At Sundance, Some Films Are Wanted, While Others Are Desired

Colin Hanks, John Malkovich and Ricky Jay in The Great Buck Howard, which is mostly so-so, to be honest
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PARK CITY, Utah -- Snow was promised all day, eight to 12 inches by mid-Monday morning, but so far, not even a flurry. The same could be said of the acquisitions at the Sundance Film Festival, where only a handful of offerings have been picked up by major distributors, among them the doc Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which masterfully rehashes the sordid details of the director's sexual assault on 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in 1977. HBO has the U.S. distribution rights; Weinstein Co., the international rights. Expect it to play theatrically in the fall, when once more the director of Rosemary's Baby and The Pianist will polarize audiences -- half of whom think him a misunderstood genius, half of whom believe him an unrepentant troll.

No doubt at this very moment distributors are hashing over the fine print of contracts shortly to be signed and announced with grand fanfare -- for festival buzz-bin product that'll make pennies on the dollar in The Real World (The Wackness, feh) and for the handful of charmers (among them Sunshine Cleaners) likely to land in the warm embrace of the mall multiplex. And then there's plenty of in-between product, chief among them The Great Buck Howard, starring John Malkovich as a mentalist peddling his antiquated gags on the has-been circuit (Bakersfield, Akron -- he loves those towns!).

The Great Buck Howard is grade-B major-studio product masquerading as indie underdog; it was, after all, produced by Tom Hanks, who stars as the father of Colin Hanks -- a stretch, absolutely. Colin, who's suddenly a dead-ringer for the old man, stars as law student Troy Gable, who loathes school and drops out, without telling his dad. Troy winds up taking a job as Buck's road manager -- a demeaning chore consisting of daily harangues over minor things like the hanging of slacks.

Roman Polanski, star of a documentary that's all the rage, and then some, at Sundance

Buck, a manic, mercurial man beneath a cheap toupee, is a wholly unlikable character -- a man stuck in the past (he guested on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show dozens of times, he reminds as often as he exhales), his future rides on the debut of a single years-in-the-making trick to be debuted in Cincinnati. At which point writer-director Sean McGinly introduces the publicist, played by Emily Blunt -- also, of course, Troy's love interest. Big Things happen; small laughs ensue. And the guest list grows: Jon Stewart, Steve Zahn, Conan O'Brien, Regis and Kelly, Jay Leno, Griffin Dunne ... and, most touchingly, George Takei ("Mr. Sulu from The Star Trek," says Buck).

It's charming, sure -- Malkovich does daffy with remarkable grace. It's cute, absolutely -- my mother will love it. And it's affections for old-time show-biz are sincere, without question; Buck's bitterness stems as much from his being cast aside like a useless relic as it does from his just being a prick, and chief among his enemies is Leno, who'd prefer to listen to Tom Arnold yammer on and on and then bump Carson's old pal. But The Great Buck Howard's ultimately little more than a pleasant diversion, a cable-TV stop-and-watch till something better's on ... and something better is always on. Expect it to sell for a small fortune.

Then there's something like Blind Date, which is absolutely, unrelentingly, unapologetically heartbreaking. Like last year's inexplicably overrated Interview, Stanley Tucci's film (he wrote and stars) is based on an earlier work by slain filmmaker Theo van Gogh. And it's no easy film; at Saturday morning's press and industry screenings, folks began parading out the exits minutes into the movie -- bored, no doubt, by the sight of Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as a married couple going on blind dates in order to reconnect following a tragic event and its horrific aftermath.

Yes, it's talk-talk-talky: Only Tucci and Clarkson have any dialogue (save for a third character's voiceover), and try as they might to dance around the subject at hand -- literally, as Clarkson's character was once a dancer -- it always come back to the same thing: These people love each other with great ferocity, but they will never again find the happiness once at their fingertips. But for all its staginess (the film's set in a single place, a shabby bar owned by Tucci's shabby magician), for all its pretense, it's an unflinching look at a marriage at the very end -- when unconditional love has been replaced by an unrelenting, all-consuming ache. Here's Tucci discussing the film, along with some clips.

My colleague Scott Foundas will have plenty to say about films he's seen here, among them What Just Happened? (director Barry Levinson's adaptation of producer Art Linson's movie-biz autopsy starring Robert De Niro and Sean Penn) and writer-director Courtney Hunt's Frozen River, starring the great Melissa Leo. And tomorrow, a few words about a documentary with the most promising title of all time: A Complete History of My Sexual Failures.

Till then, here's some footage I shot of director Michel Gondry, here with Be Kind Rewind, behind the drum kit at the movie's premiere party last night. --Robert Wilonsky

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