The Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) vast and varied international slate includes a number of superb films from Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Telluride. But what TIFF pulls off with its Hollywood premieres is what makes it so special: here’s where many successful Oscar journeys begin. In some other festivals, I wouldn’t bother with the handsomely-mounted studio films, but here, I’m not missing any if I can help it.
And Day 4 begins with a satisfying double bill: Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. The first gives us Tom Hanks playing the beloved American children’s TV legend, Fred Rogers. Armed with that trademark V–necked red sweater and slow-paced diction, Hanks is such a perfect fit for the part that you’d think he was born to play this. But then, that’s Hanks, who does best with characters who have no guile and tell us that life is still worth living if we allow ourselves to let our guards down, and to love.
Heller’s last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me had Melissa McCarthy in a standout role as a deeply unsympathetic literary thief. Rogers, on the other hand, is a character everyone loves, because he touches us in warm, empathetic ways.
A film like this can turn into an unbearably soppy four-hankies tale. But it is to Heller’s credit that she keeps the sentimentality in check even though I confess to wet eyes in a few places. And it is to Hanks’ credit that he plays Rogers with a twinkle-eyed gentleness which is all his own. It is not, which it so easily could have been, Forrest Gump redux.
It’s tough to upstage Hanks at any given time. But this movie is as much his as it is Mathew Rhys’, in the role of a journalist who becomes a friend after starting out as a morose interlocutor. The character is semi-true because there was a journalist who wrote a profile of Rogers for Esquire, and in the process, found his better self, even though he may not have achieved that state in precisely this manner.
The film is, in effect, more a study of a rocky father-son relationship in which the latter is getting-past-daddy-issues, than a bio pic of Rogers: just as the younger man sandpapers off his mistrust of Rogers because that’s what his determined cheer and sheer goodness demands, he sloughs off the anger and venom he harbours for his own father (Chris Cooper in an excellent turn).
Hustlers is as bawdy, lusty and in-your-face as A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood is quiet, decorous and tasteful, even though both reveal the devastation of the spirit when humanity leaves the room. Constance Wu, who is now a bona fide face after the smash-hit Crazy Rich Asians, plays a stripper at a club, where she is shown the ropes by the assured, if-you’ve-got–it-flaunt-it attitude -exuding Ramona, gloriously played by Jennifer Lopez.
Ramona takes the young woman under her wing, and soon under her expert guidance (a sequence in which JLo shows Wu the moves around the pole leaves you slack-jawed in admiration), the two women and a couple of their co-conspirators pull off a scam worthy of those they are scamming: they choose the Wall Street sharks busy skimming off the top, as their targets. The ladies make oodles of cash. So does their club. And everyone’s happy.
And then comes the stockmarket crash of 2008, and suddenly all the manna dries up. We are right inside the world of strippers — down to their G-strings and lap dances, and burnished, gleaming skin — but not once does it feel voyeuristic. The camera is never suggestive. We are shown, right up front, how hard-scrabble the lives of these women are, as they put on their own faces to go back to lives led as mothers, grand-daughters, pet-owners. We see them, really see them, as they celebrate Christmas, cut cakes, hug their loved ones. Who do we blame? These women, the straight-up scamsters, or the men who are willing to buy their time and more on money made by insider trading?
The star-turns from Hanks and JLo are a sure bet in the upcoming awards season. And on the sidelines, the star-sighting continues: Hanks tells us that playing Rogers has made him ‘a better listener’. And leaves us with a bumper-quote sticker to live life by: ‘if it is mentionable, it is manageable’.