As always, Saturday turned out to be the busiest day for the festival. The winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Like Father, Like Son is the latest exquisitely observed domestic drama from the Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. I thought his I Wish was one of the best movies of 2012, and I wondered why nobody else seemed to share my opinion about that. Anyway, both I Wish and his 2004 tragedy Nobody Knows are terrific movies about children, but this movie is about parents. Masaharu Fukuyama stars as a successful Tokyo architect named Ryota who discovers one day that his adorable 6-year-old son was Switched! At! Birth! with another boy. I kept thinking that the Hollywood version of this would probably be pretty intolerable, but my thought was wrong, because this movie would never be made in America. You see, in Japan, the custom in these situations apparently calls for the children to be returned to their biological parents, and damn the psychic consequences. Well, this movie’s not on board with that. Ryota is pretty much a bastard, a workaholic who’s seldom around for the son he does have. Then when he finds out about the switched babies, he can’t stand the fact that his biological offspring is being raised by a slobby guy from the countryside (played by a polymath entertainer who goes by the stage name of Lily Franky) who runs a dingy appliance repair shop. Never mind that, for all that, the other dad truly loves his kids. Ryota is the only one of the four parents involved who really wants to exchange the boys, yet he gets his way because he has social custom on his side. Kore-eda’s scrupulous, restrained style dries the story out and prevents the pathos from overwhelming everything else. I don’t think this is quite on the same level as the filmmaker’s best work (I Wish and his 1999 Buddhist fantasy After Life), but it’s still intelligent and deeply felt, and so worth the time.
From there I watched Meryl Streep verbally abuse everyone in sight, or as it’s formally titled, August: Osage County. The movie is adapted from Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and as a showpiece for great acting, it’s pretty good. Streep plays Violet Weston, the pill-popping, cancer-ridden Oklahoma matriarch whose three daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis) and sister (Margo Martindale) all come to visit with their families after Violet’s alcoholic longtime husband (Sam Shepard) kills himself. Violet turns out to be a veritable monster, and the famous extended dinner scene in the middle of the film is as explosively dysfunctional as you’d expect. Streep is good and Roberts underplays rather cannily, and they’re both fiercely unlikable here, but the real fireworks come from the supporting players, especially Nicholson, Martindale, and Chris Cooper as the sister’s husband. Director John Wells (the creator of TV’s ER) doesn’t do anything wildly imaginative with the material, but he gets out of his cast’s way. That’s good enough.
More dysfunctional family drama on the Great Plains came in Nebraska, but this was played much softer and more humorously. Alexander Payne’s black-and-white movie stars Bruce Dern as an elderly man from Billings, Mont., who’s been convinced by a gimmick letter that he has won a $1 million sweepstakes and determines to get to Lincoln, Neb., by any means necessary to collect his prize. Will Forte (formerly of Saturday Night Live) plays his put-upon younger son, who decides to indulge his dad by driving him to Lincoln and winds up learning more about his laconic, hard-drinking father than he ever imagined, especially after they stop in the old man’s hometown of Hawthorne, Neb. The sparse dialogue in Bob Nelson’s script seems to have inspired Payne to his most clipped, minimalist film to date. Either that, or it’s Payne being back in his home state after detouring to California (Sideways) and Hawaii (The Descendants). If you’re familiar with the films of the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, this very funny deadpan comedy reminded me very much of them. It also reminded me of South Park, minus the profanity. That’s the tone of this piece. The two lead actors do well, but it’s June Squibb as the old man’s wife who gets a rousing scene when, after spending much of the movie being an almighty nag, she rises to her husband’s defense against his greedy relatives who want a share of the money. I still had trouble warming up to this movie, as is the case with me and most of Payne’s films, but the guy sure can direct.
I had to miss The Book Thief at the festival, but I saw the film a few days ago at an earlier screening. I’ll just say here that I was disappointed that Markus Zusak’s unorthodox Nazi Germany-set novel received such a square movie treatment.
The last entry of the night was Philomena, based on the real-life story of an elderly Irishwoman who traveled to America to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption. If you don’t know Irish history, I’ll just refer you to Wikipedia’s entry about Magdalene asylums, a barbaric Catholic Church-sanctioned system of incarcerating and enslaving pregnant Irish girls that persisted into the 1990s. (See also Peter Mullan’s 2003 film The Magdalene Sisters, which is much more hard-hitting than this movie.) Judi Dench plays the titular Philomena, and Steve Coogan both portrays the British journalist who helps her and co-writes the script. (It’s quite a change for him. He’s a well-known comedian in the U.K., but he does this serious role in a serious story altogether creditably.) Coogan’s character supplies all the righteous outrage here while Dench remains an exemplar of Christian forgiveness, and it takes all the skill of the actors and director Stephen Frears to keep this from becoming too schematic. I still prefer Dench when she’s not playing nice old ladies like the one here, but the filmmakers do this story up with a bracing dose of humor and a minimum of weepiness.
Last day of the festival comes tomorrow.