Good comedy is a precious commodity -- and one you don't find with much abundance at an event that takes itself as seriously as the Sundance Film Festival.
Yet three of the four films I saw at Sundance 2011 on Saturday not only fit the bill but acquitted themselves nicely. And the three came from a trio of different countries -- the U.S., Ireland and Norway -- offering a refreshing example of the various shapes and forms that comedy can take.
My favorite was the first of the day, The Guard, the kind of darkly comic crime tale that the Irish seem to have a patent on. The fact that first-time writer-director John Michael McDonagh has a cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Fionnula Flanagan and Liam Cunningham in his cast -- well, talk about the luck of the Irish.
The title character is a rowdy and unorthodox police sergeant, Gerry Boyle, played by the wonderfully cocky and sarcastic Gleeson. He's a small-town cop in Connemara who finds himself awash in big-city crime: a murder that turns out to be part of a cocaine-smuggling operation worth a half-billion dollars.
It's so big that the bigger-city cops from Galway bring in an FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Cheadle), who is immediately rubbed the wrong way by Boyle's wonderfully politically incorrect talk. But the two eventually find enough common ground to develop mutual respect, even as they unravel the mystery of when and where this massive drug shipment will arrive.
But it's McDonagh's wicked one-liners -- and the skillful timing of Gleeson and Cheadle -- that gives this movie its spice. The plot is an excuse for their give-and-take -- and for the wonderfully odd exchanges by the team of erudite bad guys: Cunningham, Strong and David Wilmot, three psychopaths first glimpsed debating the merits of Nietzsche vs. Bertrand Russell.
I'm not sure why these limber, witty Irish films - things like Perrier's Bounty and A Film With Me In It -- don't find a bigger audience in the U.S. Perhaps it's the accents -- but, maybe, having Cheadle in the cast is enough for The Guard to break through to American movie-goers.
I also had fun with Happy Happy, a debut film from Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky. Set in a remote village in Norway, the film examines the impact of the arrival of a new couple, a pair of Danes, in the neighborhood. The new arrivals are Sigve and Elisabeth (Henrik Rafaelsen and Maibritt Saerens), two good-looking church-goers who have adopted an African orphan. They completely dazzle Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), a middle-school teacher who is perpetually upbeat, despite a less-than-fulfilling marriage to Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), her high-school sweetheart.
Kaja is relentless in her efforts to socialize with Sigve and Elisabeth -- and one evening she blurts out that Eirik hasn't slept with her in more than a year. Before even she can think about it, she has launched a passionate affair with Sigve, who bears grudges of his own against Elisabeth.
These things never stay secret for long. But Sewitsky has other layers to reveal about this story that deepen the laughs and, ultimately, also bring a note of melancholy to the comedy. But Kittelsen offers a joyous openness to the reawakened Kaja and Saerens has a seductive hauteur that can't quite stand up to her adoring neighbor's onslaught of, well, neighborliness.
The other comedy was Jesse Peretz's My Idiot Brother, a film that casts Paul Rudd as Ned, someone still caught up in a hippie lifestyle. He's living the commune life in the 21st century, and just wants to trust and help his fellow man. He's so trusting that he sells weed to a uniformed cop -- who asks him to sell it to him and tricks him into doing it -- and winds up in prison for a few years.
When he gets out, he discovers that his old organic-farming girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) has not only replaced him in her bed and on the farm -- but she's keeping his dog, Willie Nelson. So Ned heads back to his Long Island home, then begins couch-surfing between the homes of his three sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer and Zooey Deschanel), helping them out while trying to figure out his own future.
But Ned is compulsively truthful and, before long, he has inadvertently toppled the façade of each sister's life. He's not a bumbler and never malicious; indeed, he's never less than well-meaning. He just lacks that mendacity gene that seems to grease the wheels of the whole social contract.
With Rudd (who also starred in Peretz's hilariously underrated The Chateau) as his star, Peretz makes Ned the earnest one, provoking acid response from his sisters and their signficiant others for his unconscious ability to create mayhem in his good-hearted wake.
Rudd's presence these days tends to signal a certain kind of Apatowian sensibility to a film's humor. But Peretz is coming from a different place, finding laughs in behavior rather than jokes -- and My Idiot Brother earns its laughs by working for them, instead of simply slotting them in as routine set-up/punchline constructs.
The other film I saw was the British documentary, The Flaw, about the financial crisis of 2008. Unfortunately, though he does a good job of explaining the various factors (and seems to have an inexhaustible supply of archival clips), David Sington places second to Charles Ferguson's Inside Job, the film that should win the Oscar for best documentary for its lucid examination of the same material.