Austin’s Hollywood Moment

The best and worst of the South by Southwest Film Festival.

AUSTIN,Texas—The South by Southwest Film Festival, which wraps up Saturday night, is Austin’s annual reminder of its status as a new American film capital. By the late 1990s, the city had several directors-in-residence: Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Mike Judge. Sandra Bullock and Quentin Tarantino started showing up in town; Matthew McConaughey, a University of Texas alum, never really left. Austin’s Louella Parsons figure is Harry Knowles, the gargantuan Webmeister who has been riding around this week in a wheelchair (the result of a twisted knee, says one of his cohorts). And the city has its own Kenobi-like hermit: Terrence Malick, reportedly working on films about Che Guevara and Pocahontas. Nobody ever sees him.

This cast has allowed the SXSW film festival, once an afterthought to the music portion (which began Wednesday night), to lure almost any big-ticket movie it wants. The larger screenings take place at the balconied Paramount Theater, just a few blocks from George W. Bush’s old house. My colleague David Edelstein will have the final word on most of these films when they are released, but here’s the early buzz.

Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl left an audience full of fanboys with mouths agape. Smith has ditched the inspired vulgarity of Clerks and Chasing Amy for huggy family entertainment. Ben Affleck, playing a public relations whiz, must raise his daughter when his wife (Jennifer Lopez) dies in the delivery room. It’s the kind of role that requires Affleck to stand over a crib and tell an infant, with voice trembling, that he’s gonna to be the best dad he can be. (Even George Carlin, playing the grandfather, has lost his bite.) Smith became a father himself a few years ago, and this is an ode to his new fuzziness: One Man and a Baby.

One snarky viewer described Code 46, the sci-fi film from Michael Winterbottom, as Gattaca meets Lost in Translation. An investigator (Tim Robbins) hooks up with a factory worker (Samantha Morton) in Shanghai, and love blossoms. Alas, as in any futuristic parable, they must comply with draconian government laws: namely, no one can leave the city without a passport, and only couples with dissimilar genetics may breed. (You won’t be surprised to learn that Robbins’ and Morton’s nucleotides don’t pass muster.) The movie’s running joke is that the population speaks a mixture of Chinese, English, Spanish, and Arabic—it’s customary to begin a conversation with “salaam aleikum” and end it with “hasta luego.”

The darkest big-ticket film is Curtiss Clayton’s Rick, a comic showcase for Bill Pullman. He plays a middle manager at the Image Corporation (motto: “We Can Do This”), the kind of guy who insists you call him by his first name because he can’t remember yours. Pullman has one of the blandest faces in the movies, and here it serves him: It masks the rage he harbors toward his young boss (Aaron Stanford). Daniel Handler wrote the script after he followed a bad day at work by seeing Verdi’s opera Rigoletto—if you know the opera, you can guess what happens next.

Last week’s New York Times Magazine chronicled the efforts of a director to shoot an entire film in front of blue-screen backdrops. There’s a setless film here, too: Able Edwards, a $30,000 sci-fi picture created mostly on a Macintosh. Director Graham Robertson checked out architecture books from Los Angeles libraries and scanned the images into his Mac. (His itemized budget included $26 in late fees.) Then he whipped up a flimsy story about a media baron—half Charles Foster Kane and half Walt Disney—whose corpse is cloned so that he can lead his company into the next century. The static backgrounds often look ludicrous—the result is less a movie than a stunt. But Robertson gives the main character a wry twist: He wants to help people “escape the virtual existence they had come to know.”

Jonathan Demme, the most decorated director to show up in Austin this week, has great political timing: He appeared with a new documentary about Haiti called The Agronomist. His subject is Jean Dominique, the nation’s beloved radio host and political agitator. Dominique is a dream of an interview subject: He has a regal bearing and speaks in wild, staccato sound bites. His career suffered at the hands of Haiti’s ruling thugs, who alternately shut down his radio station or had the studios sprayed with machine-gun fire. “I am not a journalist,” he tells Demme. “I became a journalist.” He seems to contain the whole of Haitian history.

On Saturday night, hundreds waited in the rain for Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Texas political operative Karl Rove. Even by the standards of political agitprop, Bush’s Brain is both outrageous and utterly unconvincing. After charging Rove with all forms of political skullduggery—whispering campaigns, coordinated leaks—the filmmakers close by visiting the family of a soldier killed in Iraq. The soldier’s widow sobs, his daughter points to pictures of her dead daddy. The not-so-subtle implication is that the soldier was killed, in part, by Karl Rove (though the family doesn’t think so). It’s as low a blow as any Rove ever dished out. Now he can say he has something in common with Max Cleland: They’ve both been compared to Saddam Hussein.