“I owe my career to Sundance,” a choked-up Lynn Shelton told the packed crowd at last night’s world premiere of her new movie. This is the third consecutive year—and the fourth overall—that the director has brought a new film to Park City, so her humbled gratitude was understandable. But one could also see a different, less heartening meaning in that above quote. Isn’t Shelton, who used to make scrappy, wholly improvised indie comedies, moving closer with ever picture to what could be described as the stereotypical “Sundance movie”? Are we losing her—year by year, film by film—to the anonymity of Indiewood?
Like last year’s Touchy Feely, the innocuous Laggies (Grade: C+) finds Shelton operating with the safety net of a full screenplay. And she didn’t even write this one, which may explain why it feels even less like a film from the director of Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister. The plot is a Focus Features exec’s wet dream come true: Stubbornly clinging to her adolescence, 28-year-old Megan (Keira Knightley, rocking a flawless American accent) floats aimlessly through post-college life. When her high-school sweetheart (Mark Webber) proposes to her, Megan buys time by leaving for a weeklong self-improvement seminar. But she ends up blowing that off for the exact opposite of self-improvement, laying low instead with high-school student Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz), for whom she once purchased beer. She also cozies up to the girl’s father (Sam Rockwell), who proves surprisingly quick to trust this grown woman spending all of her time with his teenage daughter.
Given that basic premise, it’s something of a miracle that Laggies isn’t completely insufferable. That it manages to occasionally charm is thanks almost entirely to Shelton’s ease with the actors—especially the teenage ones, including a scene-stealing Kaitlyn Dever. Little moments won me over: the parking-lot meeting between Annika and Megan; the latter’s attempts to explain to her budding-yuppie friend (Ellie Kemper) that twisting the nipples of a giant, plastic Buddha is a joke about nipples, not a joke about Buddha; and the scene in which Rockwell, acting as a surrogate for the audience, demands answers from the stranger sleeping on the floor of his daughter’s bedroom. (Actually, every scene with Rockwell is a highlight. That guy is always fantastic.)
Ultimately, though, Laggies is undone by the sitcom contrivance of its scenario and some very on-the-nose dialogue, which keeps reminding viewers that, yes, this is a story about willful regression. And while Knightley is often quite funny in the role, she’s playing a blatant screenwriters’ invention—a character whose behavior most people would find disturbing or infuriating, not adorable, in real life. Shelton brings out the best in her cast, but it’s hard not to wish she was letting all of them make up their lines on the spot, a la her much funnier early films. Whatever they’d come up would have to be better than this, right?
Like Shelton, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have returned to Sundance for a third straight year: Having contributed segments to V/H/S and its sequel—which played Park City at Midnight in 2012 and 2013, respectively—the director and writer are back with The Guest (Grade: B+), about a young soldier who comes to Small Town, U.S.A., to pay his respects to the family of his deceased brother-in-arms. Almost immediately, it’s clear that there’s something not quite right about this hunky, accommodating visitor; as played by Dan Stevens, from Downton Abbey, he’s an eerily polite sociopath, blessed with the all-American looks of Chris Evans’ Captain America and the very short fuse of Ryan Gosling’s driver from Drive. The plotting isn’t exactly sophisticated—astute viewers will guess where the film is headed very quickly—but Barrett and Wingard again prove their adeptness at blending traditional thrills with wicked black humor. The Guest turns out to be an even better genre pastiche than You’re Next, combining elements of vintage John Carpenter (that throwback score!), early James Cameron, and enjoyable junk like the 1996 Mark Wahlberg thriller, Fear. Dumb fun is rarely this smartly made.
As rigorously adult as The Guest is juvenile, Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of the 2008 John Le Carré novel, A Most Wanted Man (Grade: B-), isn’t likely to get the heart racing, though it could succeed in making it feel pretty heavy. Corbijn (Control, The American) expertly captures the spirit of the author’s writing—a melancholy resignation about the state of the world, a vision of intelligence officers as weary loners disillusioned about the value of their work. The trouble is that the director has tackled what seems, at least as translated, like lesser Le Carré; the story, involving a German intelligence officer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) keeping tabs on a Russian-Chechen immigrant who may be a security threat, feels like a long trudge towards a single damning point. (It has the additional misfortune of following a much better Le Carré film, the superb Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.) The acting, though, is largely unimpeachable, even as a few of the performers—Rachel McAdams especially—seem to struggle with their accents.
Speaking of accents, there are plenty of different ones in Frank (Grade: B-), the kind of go-for-broke quirkfest that’s bound to polarize audiences. Its most perverse choice may be hiding the famous face of its biggest star, Michael Fassbender, under a giant plastic mascot head. The Irish actor plays the mentally unstable, potentially brilliant frontman of an obscure avant-pop band. When the group’s keyboard player tries to drown himself, a marginally talented, stardom-craving ringer (Domhnall Gleeson) gets his shot. Frank starts out as a one-joke comedy, bouncing a meek careerist against a bunch of reclusive eccentrics. Gradually, it deepens into something more, exploring the role of social media in building empty hype and the effect trying to cater to a hypothetical audience can have on creativity. (A spoken reference to Paris, Texas reveals one of director Lenny Abrahamson’s influences.) But since Fassbender’s disturbed genius and the rest of the band never quite evolve into actual characters, the drama of the film’s back stretch never really connects. Still, there are plenty of laughs, and I’d take a flawed, self-conscious curiosity like Frank over the polished contrivance of a Laggies any day of the week. Sundance should, too.