The term “crowd-pleaser” should probably be retired from the movie universe. When a serviceable January horror flick like Mama can make $20 million its opening weekend (and that’s demonstrably in the off season), you can bet that virtually every film that opens week in and week out at number one is, in ticket sales and essence, a crowd-pleaser. So it seems unnecessary, or maybe just redundant, to single out any one film for fulfilling that definition. It would sort of be like referring to Twizzlers or popcorn as “popular movie junk food.”
At the Sundance Film Festival, however, the term “crowd-pleaser” takes on an almost ideological meaning. Though Robert Redford always tries to play it down in his opening remarks to the press, one of the many things that this festival does is to search for crowd-pleasers, a high-stakes endeavor that is basically — though no one likes to put it this way — a game of trying to find a mainstream movie in a haystack. It’s usually one movie each year that’s annointed, by the collective buzz, as the festival’s reigning crowd-pleaser, and that excitement often translates into the Audience Award — the judgment of the people, man! — and into a headline-making business deal (it was picked up for $3 million! $5 million! $10 million!) that, in many ways, defines the nexus of art and commerce at this festival. Crowd-pleasers matter at Sundance because if Sundance can’t produce movies that please crowds, then it’s just a boutique event, and not the Hollywood-meets-the-edge crossover party that it has promised to be — and been — for the last 20 years.
The more you look at all the famous Sundance crowd-pleasers (Little Miss Sunshine, The Spitfire Grill, Pieces of April, Tadpole), the more you realize that they’ve become a genre unto themselves. They share a lot of the same qualities. They are almost always tales of family dysfunction. They feature token bits of bad behavior by characters who basically have hearts of gold. They are usually centered around kids. They have tidy narratives that are engineered to make you feel really good. And that’s the grand irony, isn’t it? The movies that get hailed as crowd-pleasers here are embraced because they’re basically middlebrow higher-sitcom television. They’re called the real deal, but in many ways they represent everything that the real deal is supposed to be against.
The Way, Way Back is the movie this year that’s been the recipient of the biggest wet sloppy audience kiss at Sundance. (It was also picked up for $10 million by Fox Searchlight, the most money spent for a Sundance film since Searchlight bought Little Miss Sunshine for $10.5 million in 2006.) When I was filing out of the Holiday Village Cinemas after a showing of it, and I started talking to a movie-columnist friend about why I liked the film okay but my enthusiasm for it was limited, she immediately said, “It’s not for critics,” which of course made me sputter for a moment, as I tried to argue that I don’t dislike big open-hearted crowd-pleasing movies, just cookie-cutter versions of them, which is what I think The Way, Way Back is. But there’s no winning that debate. When crowd-pleasing fever is in the air, anyone who goes against the crowd is the enemy.
So here’s why I thought The Way, Way Back was a perfectly nice and even, at moments, touching movie that didn’t really wow me because I thought it had a shallow, see-through agenda. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Academy Award-winning screenwriters of The Descendents (Rash, of course, is also a star of Community), the film is about a 14-year-old kid, Duncan (played by the scowling, cat-eyed Liam James), who is spending the summer with his divorced mother (Toni Colette), along with her boyfriend (Steve Carell) and his teenage daughter (Zoe Levin), at a beachy driftwood vacation home in what looks like a small town in New England. Duncan is miserable: silently angry that his mother has hooked up with a man he neither likes nor trusts (Carell’s uncharacteristically thin performance cues us early on to see that he’s right), and bored, too, with nothing much on his plate. But then Duncan winds up riding a bike over to Water Wizz, a kitschy, antiquated water-slide park — it was built in 1983 — where he catches the eye of Owen (Sam Rockwell), one of the workers there, who recognizes what a repressed, unhappy kid Duncan is and is determined, almost by instinct, to snap him out of it.
This isn’t hard for Owen to do, since he’s an arrested cut-up who talks in baroque put-ons. He’s like the last verbal exhibitionist in America who doesn’t have his own late-night talk show, and he brings Duncan out of his shell by razzing him with affection. Almost everyone who has seen The Way, Way Back has compared it to Meatballs, the 1979 summer-camp comedy that put Bill Murray on the map as a big-screen star. Rockwell tosses off some priceless line readings, and his character is certainly, among other things, a knowing nod to Murray’s. But the movie is really Greg Mottola’s Adventureland made with a lot less complication and flavor and pop pizazz. The difference between The Way, Way Back and Adventureland is that the quirky characters in that film all had pasts, whereas Rockwell, a moonstruck sprite of an actor who is now 44 years old, is playing the guy who’s still working at the water park, and the movie gives us no idea why. He flirts, rather relentlessly, with one of his co-workers (Maya Rudolph, doing her usual song-in-the-key-of-peeved reaction shots), but we don’t know where he comes from, or how he ended up here, or what his dreams are. He’s just a “character,” a guy who exists to help the hero grow.
And grow he does. The most “crowd-pleasing” scene in The Way, Way Back is the one that made me cringe the most: At Water Wizz, Duncan is asked to break up a bunch of kids in bathing suits who’ve gathered in a circle to watch a couple of crunk dancers. He tells the dancers to take their cardboard floor away, but instead of getting mad, they make him dance (it’s Welcome to the Dollhouse meets Napoleon Dynamite), and after managing a few hip-hop robot moves, he ends up with the nickname “Pop ‘n’ Lock.” I’m sorry, but that’s either going to make you feel good, or it’s going to make you feel like throwing up in your mouth a little.
Liam James, a good young actor, does an impressive array of variations on moping, but what’s missing from his character is any desire that goes beyond fulfilling the situations that the movie sets up for him. Duncan thinks Carell’s de facto stepfather is a dick — and time will prove that he’s not wrong. The girl next store (AnnaSophia Robb) is a junior hottie who is, like him, a child of divorce, and their bonding over their lost-kid status sprouts a few peck-on-the-cheek romantic blossoms right on cue. It’s all so programmatic, so uplifting. So carefully diagrammed to please.
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When was the last time you saw a documentary that fundamentally changed the way you think? It’s no secret that just about every political and socially-minded documentary shown at Sundance is preaching to the liberal-left choir. The issue may be dairy farming, human rights abuses in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the marketing of AIDS drugs, or Occupy Wall Street (to list the topics of four festival docs this year), but the point of view is almost always conventionally “progressive” and orthodox. So when Robert Stone, who may be the most under-celebrated great documentary filmmaker in America (watch Oswald’s Ghost if you want to touch the elusive truth of the JFK assassination), arrived at Sundance this year with Pandora’s Promise, a look at the myths and realities of nuclear power, he was walking into the lion’s den. For this isn’t a movie that preaches to the choir. It’s a movie that says: “Stop thinking what you’ve been thinking, because if you don’t, you’re going to collude in wrecking the world.” Pandora’s Promise is built around what should be the real liberal agenda: looking at an issue not with orthodoxy, but with open eyes.
In Pandora’s Promise, Stone interviews a major swath of environmentalists, scientists, and energy planners, all of whom spent years being anti-nuclear power — and then, as they began to look at the evidence, changed their minds. The film begins with a deep examination of the psychology of the anti-nuclear view: how it took hold and became dogma. It goes all the way back to 1945, of course, and the horror of the atomic bomb. From that moment, really, the very word nuclear was tainted. It meant something that was going to kill you, in the form of lethal radiation that you can’t see. By the time of the “No Nukes” protests of the ’70s, to be “anti-nuclear” was to conflate nuclear weapons and nuclear power into a single category of scientific evil, a point of view whipped up, over the years, into a doctrinaire frenzy of righteous fear and loathing by anti-nuclear activists like Dr. Helen Caldicott and reinforced by movies like The China Syndrome and even, in its benign satirical way, The Simpsons.
Stone, a lifelong environmental lefty himself, unravels that thinking. The film’s incredibly articulate — and deeply progressive — spokemen and women explain the nuts and bolts of why nuclear power, manufactured with the sophisticated breeder reactors that are available today, is fundamentally clean, efficient, and, yes, safe. As Richard Rhodes puts it in the movie: “To be anti-nuclear is basically to be in favor of burning fossil fuels.” Pandora’s Promise makes a powerful case that in an age when former Third World countries, striving for modernization, are beginning to consume energy in much vaster amounts (and why shouldn’t they have the right to do so?), none of the alternative energy sources that are commonly talked about by environmentalists (wind, solar, etc.) can begin to fill the planet’s energy needs. Only nuclear energy can. That’s why France, faced with its own energy crisis several decades ago, went nuclear. (Eighty percent of France’s energy is now generated by nuclear power plants.)
Ah, you say, but what about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima? The ultimate issue raised by nuclear power — the one that, according to conventional progressive thinking, stops the pro-nuclear argument right in its tracks — is, of course, the issue of safety. And the very names of those three locales cast a dark mythological shadow. You hear them and think: Meltdown. Radiation poisoning. Death. Disaster. But this is where, as a society, we desperately need more filmmakers like Robert Stone. Carefully, piece by piece, without hysteria and without dogma, he looks at the evidence of what actually happened during those three infamous catastrophes: the reality of the damage, and the reality of the aftermath. The results, if you truly listen to them, are almost spectacularly counterintuitive. They won’t leave you shaken. They will begin to shake you out of your old tired ways of thinking.
The most startling argument mounted by Pandora’s Promise is that the rise of nuclear power is not merely a good thing, but probably inevitable, because it is, in fact, the only way that we can power the planet and save it at the same time. In what has to be the ultimate liberal-documentary irony, Stone demonstrates that the dire threat of global warming all but demands nuclear power as the key to its solution. Without it, the debate will go on, but carbon dioxide will continue to fill the atmosphere, and liberals everywhere, caught up in reflexive modes of environmental “activism” that are now not just complacent but perilously out-of-date, will continue to let their anxieties trump reality.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman