There may have been no hotter ticket at this year’s Sundance Film Festival than the press screening of Deborah Kampmeier’s Hounddog. It was the kind of cavalcade of critics and “industry reporters” behaving badly—pushing, shoving, and clawing their way into an undersized hotel screening room while yelling death threats at harried publicists—which one rarely sees outside of Cannes. And what was the cause of all the fuss? Why, it was nothing less than the promise of seeing the frighteningly self-assured child star Dakota Fanning in her first (though one doubts her last) movie rape scene that drew in the droves like flies to so much steaming shit. As it happens, the most grotesque kiddie porn on display at Sundance 2007 wasn’t to be found in Kampmeier’s moonshine opus of stupidity, but rather in a considerably more repellent item called Grace Is Gone, in which a bespectacled, paunchy John Cusack plays a newly widowed father of two obscenely camera-mugging pre-teen daughters who can’t bring himself to tell the angel-faced moppets that their soldier mom has died in big bad Iraq. So, he does what any like-minded parent would: He piles everyone into the car and sets off for a Disneyland-like oasis of manufactured happiness.
There are the makings here for a deft satire about Americans’ ironclad aversion to unhappy endings, and more generous minds than mine have suggested that Cusack (who is unconvincing as an ex-military man, from his slumpy posture to his submissive, faintly retarded demeanour) and his clan’s plodding trek across a heartland landscape of Wal-Mart-like superstores and all-you-can eat buffets is really a deft metaphor for the US’ collective unwillingness to acknowledge the full horror of what is still happening in Iraq. To which I say: Get real. No less crass or calculating than the avatar of modern-day audience manipulation, Michael Moore, Grace Is Gone writer-director James C. Strouse is much less interested in saying something meaningful about America’s divided sociopolitical landscape than he is in cannily mixing support-our-troops bromides with some ineffectual lashings of the Bush II monarchy, reductively playing red and blue against the middle in a market-researched effort to come away with a whole lot of green. (True to form, Harvey Weinstein won bought Grace Is Gone in a Sundance-spectacular all-night bidding war that allegedly climaxed with Weinstein stationing himself in the sales agent’s condo and refusing to leave until he’d sealed the deal.)
Simply put, Grace Is Gone amounts to 90 minutes of emotional foreplay en route to that inevitable 60-second money shot in which dad spills the beans and the girls spill forth the entire contents of their tear ducts. And as if to prove my point, Strouse even cuts out the dialogue at that critical moment and lets the movie’s syrupy musical score take total control of the soundtrack—a reminder that, as in all pornography, no one gives fuck all about the story.
You didn’t have to look very far at Sundance this year to find a movie that used underage performers in some sort of unsavoury manner. (George Ratliff’s horror film Joshua, another take on Rosemary’s Baby,even went so far as to suggest that its dead-eyed devil child was merely clearing away the obstacles preventing him from having a deep and meaningful relationship with his flaming gay uncle.) But if Grace Is Gone got under my skin the most of the lot, it’s because it was the one that most effectively wormed its way into the hearts and minds of ordinarily intelligent critics and ordinary festivalgoers (who voted it their favourite entry in the very weak Dramatic Competition) alike. Immediately following the screening I attended, I made the mistake of sharing my opinion with one trusted colleague —not realizing soon enough that he was in desperate need of some Visine—only to have him call me an asshole in return. Meanwhile, even many of those who admitted to seeing through the film’s callowness couldn’t help qualifying their remarks with something on the order of, “Yes, but it moved me.” So, with next year’s edition of the Oscars still but ten months away, Grace Is Gone already seems poised to enter that pathetic pantheon of recent heart-tuggers, including Crash (2004) and The Lives of Others, that extract from reprehensible human behaviour a kind of dime-store catharsis. This is a distressing trend, less for what it says about movies than about the people who are making them—paragons of phony virtue who see the cinema as a pulpit from which to dispense their shopworn wisdom about the elemental goodness of people and our immutable ability to redeem our sins and cure whatever ails us. Would that Strouse had the insight to realize that such attitudes are precisely what get us into muddles like Iraq in the first place.
In the meantime, a more honest Sundance-premiered movie about children coping with the loss of a parent will likely face a much tougher go of it, precisely because it is too sharp and knowing, and too apt to make us chuckle at the very moments when most movies would have us get all choked up. The movie is called The Savages, and its somewhat overly literary title conveys the surname of two distant siblings—an aspiring playwright (Laura Linney) and a college professor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reunited on the occasion of their father’s descent into dementia.
No doubt in the hands of someone like Strouse, that would be the setup for a tear-stained disease-of-the-week melodrama; but under the stewardship of writer-director Tamara Jenkins, the only stains left by The Savages are of the piss and vinegar variety. The closest we may ever see to an American remake of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), the film manages both to be bleak and bleakly funny in its portrait of aging, the merciless betrayals of the body, and the darkly comic hell that is assisted living. It is, like Jenkins’ autobiographical debut feature, Slums of Beverly Hills (1988), a movie made from a deep understanding of families whose members relate to each other not in terms of endearment, but rather spite and resentment. But The Savages strikes me as the more exhilarating high-wire act, for so euphoric are the heights of its farce and so devastating the depths of its tragedy. As in her earlier film, Jenkins leaves a lot of blank spaces on her canvas—we know that something went bust in this family a long time ago, but it probably wasn’t just one thing, and, anyway, what difference does it make in the end. Rather, the great subject of The Savages is the way we can all feel worn down and used up and past our prime whether we’re confronted with the spectre of death or merely the disappointments of the everyday. And if, in the end, that may elicit a wellspring of emotion in the viewer, rest assured that it is fully earned rather than grievously stolen.