The Wild, Wild Fest

Wes (David Strathairn), a professor of religious philosophy at a school that isn't Harvard and who is bitter because of it, is none too happy when his wife Nancy (the always wonderful Bonnie Bedelia) invites her old college boyfriend Matt (Saul Rubinek) to stay with them while he delivers a series of musicology lectures at Harvard. Wes finds himself physically attracted to Matt's much younger and extremely erotic companion Kim (a newcomer named Caroleen Feeney, whose career bears watching). Kim slowly awakens his long-dormant sex drive, much to the chagrin of Matt, who hears the two making love. As if that weren't enough of a complication, Wes reports to his wife that a $50 bill is missing from his wallet. Nancy, who doesn't much like Kim, looks through her luggage and finds what she believes to be the stolen money. Both plot strands develop in parallel fashion, coming together as unspoken suspicions, mistrust, jealousy, frustration, and academic egos make a four-way confrontation inevitable.

What could have been a farce, complete with cross-purposes and gross misunderstandings, becomes an intense tale about the desolation of the intellectual lifestyle and the human need for true contact. After the hot-and-heavy confrontation, when everybody tells off everybody else in uncharacteristically explicit language, the exhausted foursome re-establishes order by reverting to "good manners," which, if insincere, render life tolerable.

Unfortunately, the screenplay is not content to leave the matter there, instead imposing a silly deus ex machina intended to tie it all together and add an ironic flourish. The story needs no denouement. The unraveling of people's facades and the surfacing of awful truths do not require a ribbons-and-bow finish. I suggest you duck out five minutes before the credits start to roll.

In truth, the deus ex machina has become an indispensable writer's aid ever since Euripides invented it so he could impose either a happy or a tragic ending on his plays, depending, I guess, on his mood. Since Hollywood wouldn't be Hollywood without it, I'm not surprised to find it in a film about how Hollywood writers operate. But in the case of the aptly titled (thank heaven!) Just Write, the phony ending is deliberately tacked on; the entire film pokes fun at the Hollywood scene and its Dick-and-Jane mentality. We can't expect a logical denouement in a story about a town in which nothing is logical, a town in which the driving force is to have one's name on a sidewalk where it can be stepped on for eternity.

Just Write is so slick and so charming that one almost feels guilty surrendering to its total inanity, but what captivates is its off-center style. You can tell from the first shot (the hero, who looks like a young Chevy Chase and is delightfully played by someone with the improbable name of Jeremy Pivens, drives a "Trolleywood Tours" vehicle through the streets of Beverly Hills, droning an unfunny spiel while his passengers snooze) that both writer (Stan Williamson) and director (Andrew Gallerani, in his feature-length debut) know exactly what they're doing. Henry McMurphy is a big-time loser (his opening narration proudly announces, "I wanted to be a tour bus driver, and I'm good at it"), but working in Hollywood, he naturally dreams of one day achieving recognition -- for what, he hasn't a clue. Because this is a takeoff on the great tradition of romantic fluff, destiny steers him into a chance meeting with a beautiful young star (Sherilyn Fenn) who mistakes him for a screenwriter. Realizing this is his chance to hobnob with celebrities, he takes on the classic role of grand impostor and soon finds himself saddled with the awesome task of rewriting a screenplay the star simply hates.

In a funny scene that encapsulates the tone of the entire film, Henry asks the top agent in town (a memorable cameo by Wallace Shawn) to represent him for just three weeks. "Can you write?" asks Shawn. "I took a class once, but I can't spell," Henry replies. Nonetheless, in the manner of the timeless Hollywood romantic comedies, the hero is a smashing success, winning both the girl and an Oscar.

The dialogue crackles with some of the best one-liners this side of Neil Simon: "Any other agent would think you were a crackpot, but crackpots sell million-dollar scripts"; "If I'd known you were coming to my party, I'd have sent you an invitation"; "Is he stupid? Married? Gay?" "He's a writer, so he could be all three."

The plotting sags a bit near the end and begins to take itself seriously, as though Williamson had forsaken his original intentions and became lost in the obligatory boy-loses-girl part of the story. He does recover nicely, however, and gives us that hilarious deus. You may forget all about this one as soon as you leave the theater, but for a couple of hours you'll have had a smashing time. Bring plenty of popcorn. It's all part of the shtick.

But if you want your film festivals to bring you into contact with the real cutting edge of filmmaking and you've had enough of Hollywood fluff no matter how clever, then you'll want to include the Dutch film The Dress, written by, directed by, and featuring Alex van Warmerdam, who founded and artistically steered two Netherlands theater companies before turning to the screen. The Dress, which has already won the Dutch Film Critics' Award for best picture, is having its American premiere at the Festival. Be forewarned, however. It represents a startling departure from the naturalism American film audiences have come to expect.

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