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The stars of Sundance

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Opening weekend of Sundance 2012 was about characters doing dirty deeds — and studios hoping to buy them dirt cheap. The sci-fi crowd-pleaser Robot & Frank features Frank Langella as an aging thief who transforms his mechanical caregiver into an accomplice, while the Wall Street thriller Arbitrage stars Richard Gere as a Bernie Madoff-style billionaire. TV actors Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men) and Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) won raves for, respectively, Hello I Must Be Going and Liberal Arts, both dramedies about arrested-development thirtysomethings falling in love with 19-year-olds. Feature sales were brisk: Bradley Cooper’s literary mystery The Words, the Deliverance-esque thriller Black Rock, the John Hawkes starrer The Surrogate, festival favorite Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Rashida Jones’ Celeste and Jesse Forever had sold at press time.

Off screen, the festival weathered a few harrowing moments. After the premiere of his grim and shocking Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee raised eyebrows with an expletive-filled tirade aimed at Hollywood (”They know nothing about black people! Nothing!”), and Tracy Morgan, in town for his drug-dealing comedy Predisposed, was hospitalized after collapsing at a Sunday-night awards dinner from what his rep said was ”a combination of exhaustion and altitude.” On Monday, former indie-film executive and Sundance fixture Bingham Ray passed away following a pair of strokes he suffered while in Utah for the festival, stunning the filmmaking community he had long championed (see story on page 90). Sundance has always been famous for showcasing drama, but no one was prepared for this.

Bachelorette
They look chummy here, but in this comedy about longtime girlfriends reuniting when one gets married, the only bond they truly share is how much bitterness they harbor. Rebel Wilson (far left) invites the mean girls she idolized in school to be her bridesmaids, sending them into a chaotic, jealous rage. ”It’s all about what they don’t have, what they haven’t been able to accomplish yet,” says writer-director Leslye Headland (center, flanked by Lizzy Caplan, Kirsten Dunst, and Isla Fisher). ”It makes them make some very bad choices.”

Arbitrage
Bernie Madoff’s got nothing on this guy. Richard Gere stars in this financial thriller as a Wall Street billionaire desperate to hide the fraud that could collapse his empire. Soon he has far more serious crimes to cover up, but money, it turns out, is great for cleaning off blood. ”That’s just the way the world works,” Gere says. ”Everything can be repaired. I don’t know if it should be.”

Celeste and Jesse Forever
Rashida Jones (who co-wrote the offbeat comedy) plays a career-driven control freak and Andy Samberg an upbeat, unemployed surfer dude. They’re a married couple who become best friends — but only after deciding to divorce. Do they find happiness? Jones shrugs. ”Who’s happy?” she says.

Smashed
The irreverence of this boozy redemption tale can be gleaned from the title, if not this photo. (From left) The Help‘s Octavia Spencer plays a sobriety sponsor to an alcoholic (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World‘s Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Her primary-school co-workers (Parks and Recreation‘s Nick Offerman and Breaking In‘s Megan Mullally) are glad she’s getting help, but her hard-drinking husband, Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul, is less thrilled. ”They had fun in their relationship,” says producer Jonathan Schwartz. ”Then the thing they share goes away.”

Wish You Were Here
Joel Edgerton (Warrior, far right) made his U.S. breakthrough at Sundance in 2010 with the Australian crime saga Animal Kingdom and returns with another film from Down Under. This time, he plays a guy on vacation in Cambodia with his girlfriend, her little sister (Teresa Palmer, right), and her sister’s boyfriend. When the boyfriend vanishes, the souvenirs they take back from this trip are several ugly secrets.

For Ellen
Jon Heder (cradled) and Paul Dano (cradling) were in two of the biggest Sundance movies ever: Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, respectively. Now they join forces for a story about a struggling musician (Dano) trying to regain shared custody of his daughter despite his terrible lawyer (Heder).

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie
Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte turns up in the big-screen midnight-movie version of Adult Swim’s cult favorite Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! as a deranged sword salesman. (Is there any other kind?) But we ask: Does this man look deranged to you? That’s some Method acting, for realz.

Red Hook Summer
Spike Lee directed this tale of a boy (newcomer Jules Brown, center) spending the summer with his holier-than-thou preacher grandfather (The Wire‘s Clarke Peters, far left) and clashing with a neighborhood thug (Red Tails‘ Nate Parker, second from left) while befriending a charismatic church girl (fellow newbie Toni Lysaith, far right). The film, co-written by James McBride (second from right), polarized moviegoers. Lee (third from right) reprises his pizza-delivery character, Mookie, from a famous earlier movie, but in a wild post-screening rant told the crowd, ”If you go out and talk about it, please tell ’em this is not a motherf- – -ing sequel to Do the Right Thing.”

Black Rock
Call this trio Katie’s Angels. Katie Aselton (center) directed and stars alongside Lake Bell (left) and Kate Bosworth (right) in a violent thriller about a girls’ weekend gone bad on a remote Maine island. ”What happens is horrible,” says Aselton, whose husband, Sundance mainstay Mark Duplass (see below), wrote the script. ”But…it could happen.”

West of Memphis
Peter Jackson (above), who directed Melanie Lynskey (right) in his 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures, gets behind another true-crime tale: a doc about three Arkansas teens convicted of a horrible 1993 crime, despite a lack of evidence — and recently freed from jail.

Hello I Must Be Going
Melanie Lynskey stars as a 35-year-old divorcée who falls for a 19-year-old — but it’s a romance, not a scandal. ”I’ve liked hearing that people think it’s really sexy,” she says. ”People are like, ‘Oh, your chemistry is so intense!’ ”

Safety Not Guaranteed
A regretful man (Mark Duplass, far left) places a classified ad seeking a partner for time travel, and the title of this comedy is the ominous warning he gives those willing to make the journey. (From left) Newcomer Karan Soni, Jake Johnson (New Girl), and Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) are a magazine crew seeking to expose the kook. ”I think my character is looking to make fun of him, and Aubrey’s character is looking for a change. She’s looking for an adventure,” says Johnson.

Liberal Arts
How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor wrote, directed, and stars in this relationship comedy set at his real-life alma mater of Kenyon College, but Allison Janney and Richard Jenkins steal the movie as two abrasive professors. ”I wrote this part for [Jenkins], so I was hearing his voice as I wrote it,” Radnor says. ”And Allison Janney’s actually a Kenyon grad. So it was an amazing thing to invite her back, and for us to, you know, have sex.”

LUV
Rapper Common stars in a bring-your-kid-to-work crime drama as the ex-con uncle of an 11-year-old (Michael Rainey Jr.) who’s drawn back to his old ways on a day he’s watching the boy. ”It’s really about survival,” Common says. ”I bring this young man along, and he grows up fast.”

The Queen of Versailles
Documentarian Lauren Greenfield (above) was making a film about a billionaire couple building the nation’s largest single-family home (90,000 square feet!) when the economy tanked. Then it became a film about staving off collapse, financially and literally, as the home stood incomplete.

Robot & Frank
Liv Tyler (left) and James Marsden (right) costar as Frank Langella’s kids in this well-received sci-fi tale of a former criminal suffering from early-stage dementia who gets a caretaker robot to help him (and maybe burglarize a few neighbors). What was it like acting opposite the bot? The Frost/Nixon Oscar nominee looks to the empty space beside him. ”Do you want to answer that?” he asks his invisible robot friend. Langella chuckles: ”That’s what it’s like.”

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