Critic's notebook: Behind a lens, the actors range


PARK CITY -- At Sundance this year, it has been the Good, the Bad and the Ugly when it comes to the festival's experience in programming films made by actors. Not that there is anything unusual about actors moving behind the camera; Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford and this week's Oscar nominee Clint Eastwood long ago demonstrated that the class, precision and restraint they bring to their acting careers transition exceptionally well to their work as film directors.

In the case of the four actors under scrutiny here, the most sustained, conscientious and ambitious efforts were by those lacking celebrity credentials. The two movie stars came with vanity productions.

To accentuate the positive, let's start with the Good. Actually the Very Good in the case of Justin Theroux ("Six Feet Under," "Inland Empire"), whose debut feature in the Spectrum section, "Dedication," is one of the festival's true discoveries. Watching the first half of the film calls to mind one of Sundance's biggest hits ever, "American Splendor," a film about an artist who lives in his own world and doesn't give a damn about anything else.

Working with a terrific cast and a screenplay by David Bromberg, Theroux presents you with an unlikely and unlikable protagonist -- a neurotic, misanthropic, angry, dysfunctional man who has, he admits, "no good side." Yet he is an utterly compelling character. Henry Roth, played by Billy Crudup, is a piece of work: Here's a man capable of such mean-spirited behavior, a bundle of nerves and phobias who embraces his own misery and asks for no quarter from anyone. Wouldn't you know it, he writes children's books!

The second half of the film moves into a more conventional mode, where the logic of the story and character arcs becomes predictable. Nevertheless, Theroux and Crudup never abandon their character's basic nature; they simply find ways to prove he was wrong about his bad side.

When Roth loses his illustrator and one and only friend Rudy (Tom Wilkinson) to brain cancer, he must take on an anxious female illustrator with shaky self-confidence, Lucy (Mandy Moore), to fulfill a contractual obligation for the next book in a wildly successful series. Yes, he's going to fall in love with her and she's going to pull him, kicking and screaming, from his shell of misery. But even here, when things become predictable, the actors hold onto the truth of their characters.

This is one of the best things an actor-director can bring to the table: His performers deliver delicious performances that can shock and amuse simultaneously. Crudup tackles a dangerous role, one that can go wrong in so many ways, but everything works here because he conveys the inner torment of a man who has suffered -- and dished out -- abuse all his life.

Moore proves she can move beyond her teen queen image into more enticing roles that contain nuances of ambivalent emotions. Wilkinson's Rudy, the opposite to Henry in virtually every way, returns from beyond the grave from time to time to offer sagacious commentary and advice to Henry. Even a bad actor could make a meal with the terrific dialogue Wilkinson is handed, but he veritably dines on the feast.

Dianne Wiest plays Lucy's mother, a woman who has read so many books about tough love that she knows no other way to express maternal affection. And Bob Balaban as Henry's editor offers another brilliant deadpan performance that includes the film's best line.

Mitchell Lichtenstein, probably best known for his work in Robert Altman's "Streamers" and Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet," brings his feature debut, "Teeth," to Sundance in the dramatic competition category. Sundance program director John Cooper admits that the film might have belonged in the Park City at Midnight section, but programrs couldn't resist the "perversity" of showing the film in the Eccles Theater on the high school campus.

You see, the story is about a virginal high school girl, played by Jess Weixler, who discovers she has teeth in her vagina. All men who attempt penetration with bad intentions suffer unspeakable consequences. Thus the film, which Lichtenstein also wrote, is part horror flick and part social satire about male/female roles.

Again, the key attribute this actor brings to his new job is the ability to coach an actor through a high-wire act. Weixler showed terrific promise in Ishai Setton's comedy "The Big Bad Swim," a film that, unfortunately, has only played the festival circuit. Here Weixler and her actor-director conspire to create a believable transition from Snow White to Avenging Angel without compromising the character's moral chastity. Her simultaneous discovery of her sexuality and her, ahem, weapon of mass destruction is rooted in a female psychology the screen seldom bothers to explore.

The Bad and the Ugly find actors moving behind the camera to wallow in pretension and artifice. If Sundance programrs had been smart, Anthony Hopkins' "Slipstream" would have premiered as a Special Screening. It is out of place in New Frontier, a section designed for truly experimental and avant-garde works. "Slipstream" is a shameless vanity production masquerading as an experiment in surrealism.

For all of Hopkins' considerable achievements on the stage and screen, his work can sometimes lack restraint. There can be a fussiness to a Hopkins performance where British stage techniques overwhelm character. Yet in his best performances, these tics and embellishments focus attention on details about a character that explain volumes. As the director of "Slipsteam," unfortunately, Hopkins indulges in the fussiness and eschews any desire to explain or explore.

Hopkins and an underdirected all-star cast stumble through a menage of dream imagery, subliminal and shock cuts, repetitive scenes and archival footage that is linked only its purposelessness.

Even so, I did laugh occasionally at this film-within-a-film when Hopkins pokes fun at Hollywood film productions and the poisonous personalities that turn up on sets. So it is easier to defend a comic lark like "Slipstream" than Antonio Banderas' "Summer Rain," which for all its self-conscious "beauty" is our candidate for Ugly.

Walkouts at Monday's late-night premiere were numerous as it became evident early that Banderas, as director and co-writer, has little interest in telling a story. Instead, you sense he wants to compete with contemporary Spanish filmmakers who are so adroit at mixing magic realism with acutely observed social realities of Spanish society. Yet he lacks both heart and soul for such an endeavor.

The imagery would be more suitable for a tampon commercial, while the music on the soundtrack can best be described as Spanish cocktail lounge music. Banderas assembles a smart, good-looking, talented cast of young Spanish actors but too often wastes them in sexual trysts and erotic poses. Toward the end, he shifts gears to graphic violence, often in slow motion, but these episodes erupt without preamble or crystal clean motives.

Neither Banderas nor Hopkins uses his long experience on sets or the discipline he maintains as an actor to forge a new cinematic identity as a director. They have a toy to play with, not a story to tell. What a sharp contrast to Theroux and Lichtenstein, who ground their actors' performances in solid literary material and watch their actors' backs as they undertake risky performances.