I feel bad for the news outfits and bloggers who come here ready to drop the mic on Oscar season. Thus far, the only film that’s generated anything close to a uniform awards opinion is the romantic drama about a life spent loving Stephen Hawking. It’s called The Theory of Everything, with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and in my hotel room, the sole occupant is just calling it The (Haw)king’s Speech. Yes, Foxcatcher’s here, too, but that premiered at Cannes in the spring, won a directing prize, and is hogging the fall preview acclaim. Otherwise, with regard to Toronto being an Academy Awards weather vane, the lack of an Up in the Air or a 12 Years a Slave — starry, prestigious, highly anticipated major (or majorish) studio movies — means a vacation from hyperventilation.
Of course, for every movie about Stephen Hawking in love, there’s one about Brian Wilson’s drug stupors. It was only a matter of time until the baby-boomer biopic wheel stopped on the Beach Boys. But what does a filmmaker do with them? Where does he place the emphasis? Love & Mercy has none beyond Wilson’s mental health. It lurches between two decades and two actors, with no reliable center. Paul Dano is the serious young Wilson. John Cusack is the older, blinkered version. The casting of the latter is as much a fiasco as you’d expect. Cusack isn’t the sort of actor who disappears into parts. He sits right on the surface of his films, which is ordinarily fine. Here, it’s like watching a movie star have a bad Ambien reaction.
This is a movie that needs magic or ingenuity or a titanic performance to dispel skepticism. Instead, it has Paul Giamatti, all but twirling a mustache as Eugene Landy, the therapist who kept Wilson in a prison of pills and misdiagnoses. The movie opens with the older Wilson visiting a Los Angeles Cadillac showroom in the early 1980s, with Landy and his helper lurking behind like alien mobsters. Wilson asks out his saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks: emotional paint, drying), who gradually discovers Landy is the one who’s nuts, not her boyfriend. A dreary skirmish for possession follows. The movie is too reverent to everyone else in Wilson’s life to let the other actors meet Giamatti even halfway. (Ledbetter, for instance, is still Mrs. Wilson.) So the 1980s scenes are as lifeless as Wilson was induced to be.
The 1960s sequences work because they use the musician’s damaged psyche as a creative spark. Writers Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, director Bill Pohlad, and some very smart sound designers find ways to visualize and dramatize Wilson’s sense of musicality. Dano doesn’t overdo Wilson’s instability. He can’t, really; acid is not an actor’s drug. He zeroes in on Wilson’s meticulousness and obsessiveness, which makes for the best sequence in the movie: the recording of “Good Vibrations” in 1966. The camera pans around the studio as Wilson thinks everything through to the point that his bandmate and cousin Mike Love (an excellent Jake Abel) is climbing the walls. Every time the movie drags you back to 1980-whatever, you’re right there with him.
With the Oscar decks inadvertently cleared, the festival is free to resume being a place that takes chances on up-and-comers like, um, Chris Rock, whose third outing as a director, Top Five, arrives without a distributor. That should change as soon as possible. The movie’s a mess, but it got me. Rock wrote this romantic satire, in which he stars as Andre Allen, a recovering alcoholic and comedy star being trailed by the least-likely-ever culture reporter for the New York Times. It’s not that she’s played by Rosario Dawson. It’s that the plot twist around her character doesn’t make ethical sense. Together, they visit his New York universe and hers (she’s in recovery, too). They sit and talk in town cars and parks. She needles him about no longer being funny, his allegedly serious new film about a Haitian-slave revolt — Uprize! — and his days-away marriage to a reality-show diva (Gabrielle Union). He mocks the journalist’s newspaper, her extracurricular artistic pursuits, and her single motherhood. What arises from all this walking and talking is a movie about authenticity and its discontents.
A lot of what’s onscreen had me rolling my eyes. Dawson is as suspect a reporter as Rock is a dramatic actor. But Rock’s wild-eyed, machete-wielding image in the fictional film’s poster means the movie, at least, knows Uprize is a joke. There’s so much here that’s so good and so funny that you can feel Rock struggling with how to give it some shape. The object of some of his satire is Tyler Perry and the generally woeful state of black entertainment. But attacking Perry feels like misplaced aggression when there are lots of black producers and executives worthy of jabs. Besides, Rock doesn’t exactly break ground on an alternative.
The stuff about fame and funniness doesn’t need the stuff about falling in love with a stranger. This movie is Kanye West, Eddie Murphy, and the Tracy Morgan of 30 Rock on the one hand, and Before Sunrise on the other. For one long, rambunctious, seemingly improvised scene, Rock fills a modest apartment with some of the funniest and most shameless actors in New York to play Andre’s familiars. You watch Morgan and Jay Pharoah and Sherri Shepherd and the singeing Leslie Jones sit around insulting each other, shouting out their starting hip-hop teams — a top five and one alternate — and wonder what Rock could have done with a movie just about these people. They’re funny together, but they’re also some of the most vividly alive black people I’ve seen in a non-period movie in a long time.
The mess never coheres, but it sends off you on a high anyway. It’s only half-crazy to compare this to Kenneth Lonergan’s lost 2011 masterpiece Margaret, which was a longer, more roving moral odyssey across New York City. But Rock is no less committed to digression and epiphany and the ecstasy and vulgarity of being alive than Lonergan. And once a famous rapper smashes the movie out of the park with one word, you realize that even though Rock might lack a degree of formal precision or control, he does have a sense of adventure and a tremendous generosity of spirit. He can sneakily build a rapport with you so that, when, for instance, Dawson shouts out the names of six rap acts, your eyes well up, and when Rock sits holding a pink open-toe pump, you try to dam off a tear. Mostly, it’s a tear of joyous surprise. You wish Rock directed more, that he would settle into a Louie of his own. The ferociousness of his stand-up is missed, but after the credits had rolled Monday afternoon, there was a giddy hum outside the theater — this other side of him might be better.
Scott Rudin is a producer on Top Five, and his name is everywhere this year. Just yesterday I saw it on three movies. Before Rock’s, there was While We’re Young, a new Noah Baumbach comedy that as smart and searching and culturally worried as Baumbach’s previous two films — Greenberg and Frances Ha. Here, a very comfortable married couple in their forties (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) cross paths with two Brooklyn hipsters (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) and undergo an identity crisis.
The movie’s as concerned with authenticity as Top Five, but Baumbach moves the question to the center. He juxtaposes the older couple’s comfort with digital technology against the younger couple’s fetishization of print and vinyl and artisanality and rubs the contrast together until he gets a farcical fire going. His archetypes become characters as the movie bears down on the men’s different senses of obnoxious entitlement and childishness. Stiller’s character is a frustrated nonfiction filmmaker. Driver’s wants to be his protégé, and the adoration is like Botox for the older man’s ego.
Initially, the four-way relationship feels forced. It takes 20 minutes for a rhythm to get going, to realize that Watts, for instance, isn’t being funny for the camera, that she’s playing the moment and leaving the laughter up to us. (That said, she definitely knows her attempt to dance to 2Pac’s “Hit ’Em Up” is funny. It’s like watching a clothes-drying rack have a seizure.) Watts doesn’t get as much to do as Stiller, but she’s also the kind of performer who can get the right close-up to ripple through several subsequent scenes. She can turn a throwaway moment into something.
When the movie is fully firing, it’s a combination of Albert Brooks, 1970s François Truffaut, late-’80s/early-’90s Woody Allen, and a whiff of the middle-age anxiety in Philip Roth’s 1980s novels — less than the sum of those parts, but hardly the disaster such a stuffed comparison implies. This is the sort of adventure in social judgment and intergenerational anomie that fascinates few other American directors. Right now, it’s Baumbach and Nicole Holofcener doing these kinds of social essays. (He casts Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz as one of Stiller and Watts’s culturally over-the-hill friends, using him like Holofcener used Tavi Gevinson as a generational marker in Enough Said, but in the opposite manner.) Long ago, Baumbach and his sense of coolness could have floated toward the dollhouses and tableaux vivants that obsess Wes Anderson, but he seems committed to the exploration of what cool even is anymore, of shaking down the bourgeoisie self-obsessions of right now. It might be shooting fish in a barrel, but he’s going after what’s left with tweezers.
“Written for the screen and directed by Jon Stewart” is the least expected credit I’ve seen at a film festival since “a film by Madonna.” Stewart’s is more striking since, away from the righteous comedy of The Daily Show, he seems to have cultivated a kind of egolessness. His debut as a director, Rosewater (also produced by Rudin), displays a similar lack of inflection. But, like his cable news program, its existence is meant to be moral. Adapted from Maziar Bahari’s memoir, the film dramatizes the 118 days Bahari spent in an Iranian prison while covering the 2009 presidential elections for Newsweek. Bahari reported, as many news agencies did, that the results, favoring sitting leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were in dispute. The government locked him up on a charge that conflated journalism with spying.
Gael García Bernal plays Bahari. Like the movie, he comports himself with some humor and lots of dignity. There’s nothing wrong with either. It is a moral movie, one whose unjust centerpiece asks us to bear witness, while doubling as a tribute to the risks taken by the world’s journalists. Stewart is patient and deferential. He has an inspired editor and a good cinematographer. But the film is leaden with earnestness. Bahari’s imprisonment is so clearly absurd that you wish Stewart had risked treating it absurdly, that he would try for a kind of moral farce. It comes close when Bahari’s regular interrogating torturer (Kim Bodnia) takes an interest in some salacious personal travel details that Bahari cooks up. That scene has a whisper of Ariel Dorfman. Chiefly, though, the movie opts for grace. It wants to be taken seriously. So you get a decent, heartfelt, competent film that — in demanding our outrage against injustice — doesn’t believe, as a film, that it has a right to ask more of itself.