The assembled cast, with Reitman on the rightIt’s appropriate given the fakeness at the heart of American Beauty’s themes that Cranston (who portrays a normal suburban dad that’s actually a murdering meth dealer on Breaking Bad) and Hendricks (who portrays the perfect trophy wife that actually had a bastard child with her boss and whored herself for a company partnership on Mad Men) should play the two leads. As Reitman said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “When I think of those two roles, I think of Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks because they know how to balance domestic drama while making it scary and hilarious at the same time.” And it was a great treat for audiences, who could vicariously imagine a sort of comic-book style crossover between the two best shows on television. The cast was uniformly excellent, but special praise has to go to Cranston, or “Bryan motha-fuckin’ Cranston,” as Reitman introduced him. Reitman specifically pointed out that there were no rehearsals, and the cast would likely be feeling out their characters for the first few scenes. Given that, what Cranston did was remarkable. Without the benefit of practice, without the benefit of cherry picking the best from multiple takes, Cranston absolutely went to town on the dialogue, showcasing a natural acting ability and comedic timing that captivated the audience. As Reitman said beforehand, Cranston is clearly the guy who would have played Lester Burnham were the movie made today. It was also funny to see what the cast did physically. While they were seated the whole time and mostly just reading, there was still the odd expressive tic here and there, such as Adam Driver’s dead-eyed staring at Mae Whitman (who he was seated next to) each time Reitman’s stage direction told us Ricky was staring at Jane. And when Angela’s dialogue mentioned how Lester probably “has a big dick,” Cranston, not missing an opportunity, started nodding confidently to the audience. And Gadon’s reading of Angela confirmed what most of Toronto already knows—this girl can act, and she has real star power. One of the rewards of these table-reads is the ability to also hear all of the stage direction and scene descriptions read aloud. Before the show, Reitman mentioned how during his live-read of The Apartment, one of the screenplay’s descriptions called a female character “a real second baseman kind of dame,” which is something you’d never see without reading the screenplay, and these kind of insights add great value to the story. After the cast took their bows, it was time for my first film of the festival On The Road (Click here for the trailer) Adapted by Brazilian director Walter Salles (2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries) from the classic 1957 novel by Jack Keruac that defined the Beat generation, On The Road managed to be that rare film that didn’t really have any flaws, but still felt flawed in outcome. On the surface, every individual aspect of the film was right: the casting, the performances, the pacing, the imagery, etc. But unfortunately, it still felt like an incomplete movie. The problem (and I suspect, a big reason why there hasn’t been a previous film adaptation for one of the 20th century’s greatest novels) is that the source material didn’t hinge on plot as much as it did on specificity of style and language. Once you remove the characters and events of the novel from the words that told their tale, the story loses much of its power. The novel’s best quote (“The only ones for me are the mad ones ”) was actually read word for word by Sal Paradise in the film, and that feels like a hint that Salles struggled with how to retain the feeling of the book in adaptation. But even still, there’s a lot here to like, and it starts with the cast. As the hedonistic Dean Moriarty, Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) simmered. With the same looks and presence of a young Brad Pitt, but armed with an unspeakable sadness lurking behind his baby blues, Hedlund dove head first into the role and let it totally overtake him. It reminded me of Val Kilmer’s performance as Jim Morrison in The Doors—he becomes Dean Moriarty to the extent that you can’t separate the character from the performance. This role could—and should—make him a star. And Kristen Stewart, in her first real adult role, proves she has what it takes to forge a career beyond the wretched Twilight franchise. Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, essentially the main character, is also quite good, but a bit overshadowed by the brazenness of Hedlund and Stewart in roles that offered far more opportunities to cut loose.
L to R: Tiff CEO Piers Handling, director Walter Salles, Garrett Hedlund, Kirsten Dunst, Kristen StewartThe supporting cast is made up of several well-known actors (Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Terrence Howard, Elizabeth Moss, Steve Buscemi), and they do a good job where they can, but they mostly aren’t given enough to do. Buscemi only shows up to get sodomized, and Amy Adams’ three minutes of screen time is partially spent simulating a blowjob for Moss. It’s worth wondering why some of them even signed on. Thematically, On The Road is about a decadence of emotion spilling out into behavior. The characters felt a compulsion to live faster, louder, harder, crazier; they needed more booze, more drugs, more sex, more driving, more dancing, more more. But while these sensations are palpable, there’s just not much in the way of story. The first hour feels like it mostly alternates between sex scene and driving, sex scene and driving, and without Kerouac’s descriptive words to emcee the proceedings, they lose their resonance and power. The film is beautiful and moving in parts, but there are also some non-sequiters in terms of when some of the characters leave and return to the narrative. But again, these are problems that existed in the text. As an adaptation, I think Salles did as good a job as he, or perhaps anyone, could have. The real flaw wasn’t anywhere in the result, but in the decision to make the film. Some books should probably just remain books. Grade: B- And now it’s time for a brief lesson in Q & A etiquette: If the moderator of the Q & A says they have time for two more questions A) Don’t be the person that raises your hand and says “Kristen, I’m a huge fan, I just love you, you were so good in this, if you could, like, go anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?” B) Don’t be the person that then raises your hand only to say “I just have a general comment, I loved the film. Wonderful job everyone.” See what happened there? The final two opportunities for people to actually engage in constructive dialogue with the cast and filmmaker were stolen away by idiots. One of the wonderful things about seeing films at Tiff is the Q & A’s that follow the screenings. It’s a great opportunity to really learn things about the films and ask interesting questions about the works you’ve just seen. And a lot of people in the audience have real questions they want to ask. So don’t steal those opportunities to senselessly yammer fan gibberish. It’s disrespectful to the people that actually have something to say, and it’s disrespectful to the rest of us in the audience that might want to hear actual questions and don’t care if you’re Kristen Stewart’s self-proclaimed biggest fan. I guess I should at least be happy that no one took the Q & A as an opportunity for something to the effect of “OMG K-Stew, you total slut, why did you cheat on R-Pat? He’s, like, so dreamy!” The girl sitting next to me was absolutely convinced this would happen, and she admitted she was excited to take a picture of Kristen Stewart’s face when it did. It really does take all kinds. Tomorrow: The first full day of Tiff with several major films premiering. Daniel Joyaux is a film and pop culture critic living in Ann Arbor. You can read more of his work at thirdmanmovies.blogspot.com