Sundance 2008

EW Critic's Notes: 'Choke' and 'Sunshine Cleaning'

Owen Gleiberman discusses why Fox Searchlight, the leader among Sundance deal makers, was right to buy one of these films and not the other

CHOKE Brad Henke (left) and Sam Rockwell
CHOKE Brad Henke (left) and Sam Rockwell

If you spend a week at Sundance, the deal-making is like a movie unto itself. It's not just the impressively jumbo sums of money, the rivalries between indie studios that can turn negotiating sessions between filmmakers and executives and John Sloss into nervous all-night showdowns. It's the fact that these deals are, in their way, giving birth to careers, and thus helping to shape the future of movies. In this particular era, there's one company that has come to be known for having the sharpest attack, the sweetest instinct, the most perfectly modulated fusion of artistic vision and commercial savvy. That would be Fox Searchlight and its brilliant president, Peter Rice.

It was Searchlight that bought Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon Dynamite here, then finessed each of them into a pop-cultural phenomenon. Last year, the company bought the only two films at Sundance that went on to become bona fide hits: Waitress, that indie-gem-with-a-mainstream-soul romantic charmer, and Once, the incandescent Irish musical love story that was purchased for a song (a mere $500,000), then marketed, with tender loving care, into what is likely a far bigger success that it would have been with almost any other company. And so the moves that Peter Rice does, and does not, make at Sundance are genuine news — he's become the tasteful Zen shark of indie distribution. This year, Fox Searchlight bought only one film: Choke, the snappy, naughty, heady adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's sex-addict-with-attitude novel. Just as notable, though, is that Searchlight passed on a film that was very popular here, and that some speculated might be right up the company's alley, locking into Rice's taste for comedies with bite. That would be Sunshine Cleaning, starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as wayward Albuquerque sisters who go into business cleaning up crime scenes and other human disasters. Here's my view of both films, and of whether Searchlight, in each case, made the right decision.

***

I'm a sucker for dramas of addiction, and I don't think I'm alone. We're all addicted to something, even if it's just French fries or Sudoku. And, more than that, it's the quality of addiction, of using X to fill that hole inside, that speaks to so much of what drives contemporary life. Choke, a dirty-minded satirical-psychotic comedy of sexual compulsion (and other derangements), doesn't pretend to be a realistic movie. Adapted and directed by the actor-turned-filmmaker Clark Gregg, it comes at you in fast, rude snippets — the stylized horndog dialogue makes Diablo Cody sound shy — and it's always popping you right into the fantasies of its scurrilous protagonist, Victor (Sam Rockwell), a cute, sleazy player so enmeshed in the lifestyle that he goes to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings mostly so he can pick up the inevitable tramp-of-the-week there and do it with her in the bathroom during the meeting.

It's been more than 10 years since Janet Maslin, writing from Sundance in The New York Times, predicted stardom for Sam Rockwell, and this may finally be the role that clinches it for him. He's still boyish and moonstruck, but with a dazed reptilian stare, like a Jimmy Fallon who's forgotten how to crack himself up. He makes Victor the coolest of Lotharios, with a screw invisibly loose. When Victor visits his mother (Anjelica Huston) in a mental hospital, where he flirts with all of the patients, even the randy old ladies, we get to see what untightened that screw: His compulsions are rooted in his bond with this crazy, tender, clinging, withholding, mishegoss Mom (who may think he's the son of Jesus Christ). I usually hate it when movies explain addiction so progamatically, but Anjelica Huston, with her voice of diva disdain, has the grandeur to give this role a mythic dimension. She's a Mrs. Portnoy who turned her love-starved son into the erotic equivalent of a crackhead.

Victor also likes to fake choking fits in restaurants — his way of getting people to "save" him, then cradle him like a baby. I won't lie: Choke is a zany, synthetic movie. Yet it's also a sensationally funny one. Far more humanely than Fight Club (the film or the Palahniuk book), it creates a world you enter like a neurotic playground. It's perverted fast food for thought. Victor may be a complete slime, with no pretense of wanting women for anything but a quick shag (a scene in which he hooks up with someone on the internet and stages a forced assault on her in her living room is a delirious piece of sexual theater), yet the film progresses toward a ripe and resonant understanding of how he got that way — and, even more, what it feels like to be that way. Did Fox Searchlight make an inspired play by purchasing Choke for $5 million? I think they did, but even if they didn't, they did the right thing. Choke is a true original, an indelibly warped cartoon of lust and despair.

***

These days, there are more women working behind the cameras of indie film than ever before, and that makes Sunshine Cleaning a rather ironic experience. Written and directed by Christine Jeffs, it takes the form of a comedy of empowerment, but it's the tale of two sisters, played by Amy Adams (sweetness and light) and Emily Blunt (spicy and dark), who are aimless, loveless, money-less quasi-losers. When they go into business for themselves, cleaning up houses where folks have been killed, or have died of natural causes, leaving a trail of bodily fluids (yes, it's a little gross — which is part of the fun), their rationale is simply that it pays well, and that they have no other skills between them.

The cleaning-up scenes are small, unfolding riots of black comedy, yet they're also sad, because Jeffs never plays them cheaply. The two women aren't just cleaning up blood, they're cleaning up wasted lives, and finding a screwy purpose in doing so. Even in a comedy this astringent, you can see why Amy Adams has become a star: She sparkles through the gunk, playing a single mom who is still sleeping with the jock (Steve Zahn) who married someone else, turning her into the most captivating of failures. Emily Blunt, as her sensitive yet childish sibling companion, makes every pout count.

Alan Arkin is also on hand as the girls' father, a crusty fount of get-rich-quick schemes, but these parts of the film are labored. Sunshine Cleaning is an easy movie to like; it gets you rooting for its heroines to make something of themselves, even if they have to scrub away the residue of life's misery to do it. But the story, in its second half, wanders too much for its own good. Sunshine Cleaning is a film whose humanity has been embraced at Sundance (and rightly so), but, as is true with these two sisters, even its most winning qualities are linked to a certain aimlessness, a certain thinness of discipline. The movie has a flaky charm, but it lacks verve. I think that Fox Searchlight, in passing on Sunshine Cleaning, probably made the brutally correct choice.

Originally posted Jan 25, 2008
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