the way whether Dawn cares to go with him or not, things get ugly and the resulting rape is an inversion straight out of I Spit On Your Grave; Dawn’s vagina has teeth (vagina dentata) and she instantly castrates her young tormentor, who flees the scene and bleeds to death. Of course, Lichtenstein has a sense of humor, so we get plenty of shots of the severed penis (one with a crab crawling on it, a nice pun on the common teen STD). As Dawn begins a sexual awakening of sorts, the film becomes a parade of nasty bastards whose sole purpose in life seems to be the sexual exploitation of women; A creepy gynecologist who loses a few fingers, a seemingly innocent suitor who makes the mistake of mentioning his true intentions, and Dawn’s step-brother, the biggest asshole of all, who loses his genitals for good when Dawn shares her handywork with the pet dog. The film is intentionally hilarious and had the audience howling at the long string of castrations, but as a record of male behavior and representation, it is pure pathology. I was reminded of Ginger Snaps, a terrific and little seen Canadian horror film about a young woman’s coming of age that applies the same winking sense of humor, but truth be told, no film in recent memory will have men squirming in their seats and women snickering like I expect Teeth will.
The Good Life by Stephen Berra
A decent and heartfelt story about the limitations of life in a small, working class college town (Lincoln, Nebraska it seems), The Good Life is a sweet and engaging film that has ‘Sundance’ written all over it. As we follow our young protagonist Jason (a hairless Mark Webber) through the mean streets of the impoverished town, things are tough both at home (mom can’t pay the bills) and at work (his boss at the local movie theater is battling Alzheimer’s disease). But there is another problem lurking the shadows; That’s right, the town asshole, Tad (Chris Klein, playing a few miles away from type). Tad is that lowest of all twenty-somethings, a high school jock and bully who has failed by twenty-four and can’t come to grips with the fact that he will not, in fact, become a professional athlete. Instead, he spends his time taking speed and kicking the shit out of younger kids like Jason. Sure, every small town has the immature jock asshole, but Chris Klein’s performance as a psychopathic failure is spot-on and provides The Good Life with a dangerous sense of unpredictability.
Broken English by Zoe Cassavetes
In Zoe Cassavetes’ Broken English, Parker Posey turns in one of her best performances to date. A deeply human portrait of a woman looking for love in all the wrong places, Posey’s Nora is a wonderful character that gives the actress a chance to really stretch and deliver her signature laughs while bringing dramatic gravity to the story. Of course, the mission is to find true love, so Nora must run a gauntlet of unacceptable men who simply don’t fit the bill (Which is true. Just ask any single woman in Manhattan). First up, Justin Theroux, whose performance as a needy, clichéd actor who manipulates Nora into the sack only to reveal his true feelings on Access Hollywood is terrific. After a series of set ups and miserable dates with a vast array of wrong men (after all, we’re ALL the wrong man for most women, aren’t we?), Nora finally meets the boy of her dreams, who woos her long enough to reveal that he is moving back to Paris at the end of a romantic weekend. Will Nora find true love in a sea of assholes? Can she overcome her own neuroses and act on her own feelings? Broken English is a lovely addition to the ‘sex and the single girl’ genre, and while it’s hard to find a man for whom to root, one can’t help but root for Nora the whole way.
Eagle vs. Shark by Taika Waititi
A terrific and fun comedy that acts almost as a companion to Broken English, Taika Waititi’s Eagle vs. Shark follows Lily (Loren Horsley), a shy fast food cashier with a crush on video game store employee Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), a moron trapped in the glittering cage of his own past. Jarrod loves Lily for her video gaming skills, but those skills only go so far, and soon Lily is working way too hard to keep Jarrod’s interest in the face of his own vendetta against his high school tormenter. The movie‘s homage to the trappings of über-nerdom might remind audiences of Napoleon Dynamite (not that that’s such a bad thing), but in actuality, Eagle vs. Shark works on another level entirely because of Horsley’s performance as Lily; Her tenacious decency is the perfect antidote to Jarrod’s ridiculous asshole antics. Like many of the romantic comedies at Sundance this year, you’re left wondering what she sees in the jerk that allows her to continue on in the face of his constant cruelties, but unlike most of those other films, Eagle vs. Shark packs enough laughs to transcend common sense; The movie works because we want to see what these characters will do next.
Chapter 27 by J.P. Schaefer
Mark David Chapman (Jared Leto) shot John Lennon in the back after (mis)reading The Catcher In The Rye. I believe that is the very definition of an asshole, so I am not sure how much more needs to be said. J.P. Schaefer gets an engaging performance out of Jared Leto without giving him very much to do except stand in front of the Dakota for three days, ranting and raving and alienating everyone around him. Oh, and that accent; Leto’s whispering gosh-golly Georgia cum Hawaii interpretation of Chapman’s speaking voice makes us hate the character even more than we already did coming in. It’s a tough film with an engaging central performance, but nothing that brings us any closer to Chapman’s psychosis or his justifications for senseless murder.
No End In Sight by Charles Ferguson
Of all the assholes to grace the screen, none outraged me more than watching Donald Rumsfeld’s non-stop cavalcade of smirking lies in No End In Sight, Charles Ferguson’s point by point disemboweling of the Bush Administration’s handling of the war in Iraq. The chain of command, from the President to the Secretary of Defense on down to the ground-level implementation of a solution-free Iraq policy, was so soaked in useless idealism and delusion about the reality on the streets of Baghdad that today’s sectarian carnage seems to be the natural result of our government’s unfocused inaction. It is one thing to lie to the nation about the pretext for war, it is wholly another to engage in that war without a shred of a plan and then implement a reactionary response to the escalating (and completely foreseeable) violence; No End In Sight so eloquently outlines the natural progression of chaos from the looting in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion to the anarchy of the feudal militias of today that the film should be required viewing for all citizens. I heard more groans of disgust in the theater than I did in any other film at Sundance.
Delirious by Tom DiCillo
Steve Buscemi’s terrific performance as the self-absorbed loser photographer Les Galantine in Tom DiCillo’s Delirious was my first screening at the festival, and it set the tone for all of the other jerks to come; A member of the paparazzi whose bottom feeding career is guided solely by delusions of grandeur, Les is a star without a spotlight until he meets the naïve and kind Toby (Michael Pitt), a homeless kid who just wants a chance to orbit the world of celebrity and come home to a warm bed. Les loves the reflection of himself that Toby’s blank slate provides, until Toby finds his way into the world of the stars and Les promptly betrays the kid’s trust and is cast asunder. Buscemi has a tradition of playing loveable losers, but Les is more harsh and unlovable than most of his previous roles. Somehow, though, the character’s difficulty makes the film more enjoyable as the inevitable slights and tantrums unfold. Of all the losers on the screen at the festival, Buscemi’s Les somehow felt the most human. First come, first served.
Joshua by George Ratliff
Essentially a nightmarish coming out story with shades of The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby thrown in for good measure, George Ratliff’s Joshua is an angst-ridden and funny exposé of parental anxiety in the age of money and entitlement. Joshua (a terrifically creepy Jacob Cogan) is a sensitive, artistic nine-year-old boy who is suddenly thrust into the shadow of his newborn sister. Like any self-involved child, Joshua begins acting out, only, this being a thriller of sorts, he acts out by launching a methodically pernicious campaign to destroy his parents. To what end? While the film slowly reveals the depths of Joshua’s plan, it saves its juiciest revelation for the final frames; As Joshua serenades his gay (albeit only hinted at) uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts, showcased in a barrage of purple shirts, fashionably pin-striped suits and martinis) at the piano, the idea of an incestuous, homosexual awakening is proposed; Is Joshua a psychopathic little creep who is launching another operation of manipulation and destruction or is the kid coming out of the closet? I like to read the film in the latter sense, as the first gay horror film of the new century. It will be interesting to see how audiences react to the film; Will Fox Searchlight play the parental horror angle (most certainly) or will the coming out story at the heart of the film be recognized and promoted?
Crazy Love by Dan Klores
Burt Pugach is, as a documentary subject, perfection; A self-confessed bastard who never saw a spotlight into which he didn’t want to walk, the man at the center of Dan Klores’ terrific Crazy Love is the epitome of sleazy show business. When the object of his obsessions, a lovely young woman named Linda Riss, decides to marry another man, Pugach does what any right-minded bachelor with a crush would do; He hires three thugs to throw acid in her face and blind her. As a man, Pugach drove me insane if only because I know a lot of older men like him; So in love with himself and carrying such a sense of entitlement that he truly believes the world can’t stop him from doing whatever he wants to get what he wants. The fact that he does succeed in winning Linda’s heart after blinding her almost makes me think that she is getting what she deserves in him. One of the most nauseatingly egocentric people I have ever seen, Pugach was, hands down, the most troubling character I saw on screen at the festival because he is the real deal; The American male ego, so obsessed with the symbols of success (Cadillac plus nightclubbing plus beautiful girl equals self-esteem) that he will literally cut off his nose to spite his own face.
I’m pretty sure that being a man is a desirable and completely reasonable state of being, and I know that every protagonist needs an engaging antagonist, but I was looking forward to seeing a film about decent men who lead decent lives or even do something remarkable, which is why, by the time I got to In The Shadow of The Moon, I was blown away. Watching astronauts using scientific skill and their own bravery to conquer the almost unimaginable (still!) frontier of the lunar surface, I wanted to cheer. This year, the heroes were few and far between, but by the end of In The Shadow of The Moon, I felt redeemed; The cavalry arrived and reminded me of the power of movies and dreams. This year, good men were indeed hard to find, but once found? A revelation.
Nice to see you at the IndieWire party. I wonder if assholes are simply
in the zeitgeist. It seems as though the concept that guys are
basically just animals who see women as a collection of useful parts to
be arranged in ways that are useful and/or pleasurable is all around-
maybe just cause I’m getting older? I really had this idea from
reading novels that people were about romantic ideals and stuff, or
something. Or else that everyone is an asshole.