Movies You May Have Missed
By Carl Kozlowski
December 30, 2009
With Hollywood releasing more than 400 films a year to theaters and indie companies putting even more flicks out on cable and DVD, it can be hard to notice all the great films out there. Not every film worth seeing has a big advertising budget, or even the chance to play a lot of theaters.
But as a movie addict living in Los Angeles—the moviegoing capital of the world—I have the chance to see or at least consider seeing nearly everything imaginable. And I'm here to share with you a couple of must-see films that might have slipped under the radar but richly deserve to find an audience, in the first of what will be an occasional series of columns called “Movies You Missed.”
First up is a little-seen, darkly funny gem that caused a sensation at Sundance yet still proved a little too off-the-wall to score a big release: Big Fan (out on DVD on Jan. 12). Starring Patton Oswalt—who's made a name for himself as one of America's most brilliantly funny alternative comics as well as for playing a role on the long-running sitcom The King of Queens and as the lead voice in the smash-hit Disney cartoon Ratatouille—the movie follows the life of a sad-sack loser addicted to sports and sports-talk radio named Paul Aufiero (Oswalt).
Aufiero is in his late 30s, yet still lives in the room he grew up in, with his mom pounding on the walls each night for him to keep it down as he unleashes manic rants about the Giants (and in particular, a star defensive lineman) into the phone at 1 a.m. The only person who knows who Paul is is his best friend, played with a mix of amusement and concern by Kevin Corrigan. One night when the two guys are out driving aimlessly on their home turf of Staten Island, they see Paul's heroic lineman hanging out with some friends, and they decide to follow him to a strip club in Manhattan.
Once there, their plan is to buy the player a drink and then hopefully be invited over to hang out with him. But things go drastically wrong when the player believes Paul is a stalker and attacks him within an inch of his life. This leaves Paul with a dilemma: does he prosecute and sue the player for the very real damage that has been done to him, or will his nearly deranged love for the Giants cause him to keep his mouth shut and allow the player to walk free and keep leading the Giants to success rather than facing a prison cell and leaving the team out to dry?
All this may make Big Fan sound like a drama or a thriller, but this complex film is far richer, more nuanced and ultimately more entertaining than any simplistic genre label would indicate. Oswalt and Corrigan have plenty of funny lines, yet their strong, understated performances cut to the core of their innate sadness and loneliness as two guys who have refused to grow up and are letting life pass them by.Then, just when you think the film is simply a nice slice-of-life piece, things take another wild turn and the last half-hour becomes an incredibly tense and ultimately uproarious roller coaster ride as Paul appears to lose his bearings and the film becomes a half-serious, half-comedic parallel to the classic film Taxi Driver. And yet, even with all these details, I've not even come close to revealing the crazy yet highly entertaining direction Big Fan moves toward.
With a script written and directed by Robert Siegel, the former head writer of the classic satirical newspaper The Onion as well as the writer of 2008's highly acclaimed The Wrestler, Big Fan offers a look at the lives of men you know are out there, cheering on their team with just a little too much passion each Sunday in dive bars and tailgate parties across America. It's laced with frequently profane dialogue, but it rings true and has an underlying empathy for some of society's forgotten men that would serve as a good reminder of the humanity we sometimes overlook in some of our saddest souls.
Meanwhile, Uncertainty is the latest brilliant movie to star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is on the cusp of major stardom with his recent Golden Globe nomination for this year's superb (500) Days of Summer. Gordon-Levitt has been the star of some of the decade's most innovative films, from the high school noir thriller Brick, to the hard-to-watch yet powerful tale of a male prostitute wrestling with the childhood molestation that set him on the path to self-destruction in Mysterious Skin, on through his moving and exciting portrayal of a mentally impaired janitor forced into a bank robbery in The Lookout, and through the lovelorn Everydude he portrayed to perfection in Summer.
Uncertainty is actually two films in one, akin to the Gwyneth Paltrow cult classic Sliding Doors. Here, a couple (portrayed by Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins) flip a coin while talking about an unspecified major decision on the Brooklyn Bridge on the Fourth of July. Before the coin lands, they each run full-bore in opposite directions, with Gordon-Levitt hopping into a green car driven by Collins in the “Green” half of the movie and Collins hopping into a yellow cab with Gordon-Levitt in the “Yellow” half of the film.
The film goes on to depict what happens in the next 24 hours of the couple's lives, as the “Green” story features Gordon-Levitt spending the day with Collins' close-knit family as her loved ones quietly speculate about what secret the couple is hiding and plant some doubts about whether he's really the right man for her. The “Yellow” story kicks off when Gordon-Levitt finds a cutting-edge cell phone in the back seat of the cab and proceeds to call a couple of the numbers listed on its contact list—only to find that two different people claim to be the owner and both say they'll either kill or pay up to $500,000 to get it back.
The mix of a subtle romantic tale in the “Green” portion and a breakneck, intense thriller in the “Yellow” story should have been hard, if not impossible, to pull off. But in the hands of the writer-director team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who also did the 2002 arthouse hit thriller The Deep End, everything amazingly works. Moments of abject fear interweave with moments of quiet emotional revelations, creating a unique pair of stories that leave viewers guessing until the end about what's going to happen in both plotlines.
Even more impressive is the fact that all the dialogue in Uncertainty is improvised, with the actors working from an outline of events that McGehee and Siegel provided. The result is a constant freshness in the interactions between the central couple as well as with the world around them. The end result unfortunately took a tortured path to a very limited theatrical release through tiny indie IFC Films, so it may wind up on that cable network in the coming months. But until then, it's now available until February via the On Demand cable TV service.