TIFF 2015: Comic Relief From Gerwig, Bateman and Kidman 

To fracture a common phrase: comedy is in the ear of the beholder. Nearly all of us agree we love a good comedy, but we don't always agree on what makes us laugh. For some, it's Adam Sandler; for others it's David Sedaris. Given the overabundance of angst and controversy in so many of the films at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, I carved out space in my schedule for some comic relief—but, wouldn't you know it, I found plenty of dark humor in my selections. As Mark Twain said, "Humor is tragedy plus time."

click to enlarge Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke star in Maggie's Plan.
  • Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke star in Maggie's Plan.
The best of a trio of comedies I screened at TIFF is a film called Maggie's Plan, written and directed by Rebecca Miller, who knows a thing or two about tragedy. Her father was America's greatest author of tragedy, Arthur Miller, and her husband is tragic actor extraordinaire Daniel Day-Lewis.  

Maggie is the lovely Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) who has several plans, beginning with luring a married man (Ethan Hawke) away from his wife (Julianne Moore) in order to have a baby. Soon enough, Maggie realizes her new baby-daddy should return to his wife. In a particularly fine bit of inspired casting, Moore plays a brilliant Danish author who sounds like Elmer Fudd.

The film is wise and witty and the characters are likeable. As an added bonus, the supporting cast includes Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph. That alone is worth the price of admission. Maggie's Plan is yet another romantic comedy set in New York City, but it's nice to see someone else occupy the space where Woody Allen squatted for so long.

click to enlarge Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman star in The Family Fang.
  • Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman star in The Family Fang.
The most bizarre comedy I've seen in some time is The Family Fang, with the always reliable Jason Bateman doing double duty as star and director.

It's a dark comedy—and by dark, I mean jet black.

Bateman stars alongside Nicole Kidman as a pair of siblings who have been lifelong victims of their parents' (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) bizarre practical jokes.

These aren't so much jokes as they're carefully orchestrated, macabre public performances. The film opens with a flashback in which Bateman's character—as a child—walks into a bank, hands a note to a female teller, pulls out a weapon and demands all of her lollipops. As if that's not enough, his father, dressed as a bank guard, tries to intercede but the boy accidentally shoots a woman (his mother in disguise). Fake blood covering the floor, the Fang family laughs hysterically as bank patrons are left slack-jawed.

The bulk of the film revolves around attempts by Bateman and Kidman's characters to distance themselves from their outlandish family history.

click to enlarge Susan Sarandon and Rose Byrne star in The Meddler
  • Susan Sarandon and Rose Byrne star in The Meddler
Living up to the title of the film, The Meddler, is Susan Sarandon as the mother from, well, maybe not hell, but awfully close.

When her husband passes away, Marnie Minervini (Sarandon) decides to pull up her Brooklyn roots and head west to invade daughter Lori's (Rose Byrne) personal space in Los Angeles. In no time at all, mom is combing through her daughter's Internet browser history, leaving countless voicemail messages and telling Lori's ex that she's still in love with him.

Some might laugh, but quite a few audience members groaned at the TIFF screening. While The Meddler inspires a handful of laughs and even some sobs, Sarandon and Byrne, both fine actresses, deserve better. It feels way too familiar, and that's not a compliment.




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