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Erica Abeel

Erica Abeel

Posted: September 15, 2009 03:41 PM

TIFF's Guilty Pleasures

What's Your Reaction?

Over halfway through the fest and I"m vowing to subsist after I get home on seaweed and brown rice. There are only so many lobster mini tacos and BLT's made with Dungeness crab a critic can consume. These delicacies were on offer at a Vanity Fair party for "Tanner Hall," a boarding school, girls-gone-wild opus from Tatiana von Furstenberg (daughter of D) and Francesca Gregorini. For Graydon Carter, Canadian native son, they actually shut down a whole stretch of Cumberland Street so the guests could proceed unhassled to their event. At the party none of the guests I spoke to had actually seen the film, which seems more the rule around here than the exception.

I also can't help feeling that some of the screen fare has been less compelling than the closing rounds of the U.S. Open, with cussing' Serena and the mighty forehand that brought down Roger. Nor have many towering works been in evidence -- though I'm excepting from this judgment Michael Haneke's Cannes win, The White Ribbon, and other auteurist films that I plan to see in New York.

Instead, the past day's crop of films has ranged from moderately interesting to guilty pleasure. In the first group Ricky Gervais's The Invention of Lying mines a rich comic vein, yet loses traction with a puerile romantic entanglement. Gervais posits a parallel world in Anytown USA where everyone tells the truth. Even the signs are candid, as in A Cheap Motel for Intercourse with Near Stranger. But in a genius-like flash, chubby loser Mark Bellison (Gervais) discovers he can turn his love life and career around by fibbing. This extends to his job as a screenwriter at Lecture Films, which conceives cinema as a talking head delivering a history lesson. Mark amusingly creates the first contemporary screenplay, a gallimaufry about the 13th century and the Great Ninja War.

In Invention Gervais makes provocative points about hypocrisy as the glue of society, taking aim at the American propensity to blather the truth and let it all hang out. He won't win any plaudits from organized religion when Mark invents the the promise of an afterlife to console his dying mother, reading to a crowd of followers his revelations from the "man in the sky" from tablets composed of Pizza Hut boxes.

Trouble is, Mark's designs on Jennifer Garner mark a reversion to formulaic romcom. And I simply don't get the point, by the way, of actors like Garner. She's from Ingenue Central, acting-challenged, and could spend her time more productively just being Mrs. Ben. In general, all the American actresses in this year's TIFF lineup resemble generic perfect fembots, and you long for such signs of life as a little sag, bag, or wrinkle.

In the category of guilty pleasure count Oliver Parker's Dorian Gray -- though colleagues stumbled from the screening declaring it a dog. Parker has confected a rather literal adaptation of Oscar Wilde's famous novel about innocent young Dorian (Ben Barnes), who sells his soul to retain his youth and beauty. But a portrait of Dorian painted by an artist who desires his dishy model reflects the true putrefaction of Dorian's soul.

I enjoyed the tone of Gothic horror, set at the outset during the credits with putrefying letters and continued with miasmas swirling through the dark city and glittering dens of vice. I also seriously coveted the genteelly tattered English rugs gracing Dorian's mansion. As Henry, Dorian's instructor in corruption, Colin Firth has a ball with Wilde's famous epigrams ("The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it" and the like). But the CGI version of the monstrous portrait, complete with ghastly larvae spilling from the eyeballs, is cheesy and laughable -- nor can it compete with Wilde's verbal equivalent. The orgy scenes are not only silly -- male directors always manage to make this stuff a turnoff; maybe Parker should have hired an orgy choreographer. Most damning, Parker never teases out the homosexual subtext in a Victorian tale about love that dare not declare its name; never explores the idea that Henry orchestrates Dorian's corruption as a way of acting out his own desire.