You can't say Sundance is a bust — if these films were at Tribeca, everyone would be thrilled. But so far it's definitely a dud: Six days have passed without any narrative films picking up ecstatic raves — and just four films have sold for more than a million dollars. On the shuttle buses between screenings you hear a lot of pretty-goods and not-bads, and a whole lot of meh.
That is, except for the festival’s last-minute bolt-from-the-blue Hamlet 2, which just went to Focus for $10 million. Not even included in the festival program and reportedly still in need of final edits, the comedy, directed by NYU alum Andrew Fleming, stars Steve Coogan as a midwestern teacher who attempts to save his drama program by producing a bizarre, musical Shakespearean sequel, featuring tunes like “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.” In Hamlet’s shadow, Overture picked up Mark Pellington’s Luke Wilson drama Henry Poole Is Here, and Fox Searchlight nabbed Clark Gregg’s Chuck Palahniuk adaptation Choke — though neither netted a surprisingly rich deal.
While the docs are very strong this year, you can understand why the fiction films aren't selling. The pre-hyped Sunshine Cleaning has star power with Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, but it's a heartwarming chick flick about two sisters who clean up crime scenes: There's no male lead, no love story, and enough blood and nastiness to repel the sister-movie set it targets. Michael Keaton's The Merry Gentleman is the umpteenth movie about a sensitive hit man, with little to distinguish it but its lugubriousness. Marianna Palka's Good Dick is a crass and joyless Me and You and Everyone We Know.
So far, Lance Hammer's Mississippi indie Ballast is just about the only competition film feeling a lot of love, but it's a straight-up art film with a cast of unknowns. Sugar, from Half Nelson’s Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, is a sharply observed mature piece about a Dominican baseball player immigrating to the States, but it’s also star-free — and mostly in Spanish. Alex Rivera's border-crossing sci-fi parable Sleep Dealer (you may have seen early passes at this film in New York galleries) is restlessly inventive, darkly satiric, and utterly uncommercial — the kind of film you're glad you see at Sundance because you might not see it anywhere else (like 2004's Primer). The festival's biggest crowd-pleaser is New Yorker Jonathan Levine's hilarious and inventive The Wackness, which, while it has split critics, nails the absurdity of being teenaged and rap-obsessed on the Upper East Side. It will be required viewing for any uptown white teen — and as such, will have a tough shot beating Rodger Dodger at the box office.
Some of the festival's other premieres have been more painful: The groaning Hollywood satire What Just Happened?, with Robert De Niro, may have been the worst (partly because tone-deaf studio director Barry Levinson complained about his $20 million budget to an audience of struggling independents). Miramax’s professor-family drama Smart People, a Miramax film, has a great cast (Ellen Page and Thomas Haden Church), but in the end it's a poor man's The Squid and the Whale. And, yes, the festival's most nepotistic entry, Amy Redford's The Guitar, confirmed everyone's doubts and went down in flames, while The Great Buck Howard with Colin Hanks merely fizzled.
Even the festival's sex stunts — Mario Bello shrieking with pleasure as she steps on mouse traps (Downloading Nancy), Michelle Williams frolicking with Ewan McGregor while her husband is killed in a terrorist attack (Incendiary), Vera Farmiga seducing a paraplegic (Quid Pro Quo) — have failed to get a rise out of Sundance's controversy-hungry audiences. In fact, none of the festival’s supposedly provocative films, including Morgan Spurlock’s Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? have really kicked up much of a storm.
As mentioned, the documentary slate is strong as usual — thanks to New Yorkers. Leading the pack, Nanette Burnstein's American Teen just sold for $1 million to Paramount Vantage. The film explores the private lives of a jock, a marching-band geek, a rich girl, and a rebellious art chick in small-town Indiana. In the fest’s second-most significant doc deal, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired sold to HBO. There have been a smattering of smaller doc deals, sure to be followed by the sale of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's Trouble the Water, which is either the most in-your-face doc about Katrina or the most outrageous Behind the Music ever made.
Distributors are also circling NYU alum Margaret Brown's The Order of Myths, about segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama, and Tanaz Eshaghian's Be Like Others, about transgendered Iranians. And Ellen Kuras’s beautifully shot Laos-to-Brooklyn immigration saga Nerakhoon will find passionate supporters when it opens here someday.
In sum, Sundance's first six days have been so slow that critics are now buzzing about racial profiling in the gift lounges and making tasteless comments about Heath Ledger’s death. The mood — and the market — is surprisingly quiet. —Logan Hill
Ed. note: This post was revised and updated at 10:56 p.m. on 1/23.