The 24th Annual Sundance film festival opened last night with multiples bangs, from the sloppy gunfire that punctuated the indie fest's premiere, In Bruges, to those on Robert Redford's wrinkly forehead. Ever earnest and self-effacing and fuzzily political (see Lions for Lambs), Mr. Redford stood up at the Eccles Theater podium in Park City and boldly discussed how the festival was about Discovery and Change. As for "the word change," a noun that's huge among both the Obama and Clinton camps -- and a frequent Colbert target -- the Waspily impassioned AARP actor went on to say to the adoring audience, "I'll leave that to the political candidates' good sense. You'd have to be Rip Van Winkle not to notice the country needs change in the last six years."
But, given the big wind-up, Redford's self-congratulatory yet vague notion of change (we all know what it means, don't make us spell it out) should have been exemplified by the subsequent screening, presumably Exhibit A of his agenda. The sharply written and arch In Bruges follows knockabout hit men Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. After the younger man botches a London hit, killing both the priest target and an innocent lad, boss Ralph Fiennes exiles the pair to the picturesque Belgian city until further notice.
True, unlike the indies from the scratchy socks 'n Birkenstocks days when I first came to Sundance in the '80s, the Gal Young 'Un era when local real estate was affordable for locals, booze was in short supply and seeing a big star meant watching John Sayles play pool in the Elks' Lodge, In Bruges is propulsive entertainment. No smoking gun is spared, no blood squib unburst. It's a movie about hit-man morality, and all three actors get to find the complexity in their characters -- cry, rage, die slow and dramatic deaths. It's an actor's dream.
But change? Well, it is set in Bruges, not New York or LA.
But the female characters here are of two stripes: prostitutes and dream riders of the purple romantic B-plot. They are from places -- Amsterdam or Belgium -- but they're not from anywhere specific. They lack fathers, mothers, pasts or futures, context. They're starved for a dramatic arc.
The women of In Bruges are universally attractive. That includes a gorgeous prostitute snogging with a wee man (or a midget as Farrell's character repeatedly calls him). The love interest, a shiny-haired drug-dealer who looks great in lingerie, is absolutely unfazed by Farrell's admitted profession -- he kills priests and kids for money. Their mutual adoration is as pure as the driven Belgian snow because the assassin looks like chocolate-eyed Colin Farrell (for feck's sake) with a clever screenwriter feeding him pick-up lines (writer-director Martin McDonagh). He's not some random loser Brit hit man.
Don't get me wrong: I embrace starting the festival off with a good laugh. And revel in strong male acting. The movie has both. Nevertheless, putting the lie to festival honcho Geoffrey Gilmore's ecstatic catalog notes describing a film "infused with a moral vision that resonantly reflects today's surreal world," the movie is as vapid as a primary campaign promise.
As for change? Even Rip Van Winkle would wake up and snort at that notion.