Sundance Goes Populist, and Downsizing Drama The Company Men Is the Festival’s First Hit

The spirit of economic populism is everywhere in 2010, from Massachusetts to late-night TV, and Sundance is no exception. Programmers have been attempting to tone down the deal making, get-rich-quick reputation of the festival and rebrand it as rebellious. We know this because the word “rebel” is stamped everywhere, usually in bright red, rather corporate fonts. So, who’s a rebel? On Saturday, the most persuasive radicals were Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Tommy Lee Jones as the white-collar execs of The Company Men, a sterling drama about corporate downsizing in Boston that rattled nerves, stoked anger, and sparked Oscar gossip.

The Company Men Perfects the Downsizing Drama
Despite the grim material (or perhaps because of its timeliness), the Q&A after the 9:30 pm world premiere of John Wells’s film was regularly punctuated by bursts of applause. The loudest and warmest response of the night came when co-star Cooper got choked up talking about how his brother, a builder of fine houses in Georgia who has been hit by tough financial times, has had to prevent some of his employees from taking their own lives (Wells himself based the story on the life of his brother-in-law, an engineering executive who was downsized and forced to move his family into his parents‘ home). Surprisingly somber and complex, the film nails the quiet desperation of joblessness with minimal cloying and very few attempts at artificial uplift. It’s the movie Up in the Air should have been. (B.E.)

Hesher’s Downtrodden Stars Fail to Convince, But Fascinate

Steven Susser’s wild, exciting debut film, about a nutso anarchist trickster figure (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) who charges into the lives of a father and son in mourning, has understandably split critics and will likely never reach a broad commercial audience. Here’s why: Natalie Portman is just not believable as a grocery store cashier who can’t get more than 15 hours of work a week. Even in granny glasses and ill-fitting shirts, she looks like a starlet on the L train. Despite a full-throttle performance, Gordon-Leavitt’s character is also almost totally implausible: reckless and violent but with a grandma-loving heart of gold. And it’s probably too early to take Rainn Wilson seriously as a grieving dad. Still, something about this off-kilter, amped-up dreamscape works. Susser’s tone is pitched so high it would blow out your speakers, but he’s found an incredible kid actor in Devin Brochu, and the shrieking, hysterical atmosphere does work in the context of grief, which can make the most rational among us go crazy. (L.H.)

Sitcom Star Tweaks Woody Allen in Happythankyoumoreplease

Halfway through the charming writing-and-directing debut of How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor, Zoe Kazan delivers a hilarious riff on Woody Allen, essentially saying his movies would improve if he made less of them and got out a little more. It’s a bold swipe from a star who’s spent most of his life on CBS sitcom backlots, but it’s funny, and that’s pretty much how this film works: Radnor’s three interlocking Lower East Side stories set the bar high (finding meaning, trusting others, finding family) but he takes a spritely leap and just about clears it. There’s a plot involving a desperate young black kid who is essentially used as a prop (despite a few self-aware jokes), and occasionally, it feels as if Radnor is skimming stones across deeper waters, but compared to most recent rom-coms, this is practically Bergmanesque. Warm, excellent performances from Kazan, Kate Mara, and a surprisingly sexy Tony Hale cannot be denied. (L.H.)

Wealthy New Yorkers Suffer Too in Please Give

Speaking of contemporary New York dramas, Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money director Nicole Holofcener is back at Sundance with another terrific ensemble (Catherine Keener, a fantastic Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet, Rebecca Hall, and Maddie Corman) and another wry take on gentrified Manhattan. Keener gets a meaty part as a vintage furniture storekeeper who feels guilty about buying the furniture of dead people and marking it up to Soho prices. The short takeaway: If you don’t like dramas about the dilemmas of wealthy, Manhattanites who search their souls while searching for the right pair of $200 jeans, you will not love this film. But if you love Holofcener and Keener together, as I do, it‘s irresistible. (L.H.)

Sundance Goes Populist, and Downsizing Drama The Company Men Is the Festival’s First Hit