Masters of the universe in free fall

Toronto’s film festival launches a new fashion in male heroism ready-made for the recession

090910_tiffmagYou forget you’re watching Matt Damon. He’s playing a spy. But with a dorky moustache, a toupée and an extra 20 lb. puffing out his features, there’s no trace of the dynamic secret agent from the Bourne franchise. In Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, an off-kilter comedy based on a true story of corporate corruption, Damon plays Mark Whitacre, an agri-biz honcho who became the highest-ranking whistle-blower in U.S. history during the late ’90s. But unlike most whistle-blowers—such as the one in The Insider or Soderbergh’s own Erin Brockovich—he is no straight-arrow hero. Far from it. While spending years wearing a wire to help the FBI expose a price-fixing conspiracy, Whitacre spins an elaborate web of lies, and embezzles millions from the company he was ratting on.

Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19) and opening commercially next week, The Informant! is one of a new breed of movies about men of influence in dire straits who invent their own cracked ethical code. Each year, TIFF showcases the fall line of serious films that vie for Oscar glory, pictures that presume to tell us something about the human condition. And whether by accident or design, many of this year’s most prominent titles reflect a new fashion in heroism that seems tailor-made for the recession: moral bankruptcy.

The new Hollywood hero is a high-flying master of the universe who’s losing altitude as fast as the ground vanishes beneath his feet. He’s a liar, a fraud, a womanizer, a drug addict, a nutcase, or all of the above. He’s Michael Douglas as a disgraced car magnate with a wrecked marriage and a runaway libido in Solitary Man. He’s David Duchovny as the head of a model family that turns out to be an utter sham in The Joneses. He’s Nicolas Cage as a crack-smoking cop who hallucinates reptiles in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Or Peter Sarsgaard as a smooth con artist who seduces a 16-year-old English schoolgirl in An Education, soliciting her father as a gullible accomplice. Or Ricky Gervais as a screenwriter who discovers the marvel of dishonesty in The Invention of Lying—a comedy set in a world where everyone tells the truth.

Up in the Air, perhaps the most hotly anticipated film premiering at TIFF, stars George Clooney as an obsessive frequent flyer who earns his living firing people for downsizing corporations. And he loves his job. Loosely based on the novel by Walter Kirn, it’s written and directed by Juno’s Jason Reitman. TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey says it marks a leap in maturity that will elevate the 31-year-old Canadian into the ranks of major filmmakers. “It feels like it was directed by a 45-year-old,” says Bailey. “There’s a real moral reckoning to it, a philosophical world of substance. It’s about a whole class of people who live their lives literally at 30,000 feet and seeing what happens when the sky falls.”

Coincidentally, Damon and Clooney—former cohorts in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven franchise—both play platinum-card frequent flyers who inhabit a pressurized cabin of personal entitlement that verges on the delusional. And both their movies reflect the zeitgeist of a corporate culture in free fall. “You walk into a buzz saw when you try to articulate the zeitgeist,” Soderbergh told me when asked to do exactly that in an interview last week. But films like his, he concedes, do resonate with a culture addicted to deceit—an America whose moral compass has gone haywire. “There’s a lot of hypocrisy about,” he says. “People are responding to the mixed signals they’re getting. You see people getting rewarded in one area, then punished in another. When no one will tell you the truth about what’s going on, what are the arguments for me being a model citizen?”

Ironically, although Up in the Air and The Informant! have landed with uncanny timing, Soderbergh and Reitman both spent six years trying to bring their respective movies to the screen while juggling other projects. Which suggests they were tapping into the early roots of a malaise long before it erupted in the recent economic collapse.

After reading Kurt Eichenwald’s investigative bestseller, The Informant (2000), Soderbergh says he decided to spin it into a comedy partly to distinguish it from other whistle-blower movies. “But also it’s got one of the best building blocks of comedy—the lie that escalates and gets out of control. The things Whitacre was doing were so insane.” And now, Soderbergh adds, “I’m really glad we made it a comedy. Because you’re seeing the straight version in the paper every day.”

Reitman, meanwhile, started writing Up in the Air even before shooting his feature debut, Thank You for Smoking. “This has been in my heart and soul for a long time,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles. “What spoke to me is the idea of living adrift, living hub-to-hub. As I wrote the script, it became more and more relevant. It’s right for the time because we’re living in the most disconnected time in human history. We falsely believe we’re connected with more people than ever before because of texting and Facebook and Twitter. But we actually don’t connect to any of these people.”

Up in the Air’s protagonist, Ryan Bingham, is wedded to the idea of being unattached in every sense. “He wants to live a completely disconnected life,” says Reitman. “And what he does for a living is cut people off from what is often most important to them—their jobs.” Reitman drew the character from Kirn’s novel but concocted a new plot, in which Bingham’s airtight world is threatened by a woman (Anna Kendrick) who proposes firing people online rather than face-to-face.

Reitman wrote Up in the Air specifically for Clooney and says he can’t imagine anyone else playing Bingham. “George Clooney believes in old school values,” he says. “There’s a classical sense to him. And he seems to be going through a self-examination with this movie. It’s hard to say this without sounding like an arrogant prick, but I think it will go down as one of his greatest roles. It’s his most vulnerable. He opens up and does something different than he’s ever done before.”

A movie star’s glamour is meant to be invincible, but we’re all dying to see it undermined. Clooney likes to go out of his way to tarnish his matinee-idol image of suave cool and liberal intelligence—he pops up as a manic nutbar in another TIFF premiere, The Men Who Stare at Goats, a screwball comedy based on a semi-true story of the U.S. Army’s secret attempt to create “super-soldiers” with psychic powers. Clooney’s character is not unlike the deadpan dolts he played in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading—a master of the universe only in his own mind.

Playing an unhinged hero is one thing. But what’s more exciting is when a star bares his soul and reveals an unsavoury character—especially if he seems to be playing himself. This summer Adam Sandler did it in Funny People, bringing a scary gravitas to his role as a terminally ill comedy star who seemed just like Adam Sandler, and was bitter, ruthless, selfish and spoiled. Not a nice person. Yet Sandler seemed all the more sympathetic for revealing that side of himself. Just as you have to hand it to Douglas, with his rep as a womanizer, for braving a role that cuts so close to the bone.

In a culture of viral amorality, even the most innocent protagonists can’t help but be infected. Take A Serious Man, a black comedy from the Coen brothers. It’s about a scrupulous math professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose life unravels as he’s bribed by a student, robbed by his children and betrayed by his wife for an older man who spouts hippie mantras. The movie is set in 1967, in a drab Minnesota suburb, and as the Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love wrings irony from this dark scenario, the hippie dream already seems dead in the water—the beginning of the Big Lie.

Paradoxically, two movies that deliver the brightest glimmer of salvation offer the most harrowing visions of human cruelty—The Road and Precious, two Oscar-pedigree TIFF titles. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road takes place in a scorched landscape where there is little food, and even less moisturizer, and the moral grime has gotten so thick it’s hard to tell right from wrong. Viggo Mortensen plays a widowed father who roams this cold, charred hell with his young son, trying to protect him from cannibals. The boy has to ask him, “Are we the good guys?” Good question. This devoted father is so fixated on survival that he treats his fellow man with a visceral intolerance the boy finds horrifying.

Hollywood tends to treat the single widowed father as a paragon of male virtue, but even that cliché is now tarnished. In The Boys Are Back, Clive Owen is a bereaved parent struggling to contain his young boy and win back the older son he abandoned along with his first wife. Directed by Scott Hicks (Shine), this drama has a conventional gloss of sentiment. But Owen undercuts it with brutal candour as a savagely flawed, undomesticated dad who has to learn adult responsibility from his own estranged son.

The corollary to all these messed-up men is a new generation of strong female characters—especially in adolescent coming-of-age films. In Britain’s Fish Tank and An Education, two free-spirited teenage girls are seduced by charming predators who worm their way into their families, but the girls refuse to be victims. And in Precious, a scalding drama set in a black American ghetto, a teenage girl (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) bears her father’s baby and endures her mother’s abuse as she ekes out salvation by trying to achieve literacy. This tale of female resilience hits like a sobering jolt of shock therapy. Backed by Oprah Winfrey, who will be among the Hollywood royalty at TIFF, it’s vying to be this year’s Slumdog Millionaire.

In cinema’s bleak new world of lost, desperate men, perhaps it’s only fitting that the most unadulterated hero is female.

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