[Film Fest] It's strange that it has taken so long to realize, but I think I laugh more at Sundance than I do at movies the rest of the year. And a lot of it is even intentional.
I may not be the idea audience for some types of Sundance fare – needlessly provocative psychodramas, minimalist bummers – but the comedies tend to fall right into my wheelhouse. They're smarter than most, and less likely to be made for the sense of humor of a 12-year-old. Comedy for an actual adult doesn't come around nearly often enough.
One of my favorite recent Sundance comedies, The Puffy Chair, came from the sibling team of Mark and Jay Duplass a couple of years ago. Their new effort, Baghead, continues their participation in the lower-than-low-key aesthetic dubbed “mumblecore” with the story of four under-employed L.A. actors who decide to head for a mountain cabin and write a script to showcase their abilities. After a pair of hilarious early sequences – perfect Sundance fare in their parodies both of festival films and the subsequent parties – the film settles into a combination of amusing relationship observation and awkward detour into scary territory. The brothers Duplass may be into genre movies, but trying to insert half of one into their comedy doesn’t quite work.
French writer-director Samuel Benchetrit also clearly adores genre movies, but of a different type. His winning black-and-white comedy I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster presents four stories of people enthralled by the romantic allure of crime, but butting up against the realities of their actions. Benchetrit gets a lot of mileage out of bungled attempts at hold-ups and kidnappings, but he also finds unexpected heart in recognizing the connection between criminality and a search for something missing in people’s lives. It’s an uncommon mix of terrific slapstick and effective character humor.
Choke tries to achieve the same balance, but not to the same effect. Actor Clark Gregg adapts the Chuck Palahniuk novel about a messed-up sex addict (Sam Rockwell) who finds benefactors by pretending to choke in upscale restaurants. Gregg does a fine job with some of the edgier material, and Rockwell is becoming one of the most versatile actors that no one quite seems to appreciate. But as drop-dead hilarious as the film is at times, it also aims for a sentimental streak that doesn’t quite feel true to the author’s style. I only made it through the first half of the book Choke a few years ago, but if he ends his book the way Gregg ends his movie, the dude has softened up plenty since Fight Club. I laughed, I didn’t cry … and I wouldn’t have minded doing even more laughing. (Scott Renshaw)