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Sundance audiences are still searching for a hit

New indies with Drew Barrymore and Liz Hurley make their debuts

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Denis Leary, Elizabeth Hurley, ...
Leary and Hurley: Randall Michelson/Wireimage.com

Every year, in the woozy, hazy wake of New Year’s Eve, London’s notorious bookmakers take odds on the potentially seismic events for the coming year: whether Britney Spears will be with child, Prince William will be crowned king, or, for the lucrative trifecta, Britney Spears will bear King William’s heir. In mid January, a similar sort of crystal ball gazing goes on regarding the scores of independent films about to be unspooled at the Sundance Film Festival. But as screenwriter William Goldman once said about his Hollywood paymasters, ”No one knows anything.” And judging from the early buzz I heard from a smattering of indie studio acquisitions folks before heading here this year, Goldman couldn’t have been more on the mark.

Here are a few of the early buzz magnets — and how they’re actually faring at Sundance 2001.

”Donnie Darko” — a surreal coming of age in suburbia fable about a high school kid (played by ”October Sky”’s Jake Gyllenhaal) who receives a visit from an imaginary 6 foot tall rabbit foretelling the end of the world. This one was high on everyone’s list — and hey, with a huge, creepy bunny and costar/ producer Drew Barrymore, why wouldn’t it be? But reaction seems to be mixed at best.

”Double Whammy” — an offbeat comedy starring Denis Leary as a bungling homicide cop and Elizabeth Hurley as his chiropractor/ love interest. The cast, plus Sundance alum Tom DeCillo (”Living in Oblivion”) behind the camera, made this an early pony to bet on. But again, the reaction has been lukewarm. (Even so, Lion’s Gate grabbed distribution rights for $1 million.)

”Enigma” — director Michael Apted’s WWII thriller about a British codebreaker (”M:I2”’s Dougray Scott) who gets caught up in a byzantine murder plot. The audiences in attendance at the ”Enigma” premiere were all geeked up that the film’s producer, Mick Jagger, was in the house. They seemed slightly less jazzed by the film itself.

As is always the case at Sundance, the movies that generate heat in the second wave of buzz (that is, when live humans too sleep deprived to put up with much b.s. have actually had a chance to see them) are seldom among the early frontrunners. For example, I just got back from the premiere of Richard Linklater’s animated flick ”Waking Life” — a film that didn’t seem to have anyone worked into a tizzy before the fest. But the same Sundance audience that witnessed Linklater’s debut, ”Slacker,” 10 years ago, stood up and gave the director a standing ovation as the end credits rolled.

Another pair of movies I heard bupkis about before coming here were Henry Bean’s ”The Believer,” an intense drama about a disarmingly intelligent neo- Nazi skinhead who just so happens to have been raised as a Jew, and Chris Smith’s funny and poignant documentary ”Home Movie,” a nonfiction look at five people — some of them couples — who’ve chosen some bizarre places to call home (one has transformed an abandoned missile silo into a dream house).

The point, I guess, is that buzz is a bunch of hooey. Follow it and you’ll most likely miss out on those great films that slink into Sundance under the radar. If you bet on the buzz, you’ll not only lose money, you’ll have to hock your car to get home. Me, I think I’ll stick with the Brits and take the over under on the Britney- Prince William love child.