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2009 Toronto Film Festival Wrap Up: Precious, Up in the Air and A Single Man

Precious, Up in the Air and A Single Man

From Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire


Friday, September 25, 2009

By Patrick Z. McGavin


Festivals have their own governing rhythms. For most of the major festivals, the end game is the formal announcement of the jury prizes, the point at which the arguments start.

Toronto is a little more genteel and egalitarian. The 34th iteration concluded with a perverse lesson in déjà vu: The most important prize, the people’s choice award, which incorporates a weighted balloting system, was given to Lee Daniels’ suddenly ubiquitous Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.  The title has been gently altered since we first caught the world premiere at Sundance, where it won both the jury dramatic prize and the audience balloting. (It’s worth noting that last year’s prize went to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, and we saw how that turned out.)

The film’s inexorable move toward Oscar validation (especially with the ultimate tastemaker, Oprah Winfrey, now attached to it as a producer) now appears inevitable.  Toronto concluded a berserk two-week stretch that saw a significant number of prestige fall releases debut simultaneously at Venice and Telluride, the buzz or validation either consecrated or torn to smithereens.

It’s simultaneously exhausting and thrilling to be in the middle of it all. The downside has never appeared so extreme, either. The specialized movie business has never appeared so Darwinian, where a handful of titles monopolize the market and pretty much all else is pulverized by the economies of scale and the rapidly expanding costs of getting these works into the marketplace.

Precious is clearly one of the exalted titles. The other title of privilege is almost certainly Up in the Air, the third feature and the major studio debut by the gifted Jason Reitman (the boutique Fox Searchlight released Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking and Juno). The new movie actually debuted as a surprise screening at Telluride the weekend before Toronto, a move that appeared to amplify the fevered sense of anticipation. Paramount executives did their part, as well, when they scratched Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island from their fall release calendar. 

Reitman and Sheldon Turner adapted the novel by Walter Kirn. Reitman conceives the material as contemporary screwball farce. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate hit man at an Omaha-based third-party company that informs people they’ve been fired. He’s also a speaker on the motivational circuit whose pitch is about how happiness is predicated on disentangling yourself from your emotional existence.

If work provides for most a solidity and governing purpose, Ryan has parlayed the particularities of his work — constant air travel, hotel stays and rental car agreements — into the accumulation of personal benefits and special rights.

The screwball format requires a sexual foil, and Reitman provides two glittering prototypes: a beautiful, free spirited and elusive counterpart (Vera Farmiga) and a lethal, ambitious, sharp-eyed Ivy League colleague (Anna Kendrick). Her adoption of digital media technology and video conferencing is now threatening to render Ryan’s privileged life instantly obsolete.


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