Have today's movies taken a turn toward the dark side? Some viewers at the just-completed Toronto International Film Festival thought so, and there was plenty of evidence to back them up.
European pictures like I Stand Alone and The Inheritors, both due in American theaters soon, treat such everyday subjects as parenthood and business with a distinctly downbeat tone.
The avidly hyped Apt Pupil, based on a Stephen King novella, shows that topics like fascism and psychosis aren't too morbid for a Hollywood drama about a suburban kid next door. Even a satire like the ironically titled Happiness takes on subject matter that's positively sinister.
But lovers of light and laughter needn't despair. Seen from a different angle, the Toronto program yielded plenty of fun, even if some of the material lent itself more to knowing smiles than full-fledged chuckles. Drew Barrymore summed up this aspect of the festival when she told a gathering of journalists why she enjoyed her role in the new comedy Home Fries.
"I love comedy and I worship it," she said, "and my favorite movies are comedies. My favorite people in the world are the ones who make you laugh. So if there's any way I can be in a comedy, I will be there!"
Other movie folks have apparently been thinking along similar lines.
Exhibit A for this proposition is Antz, a creepy-crawly animation from DreamWorks, the latest studio to square off against Disney in the cartooning arena.
Much of the action centers on a struggle between ordinary insects and an evil military ant. What makes this funny is the personality of the protagonist, a worker named Z who stumbles into heroism as a result of his nerdy anxieties about the meaning of life and the elusiveness of love. If he sounds suspiciously like a Woody Allen character, note that he's played by none other than Allen in a voice-performance as expressively amusing as anything in his own recent films.
The cast of "Antz" also includes Sharon Stone, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Jennifer Lopez, Sylvester Stallone, and Dan Aykroyd, but it's Allen who dominates the show from the very first scene, when Z tells his psychiatrist how hard it was to be a middle child in a family of 5 million kids. The rest of the screenplay falls short of that hilarious opening, but the movie has enough clever visual touches to look like a box-office success.
"Antz" is a fable as well as a fantasy, and the same goes for Gary Ross's ambitious Pleasantville, which cooks up a pungent critique of "family values" clichs alongside its boisterously funny look at a sitcom community come to life.
The heroes are two '90s teenagers transported to a town right out of "Leave It to Beaver" or "Father Knows Best," where double beds are considered scandalous and "change" is a four-letter word.
Much of the story is pure amusement, as the bewildered teens adjust to a society so straight and narrow that colors are as (literally) black and white as the views of the average citizen. But the movie takes on deeper meanings when the townspeople start learning much-needed lessons from their visitors, leading to a ferocious backlash that exposes hate and bigotry.
Comedy fans not looking for serious undertones can turn to The Imposters. It's an old-fashioned farce about a couple of down-and-out actors who become stowaways on a 1930s ocean liner, where they meet a gallery of mismatched characters ranging from a theatrical rival (Alfred Molina) to a melancholy entertainer (Steve Buscemi).
Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt play the heroes patterned so closely after Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that even the actors' first names are a match. If they rarely reach the comic heights explored by their great predecessors, it isn't for want of energy and enthusiasm.
Other comedies heading from Toronto to theaters range from "Home Fries," with Barrymore as a fast-food waitress caught in a zany murder scheme, to Rushmore, an amazingly laugh-crowded farce about a high school boy and his wacky friends. Little Voice stars Michael Caine as a sleazy show-biz promoter who learns that a painfully shy acquaintance has a gift for imitating famous entertainers.
Most resonant of all is An Autumn Tale, by French master Eric Rohmer, an exquisite story of love and longing among fortysomethings who won't let age dim their romantic spirits.
And of course this world-class festival spotlighted major dramatic pictures that will soon be piquing curiosity. You're Laughing, by Italian brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, spins a pair of poignant yarns about a lonely opera singer and a kidnapped little boy. The Dream Life of Angels, by French newcomer Eric Zonka, charts the friendship of two discontented women.
All those dramas have unhappy twists, reinforcing the view of some festivalgoers that gloom and doom are "in." But they were balanced by much laughter here, as they will be in multiplexes when they make their commercial debuts.
* David Sterritt's e-mail address is: email@example.com