Tough choices are a part of every major film festival. How do you decide what to see and what to skip? Do you prioritize high-profile fare, which may have been selected entirely for its high profile, or do you roll the dice on something small and new, hoping to make a discovery? There’s no science to comprehensively covering a fest, especially one as overstuffed as Sundance. Even still, it’s hard to let it go when you make the wrong choice—especially when that choice results in missing out on movies that reliable sources insist are major and essential. Yesterday, on my third day in Park City, I played it safe and banked on new efforts from filmmakers whose previous work I had admired. All three were disappointments, which wouldn’t sting as much if they didn’t effectively take the place of instantly acclaimed fare I could have seen instead. In fact, the best of the four movies I’ve watched over the last 24 hours was one I would have confidently skipped had a fellow Chicago critic not gone to bat for it. (Thanks, Matt Pais!)
Perhaps not surprisingly, my most anticipated movie of the fest is now my biggest disappointment; there’s probably a lesson there in not letting one’s hopes skyrocket too high, even when a favorite filmmaker is involved. Even in the event of bad buzz, there was no way I was going to miss out on the premiere of a new movie from Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, the co-writing team whose previous collaboration was one of the most effervescent comedies of the last decade. Alas, Mistress America (Grade: B-) is no Frances Ha, even if it sometimes resembles it in tempo and New York City milieu. Coming on the heels of While We’re Young (the other new Baumbach, which hasn’t even hit U.S. theaters yet), the film is further evidence that the caustic comedic visionary behind downers like Greenberg and Margot At The Wedding has officially revived the gentler sensibilities of his early work. That’s not a bad thing, even when the results are as spotty as they are here.
One of Baumbach’s greatest gifts as a filmmaker is his innate sense of rhythm and momentum, on full display in the funny, rapid-fire montage through which Mistress America initially unfolds. (His recent strategy of staging scenes like one-liners, dropping in on a situation and cutting immediately out on a punchline, continues to pay big comedic dividends.) Newcomer Lola Kirke plays Tracy, a college freshman struggling to make friends and good grades at Columbia University. The opening weeks of her first semester speed by in fast-forward, Baumbach offering more of the lightning-fast youth satire he’s been perfecting over the past few years. Then Tracy meets Brooke (Gerwig), the older, self-involved daughter of the woman her father is marrying, and immediately becomes infatuated with her future sister’s cosmopolitan NYC lifestyle—so much so that she works her into the short story she submits to Columbia’s prestigious literary society.
In its depiction of a square seduced by the charms of a narcissistic cool kid, Mistress America plays like a kickier companion piece to While We’re Young. And whereas that film made a late bid to examine the ethics of nonfiction, this one does the same for fiction. (Cram the two films together on one bill and you’ve got Noah Baumbach’s Storytelling.) Mistress America, however, lacks the emotional pull of While We’re Young; it’s a looser but more disposable entertainment, and while Gerwig and Baumbach remain masters at penning hilarious bon mots, they’ve failed to supply their joke-machine narrative with the kind of prickly, complicated characters that occupy the director’s best work. (Kirke, though, is very charming, in a role radically, impossibly different from the small one she memorably occupied in Gone Girl.)
Critical opinions are already divided on the hard left turn of Mistress America’s second half, when Tracy, Brooke, and a couple of along-for-the-ride classmates drive to Vermont to hit up a wealthy, estranged friend for money. At a swanky suburban residence, the film transforms into a full-fledged screwball farce, sending characters constantly in and out of frame, jokes flying fast in a torrent of overlapping dialogue. It’s kind of exciting to see the filmmakers try their hands at such a broad, formally playful comedic form, but their fledgling stab is uneven: Not all of the actors seem in the same register, and scenes often take on the distinct feel of an awkward community-theater production. I remain grateful that Baumbach and Gerwig found each other, and that they’re bringing such a winning spirit to American comedy. I also hope that their next joint effort is closer in spirit to their first one.
Those disappointed that Baumbach has abandoned, at least for the moment, his taste for egregiously unlikable characters and uncomfortable dramedy should consider diving into the decidedly non-mainstream work of Rick Alverson. A few years ago, the writer-director scandalized sold-out Sundance audiences with The Comedy, starring Tim Heidecker (of Tim & Eric fame) as a hipster dirtbag who shields himself with a heavy coat of irony and offensive humor. I still don’t know if the film is intended to be a genuine examination of generational detachment or a total put-on parody of the same. Either way, it’s more approachable than Alverson’s follow-up, Entertainment (Grade: B-), which does for Gregg Turkington exactly what The Comedy did for Heidecker—namely, interrogate his specific brand of anti-comedy, finding a layer of deep melancholy beneath it.
Turkington stars as a fictionalized version of his real-life alter ego, Neil Hamburger, spitting one-liners at tiny, unresponsive dive-bar crowds during a tour of the Southwest. (His opener is an oddball clown played by The Tree Of Life’s Tye Sheridan.) Hamburger’s act is often scandalously funny, and whenever Alverson is lingering on the performer as he bombs on stage, the film gains the confrontational power it’s seeking. But as an act of audience antagonism, Entertainment is too tiresomely repetitive: When not telling vulgar jokes or accosting hecklers with vicious insults, Turkington’s character is moping his away across the desert, making sad, unanswered phone calls to his daughter and having surreal encounters with strangers (some of them played by cameo-ing celebrities, including John C. Reilly and Michael Cera). The film hits the same note of deadpan depression over and over again, until shock calcifies into boredom. Alverson, whose formal chops are undeniable, makes movies like no one else. Entertainment presents the inadvertent case that maybe he shouldn’t make them like this anymore either.
Strong starts that don’t pay off in a satisfying way is apparently a theme of the festival, as evidenced by the latest from Chilean director and Sundance alum Sebastián Silva (Crystal Fairy). For most of its running time, Nasty Baby (Grade: C) is just a sweet, lackadaisical Brooklyn comedy about the attempts of a gay couple (Silva and TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe) to have a baby; their friend (Kristen Wiig) has agreed to carry the child, and will play a role in its parenting, too. Proving no slouch behind or in front of the camera, Silva finds gentle humor in the foibles of his modern family, and he has a good feel for the flavor of his New York neighborhood. But a distracting subplot about a homophobic, off-his-rocker neighbor simmers distractingly on the margins of the narrative, before giving way to a truly ruinous plot turn—a genre leap so misjudged that all the goodwill Silva has built up until that point goes up in flames. The filmmaker has called Nasty Baby a very personal movie, but he was clearly too close to the project to recognize the whopper of a bad direction it eventually takes.
Guilty as it makes me to admit it, the best comedy in a day full of them was a total crowd-pleaser, as easy on the eyes and ears as Entertainment is challenging. But much of the charm of Sleeping With Other People (Grade: B+/A-) is in the way it redeems the very conventions it’s recycling. The premise is pure rom-com cliché: A dozen years after taking each other’s virginity in college, two serial cheaters (Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie) reunite in New York, where they vow to be platonic buddies instead of ruining their renewed friendship with destructive sex. But writer-director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) works a strange magic with familiar material, proving how effective this often-maligned genre can be when invested with sincerity, wit, and honesty. It’s not just that everything clicks, from the ribald humor to the superb supporting cast to the performances of the leads, both of whom have never been funnier. It’s also the ways that Sleeping With Other People subtly upends some of the more conservative values of the Nora Ephron model. This is a date movie that never stoops to slut-shaming its sexually active heroine; it’s also a movie about sex that treats sex without oven mitts, through some of the best love-making scenes to ever appear in a movie like this. Lo and behold, Headland has made a romantic comedy that’s genuinely romantic and highly comedic—further proof that, at Sundance, the films that sound the least promising can be the most rewarding.