PARK CITY, Utah -- So much for all that pre-Sundance talk about how the writers' strike was going to spark a fire sale at the fest. So far, not even the biggest titles have been sold -- not the Tom Hanks-produced The Great Buck Howard, not the Robert De Niro-Sean Penn-starring What Just Happened?, not the Amy Adams-Emily Blunt dramedy Sunshine Cleaning. Why not? Said one acquisitions VP at a major indie distributor before this morning's Sunshine Cleaning screening, "We're in 'reset' mode." That means no longer are distributors willing to fork over multi-millions for tweener pics (too small for the multiplex, too large for the art house) likely to make pennies on the dollar at the box office. (Like, oh, Chumscrubber, Tadpole and, most infamously, Happy, Texas.) "And," says the exec, echoing the sentiment of other distributors to whom we've spoken in recent days, "nothing's been ... great."
Which is where commerce finally meets art at Sundance, where founder Robert Redford bemoaned how his baby's become a "market" during his opening-day remarks on Thursday. Because, thus far, no buzzed-about film's yet to emerge from the festival -- no Garden State, no Napoleon Dynamite, no Little Miss Sunshine, no instant smash hit going for record figures. There are small favorites emerging -- among them such titles as Ballast and Frozen River, but they're too small, grim and gritty to generate much heat in these sub-freezing temps, much less in the air-conditioned theaters off the mountain.
Titles that entered the fest with high expectations, chief among them the adaptation of Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, are just terrible enough to consider booking an earlier flight home. Michel Gondry's high-profile VHS homage Be Kind Rewind, being released next month, was sweet but undeniably slight and unbearably sloppy; Jack Black's the last guy you want to see in a movie that looks half-assed improvised. And even the good stuff's merely so-so: The high-school documentary American Teen, from The Kid Stays in the Picture director Nanette Burstein, plays like The Hills set in Warsaw, Indiana; it's an entertaining but ultimately why-come compendium of every single cliché to populate a senior-year blowout, from the timid band geek to the head-cheerleader hellion to the artsy girl who wants to make movies, poor thing.
So let's talk instead about A Complete History of My Sexual Failures. Also after the jump: my interview with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, at last.
U.K. filmmaker Chris Waitt's documentary about his fucked-up love life -- he's been dumped by every single girl with whom he's gone out -- starts out like a real-life variation on High Fidelity. Given the boot by his latest girlfriend of three weeks, Waitt -- a disheveled mop-top mess in torn jeans and one-size-too-small hoodie -- sets out to contact each of his exes, hoping to find out why they gave him the boot. Most won't talk; some threaten legal action if he calls again. One woman who finally does agree to talk will only do so if she can be interviewed from behind a curtain in an undisclosed hotel room; she gives her answers using a computer keyboard and a voice-synthesizing program. She tells him he needs professional help. She tells him he's a fuck-up. He already knows.
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Waitt believes his girlfriends are crazy, but that's because he drives them to madness. He also has one more problem: He's impotent, unable to get it up with his last three girlfriends. He tries all manner of curatives, from hypnotherapy to Tantric massage to having his genitals whipped by a mistress in a London dungeon. Waitt, revealing both his emotional and physical defects, bares all for the camera repeatedly -- no doubt because he's proud of what he's packing. (A Complete Failure is more or less the Super Size Me of dysfunctional relationships, for all manner of reasons.) Finally, Waitt pops six Viagra tablets, washes them down with several beers, then hits the streets of London begging dozens of women to screw him, like, immediately?
It's hysterical and heartbreaking, sickening and sad: What seems like an 80-minute joke turns evolves into a punch line with significant emotional payoff, because we discover precisely when and why Waitt devolved into an loveless, socially inept zombie. American Teen is more of the same-ol'-same-ol', smart kids doing stupid shit at the time in their lives when tiny things are blown into end-of-the-world ohmigod moments. But you've never seen anything like A Complete History of My Sexual Failures. Except, perhaps, your own.
And, lest we forget, here's Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson talking In Bruges, the opening-night film written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh. Part Quentin Tarantino, part Graham Greene, it's one of half a dozen films at Sundance to feature a suicidal character -- and one of two to feature a suicidal hitman, the other being Michael Keaton's ho-humdrum The Merry Gentleman, which possesses all the artistry of a Lifetime movie. Farrell plays Ray, a newcomer to the life of a death-bringer who made a fatal error his first time out; Gleeson's the veteran Ken, who's taken a shine to the lad; Ralph Fiennes is Harry, their boss with a busted moral compass. Figures that the best movie here already has distribution: In Bruges opens in a theater near you in a matter of weeks. --Robert Wilonsky