For reasons known only to programmers and the constituencies they must serve, opening-night selections at film festivals in general and Sundance in particular tend to be dull, forgettable productions. So I was delighted — and confounded! — by Mary and Max (pictured), a mordantly funny-sad Australian stop-motion Claymation drama about the 20-year pen-pal relationship between a lonely, lumpy girl in Melbourne, Australia, and an obese, 44-year-old reclusive Jewish New York guy with Asperger’s syndrome. Take that, Parker Posey! Adam Elliot’s lovingly hand-crafted creation is singularly trippy, crammed with dark jokes and twists of outré melodrama that might have sprung from a John Waters production. It’s also genetically, well, Australian in its outlook — a barmy hemispheric POV that has produced, oh, you know, Dame Edna, Toni Collette, and Rupert Murdoch. Speaking of the hard-working Collette, she voices the adult Mary, while dynamo Philip Seymour Hoffman is great as the scratchy, Noo Yawk voice of Max. (Dame Edna doesn’t make an appearance, but her creator, Barry Humphries, is the narrator.)
And now, bring on the men on film. I laughed a lot during Lynn Shelton’s wised-up Humpday, a cheeky, talky, post-feminist, sexually inclusive, cannily contrived comedy about Ben and Andrew, a couple of straight guys: The two talk and talk and talk and talk about whether they’ll have sex — with each other — on camera in the interests of making a porn “art” film to enter in an amateur competition. Key to spinning the wheels forward is the sane presence of Ben’s wife, a character of remarkable integrity who manages to listen to her husband without throwing a pork chop at him while he rationalizes his interest in the experiment. Unacknowledged throughout the larkiness, though, is the influence of Kelly Reichardt’s subtler, deeper, far less chatty, and far tinier arthouse darling, Old Joy, a gem out of Sundance two years ago that featured, yes, two men in a bromance and one wife on the sidelines.
Humpday is buoyed aloft by sex and laugh bubbles. Antoine Fuqua’s intense, nihilistic cop opera Brooklyn’s Finest is propelled by blood and gunshots. An engrossing follow-up to the director’s excellent 2001 Training Day both in its all-is-screwed attitude and it’s great use of Ethan Hawke’s particular talents for externalizing interior agony, this powerful, fancily constructed tragedy links individual cops at one hellhole Brooklyn precinct in a weed-choked dandelion chain of hopelessness and violence: Hawke’s guy is a good church-going Catholic willing to go bad if it’ll get him the money he needs to move his large family to a better house. Don Cheadle’s guy is an undercover agent deep into a narcotics ring, aching, Departed style, to get his life back. (Wesley Snipes glitters as a drug biggie, and the scenes between Snipes and Cheadle are killer.) Richard Gere is a bitter, cynical veteran on the force with seven days until retirement, a hollow man who can’t find a reason to live. Etc. Very Crash, very Babel, and very Fuqua, the movie just happens to gather the most charismatic specimens of cop-and-crook players, male division, since The Wire went off the air.
I want to see this one again, just to spend more time with these miserable, magnificent, melancholy men in blue. But today, it’s off to Cold Souls, and Paul Giamatti as (I’m quoting the program catalog, a la Zagat), a “metaphysical tragicomedy” that balances “on a tightrope between deadpan humor and pathos, and between reality and fantasy.”
Wait, doesn’t that also apply to Mary and Max? And Humpday? And Brooklyn’s Finest? And Sundance?