Sundance Reviews: Sex, Masculinity Are Complicated in Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, James Franco Movies

The directors of “Bachelorette” and “Miss Representation” return to Sundance with, respectively, a brilliantly bawdy comedy and a vital look at how our culture raises its men

I try not to make sweeping pronouncements about Sundance movies until I’m back at sea level, and my brain is receiving its usual amounts of oxygen; there’s something about the air up here that can occasionally lead to irrational exuberance. (Google “The Spitfire Grill” or “Happy, Texas” if you don’t know what I mean.)

Even though I’m still in Park City, Utah, (and panting when I walk up hills) I’ll still say that “Sleeping with Other People” may well be the smartest, bawdiest, hard-R-rated rom-com to come along since “Bridesmaids.” The second directorial effort by Leslye Headland (“Bachelorette”) skews as closely as one can to classic romantic comedy tropes in a post — “They Came Together” world while demonstrating that witty dialogue, realistic characters and situations, and spot-on performances can make any seemingly played-out genre come back to life.

Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) first meet as Columbia undergrads and, over the course of an evening, wind up losing their virginities to each other. They then next meet a dozen years later at a 12-step meeting for sexual compulsives. Neither quite fits that mold, however: Jake is, at worst, a shallow cocksman (sent to the meeting by an angry girlfriend who broke up with him anyway), while Lainey is more of a love addict, unable to shake her obsession with her nerdy OB/GYN (Adam Scott).

They start hanging out together and realize that they’re the only people on whom they can place sexual and emotional boundaries, and as they help each other through their respective quandaries, they naturally start falling in love, knowing all the while it could be a colossal mistake. Even if you think you’ve seen this movie before, Headland’s gift for outrageous dialogue — Jake’s instructions to Lainey regarding proper female masturbation will probably be not only quoted in daily conversation but also screened in sex-ed classes for years to come — and Sudeikis and Brie’s comic chemistry make “Sleeping with Other People” a treat from start to finish.

The other elements of the film come together splendidly as well, from the loving-but-not-trite shots of Manhattan, courtesy of cinematographer Ben Kutchins (the “Veronica Mars” movie), to a first-rate comic ensemble that also includes Jason Mantzoukas, Andrea Savage, Natasha Lyonne, Amanda Peet, and Marc Blucas (plus brief but memorable appearances by Adam Brody, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Billy Eichner and Michael Cyril Creighton).

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TheMaskYouLiveInWhen parents of a young boy tell him to stop crying and “be a man,” what message does that send? And what are the effects on society when males are raised to close themselves off from their emotions and are taught to dominate, to conquer women and to accrue material wealth?

These are just some of the questions raised by director Jennifer Siebel Newsom (“Miss Representation”) in “The Mask You Live In,” a documentary that clearly wants to be a call to arms against the crisis of masculinity in this country. Speaking with psychologists, pediatricians, coaches and dads, among others, Siebel Newsom paints a grim picture, with emotionally-stunted boys growing up to be more likely than women to commit suicide, to become violent criminals, and to abuse substances.

To the latter issue, the film makes the salient point that for many straight men, it’s only being under the influence of drugs or alcohol that allows them to hug their friends and to express love for them. And it’s that societally enforced lack of deeply intimate platonic friendship, among other problems, that creates such difficulty for men.

The film presents a lot of statistics — almost more than can be taken in on one viewing, in fact — about the state of manhood in this country, but it also shows examples of what parents and teachers and coaches and other role models can do to raise men who can be strong and powerful without shutting off their feelings. (I would like to have heard from some transgender men about their own experiences with masculinity, but that might be a whole other documentary unto itself.)

“The Mask You Live In” lives up to its provocative premise, and it promises to generate interesting and possibly even substantial discussion about its very important ideas.

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IamMichaelI can’t review “The Royal Road,” as director Jenni Olson is one of my oldest friends, but the film deserves a spotlight, for both its stunning originality and hauntingly beautiful cinematography (by Sophia Constantinou) and its sudden timeliness, as the pope is considering canonizing Junipero Serra, the Spanish settler who converted the native peoples of California to Christianity.

Olson uses Serra’s mission, and the passage he created from San Francisco to Baja California, as a metaphor for her own romantic past and her journeys from the City by the Bay to visit the fetching yet unavailable Los Angeles women who bewitched her. It’s a film that manages to be universally relatable by being exceedingly personal.

I’m also going to need at least one more viewing of “I Am Michael” before I can wrap my head around it, and I’m not the only one — most of the conversations I’ve had with people at Sundance about this drama leads to head tilting and discussion of who the film’s primary audience might eventually be.

It’s a true story about gay magazine editor Michael Glatze (played by James Franco), who goes from being an out-and-proud LGBT activist to a fervent Christian “ex-gay.” (It should be noted that while Glatze talks a good game about overcoming his sexual orientation, the movie makes it clear that he’s in deep denial.)

Writer-director Justin Kelly (adapting an article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis) strives for a certain level of impartiality, making for a Rorschach blot in which one can look at Michael’s journey as tragic and absurd or heroic, depending on what you already think about homosexuality and/or fundamentalist Christianity. It’s that ambivalence to make a definitive statement that strips the film of some of its impact, I think, but my needing to have a second viewing before making a final judgment speaks to its artistry and subtlety.

Sundance 2015's Scene and Heard: James Franco, Ethan Hawke, Hailee Steinfeld and Nicole Kidman (Photos)

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