The festival's red carpet premieres include a vengeful Denzel Washington and an unhinged Steve Carell.
“Movie stars. Red-carpet premieres. Major audience interest.” That’s TIFF’s curt and not especially illuminating introduction to its Gala Presentations programme, which is arguably better attended by autograph hunters parked outside Roy Thomson Hall than by paying audiences. Still, dig a little, and you’ll find a number of things worth seeing.
Because of its emphasis on premieres, some of the finer titles here are re-runs from Cannes, making either their North American debuts after a summer of lying low or their Canadian bows after creating some buzz at Telluride. One of the higher-profile Cannes to TIFF path-takers in the programme is Maps to the Stars, directed by David Cronenberg—who in addition to trying his hand at writing his first novel at 71 has also produced his first proper black comedy. The results, it turns out, are mixed. Julianne Moore gives her all as the hysterical washed-up Hollywood actress Havana, haunted by the puckish ghost of her sexually abusive mother (Toronto’s own Sarah Gadon) and spooked by the sudden appearance of her doppelgänger in new personal assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska)—the two women a pair of eerie blondes who’ve survived literal trials by fire. Delirious as that might sound—and we haven’t even gotten to the incest plot—Cronenberg gives screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s material a slow and inscrutable treatment, as if it were a foreign-language soap opera being translated in real time. We reserve the right to come around on this one later, as we did with Cosmopolis.
Meanwhile, Bennett Miller returns to the fest after Moneyball with Foxcatcher, an even grimmer, more strangled true crime story than the one he told in his striking debut, Capote. Struggling not to topple over under the weight of an enormous prosthetic nose, Steve Carell plays multimillionaire eccentric John Du Pont, rich and idle failure who, in his forties, decides to take up coaching amateur wrestling, despite having no discernible talent for the job. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo star as Mike and Dave Schultz, the gold-medal-winning sibling wrestling team that brought the U.S. momentary Olympic glory in 1984, and whom Du Pont brings into his increasingly off-kilter orbit. We weren’t as sold on the film’s mix of dark American class satire and pulp thriller as some—Miller won best director at Cannes, and is likely en route to Oscar glory—but it’s a gripping and tonally unusual genre exercise all the same, and Tatum is terrific in a low-key performance that’s mostly delivered from his gentle giant’s clenched jaw.
Not content just to share the Foxcatcher gala with his big name costars, Ruffalo keeps most of the red carpet honours to himself with Maya Forbes’s autobiographical family portrait Infinitely Polar Bear. Ruffalo plays Cam, an unemployed but well-heeled, bipolar Bostonian taking a break from life after a nervous breakdown drives a wedge between him and his wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana). They decide that the only way they can secure a good education for their daughters is for Maggie to earn an MBA—and so she jets off to Columbia, entrusting the unstable but well-meaning Cam with their two tween daughters (impressive newcomers Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) for a rocky eighteen months. Forbes has a steady directorial hand for a first-timer, and Ruffalo and Saldana are convincing as parents in dire straits, but we had a hard time swallowing the premise, which makes much of the family’s economic precariousness while conveniently understating Cam’s role as distant heir to an obscene family fortune.
As for the other high-profile entries in the programme, we’ll admit a certain a certain curiosity about Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer—a remake of the 1980s series—that stars Denzel Washington in the sort of avenging angel role he’s excelled at before. (No word on whether the show’s memorable theme music has made the cut.) Cheryl Strayed fans will also want to check out Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée’s second consecutive stab at Oscar glory (after Dallas Buyers Club) in Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon as the hiking memoirist on a spirit quest. Whether she finds herself or not, we’re certain she’ll help the programme meet its star quota.