If this year's Toronto International Film Festival had a subtitle, it could be "When Good Directors Go Bad." At least that's what it has felt like around here as one anticipated new film after the next by some of the world's name-brand auteurs — the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme — has laid a less-than-golden egg. And the younger directors one had harbored high hopes for? They've crashed and burned too.
That was certainly the case with 32-year-old Peter Sollett, who followed up his promising 2002 debut, Raising Victor Vargas, with the noxious alt-romcom Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Where Sollett's previous film was a rough-edged, richly observed portrait of a Dominican teenager coming of age on the streets of the Lower East Side, his latest is a self-consciously hip Juno knockoff that seems to have been made by, for and about suburban teens who think they're being original by wearing skinny jeans and listening to bands that advertise their super-secret shows on the walls of bathroom stalls (because putting up flyers or taking out an ad in the newspaper is, like, so five minutes ago).
And don't even get me started about Lovely, Still — a first feature by 24-year-old director Nik Fackler screening in Toronto's dubiously named "Discovery" section — which can best be described as a very poor man's Away From Her as it might have been directed by a cut-rate M. Night Shyamalan. I realize the fact that this movie turns out to be about Alzheimer's disease is supposed to be a surprise, but any film grotesque enough to use Alzheimer's as a third-act, pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you twist deserves to have its beans spilled.
Still, at the mid-fest point, Toronto's most crushing blows have been dealt by those filmmakers with the longest résumés and most gilded pedigrees, starting with Demme, whose fatuous Rachel Getting Married chronicles the reunion of a dysfunctional Connecticut clan on the eve of the eldest daughter's nuptials. Call it My Big Fat United Nations Wedding: The bride is Jewish (and possibly recovering from an eating disorder). The groom is black. The wedding is Indian-themed right down to the bridesmaids' saris. The maid of honor (Anne Hathaway) has just gotten out of rehab. A dead sibling looms large over the proceedings. And by the time the reception finally rolls around, Robyn Hitchcock (the subject of Demme's 1998 concert film Storefront Hitchcock) and a New Orleans jazz band show up for extended musical interludes, by which point Rachel Getting Married has long ago stopped making sense. How former president Jimmy Carter (star of Demme's 2007 Man From Plains) managed to avoid a cameo is something of a mystery.
Constantly teetering on the brink of hysteria and frequently tipping over into it, Rachel contains one 12-step program, two face-slappings, a car crash, an accidental drowning, multiple scenes of benevolent black folk (are there any other kind?) delivering soulful words of wisdom and, before the end credits roll, copious tears and reconciliation. Some have likened Demme's film to Noah Baumbach's recent Margot at the Wedding, which is actually more like the kind of movie Demme used to make — the ones where the characters had edges and dimensions, and could be by turns loving and cruel, noble and deplorable. Here, we don't doubt for a second that we're watching a bunch of virtuous, good-hearted people who will manage to work out all of their problems, live happily ever after and vote for Obama.
Lee's Miracle at St. Anna isn't quite as catastrophic, although, at nearly three hours, it's almost as pointless. Lee has been publicly critical of Clint Eastwood for failing to include any African-Americans in his 2006 Iwo Jima diptych, but while Lee puts his buffalo soldiers front and center in this awkward hybrid of fable and WWII epic, the characters themselves are straight out of central casting: a smooth-talking Harlem lothario; an indignant polemicist; the requisite Uncle Tom; and a towering, soft-spoken "chocolate giant," as he is nicknamed by the young Italian boy whose life, along with others, the soldiers help to save in the titular Tuscan village. The motives of Lee's film — to stake a claim for the black servicemen who fought and died for our country — are undeniably admirable, and the film itself (like all of Lee's work) impeccably well made. But this sliver of a narrative is the sort of thing Sam Fuller would have dispensed with in 80 minutes or so, whereas Lee hunkers it down with familiar wartime atrocities, flashbacks-within-flashbacks and a wholly unnecessary wraparound story set in the 1980s.
Thankfully, not all of the masters present at Toronto this year have been throwing up bricks. France's Agnès Varda returned to the festival with a lyrical, restlessly inventive memory film, The Beaches of Agnes, in which the octogenarian nouvelle-vague vet revisits hallmark locations from her life and career, including the small fishing village where she directed her first feature, La Pointe Courte, in 1954. It's there, in perhaps the film's loveliest sequence, that Varda tracks down the two young boys — now old men — seen pushing a handcart in one sequence from the earlier film, and has them reenact that scene, while a projector situated on the handcart broadcasts those half-century-old images onto a makeshift screen. Also in top form is the master American landscape filmmaker James Benning, who has declared that RR, his stirring ode to trains and the wide-open spaces they travel through, will be his last work shot on 16mm film; if so, that is our loss.
Heavyweight champ of the fest so far, however, is Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke in a career-capping/resuscitating/redefining performance as an over-the-hill pro wrestler still grappling with opponents both physical and metaphysical. Simply put: Who'd have thought that one of the great movies of Toronto (and the year) would turn out to be a wildly original, existentialist tragicomedy decked out in frosted-blond hair extensions and spandex tights?