PARK CITY, Utah -- Got the winter blahs? Seriously, it's not just you. Here on the ground at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, or at least where you can see the ground beneath three to six feet of snow the forecast is the following: Gloom and depression. In two days I've seen two films about hit men (more are to come, evidently), two films about depressed magicians and three films where people either attempt or commit suicide. Just for cross-reference, there have been two suicidal hit men and one suicidal magician (plus another who might be headed that way). No hit men who are also magicians, so far, but A) that's a great idea and B) I guarantee that if somebody has made that movie, it's here and I just don't know it yet.
Reactions here were highly mixed to Martin McDonagh's festival-opener, "In Bruges," with its scabrous British and Irish gangsters (aka suicidal hit men), its coke-snorting dwarf and its overloaded elements of Christian parable. I've just driven back up the mountain from the Salt Lake City world premiere of Alan Ball's "Towelhead," and that's one I perhaps should see again, to sort out my complicated feelings about it. One thing for sure I can say: The "Six Feet Under" creator's directing debut doesn't have a single damn suicidal hit-man magician in it anywhere.
What it does have is a 13-year-old Lebanese-American girl discovering her sexuality in suburban Houston during the winter of 1990-'91, just as our current president's dad is preparing to launch Operation Desert Storm. Jasira (Summer Bishil) not only must contend with unfamiliar changes in her own body, but also a lecherous Army reservist next door (Aaron Eckhart), a meddlesome neighbor armed with feminist wisdom (Toni Collette) and her own father (Peter Macdissi, the film's standout performance), an aristocratic Lebanese Christian whose manners and mores are drastically out of step with the world he now lives in.
If all that sounds like a rich vein of material for Ball's acutely observed comedy-of-manners approach, well, that's pretty much what I thought too. But watching "Towelhead" reminds you that the strength of "Six Feet Under" (and for that matter "American Beauty" too) lay not in the individual characters but in the complex chemical reactions they set off when they collided. Ball is a creator of ensembles, and in the last third of the film, when his script (adapted from Alicia Erian's autobiographical novel) finally finds a way to cram all these people into the same house, "Towelhead" finds some satisfying depth and texture. In particular, it's Collette and Macdissi's characters, and their battle over Jasira's future, who are the heart and soul of the picture, and who don't get nearly enough screen time together.
Up till then, though, there's a well-intentioned, young-adult-novel drabness to "Towelhead." Bishil is an appealing young actress, and it's not that Jasira's various predicaments don't provoke your sympathy. But it's all pretty general: Kids at school call her names, her dad's a racist, her mom (an unhappy bit part for Maria Bello) is a shrieking harridan, Eckhart's hunky redneck both turns her on and makes her uncomfortable. Clothes and music evoke the period in satisfactory movie-of-the-week fashion, but the keen insight into the hypocrisies and neuroses of middle-class life that characterized "Six Feet Under" mostly isn't there. This is the Alan Ball after-school special.
I halfway wonder whether Ball wanted to escape from the white, middle-class characters he's best known for, and "Towelhead" is clearly a story about multicultural America in transition, where a hippie feminist mom like Collette's character could end up living in between an ultra-uptight Lebanese dad and a true-blue American patriot with a healthy appetite for teenage poon tang. It's a worthy effort redolent of good intentions, but Erian's story and Ball's dramatic approach turn out to be an awkward fit. The Salt Lake premiere audience was supportive, but didn't display much enthusiasm.
On Friday night, also in Salt Lake, the audience guffawed the whole way through writer-director Sean McGinly's "The Great Buck Howard," an agreeable concoction built around one of John Malkovich's more underplayed performances, if still a fine one, as a fading "mentalist" who once worked Carson and Vegas and is struggling to mount a comeback. In other words, this was magician movie No. 1.
Despite Malkovich, "The Great Buck Howard" still manages to deflate itself to mediocre sketch comedy at nearly every turn. McGinly's efforts to spoof both trendoid celebrity culture and the bush-league entertainment circuit are broad and obvious, and Buck, by far the most interesting character, is never really the center of the story. Instead, we get a pleasant, puzzled-looking law-school dropout named Troy (Colin Hanks) who wanders into a job as Buck's assistant and experiences personal growth, romantic opportunities, etc., as a result. Colin Hanks' dad is a well-known actor who produced the film; perhaps you've heard of him. (Said actor-father plays Troy's dad in the movie as well.)
Not merely do Troy's highly uninteresting coming-of-age issues occupy center stage, Troy also narrates the movie for us in an intermittent, musing-on-the-magic-and-mystery-of-show-biz sort of way, just to make sure we never have to experience any of our own thoughts about the film while watching it. Actually, my reaction to that aspect of "The Great Buck Howard" might explain my reaction to Michael Keaton's directing debut, "The Merry Gentleman," which followed later that night in Park City.
Various critics I respect wandered out into the near-zero cold after the Eccles Center premiere of "The Merry Gentleman" complaining about Keaton's technical limitations as a filmmaker, so I can only presume they exist. But I felt tremendously grateful for the stillness and quietness of Keaton's picture, its ominous, anonymous American atmospherics and its reticent refusal to open its characters and story to us beyond a certain point, especially considering it's a movie about -- wait for it -- a suicidal hit man!
Keaton himself plays the dapper Frank Logan, although we don't learn his name until deep in the movie, partly because he hardly says anything. Frank works as a tailor in a men's store, is suffering from a holiday-season bout of pneumonia (and perhaps a more enduring bout of depression), and kills people for money. We know even less about the woman (played wonderfully by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald) who stops Frank from offing himself, appearing to him as an accidental religious vision. (The thematic parallels between this movie and "In Bruges" reach the level of uncanny synchronicity, although the pictures could hardly be more different in tone.)
She's left her abusive cop-husband behind in another city and moved to this one -- it's Chicago, although deliberately unidentified -- and we can't even be sure whether her Scottish accent is real or a part of her disguise. She and Frank seem entirely comfortable slipping into a relationship that's based on not asking each other difficult questions; indeed, the only complication on their horizon is a lumbering, alcoholic homicide detective whose interest in the woman is not platonic (and whose interest in Frank is highly professional).
Plot is almost irrelevant to "The Merry Gentleman." It may be operating at cross purposes with itself, in the sense that it contains several acts of bloody violence and elements of police procedural, but it's not a thriller at all and never tries to be. Its mood and tone are striving for something much artier and more allegorical, almost in the mode of Aki Kaurismäki or Robert Bresson. Don't get me wrong; Keaton's not nearly at that level, and this odd, brooding picture may struggle to find an audience. But the onetime "Batman" star has a startling aptitude for the medium, and I'll be fascinated to see what he does next.
Our final suicidal magician of the weekend (I think, and hope) is played with marvelous aplomb by Stanley Tucci, who also directed and co-wrote the intense little two-hander "Blind Date," which premiered Saturday. This is a claustrophobic, deliberately anti-realistic picture about a middle-aged married couple (Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) who are so seriously estranged in the aftermath of tragedy that they adopt various unconvincing personas and go on dates as if they've just met. All the dates take place in the same dilapidated barroom cum theater -- also where Tucci's character performs his deliberately inept magic act -- which features, amid other amenities, its own bumper-car track (site of one of the least successful encounters).
Like Steve Buscemi's "Interview," which premiered here last year, "Blind Date" is an adaptation of a film by the late Dutch director Theo van Gogh (who was infamously murdered by an Islamic extremist, an irrelevant but irresistible fact). Both are exercises in nihilism and/or misanthropy set in an artificial nowhere-space, and much as Tucci and Clarkson pour their estimable talents into "Blind Date" -- it has many moments of delicacy, humor and wrenching, unbearable loss -- there's only enough oxygen in the film to support a chilly little flame that flickers a little before going out.