Tragicomedies at Toronto find mixed results

  • Jake Coyle, AP, Toronto
  • Updated: Sep 08, 2014 17:43 IST

The opening days of the Toronto International Film Festival saw a trio of tragicomedies combine humour with pain, often with mixed results. The balancing act can be precarious. For every Terms of Endearment, there are countless others like Patch Adams. Comedy and drama often mingle in the best of films, but for the lion's share of movies, the two are kept apart, on different sides of the theatre aisle.

Some filmmakers, like Noah Baumbach, regularly fuse both elements seamlessly. His While We're Young, which premiered at TIFF to largely glowing reviews on Saturday night, stars Ben Stiller (known to many for his out-and-out comedies like Zoolander and Tropic Thunder) and Naomi Watts as a Manhattan couple in their 40s caught between having a baby and staying young.

Only able to summon two emotions -- "wistful and disdainful," he says -- Stiller's character befriends a youthful 25-year-old hipster (Adam Driver). The generational divide is comic just as it is pitifully depressing.

But negotiating such terrain can be particularly difficult in a film aiming for a wide audience. Three notable fall releases -- St. Vincent, This Is Where I Leave You and The Judge -- that debuted in Toronto, all try to pluck heart strings while hitting funny bones, too.

St. Vincent: Bill Murray, tragicomedy's great godfather, plays a curmudgeonly, hard-drinking, Vietnam veteran neighbour to a single mother (Melissa McCarthy) and her little boy (Jaeden Lieberher). In writer-director Theodore Melfi's first feature (which the Weinstein Co. will release Oct. 24), a reluctant relationship grows between Murray's Vincent and the boy. It's not a fairy tale: the movie includes death, a hobbling stroke and divorce. But they make a touching pair, particularly because Murray plays it so straight. Visibly moved after the film's premiere, Murray told the crowd, "I just thought if we could avoid being schmaltzy. We almost did. We almost did."

This Is Where I Leave You: Director Shawn Levy has made mostly big-budget comedies (Date Night, The Internship) and the family franchise Night at the Museum, the third of which he'll release in December. But first he has this adaptation of Jonathan Trooper's 2009 best-selling novel about a dysfunctional family returning home for their father's funeral. An ensemble cast including Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Driver gather in their childhood home with their mother (Jane Fonda). Said Levy in an interview: "I really like this funny-sad breed of a portrait of dysfunction, particularly family dysfunction."

The Judge: On the outside, the Toronto opening night film is a courtroom drama about a hot-shot Chicago lawyer (Robert Downey Jr.), lured back home to Indiana where he represents his judge father (Robert Duvall) in a hit-and-run murder case. But the core of the film (due out October 10) is another genre: the male weepy. It's really about the slow healing of their strained relationship, as well as the deterioration in old age of Duvall's judge. The film's mix of tone did play particularly well, but Downey and Duvall nevertheless make an effecting father and son.

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