Nathan Rabin @ Sundance 2012: Day Six 

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance 2012: Day Six 

Bachelorette: Don’t weep too hard for Lizzy Caplan. The premature cancellation of Party Down remains one of life’s great tragedies and her HBO adaptation of Julie Klausner’s memoir I Don’t Care About Your Band never got off the ground, but she is having one hell of a Sundance this year. She’s heartbreaking and hilarious in the terrific Save The Dateand bitchily amusing in the raunchy, lowbrow dark comedy Bachelorette.At this point, Caplan might want to either appear only in wedding-themed comedies (she’s two for two here in Park City) or avoid them permanently in the future (I’m guessing she’ll take the second option).

In a fearless performance, Caplan plays one of a trio of hard-partying mean girls (the others being glowering control freak and alpha female Kirsten Dunst and a gloriously ditsy, uninhibited Isla Fisher) who reunite for a bachelorette party when their zaftig quasi-friend Rebel Wilson unexpectedly becomes the first member of their high school clique to get married. The idea that a woman nicknamed “Pig Face” in high school would beat her to the aisle enrages Dunst, who turns Wilson’s bachelorette party into a debauched debacle; Wilson angrily departs after being insulted by the male stripper hired for the occasion.

Dunst, Caplan, and Fisher accidentally destroy Wilson’s wedding dress in a coked-up haze, leading to a frantic race to fix and clean the dress before morning comes and maybe score more coke, weed, or Xanax and hook up with cute guys, including James Marsden as a surprisingly knowledgeable asshole who insults his way into a bathroom fling with Dunst and Adam Scott (Caplan’s Party Down love interest) as the man who got away but never forgot about Caplan and their explosive sexual chemistry.

Bachelorette gets off to a blisteringly nasty, coked-up start before softening in a third act where the deep-rooted pain and self-hatred Fisher, Caplan and Dunst have been numbing with booze, drugs, and casual sex begins to surface and the film begins to develop something vaguely resembling a heart, if not quite a soul. It’s not always clear why Wilson tolerates such a petty, vicious (if secretly tenderhearted) trio of “friends” except that they’re entertainingly horrible. Bachelorette succumbs to sentimentality late in the game, but it’s funniest and most entertaining when channeling its raging inner bitch.  (B)

Sleepwalk With Me: This American Life politely enters the movie business with Sleepwalk With Me, an Ira Glass co-written and produced comedy-drama that marks fan favorite Mike Birbiglia’s writing, directing and starring debut (might as well get it all out of the way at once) as well as an adaptation of Birbiglia’s best-selling memoir and Off-Broadway show of the same name.

Taking a few pages from Woody Allen, another stand-up who made a smooth transition to film, Birbiglia narrates directly into the camera the story of how his thinly fictionalized doppelganger found himself as a stand-up comedian and quietly confessional autobiographical storyteller while simultaneously drifting away from longtime girlfriend Lauren Ambrose, a smart, dazzling woman he adores but can’t bring himself to marry despite her not-so-subtle hints that she’s long overdue for a trip down the aisle.

Birbiglia’s soul-consuming anxiety over the prospect of either proposing to Ambrose or losing her manifests itself physically in Rapid Eye Movement Behavior Disorder, a rare and dangerous disease that causes sufferers to act out their dreams physically, sometimes to the peril of themselves and others. At worst, Rapid Eye Movement Disorder causes Birbiglia to jump out the second window of a hotel in a nearly fatal accident that forces him to finally face some of his slumbering demons.

Birbiglia begins Sleepwalk With Me by swearing that everything that follows actually happened, and with the exception of his Rapid Eye Movement Behavior Disorder, it’s pretty damn easy to believe that Birbiglia wrestled with commitment issues while struggling to find his voice as a comedian.

The writer-director-star at one point reminds us that we’re supposed to be on his side even when he behaves unsympathetically, but being unable to commit to a wonderful partner has a way of making people seem like borderline assholes no matter how nice they are in every other facet of their existence—and comedians don’t come much nicer than the soft-spoken, self-deprecating Birbiglia.

As an artistic coming-of-age story and intimate, affectionate peek inside the tight-knit community of stand-up comedians, Sleepwalk With Me is as charming as it is winningly modest, but it’s so incredibly slight a stiff wind would knock it into a different hemisphere. It’s not a tale that demands to be told cinematically—remove the disorder and it’s essentially about a nice guy trying to figure shit out—but it’s certainly a pleasurable way to pass an hour and a half. (B)

Compliance: Compliance is based on the kind of true story that doesn’t just reflect poorly on the people involved, it reflects poorly on mankind as a whole. The film has understandably inspired extreme reactions. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a disturbing, unflinching, and claustrophobic exploration of the dark side of mankind’s deference to authority or the most artfully crafted cinematic Letters To Penthouse ever written. The subject matter is unrelentingly sordid yet the storytelling is so deadpan and understated that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to dismiss it as exploitation or sexist provocation.

Compliance casts Great World Of Sound’s Pat Healy as a creepily banal-looking pervert who poses as a police officer over the phone to convince the matronly boss (Ann Dowd) of a pretty young fast food employee (Dreama Walker) to detain her in the back room of a fast food restaurant after accusing her of stealing money from the purse of a customer.

Healy alternately flatters, cajoles, intimidates, and threatens Dowd and a series of other employees, as well as Dowd’s working-class boyfriend, into agreeing to a strip search of an understandably confused and humiliated yet compliant Walker. He then ratchets up his invasive and sexually-charged orders until they’ve spiraled far beyond what any police officer could ever legitimately ask another police officer, yet alone a series of fast-food employees casually deputized to act out Healy’s sick sexual fantasies under the guise of detaining and punishing an ostensible thief.

Compliance engenders intense cognitive dissonance: How could seemingly sane, relatively moral people behave in such an irrational, cruel, and abusive fashion? But it’s worth remembering that human beings have herded other human beings into gas chambers in Nazi Germany and turned attack dogs on black children in the Jim Crow-era South out of blind deference to authority.

It’s this broader social context—the film ends by noting that dozens of similar scams were perpetrated throughout the country—that makes Compliance so deeply, viscerally unnerving. It’s not just about some woefully misguided fast-food employees: it’s about the scared, intimidated and unquestioning follower in all of us. (B+)


The Surrogate: Stick around Sundance long enough and you begin to notice recurring themes in the unlikeliest of places. The darkly comic shocker Excision and the much buzzed-about feel-good comedy-drama The Surrogate both involve protagonists on a quest to lose their virginity. That’s where the similarities end. In Excision, AnnaLynne McCord wants to lose her virginity for purposes of pure evil; that’s pretty much her motivation for doing everything.

John Hawkes’ polio-stricken poet in The Surrogate, in sharp contrast, imbues his quest to lose his virginity and connect in the most profound spiritual manner imaginable with another human being with such sweetness and light it’s as if he’s doing God a favor by ridding himself of his unwanted virginity. Hawkes is so charming and innately lovable that even God, as represented in this terrestrial realm by a priest played by a shaggy-haired William H. Macy, gives Hawkes a pass to lose his virginity the old-fashioned way: by paying someone to have sex with him. Only in The Surrogate,there’s nothing remotely sordid or sinful about sex—as opposed to say, Compliance,which depicts sex as nothing but sinful and sordid.

The Surrogate has attracted a lot of attention and praise here in Park City for a very good reason: oh sure, there will undoubtedly be fine performances in 2012, but they might as well just go ahead and give Hawkes the Academy Award for Best Actor now. In the abstract, I should despise The Surrogate. It’s everything I usually view with suspicion, if not downright contempt. It’s undeniable Oscar-bait (Helen Hunt would actually deserve the Oscar if she won next year for her tender portrayal of a sex surrogate) as well a heartwarming tale of triumph over adversity as flatly and unimaginatively filmed and devoid of style as a TV movie from the 1980s.

Yet none of that ultimately matters; an excess of style would only distract from the visceral emotions and powerful acting at the film’s core. In a revelatory performance, Hawkes plays a poet who maintains a droll sense of humor and lust for life despite being fated to spend most of his existence imprisoned in an iron lung. At age 38, Hawkes decides to lose his virginity and recruits the services of sex surrogate Hunt. Hawkes is at first anxious and more than a little bit terrified, but Hunt’s patience and gentle touch lead her client gently and lovingly into the alternately scary and life-affirming world of sex.

Hawkes falls hopelessly in love with the married and unavailable Hunt and discovers that having sex creates more problems than it solves, even when emotion is supposed to be factored out of the equation. Hawkes longs for Hunt in a way that transgresses the boundaries of a healthy therapist-client relationship, but she’s professionally obligated to end their relationship after six sessions.

Hawkes and Hunt’s relationship is defined by incredible tenderness, as is his equally sweet but much different relationship with Macy, who he uses as a combination therapist, buddy, spiritual leader, and unlikely and reluctant adviser on carnal matters.

The Surrogate invests Hawkes’ quest to lose his virginity with incongruous purity and innocence. It might just be the most poignant, moving film ever made about one man’s surprisingly noble efforts to get laid. (A-)

John Dies At The End: At no point in John Dies At The End, cult filmmaker Don (Bubba Ho-Tep, Phantasm) Coscarelli’s adaptation of Jason Pargin’s cult novel, did I have any idea what the fuck was going on, but I enjoyed the film all the same. Most horror and science fiction films make at least a token effort to establish the rules and parameters of their universes in order to orient audiences. Not John Dies At The End. Rather than ease audiences into a dizzyingly complicated world of alternate universes, shape-shifters, sentient drugs, giant monsters, and free-floating freakiness, John Dies At The End tosses viewers into the deep end, then hopes they can swim.

The film’s framing structure finds freaked-out protagonist Chase Williamson recounting a series of mind-blowing events to a reporter played by Paul Giamatti (who also executive produced) involving a drug called “Soy Sauce” that gives its users supernatural powers and serves as a window into other worlds and alternate universes.

At best, John Dies At The End recalls a punk-rock Ghostbusters by way of H.P. Lovecraft. Coscarelli had to lose a lot of elements from Pargin’s incredibly dense novel, but the film still has enough trippy and original ideas for ten movies. That’s both one of its biggest problems and one of its greatest strengths: it has more inspired ideas than it knows what it knows what to do with. John Dies At The End suffers from an excess of ambition and vision even as it sneers defiantly at even the fuzziest notions of coherence. It’s a mess, but its best moments are exhilarating, getting hopelessly lost in Pargin’s surreal, completely disorienting world. (B)

Up Next: Bradley Cooper steals another man’s words, LCD Soundsystem plays one last show, and a horror anthology from the likes of Joe Swanberg and Ti West.

More Sundance