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Michael Moore steals Toronto's opening-night thunder

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Isaiah Trickey/FilmMagic

As glitzy and strategically important as the Toronto Film Festival has become in Hollywood’s annual march toward the Oscars, the opening-night movie is rarely memorable. Despite its prestigious, high-profile slot and all of the attendant red-carpet-and-paparazzi hoo-hah that comes with it, the first film out of the gate is usually forgotten as quickly as Day 2 rolls along and the real jockeying for end-of-the-year buzz begins. Take last year’s opener, The Judge, or 2013’s The Fifth Estate, both of which basically fizzled on impact here.

Last night’s kick-off film, Jean-Marc Vallee’s Demolition, was no different. Despite being directed by the Oscar-friendly auteur behind Dallas Buyer’s Club and Wild, and a homegrown Canadian one at that, Demolition didn’t send anyone out into the streets on Thursday night on a high of cinematic ecstasy. It’s a downer of a film, albeit one with another exceptional performance from its star, Jake Gyllenhaal. Beyond that, Demolition was a strange opening-night pick because it won’t even hit theaters until April 2016, making it almost beside the point for anyone who came here trying to divine this year’s Oscar tea leaves.

Gyllenhaal plays Davis, a Wall Street big shot whose wife dies in a violent car crash in the opening minutes, leaving him shattered and numb. With a tragedy like losing a spouse, it’s hard to say what’s the right or wrong way to grieve. Even so, Davis’s method is… odd. He begins by writing a series of obsessive, oversharing letters to a vending-machine company that shortchanged him when he was trying to buy some peanut M&Ms in the hospital while his wife was on the operating table. Then he becomes obsessed with destroying things: a fancy refrigerator, an even fancier cappuccino machine, and finally his sleek multimillion-dollar home. He’s trying to literally smash and tear apart his old life in order to forget it and move on. He’s a man who’s become unhinged (and maybe he always was… it’s hard to say) who needs to feel something, anything, even if his odd form of therapy comes at the business end of a sledgehammer.

Naomi Watts plays Karin, the single-mom customer-service professional who answers his letters and sees in them a desperation that she wants to understand. And Chris Cooper plays his tough-as-nails father-in-law who can’t comprehend the way he’s responding to his daughter’s death.

In recent films like Prisoners, Nightcrawler, and Southpaw, Gyllenhaal has proven and underscored why he’s one of our most committed and chameleonic stars. But while Demolition’s portrait of a widower provides another showcase for Gyllenhaal’s intensity (Davis could be a wealthier and slightly more well-adjusted cousin of Nightcrawler’s Louis Bloom), it’s also a wildly uneven and tonally schizophrenic movie. It doesn’t seem like it knows what kind of film it wants to be. It’s so busy being quirky it can’t decide if it’s a really dark comedy or an off-kilter meditation on loss.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for all of the opening-night buzz that should have belonged to Demolition to be channeled elsewhere. Michael Moore, Michigan’s disheveled merry prankster, arrived right after Demolition demolished with his latest playfully outraged documentary, Where to Invade Next. Little was known about the Roger and Me director’s latest top-secret film coming into the festival, which was how he wanted it – a stealth attack. And while the film’s tongue-in-cheek title hinted at the sort of critical, muckraking exposes he’s become both famous and infamous for (not to mention a perennial punching bag for the Fox News set), no one at its standing-room-only premiere knew what to expect – something that Moore, who walked on the stage to introduce the film in his signature ratty baseball cap and baggy jeans, seemed to relish.

Where to Invade Next wasn’t the indictment of American militarism that its title implied. In fact, it ended up being something much different and more heartfelt. It might have been the most loving indictment of his homeland that he’s ever made. You might say Moore is getting softer with age, but the movie has a cutting truth to it that’s hard to brush off. Moore has made a film that takes a hard look at America and wonders aloud how we’ve lost our way. How has the greatest and most powerful country on Earth fallen so far behind to the rest of the world when it comes to happiness, dignity, and how we treat our workers? Moore travels across the globe (mostly Europe, but also far-flung places like Tunisia) and, with an air of mock astonishment, shows us how much better other countries treat women, minorities, and families. In each case, he talks to locals and after hearing how simple their prescriptions for happiness are, he plants an American flag on their soil and argues that his invading documentary team wants to colonize these ideas (more humane prison systems, corporate family-leave rules, college tuition policies, even what they feed their children at lunch in school) and bring them back to America to fix what’s broken at home.

Like in most of Moore’s films, there’s something rhetorical and overly simplistic about his approach. He’s like a child who asks “Why?” over and over again. His biggest question, though, is, “Why are we spending so much money fighting wars abroad when we should be using it to fix our problems at home?” This sort of faux-innocence has made him a huge bullseye target of the Right over the years. Who does this guy think he is to tell us what’s wrong with America? Hey, love it or leave it, pal! But it’s always been clear that he’s a patriot deep down. He loves America so much that it pains him that it can’t do and be better. With its slapstick editing and his trademark wiseguy first-person narration, Moore’s film is funny, but it’s also as serious as a heart attack. There’s nothing mock about his outrage; it’s sincere and ultimately hopeful. And when you’re done laughing, Where to Invade Next is a movie that stings. When the lights came up, and Moore shuffled back on stage, he was the recipient of the festival’s first — and certainly not last — standing ovation.

WATCH: EW News Flash live from TIFF 2015.

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