SUNDAY MAY 28, 2017
 
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TIFF13 DAY 7: BRITISH COMEDY HEAVEN
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In case you were wondering what the Brits were up to this TIFF, don’t worry, a couple of British comedy legends popped up for some classic dry wit.

The Double

Here’s the scene … Jesse Eisenberg is a nameless drone in a somewhat repressive Orwellian society. He has zero confidence and gets even less respect from everyone around him. The only thing that provides even moderate excitement in his life is his infatuation with his neighbour (Mia Wasikowska), who he kind of stalks in that sweet, star-crossed loser way. Then one day a person looking 100% like Eisenberg shows up in his office. They become friends, but the new Jesse is strong in all the areas old Jesse is weak and it slowly starts to destroy our sadsack hero. OK, so it’s not exactly a blockbuster set up, but given that the film comes from Richard (Darkplace, Submarine) Ayoade, it is as hilarious as it is existentially troubling.

Only two films and a few underappreciated TV series into his career, Ayoade has already established himself as one of the most unique directorial voices coming out of the U.K. His influences are esoteric and art house friendly, but his delivery is flavoured by one of the quickest wits in Britain (a land with a great deal of competition for that particular title). With The Double, he’s taken a novella by Dostoevsky, adapted it into a screenplay with Harmony Korine’s brother Avi, and created something halfway between Orson Welles’ The Trial and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (in other words, a version of The Trial that’s actually as funny as Welles thought it was). Drop the humour and this flick would compete for artiest art film of the year. Include the humour and it becomes of the most interesting flicks of the year.

Eisenberg is perfectly cast in dual roles with the nebbish lead playing into his awkward strengths and the raging id double offering a chance for him to out a-hole his turn as Mark Zuckerberg. Wasikowska adds gravity to what would otherwise be an empty fantasy girl and the rest of the cast is rounded out by some brilliant British comedians and American character actors like Chris O’Dowd, Chris Morris, Wallace Shawn and Cathy Moriarty. As result, every character on screen is fascinating, no matter how fleeting their appearance and Ayoade always gives them something interesting to do and an evocative environment to do it in. Even though he’s still very much a filmmaker defined by his influences, Ayoade gets stronger each time he steps behind the camera and should be able to ditch the influences soon.

 

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena'Philomena

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench: Not exactly the most obvious big screen duo around, but one that award-winning director Stephen Frears clearly found tickling. Philomena is essentially a Dench Oscar-bait movie given a quick rewrite from Coogan, who also takes on the second lead role. Yet that combination actually works incredibly well, adding enough sarcastic and sardonic humour to keep the “inspiring true story” from ever becoming saccharine. Since Coogan is a better actor than most give him credit for and Dench is funnier than often assumed, the mix works. Funny, moving and handsomely mounted by the veteran Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen), Philomena is one of the many overlooked gems to sneak out of TIFF this year.

Coogan stars as a cynical political journalist (is there any other kind?) who is so down on his luck that he’s been reduced to sniffing out a human interest story for a weekend paper. The ideal assignment falls into his lap when he has a chance encounter with an Irish accented Judi Dench. It turns out she was one of hundreds of young women in Ireland whose parents were so ashamed by their teenage daughter’s pregnancy that they left the girls and babies in the hands of the Catholic Church. The nuns forced the girls to work hard labour for years to pay off the costs of birthing their children and then sold the kids for adoption to the highest bidder. Together, Dench and Coogan set out on a journey to find her long lost son. The sleazy Coogan initially only shows interest in the money-grubbing potential of the tale, but eventually the two become friends.

The story sounds sickly sweet and it is, but assigning Coogan to slather his distinct comedic sensibility all over the project was an ingenious choice that prevents things from ever becoming nauseating. An asshole who discovers his soul is familiar territory for Coogan and he delivers as expected, while Dench provides much warmer humour in contrast. Things get a bit sentimental when the inevitably tragic elements of the story slip in but, thankfully, Frears is a versatile enough filmmaker to juggle the drama, comedy and melodrama without too much tonal schizophrenia. It’s not a groundbreaking piece of work, but does the gently funny tear-jerking thing quite well. Some may be surprised to see a softer Coogan on display, but don’t worry. There’s still an Alan Partridge movie on the way, so he’ll be back to his old tricks soon enough.

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