The Austin Film Festival, which dedicates its focus on the role of the screenwriter in the motion picture process, drew to a close at the end of the week, wrapping up its 22nd year. “This is the best festival we’ve ever had… that started with a tornado” joked one of the MCs while introducing the closing night film. Over the last eight days, the festival showcased mob movies, romantic comedies, documentaries, and a few that drew its influences from all over. Here’s a look at how the films on the last two nights stacked up.
It Had To Be You
With star Cristin Milioti using the bathroom before finding herself out of toilet paper, before accidentally seeing her boyfriend, Chris (Dan Soder) is planning a proposal. It’s the kind of quirky indie comedy beginning that has become a trademark of the genre, but It Had To Be You proves that despite its templative approach to storytelling, writer/director Sasha Gordon crafts one of the smartest, funniest and most charming movies about the pitfalls of romance in recent years.
Starting at their kind-of breakup/ultimatum, Milioti’s Sonia goes through the film with a surprisingly empathetic amount of self-doubt about her long-term relationship. Those doubts, like her character’s quirks, are entirely believable, and she portrays herself in a way where you begin to wonder if the two main characters will end up together, or if that’d even be for the best. It’s a rare treat to have a film that balances its charm with its believability, with a kind of everyday whimsy and real-world impulses that reassures the notion that neither romance, nor romantic comedy is dead.
It’s safe to say there was a fair amount of anticipation behind the festival’s closing film, the story of Lance Armstrong, resident of Austin, Texas, and one of the most divisive figures in recent memory, former star cyclist whose legacy was recently tainted by steroid use. What results is a film that fails to take a position on its main character. Is he a man driven by his determination having been told he’d never win the Tour de France? Is he a power-hungry athlete who uses steroids, incorporating an elaborate “juice and purge” routine to secure his position at the top? Or is he simply a big-hearted opportunist to use his cancer charity to help those while creating an insulation from criticism?
The Program has shades of all of these, and while it falters in not trying to flesh out any of these ideas more fully, creating a series of pale vignettes of Armstrong, played by Ben Foster, wearing so much prosthetics on his face he more closely resembles a Dick Tracy villain, that in no way resembles a cohesive story.
A big problem is the absence of a real secondary character. When the film starts, we’re introduced to a relationship between himself and sportswriter David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd. They have a rapport, and Walsh even honors a bet they make by shaving his beard. After that moment, over the years the story spans, he’s relegated to a background character, suspiciously peering from over his notes in press rooms, and their relationship is never really touched on again. Jesse Plemons plays Floyd Landis, a cyclist on his team that helped aid Armstrong to three of his Tour de France victories, who after showing up more than halfway through the film, is relegated to scowling disapprovingly at Armstrong as allegations of his steroid use begin to surface. He’s also Mormon, which has no impact on the story whatsoever but director Stephen Frears continues to bring up.
Either of those relationships would’ve been worth exploring, and could’ve brought an actual story into focus, instead of a movie that covers too vast a timespan and artlessly splices in news footage of Armstrong’s many victories with occasionally dramatic shots Frears gets along the way. A disappointing endeavor that starts to go in several directions without following through on any of them.