It’s a dry year here in Park City, Utah, at least as far as the weather’s concerned. Open coats are common on these sunny, cloudless days; the slopes look positively barren without their usual snowy frosting. But meteorology aside, is there a buzz drought at the Sundance Film Festival?
It certainly looked that way for the first 48 hours, as two ambitious, highly anticipated premieres fell somewhat short of expectations. Sony Pictures Classics’ ”Levity,” a wintry redemption tale with a glittery cast (Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, Kirsten Dunst), largely failed to raise spirits. The self-deconstructing noir fantasy ”The Singing Detective” (starring Robert Downey Jr. as a psoriasis patient trapped inside his own pop-corroded imagination) so offended high-profile tourist Britney Spears, she left after an hour — loudly, with entourage in tow. (The picture still hasn’t sold, though director Keith Gordon insists there are three serious deals on the table.)
By day 3, hopes had been pinned on ”It’s All About Love,” a Euro-inflected melodrama written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg (”The Celebration”) and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes. Then the movie screened, and people started laughing in all the wrong places, and hopes had to find something new to pin themselves on. (It certainly wasn’t the lurid ’80s club saga ”Party Monster,” which bemused some and terrified many with its indelible images of a high-heeled, lipsticked Macaulay Culkin.)
Luckily, something new presented itself, in the form of ”thirteen,” a scalding domestic drama starring Holly Hunter and cowritten by her 13-year-old costar, Nikki Reed. It was the festival’s first big buy, with Fox Searchlight reportedly paying north of $2.5 million for worldwide rights. (So much for that supposedly depressed indie market.)
”The Cooler,” a dark comedy with William H. Macy and Maria Bello, sold to Lions Gate for a reported $1.2 million (guaranteeing a limited theatrical release in New York and L.A., followed by home video). Other likely buys-to-be include ”The United States of Leland” (starring ”The Believer”’s Ryan Gosling as yet another murderer) and the Katie Holmes showcase ”Pieces of April,” a tragicomic meditation on mortality and family by ”About a Boy” scribe Peter Hedges.
Less commercially viable ventures are also winning praise, if not immediate windfalls: ”The Station Agent,” a tender tale of a dwarf living in an abandoned New Jersey train station, is emerging as an audience favorite. The non-actor-packed comedy ”Raising Victor Vargas” is becoming a kudo-magnet, as is ”Stevie,” a highly personal documentary (and Toronto favorite) from ”Hoop Dreams” director Steve James. And Fox Searchlight’s fluffy soccer-empowerment tale ”Bend It Like Beckham,” already a gigantic hit overseas, has orphans-and-despair-glutted Sundancers screaming ”Goal!”
So perhaps there is buzz after all. But buzz is not always to be trusted. It’s what led this reporter into a screening of ”Quattro Noza,” a SoCal car-culture thug-a-thon which can best be described thusly: Imagine Terrence Malick making ”The Fast and the Furious” on a budget of $7.53. Tachometers and fuel gauges have seldom been photographed so lovingly; actors have seldom looked less engaged. However, you can’t doubt their devotion to their craft: In a display of steel-belted Method acting, several cast members, who road-tripped here en masse, were reported peeling out of a parking lot on Friday.
But no one else is moving fast or furiously on Main Street, which is packed with buses, cabs, SUVs, and tourists at all hours. (Some festival veterans feel the non-industry tourist factor has finally reached unacceptable levels.) The party scene is as vibrant as ever here, with shindigs like Saturday night’s ”Project Greenlight” party attracting the likes of Ben and J. Lo. The bash for ”The United States of Leland” drew out star-cum-producer Kevin Spacey, in regular-guy mode, while Britney made the party rounds more conspicuously, thanks in part to her giant, impossible-to-miss bodyguard.
So, yes, there may be a shortage of the powdery white stuff (and yes, we’re talking about snow), but perhaps that’s just because all the star wattage is having a warming effect.