Some of this year’s Sundance comedy-dramas have had their narratives plucked from the wellspring of their director’s personal experience, though that should never excuse any shortcomings. Yesterday, I wrote a negative review of Francesca Gregorini’s treatment of motherhood in Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes. My primary beef was less with the inherent trauma at the centre of the story, and more to do with the formal missteps that, regrettably, had a few critics in my screening snickering quietly to themselves. Their mockery was, again, not directed at the content but its aesthetic delivery, deemed preposterous once the third act indulged in a questionable surrealistic abandon.
Stand-up comedians can rarely be accused of surrendering to melodramatic impulses of the like seen in Gregorini’s feature. US comic Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me leaps into fantastical dream sequences that illustrate his subconscious fears of marriage and fatherhood, but they’re each miniature, drab episodes with an air of awareness. And in the real world of the film, Birbiglia reacts to everything with a degree of emotionality that never dares to border on schmaltz. Sleepwalk with Me bears minuscule similarities to other minutiae-fixated, comic-fronted vehicles such as Louie, though it offers a broader canvas – 88 minutes, so to speak – on which a certain brand of personal introspection is given room to breathe. Birbiglia’s frequent bouts of sleepwalking are more or less immediately attributed to his anxieties over long-term commitment with his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose, of Six Feet Under fame). Birbiglia recounts this uncertain period to us from the front seat of his car, implying that the ordeal and its emotional aftertaste have been left squarely in the distant past. Maybe they have, maybe they haven’t.
Birbiglia’s sober, self-deprecating – some would say narcissistic – treatment of his personal difficulties serves to remind us of stand-ups’ adeptness at deconstructing the intricacies of daily life without feeling overly sorry for themselves. Alternatively, they do feel sorry for themselves, but always at a self-aware level that deflects any criticisms of petulance.
Thing is, Birbiglia provides more insight into the complex dialectic of human relationships than – with the exception of Upstream Color, still a wildly different animal – most other films at the festival, and even then he doesn’t strive to overly dwell on a single symbolic moment. It’s in the sincerity of his acceptance of defeat and the harsh reality of life as an ongoing cycle of expectation and disappointment that Birbiglia reaches a compromise with the audience despite giving them little incentive to take his side. His acknowledgement of the mechanisms of desire – of staring into the abyss of someone you’re expected to live with until the end of time – is a refreshing take that formally relies on little more than a casual, deadpan approach. Sundance comedy hopefuls could learn a thing or two from Birbiglia’s honesty and self-discipline.
Stuart Zicherman’s A.C.O.D. didn’t benefit from screening straight after the affectingSleepwalk with Me. It should work; the cast comprises heavyweights Richard Jenkins, Catherine O’Hara, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Adam Scott, Jessica Alba, Jane Lynch and Amy Poehler. Their comedic talents, though appreciable and intermittently hilarious, are bundled together in a succession of slanging matches whose aggressiveness grows steadily unbearable.
The film is bookended by two sombre factoids. The first, introducing the narrative thrust, informs us that 1 in 2 marriages end in divorce. The second, taking place over the end credits, films a series of talking heads – presumably members of the crew – taking turns to say, “I am a child of divorce.” Both instances induce head-scratching when considered alongside the body of the film itself, a worryingly simplistic look into marital struggle and its effects on the next generation.
Adam Scott leads the all-star ensemble as Carter, a child of divorce who discovers that his childhood therapist Judith (Lynch) had covertly used his sessions as inspiration for her bestselling book, focused on children of broken homes. When Adam happens upon his parents (Jenkins and O’Hara) – long-assumed to be perennial mortal enemies – boinking on the kitchen counter, things swiftly turn code red. Now it’s up to Adam to carry out damage control, regulating the affair’s effects over his parents’ respective partners, his brother’s impending betrothal and his girlfriend’s own designs for marriage. Meanwhile, Judith plans a follow-up to her book…
You’d assume the inclusion of a therapist character would give the film grounds to interrogate a thorough dissection of the effects of divorce on grown adults, without necessarily sacrificing any comedic elements. Instead, Judith is regarded largely as a stalker by Carter, and most other friends and family are treated with equal suspicion and distrust.
The film seizes every opportunity to escalate conflict. Its principal gag is that the parents are acting like kids, leaving the children to assume the adult responsibility of diffusing a conflict perpetuated by unrelenting personalities. Conflict as an overriding ingredient is the essence of subpar screenwriting. It’s harder to write a humorous scene in which everyone co-exists than it is to have them bite each other’s heads off, but still Zicherman’s and co-writer Ben Karlin’s script manages to yank up the volume on familial face-offs without giving its audience sufficient reason to laugh. In all, there’s scarce joy to be found in these back-and-forths.
Nor is there much sense of spatial cohesion. Everyone with a working brain will doubtless be able to navigate the film’s heavily-populated scenes, though Zicherman’s immobile camera nevertheless makes poor effort of establishing characters’ placement within a gathering.
There’s headaches aplenty induced by the frustrating A.C.O.D., whose most audacious gesture is its final scene, a parting shot that caps off 90 minutes of cynicism with a contrastingly overenthusiastic view of marriage. It’s a familiar denouement, found in countless other mainstream treatises on the same subject matter; and after the refreshing frankness of Sleepwalk with Me, it’s almost insulting.
Matthew McConaughey continues his creative streak in Jeff Nichols’ Mud, a sun-streaked sojourn into Southern backwaters where male hegemony goes largely unchallenged. McConaughey’s affable fugitive Mud exists on the periphery of this sparse civilisation. Stranded on an island, he’s discovered by two adventurous young boys named Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Ellis’ parents are separating, and it’s through the almost cinematic ideal of the improbable Mud that he envisions a chance to reclaim a belief in true love. Mud’s got a girl on land that goes by the name of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and Ellis is keen to play the role of messenger in order to see the two of them reunited.
But Mud has blood on his hands, and the family of his victim descend upon the town with an aim to fetch his head on a plate. Nothing is ever so simple, though Ellis wishes it were; his perception of women and the complexities of love burgeons at a comfortable pace as the men in his life shower him with ominous warnings over the fairer sex. His father Senior (Ray McKinnon) admonishes him for thieving, though fails to see the ethical double standard as he then venomously addresses Ellis’ mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson).
Women are evil, according to the men of Mud. They’ll sink their claws in and bleed you dry if you let ‘em. But there are no absolutes, only divergent paths crossing; people in the same place at the wrong time. Some things are best left alone, though the holdover masculine codes of the Western that govern Arkansas encourage the males to take what they want, when they want it.
Sadly, there’s some convenient positioning as the film arrives at its violent climax, a vicious gunfight undertaken by Mud, the pursuing band of avengers and a crafty deus ex machina. It doesn’t do the film much damage, though it pales in comparison to the preceding relaxed pace at which the majority of the story unfurls. Some scenes are so reserved and infused with regionalist affection that they almost resemble a humourless Coen Brothers snapshot. But there’s no dearth of emotion; a restrained, warm sincerity permeates the picture, never overegged enough to shunt the picture into gross sentimentality. Careful consideration is paid to what unfolds.
Porchlight shimmers on the water’s edge. Nichols takes in the breadth of the Arkansas country climate with an eye for illuminative warmth, leaving his characters at the mercy of the sun’s glow in each of its transitive stages. Sunrise and sunset dictate the atmosphere of every encounter as chirping crickets creak into the remaining diegetic space. lnterior shots are lit with artificial spreads of gold that accentuate the dark beside the light.
Mud premiered in competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, so it’s taken almost a year to reach these shores. Despite its occasional violent clashes, this is one to recommend for young and adult alike. Its examination of stubborn masculinity and adolescent discovery speaks to a range of age groups and is unlike anything – visually and tonally – on offer across the Sundance selection. Furthermore, it’s a compelling metaphor for the hopeful belief in cinema itself; a look at the way in which we place stock in silver screen surrogates to vicariously amend our own ill fortune.
Sundance London 2013 takes place at the o2, Greenwich, London from 25-28 April.