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Sundance 2012 Day 3: Money Squawks

Posted by Ty Burr  January 21, 2012 10:49 PM

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You have to say this about Sundance: If there's a blizzard out, as there was yesterday, you can always stay in and see a movie. Or five. But if you do come here to see movies -- as opposed to crash parties, make deals, or ski -- you have to perform triage. There are 60 titles to choose from every day and catching even a fraction of them involves placing your chips carefully. An international documentary here, a low-budget indie there, the movie you heard someone raving about on the shuttle-bus -- and, of course, the star-studded off-Hollywood premieres, but only if you think there's something to be gained by seeing them now as opposed to when they open theatrically in a couple of months. The glitz factor can be fun, too.

I started Saturday morning, for instance, with "Celeste and Jesse Forever," which stars Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, and Elijah Wood, and ended Sunday evening with "Lay the Favorite," which stars Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. All of them, plus their directors, various supporting cast members, screenwriters, et al., took the stage of the Eccles Theater afterwards, and their Q&As were often more entertaining than the films.

That's a little unfair to "Celeste and Jesse," which is a sweet, clever LA divorce comedy co-written by Jones -- definitely better than I was expecting, since I was expecting a self-congratulatory "500 Days of Summer" knock-off. In fact, the film plays like "500 Days of Summer" for grown-ups: It opens with a romantic montage that turns gracefully sour before embarking on its main narrative about a couple (Jones and Samberg) who are happier together separated than when they were married. The jokes are funny, the locations feel lived-in, and it's a rare chance for Jones to shine as a self-assured professional who slowly comes unglued. Samberg makes a credible dramatic debut and is probably just right for the role; a more skilled actor might have weighed "Celeste and Jesse" down too heavily. This is a movie that wants to wear its heaviness lightly and mostly succeeds.

The Q&A afterwards was briskly amusing. Someone asked the cast and crew why they wanted to make the movie -- audience questions are almost uniformly terrible at Sundance Q&As -- and we were treated to one soggy inspirational speech after another until the microphone was passed to Samberg, who simply said, "Did it for the paycheck."

My other favorite live moment came at the end of the day, when an audience member asked Bruce Willis how he studied for the role of a low-rent Las Vegas bookie in Stephen Frears' "Lay the Favorite." A late screening in Park City usually means the cast has come straight from dinner, which usually means the wine has been flowing, which may or may not explain Willis' beneficent smile and wayward non-answer. Why did he take the role? "You know how I'm always shooting guns in movies? I don't shoot any guns in this movie."

Honestly, it might have helped if he had. "Lay the Favorite" is based on the true story of Beth Raymer, a bubble-headed lap-dancer and cocktail waitress wannabe who discovered she had a head for numbers and a knack for making book. Covering her rise to success, the movie aims for a tone of antic girl-power farce and instead comes down with a serious case of the sillies. The weedy British actress Rebecca Hall plays Beth in a change-of-pace role, and I could have sworn she was over-acting until the real Raymer joined the cast onstage after the film and I realized that Hall was, if anything, underacting. But it's a curious part and a curious performance: Little Annie Fanny crossed with Rain Man. I can't say I disliked the movie but I also can't say it's very good. There's no distribution deal set as yet; this may be one of those movies coming soon to a Redbox near you.

"Arbitrage" is exactly the kind of semi-Hollywood drama they like to book for the premieres: Big names, important theme, meh results. There are already fans of Nicholas Jarecki's portrait of a Manhattan financial high-roller in over his head, but I'm not one of them. Oh, once we get 30 minutes in and there's a Violent Event which affects the fortunes of sleek money maven Robert Miller (Richard Gere), the plot starts cooking in complicated and watchable ways. Tim Roth has fun laying on the Bronx accent as a cop, and there are sharp performances from Nate Parker, Brit Marling (last year's Sundance indie queen from "Another Earth"), Stuart Margolin, and Graydon Carter, of all people. But Susan Sarandon is wasted as Robert's wife and Gere doesn't have the dramatic power to believably play a Master of the Universe under siege. The problem with the first 30 minutes of "Arbitrage" is that we don't like the main character; the problem with the next hour is that we don't hate him enough.

You can see where writer-director Nicholas Jarecki -- the third of the Jarecki clan, making his feature debut -- is going with this. He wants to make a Sidney Lumet movie for the financial collapse, with a silver fox anti-hero who's a little bit American Gigolo and a little bit Bernie Madoff. But he doesn't get the detailed city grit that gave Lumet's movies their bottom notes, and he never cracks the nut of a main character we don't really care about. More than anything, "Arbitrage" reminded me of those what's-it-all-mean businessman melodramas of the '60s and '70s, like "The Arrangement" and "Save the Tiger" -- films that don't give us enough returns for our emotional investment.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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