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Notes from an EW critic: Sundance's funny business

Owen Gleiberman on this year’s lighter, happier festival, starring comedies ”What Just Happened?” and ”The Great Buck Howard.” Plus: thoughts on ”U2 3D”

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Steve Zahn, Colin Hanks, ...

Welcome to the light, funny, entertaining Sundance Independent Comedy Film Festival! It’s no joke! I mean, it is a joke! One you’re really, honestly going to laugh at! And buy lots and lots of tickets to! Step right up!!

Okay, I kid, and I also exaggerate, because I like to do that to the Sundance folks, but before this year’s festival began, there was a swell of media chatter, stoked by Sundance boss-programmer-in-charge Geoffrey Gilmore, to the effect that this year’s event was going to offer a change of pace from the ”dark,” dysfunctional, in-grown dramas of past years. This time, there would be fun movies — comedies, dammit. There would be a vision of filmmakers gazing past their own navels. If you listened closely, you could hear more than a touch of spin in that summation. The dark movies of the past few Sundances haven’t exactly fared well at the box office, whether it was the grim visions of Iraq or the morose family dramas like Thumbsucker (I know, it was supposed to be a comedy, but give me a break). And this year, the holy grail that distributors are searching for can be summed up in one four-letter word: J-U-N-O. The whole comedy-is-king thing is, on some level, a desperate plea for relevance.

That said, Sundance could use a few laughs — you were expecting Thumbsucker vs. Chumscrubber? — and I’m pleased to report that Gilmore’s description is no hype. There have been a handful of droll, pleasure-center-tickling comedies this year, enough of them, at least, to knock the lint out of your navel. It’s true that two of the best had the backing of industry veterans, but who’s complaining? Not me.

What Just Happened?, an inside satire of everything that has happened to Hollywood, finds director Barry Levinson returning to the gently merciless, bombs-away mode of Wag the Dog, and it’s a worthy follow-up. It was a little surreal to see Levinson and his star, Robert De Niro, bound on stage to introduce their movie — isn’t there a statute of limitations on indie credibility? — but these two veterans looked eager and hungry. When De Niro, in an uncharacteristic fit of bonhomie, said that he was happy to be there, he sounded as if he meant it. Teaming up with screenwriter Art Linson, these two have delivered a sendup of moviemaking in the age of corporatization that earns its feisty, acrid glee. De Niro plays a big-shot producer dealing with all the pesky bureaucratic ”creative” niggles that comprise his job. A bad thriller, directed by a pretentious twit (the delectable overactor Michael Wincott), has scored abysmally at a test screening thanks to a climax in which not only the hero gets blown away, but the hero’s dog gets blown away. On top of that, a production that is nervously approaching its start date has one key stumbling block: Its star, Bruce Willis, has grown a hilariously grotesque Paul Bunyan beard that he arrogantly refuses to shave. (He wants to be loved for his talent.)

Every Hollywood satire has to advance, in some way, our perception of how the corruption of the movie business actually works, and where What Just Happened? ups the cynicism of The Player or Entourage is in presenting an industry that is running on corporate auto-pilot. The crushing of art by commerce is something the film takes blithely for granted — it’s a done deal — which means that even a powerful producer is now nothing more than an errand boy, a giant cog nudging the cogs below him to act like the good cogs they are. The movie rambles on a bit, but it has some priceless, dryly obscene, laugh-out-loud lines, and it’s held together by De Niro, who musters a nagging, desperate warmth beneath his grumbly façade. He gives a little bit of soul to this tweak of a movie business that has begun to forget what its soul ever looked like.

NEXT PAGE: Owen Gleiberman’s take on the other big Sundance comedy, The Great Buck Howard, and U2 3D

John Malkovich, with his brainy absurdist whine, has been crawling out on a limb of inspired flakiness for years now, but his best work — like the mad Color Me Kubrick — has struggled to make it onto the distribution radar. The Great Buck Howard gives Malkovich the showcase he deserves, and not just because it lets the actor fly as high, and loopy, as he likes (though it does, it definitely does). It’s that writer-director Sean McGinley has built a structure that grounds the Malk, letting him create a character with as much fascination as folly. His Buck Howard, a loving, fictionalized version of the Amazing Kreskin, is a former superstar of magic and ”mentalism” who has become a joke with a rubber handshake, a relic of the late ’60s and early ’70s, babbling on about his 61 appearances on The Tonight Show. Now, he performs to half-full theaters in places like Bakersfield (”I love this town!” he crows). Yet his act is still amazing. He can read people’s minds (or is it all a big fraud?), and that fusion of cheesiness and wonder is at the heart of the movie, which traces Buck’s brief, shining moment of Tony Bennett-like he’s-so-out-he’s-in resurgence. A winning Colin Hanks is the wide-eyed law-school dropout who becomes assistant and road manager to the now kindly, now cantankerous, possibly gay, lost-in-the-leisure-suit-era Buck, and Emily Blunt, as the publicist who signs on to stoke Buck’s comeback, has a perky radiance.

The Great Buck Howard is in love with kitsch, with the backwaters of showbiz, and with genuine magic. At times, it’s like a more commercial version of an early Jonathan Demme film, but McGinley is also part of a new breed of director — a slick good-time humanist, likeJuno‘s Jason Reitman. These two may not quite be artists (at least, not yet), but a thriving movie culture needs all the filmmakers like them it can find.

***

I can’t, offhand, think of any entertainer on the planet who could dignify the prospect of watching a 3-D movie more than Bono, the black-Irish pope of rock. If Bono says that 3-D is a noble cause, then that’s good enough for me. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from U2 3D — the Edge tossing guitar picks into our faces? — but this concert film, shot during U2’s Vertigo tour at a 100,000-seat stadium in Argentina, comes at us in images that are very nearly sculptural. The 3-D effects don’t jut out at you, obnoxiously — they envelop you, majestically, and that effect fuses with the band’s transporting sound to create a full-scale sensory high. U2 3D makes you feel stoned on movies. On this particular tour, U2 had cleaned away a lot of their stage bric-a-brac (not to worry, there’s still plenty left), and what we’re left with is 85 minutes of jangly rapture. Bono, with his soaring message of global love, commands the crowd like a hunky hippie cult leader (I mean that in a good way), and the Edge, with his genius guitar playing, doesn’t just create walls of sound — he creates cathedrals of sound. For all the jabber about how the Internet is going to ”democratize” music, it’s hard to imagine in the digital era downloading a band as grand as this one.