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Marshall Fine

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Live from Sundance Film Festival: Wednesday, Jan. 25

Posted: 01/26/2012 7:45 pm

I feel as though I carved a solid four days of films out of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, concluding with a final day that offered four films, the best of which was at once mysterious and compelling.

Written and directed by the team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, The Words has a variety of interesting things to say about the nature of creativity and art, and what the work says about the artist. But it offers them within an intensely human dilemma that keeps you as focused on the drama as on what the drama is about.

The Words begins with Dennis Quaid, as the author of a bestselling novel, giving a public reading from his book. In the story within the story, Bradley Cooper plays a man whose greatest dream is to be a writer -- so he has devoted the last two years of his life to writing a novel. He believes his book will have enough success to justify the fact that he has not earned a living in those two years, relying on his father's financial support. When his novel is rejected, he does take a job, in the mailroom at a literary agency.

On his honeymoon in Paris, he buys a weathered leather briefcase in which he later discovers a hidden manuscript. And not just any manuscript: this is a work of genuine literary genius. He is so envious of the anonymous author, so overcome by the notion that he'll never write this well, that he retypes the manuscript to feel what it's like to write like this -- then claims it as his own.

The book is released to both critical acclaim and commercial success, which he has longed for. But lies never disappear, and this one eventually catches up with him.

Cooper is good here, playing the anguished and envious would-be artist who writes himself into a corner, as it were. But Jeremy Irons, as a stranger with a commanding presence, nearly steals the movie from him. It's all bookended by Quaid, as the author with his eye on a student fan (Olivia Wilde) who may be interested in him romantically. But as the writer-directors remind us, the author is not the work -- and Quaid's character may not be the sensitive type, just a writer with the ability to write sensitive fiction.

I also liked Michael Walker's Price Check, which offers Parker Posey a long-needed role infused with the alternately dark and kooky energy that is Posey's specialty. Walker has written her an exceptional character as Susan, a pricing-and-marketing executive for a low-level grocery chain, who arrives to shake up a sleepy regional branch on Long Island. She sets her cap for Pete Cosy, a guy with a wife, kid, and debts -- but the most solid guy in the department.

Eric Mabius brings considerable deadpan skills to Pete's encounters with Posey's Susan, who sweeps into the office determined to take the company's national marketing in a bold new direction to try to win back market share. Pete, who says early on that he just wants to "do the job, then go home and spend as much time with a my family as I can," finds himself seduced into a promotion that promises to cure his financial ills -- in exchange for taking over his life. Both he and his wife are easily co-opted by that massive raise he receives, but they experience a sudden dramatic shift in the shape of their lives, because Pete is always working.

Walker gets it exactly right: the fear of losing a job at a time when whole industries are laying people off, the recognition that you don't really have a choice anymore when the boss asks you to work late -- or do anything else.

It's a delight to see Posey spouting Walker's dialogue, a kind of passive-aggressive bad-boss-speak. Mabius keeps a straight face at Posey's unpredictable, sometimes nerve-wracking performance.

I wanted to like Christopher Neil's Goats, about Ellis (a very good Graham Phillips), a Tucson adolescent who rebels against his new-agey trust-fund mother (Vera Farmiga). He applies to (and is accepted at) his father's old East Coast prep school, though he and his father have been estranged for years, mostly through the maneuverings of his mother.

His best friend is a family chum known either as Goatman or Javier, long-haired and bearded (but David Duchovny underneath) family retainer, who cleans the pool, does the gardening, mentors Ellis, and lives in the pool house (and, yes, keeps goats).

In this prep-school coming-of-age tale, the hero, a bright stoner whom neither parent seems to actually notice, learns that, in fact, most adults have feet of clay, in disappointing ways. It's a time-honored genre, but Goats is neither funny nor deep enough to do it in a satisfying way. Duchovny offers better wisecracks on a weekly basis on Californication than he does in this film.

I also found Mosquita y Mari underwhelming.

This commentary continues on my website.

 
 
 

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