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2014 Venice International Film Festival – Day 4

One of the – ehm – more unusual rituals here in Venice is the chaos that ensues at the end of every press conference, when dozens of frenzied members of the Four Estate abandon all pretense, bum-rush the stage waving notebooks, pictures and scraps of paper for the stars to autograph. We have seen more dignified displays from the media but, frankly, plenty of worse ones. Call it extreme cinephilia – at any rate most actors are gracious enough to oblige before departing for the official photo-call and none more than Owen Wislon who stopped to chat and pose with the fans … er journalists.
Wilson is in town because of his starring role in She’s Funny That Way, Peter Bogdanovich’s return to the screen after a thirteen-year hiatus that is the director’s love note of screwball comedies.
In a fashion befitting one of Hollywood’s most cinephile filmmakers (Bogdanovich began his career as critic and film curator) the movie pays explicit homage to the sophisticated comedy of Ernst Lubitsch and specifically his last film Bunny Brown, with Charles Boyer). In truth Funny is more romantic vaudeville farce than classic comedy, recalling both the films of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks and suffering somewhat in the comparison. It’s a testament to Bogdanovich’s show-biz prestige that he was able to assemble a stellar cast that, aside from Wilson. includes Imogen Poots, Rhys Ifans, Cybill Shepherd, Ileana Douglas, Jennifer Aniston and luxury cameos by Tatum O’Neal, Graydon Carter and Quentin Tarantino. In spite of its title however, Funny is more paean to old-time movies than the laugh-out-loud comedy of errors it purports to be, which didn’t impede a rousing reception by many Euro and Italian critics here who clearly still hold Bogdanovich (and his taste in movies) in the highest esteem.
Incidentally the film’s loose plot centers around a lackluster Broadway production – the same narrative device developed in festival opener Birdman. The play-within-a-film format is emerging as one of the coincidental themes of this festival, especially since a third film is built around a theater thespian. Barry Levinson’s The Humbling stars Al Pacino as an aging actor who abandons the theater after losing his “appetite for the craft”. Not only is Pacino’s Simon Axler grappling with age and a spiritual crisis of inspiration just like Riggan Thomson in Birdman, at one point he even gets accidentally locked out of the theater as he’s supposed to go onstage, which also happens to Michael Keaton’s character – and in both stories blood will eventually be spilled on the boards.
Beyond the parallels however Humbling is an altogether different object. Based on Philp Roth’s eponymous novel from 2009 and benefits from an adaptation by Michael Zebede and Buck Henry that expertly transposes the literary feel of Roth’s prose to the screen.
Scruffy and haggard, Pacino’s Axler attempts to recover from his breakdown through skyped therapy sessions and retires to solitude in his Connecticut mansion. The appearance of Pegeen, the eccentric and vital young daughter of an old flame (Greta Gerwig proving here that she is one of the funniest new faces in the business) puts his self-imposed retirement into an existential tailspin and soon the aging Axler is playing involuntary host to a motley collection of crazies, crackpots and nut cases resulting in an improbable comeback. Deftly directed by Levinson the film nails the wry humor of the story and benefits from the supporting cast led by Susanne Wiest, Kyra Sedgwick, Charles Grodin and Nina Arianda. All in all, an understated comedy which is both sophisticated and truly funny.
Luca Celada [gallery:3409]