TIFF Takeaway: America the Unbeautiful

In past film fests, we could usually thank foreigners for savaging the U.S. But this time around, it's mostly American filmmakers whose spot-on critiques of the zeitgeist double as razor-sharp entertainment.
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TIFF 2009 is the year America took it on the chin. In past fests, especially Cannes, we could usually thank Lars Von Trier for savaging the U.S. in such wicked parables as Dogville. But this time around it's mostly American filmmakers who find the amber waves have turned, well, brown.

At the same time the Americans have delivered razor-smart entertainments that double as spot-on reports about the zeitgeist.

The Joneses from first-time director Derrick Borte states its case against American consumerism like some fire and brimstone sermon. Meet the titular handsome family of four (Demi Moore, David Duchovny and their offspring, Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth) as they take up residence in a spanking new McMansion in some gated enclave. It soon becomes creepily apparent we're dealing with a faux family that's been hired by a company to "sell" their big-ticket lifestyle to the neighbors and spur them to "keep up with the Joneses" by acquiring new tsotchkes. As poppy Duchovny puts it, "whoever dies with the most toys wins."

The Joneses also displays -- intentionally, one hopes -- the almost baroque ugliness of America's affluent interiors. You wonder how the set dressers assembled these furniture showrooms from hell. And you'd be hard pressed to find a normal face in the film. Demi Moore wears lipstick and mascara to bed; you focus less on her character than trying to ascertain her actual age -- the CGI work, boosted butt, and ironed fall of jet hair make it a challenge. Duchovny phones in his turn as the dadso, while Amber Heard should consider never accepting a role that requires her to wear a top. Yet despite a denouement you can predict fifteen minutes in, The Joneses offers an original morality tale about the American Dream gone rancid.

Of course Michael Moore's doc Capitalism: A Love Story is ahead of the pack in denouncing a system rigged to permit Wall Street and the bankers to rake in the shekels while the little guys spiral into poverty and die from lack of health care I was particularly gratified by the way Moore fingers Lloyd Blankfein and Goldman Sachs as key players in a shadow government calling the shots. And who cannot identify with Moore's efforts to storm the steel and glass citadels of power to get face time with the CEOs, while guards -- who identify with the oppressor, as Freud would have it -- shoo him away like a gnat? If only the Americans whose cause it advocates would see this essential piece of agitprop!

The Informant1 by Steven Soderbergh could almost stand as a sidebar to Capitalism. In it Soderbergh, continues to explore the values of America's corporate culture, conveyed in his films as no more a choice than the air we breathe. The Girlfriend Experience took a sardonic look at the sales ethos extended to personal relations, where even intimacy has been reduced to a commodity to be purchased like socks.

Based on the true life exposé by Kurt Eichenwald, The Informant! follows a chubbed-up Matt Damon as the prez of the bio-products division at agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. Driven by inscrutable motives, Damon cooperates with the FBI to expose a major price-fixing case against his employer. Soderbergh has become one of cinema's most astute social critics. Avoiding the earnestness of, say, Michael Mann's The Insider, Informant sidewinds its attack on corporate malfeasance using a larky score by Marvin Hamlisch and the hero's oddball voice-overs about everything from designer ties to the black noses of polar bears.

Though directed by Canadian Jason Reitman, Up in the Air is based on a novel by American Walter Kirn. There's been much verbiage about this film -- probably the fest's big breakout and 2009's version of Slumdog Millionaire. Tellingly, though, Slumdog rewarded the underclass; this year you'd be hard put to find a happy ending.

In his third outing Reitman spotlights America's executioners who do the corporations' dirty work. The George Clooney character and his B-School sidekick are handsomely compensated to dump workers via video conferencing, while delivering nostrums about loss as an opportunity.

Borrowing a page from Balzac, in this film the environment and the heartless people it spawns are of a piece, like tidal pools crawling with crabs. Clooney, in fact, reps a successful adaptation to his milieu. While the detachment he brings to lowering the boom on employees is doubled by his avoidance of an intimate connection and any emotional turbulence. "We're two people who get turned on by elite status," says his girlfriend, which just about sums them up.

Other American films touch on corporate rot - or Yankee cluelessness -- in less direct ways. In Solitary Man, by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, Michael Douglas plays an aging exec in freefall. No longer king of the roost in business, this alpha male feels compelled to bed everything that walks. Note to the filmmakers: could a guy of 60 with heart trouble to boot really please all those frisky ladies? Constructed like a thriller, The Art of the Steal by Don Argott is an eye-opener about how charities and Philadelphia power brokers conspired to seize hold of the multi-billion dollar Barnes collection of art. The film's little guys fighting a corporate putsch to honor Barnes's bequest seem straight from the playbook of Michael Moore. Finally, even The Invention of Lying by Ricky Gervais presents the citizens of Anytown U.S.A as gullible Yahoos.

But even if American filmmakers blasted the home front, they showed great skill and panache, working closer to the zeitgeist than most of their competitors at TIFF. And though bleak is the new black, these films offer green shoots. Both Capitalism and Up in the Air celebrate individuals who stand up to corporate Goliaths and refuse to play America's executioner.

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