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Sundance: Back to the '80s, plus 'Big Fan' and 'Hideous Men'

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How’s this for an indie-vs.-mainstream fairy tale? In 1995, Greg Mottola, with Steven Soderbergh serving as his producer and backer, made The Daytrippers, a dysfunctional-family road comedy starring Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, and Parker Posey. (Can’t you just feel that mid-’90s nostalgia?) The movie was submitted to Sundance, but it didn’t get in. So Soderbergh submitted it to Slamdance, the “alternative” Park City festival that was then in its formative years, and the movie played there in 1996, got picked up for distribution, and became the most high-profile hit that Slamdance ever spawned. But wait, it gets better. Mottola went to work in series television, directing episodes of Undeclared and Arrested Development, and then, more than 10 years later, he directed his followup film, and it was a hilariously humane and bold comedy, one that blew away The Daytrippers in its marvelous layered wordplay, its devious and supple naturalistic flow. It was called…Superbad.

Now, after having shepherded that Judd Apatow smash, Mottola, on Monday night, made a point of going back to his roots by showing up at Sundance — no one on stage ever mentioned Slamdance — to present his third movie, Adventureland, a lovely, funny, understated, and deftly authentic tale of growing up in the long-ago, far-away days of the summer of 1987. The movie stars Jesse Eisenberg, from The Squid and the Whale, who has sprouted into a handsome but still neurotically sincere dude who now resembles a mop-topped young Jewish version of John Lydon. He plays James, who has managed the singular feat of graduating from college without ever losing his virginity (he’s saving it for true love). He spends the months before graduate school working in a scruffy amusement park, which turns out to be his real education.

I have no doubt that when you saw the words “summer of 1987,” you thought: Aha! (No pun intended.) Another ’80s period piece! How quaint! How Sundance! The quiet, modest beauty of Adventureland is that while it nails all the trappings of the late Reagan years, it doesn’t rub them in your face. It captures its time gently, the way that Dazed and Confused did with the slow-ride ’70s, and it does so by making the key period detail not the clothes or the songs but the mood, the personalities on screen. (That said, Mottola makes terrific use of period chestnuts like “Rock Me Amadeus” and the delicate swoon of “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”) This was the last era before grunge, the Internet, and fatally omnipresent youth irony, and Mottola has a sixth sense for the way that kids in the ’80s reached for detachment-as-attitude without quite getting there. In hindsight, their hearts weren’t too far from their sleeves, and Adventureland is like an ’80s teen comedy for grownups.

Its resonant tone aside, the movie has a fairly conventional

romantic plot. At the amusement park, where he goes to work in the

Games section (i.e., giving away giant stuffed pandas to stupid jocks),

Eisenberg draws the attention of Kristen Stewart (from Twilight),

who brings her captivating, slightly sulky intelligence to the role of

a sweet girl who plays out her hidden troubles by sleeping with the

park’s older, married, token greaser rock star (Ryan Reynolds).

Eisenberg also carries on a flirtation with a cherry-lipped hottie with

Madonna’s hair. For a geek, the guy does pretty well, but maybe that’s

because the movie doesn’t fetishize his uptightness the way that Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist did Michael Cera’s. Adventureland

runs into third-act problems — I wish it offered more of a romantic

rush at the end — but then, the movie’s real romance is with a time

that seemed jaded while it was happening but that now looks like the

last moment before jadedness really took over.

* * *     

Usually, it takes a while for a screenwriter to get a shot at

becoming a director, but Robert Siegel has wasted no time. The

new-kid-on-the-block scribe who created a splash by writing The Wrestler

has a movie at Sundance that he directed as well as wrote, and he turns

out to be the real McCoy: a shrewd and confident filmmaker. Big Fan,

starring Patton Oswalt as a 36-year-old Staten Island parking-garage

attendant who has no life apart from his fervid devotion to the New

York Giants, leads you to expect an over-the-top stalker comedy, but

here, as in The Wrestler, nothing is hyperbolic or overstated.

The movie is an unblinking look at the hidden (or maybe not so hidden)

pathology of American sports mania, but it’s also a crafty study of a

specific human being.

Oswalt’s Paul sits in his parking booth, then comes home each night

(to the home he shares with his kvetching mother) and calls the Sports

Talk radio phone-in show, so that he can spout the “spontaneous” Go Giants! Eagles suck!

rant that he has already scrawled out on a legal pad. His buddy (Kevin

Corrigan) listens in, cheering him on. Their idea of going to a game is

to sit in the parking lot of Giants Stadium watching it on a TV propped

up on the trunk of their car.

I took a lot of heat from readers for calling Patton Oswalt “bland” as the voice of Remy in Ratatouille — I stand by the assessment — but in Big Fan,

looking like a mild, dwarfish Michael Moore, Oswalt does a pinpoint job

of making Paul into an obsessive, childish, yet disarmingly rational

spokesman for the “wholesome” addiction that our

all-sports-all-the-time culture has helped spawn. After Paul spots one

of his Giants heroes at a Staten Island gas station, he tails him to a

strip club and approaches his table, and he ends up getting beaten up

by his hero — an event you’d expect would make him furious. Only Big Fan,

while it keeps you hanging on right through to the suspenseful climax

(which turns the tables, delightfully, on the audience), never does

what you expect. That’s what makes Siegel a born entertainer.

* * *

I’ve never read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the 1999

short-story collection by the late David Foster Wallace, so I can’t say

if the scrappy, intermittently perceptive dramatic feature that’s been

cobbled together out of it — it was written and directed by John

Krasinksi, of The Office — is faithful to Wallace’s vision. At

72 minutes, it’s a short but far-from-sweet series of toxic-pill

relationship vignettes, broken up by interviews with the male

characters, nearly all of whom prove, beneath their “enlightened”

liberal-humanist facades, to be insidious, lecherous, lying, brutally

self-justifying…men. (The tone of the interviews recalls Andie

MacDowell’s therapy sessions in sex, lies, and videotape, only minus the compassion.)

I’m probably making the movie sound like a sadomasochistic Neil

LaBute screed, and parts of it are (at times, it should have been

called Me and You and Every One of the Bastards We Know), but

big fat chunks of the dialogue have that great David Foster Wallace

quality: They’re whooshing roller-coasters of words, all carrying the

built-in drama of confession. The movie bashes men, all right, but it

also takes you on a ride through their failures, desires, resentments,

and confusions. What Brief Interviews with Hideous Men won’t

quite say out loud is that it’s really just as much an attack on women,

who are the ones on screen judging these men and therefore look even

harsher.

Its resonant tone aside, the movie has a fairly conventionalromantic plot. At the amusement park, where he goes to work in theGames section (i.e., giving away giant stuffed pandas to stupid jocks),Eisenberg draws the attention of Kristen Stewart (from Twilight),who brings her captivating, slightly sulky intelligence to the role ofa sweet girl who plays out her hidden troubles by sleeping with thepark’s older, married, token greaser rock star (Ryan Reynolds).Eisenberg also carries on a flirtation with a cherry-lipped hottie withMadonna’s hair. For a geek, the guy does pretty well, but maybe that’sbecause the movie doesn’t fetishize his uptightness the way that Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist did Michael Cera’s. Adventurelandruns into third-act problems — I wish it offered more of a romanticrush at the end — but then, the movie’s real romance is with a timethat seemed jaded while it was happening but that now looks like thelast moment before jadedness really took over.

* * *     

Usually, it takes a while for a screenwriter to get a shot atbecoming a director, but Robert Siegel has wasted no time. Thenew-kid-on-the-block scribe who created a splash by writing The Wrestlerhas a movie at Sundance that he directed as well as wrote, and he turnsout to be the real McCoy: a shrewd and confident filmmaker. Big Fan,starring Patton Oswalt as a 36-year-old Staten Island parking-garageattendant who has no life apart from his fervid devotion to the NewYork Giants, leads you to expect an over-the-top stalker comedy, buthere, as in The Wrestler, nothing is hyperbolic or overstated.The movie is an unblinking look at the hidden (or maybe not so hidden)pathology of American sports mania, but it’s also a crafty study of aspecific human being.

Oswalt’s Paul sits in his parking booth, then comes home each night(to the home he shares with his kvetching mother) and calls the SportsTalk radio phone-in show, so that he can spout the “spontaneous” Go Giants! Eagles suck!rant that he has already scrawled out on a legal pad. His buddy (KevinCorrigan) listens in, cheering him on. Their idea of going to a game isto sit in the parking lot of Giants Stadium watching it on a TV proppedup on the trunk of their car.

I took a lot of heat from readers for calling Patton Oswalt “bland” as the voice of Remy in Ratatouille — I stand by the assessment — but in Big Fan,looking like a mild, dwarfish Michael Moore, Oswalt does a pinpoint jobof making Paul into an obsessive, childish, yet disarmingly rationalspokesman for the “wholesome” addiction that ourall-sports-all-the-time culture has helped spawn. After Paul spots oneof his Giants heroes at a Staten Island gas station, he tails him to astrip club and approaches his table, and he ends up getting beaten upby his hero — an event you’d expect would make him furious. Only Big Fan,while it keeps you hanging on right through to the suspenseful climax(which turns the tables, delightfully, on the audience), never doeswhat you expect. That’s what makes Siegel a born entertainer.

* * *

I’ve never read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the 1999short-story collection by the late David Foster Wallace, so I can’t sayif the scrappy, intermittently perceptive dramatic feature that’s beencobbled together out of it — it was written and directed by JohnKrasinksi, of The Office — is faithful to Wallace’s vision. At72 minutes, it’s a short but far-from-sweet series of toxic-pillrelationship vignettes, broken up by interviews with the malecharacters, nearly all of whom prove, beneath their “enlightened”liberal-humanist facades, to be insidious, lecherous, lying, brutallyself-justifying…men. (The tone of the interviews recalls AndieMacDowell’s therapy sessions in sex, lies, and videotape, only minus the compassion.)

I’m probably making the movie sound like a sadomasochistic NeilLaBute screed, and parts of it are (at times, it should have beencalled Me and You and Every One of the Bastards We Know), butbig fat chunks of the dialogue have that great David Foster Wallacequality: They’re whooshing roller-coasters of words, all carrying thebuilt-in drama of confession. The movie bashes men, all right, but italso takes you on a ride through their failures, desires, resentments,and confusions. What Brief Interviews with Hideous Men won’tquite say out loud is that it’s really just as much an attack on women,who are the ones on screen judging these men and therefore look evenharsher.