Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Sunday, Sept. 9

September 10, 2012

There are literally hundreds of movies up here at the Toronto International Film Festival. So the idea of singular theme – or even themes – emerging (or, even more unlikely, being plotted) seems unlikely.

And yet, on my first day of press screenings here Sunday, I saw two films that focused on people in 12-step programs. And two more in which teachers of very young children sat in their car before entering (or reentering) the school to sneak a drink. Pure coincidence, I’d say; luck of the draw.

Quality-wise, I was two for four during my first day in Toronto. As it happens, the two best films were the ones that dealt with addiction, thanks to both strong writing and emotionally compelling performances. Let’s come back to those.

The day’s disappointment was “Passion,” Brian DePalma’s remake of the 2010 French film that was released in the U.S. last year as “Love Crime.” It seemed promising because the material itself – a story of corporate gamesmanship between two women that leads to murder – was so compelling, and because DePalma’s casting featured Rachel McAdams, cast against type as the vicious boss (played by Kristin Scott Thomas in the original), and Noomi Rapace as the seemingly helpless underling who learns a trick or two from her boss (played by Ludivine Sagnier in Alain Corneau’s original).

Both actresses in DePalma’s version are terrific. But where Corneau created a cool, mysterious film whose pieces all came together at the end, DePalma can’t resist giving the whole thing an operatic overlay: too much music, too many psychologically fraught camera angles. And his writing at times feels overheated, as do the changes he makes in the story, compressing the plotting of the final act in order to tack on a phony spooky – but definitely DePalma-esque – conclusion.

But at least I sat through that entire film; I can’t say the same for Nick Cassavetes’ “Yellow,” a film that stars his ex-wife, Heather Wahlquist, as a drug-addled teacher. The film starts with Wahlquist’s character talking to what seems to be a therapist, then tries a variety of stylistic tricks – having characters burst into opera, having the characters suddenly transported to a theatrical stage or joining a Busby Berkeley-type production number. It was neither amusing or unique, seeming instead just plain wrong-headed and preposterous. I only lasted 30 minutes.

“Smashed” stars Aaron Paul and a terrific Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a married couple who enjoy getting wasted every night drinking. But she’s having a harder and harder time crawling out of bed and into her first-grade classroom each morning – and increasing trouble keeping a handle on where she winds up each night.

After a pair of incidents where she wakes up outdoors and far from home, she takes the advice of a colleague (a nice turn by Nick Offerman) and starts attending Alcoholics Anonymous. But the changes it brings are tough to handle because, of course, substance abuse isn’t about a love of the substance but an effort to blot out or numb out feelings. Without the drinking, she’s suddenly in touch with a lot of stuff she’s been hiding from – and also finds that her husband, a rich kid who plays at being a writer for an alternative weekly (Paul, who is a solid match for her), isn’t as interesting as she once thought.

Winstead has a round, open face and big, expressive eyes. She can play tough or troubled and is particularly good in scenes where she’s trying to come to terms with how her sobriety is changing her life. It’s a career-making role for a terrific young actress.

A friend described Stuart Blumberg’s “Thanks for Sharing” as “Shame” for the Hallmark Channel. I think that’s too dismissively facile for a film as good as this.

Blumberg, cowriter on “The Kids Are Alright,” focuses on a trio of men who are friends and acquaintances from a 12-step group of people suffering from sex addiction. Mark Ruffalo is the successful businessman who has been “sober” (meaning he abstains from masturbation or meaningless anonymous sex) for five years. Tim Robbins is his sponsor, a construction contractor whose son (Patrick Fugit) returns after a long absence claiming to have kicked drugs and alcohol. Josh Gad is a young doctor whose attendance at the group is court-ordered, after a subway incident in which he was charged with surreptitiously touching women.

Like most stories dealing with addiction (including “Smashed”), we see these people in moments of triumph over their disease – but also succumbing to the demons that propel them into exactly the behavior they’re trying to avoid. But Blumberg’s film is about more – about the way it changes individuals’ view of the world, the need for that kind of support from someone who knows what you’re going through without asking anything in return but honesty. So each of these characters makes a new connection and tries to resume his life even as he struggles to avoid the darkness that beckons.

“Thanks for Sharing” is funny and touching, with outstanding work from the entire cast, particularly Gad – as well as rock singer Pink, as a new member of the group.

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