Reese Witherspoon, Kristen Wiig and Jennifer Aniston Bring Strong Performances to TIFF 2014
There’s been a rush to try and compare Reese Witherspoon’s career rejuvenation to what we saw recently saw Matthew McConaughey do. It’s not an altogether stupid angle, but Witherspoon’s rise back to prominence is different. After winning an Oscar for 2005’s ‘Walk the Line,’ Witherspoon went on to star in a lot of dreck, like ‘Four Christmases,’ ‘How Do You Know,’ and ‘This Means War’ – movies on par with what McConaughey used to make.
In 2013, Witherspoon had a small role alongside McConaughey in the well-received ‘Mud,’ but then the infamous video of her arrest hit the news cycle, derailing her “comeback.” This year, Witherspoon is starring in Paul Thomas Anderson’s anticipated ‘Inherent Vice,’ as well as ‘Wild’ (which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival), which is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée – who, yes, last year directed a movie called ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ which resulted in an Oscar win for Matthew McConaughey.
So, yes, there are certainly some similar themes, but to create that narrative doesn’t seem quite fair to Witherspoon. It makes it all feel like she’s somehow copying McConaughey – like this is just some sort of sad sequel. In a weird way, even though Witherspoon already owns an Oscar (something McCounaughey did not before ‘DBC’), it feels like Witherspoon needs a movie like ‘Wild’ more than McConaughey. Let’s not forget, McConaughey’s bad movies were making money.
In ‘Wild’ (which is based on a true story), Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman who hikes the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail – a trail that begins in Mexico and ends in Washington state – after her divorce and the death of her mother. I saw ‘Wild’ on Wednesday morning here in Toronto and I didn’t know quite what to make of it – but, funny thing, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the day. There’s something so relatable about the film, even though I have never hiked the PCT and like being inside better than being outside. But we can all relate with the loss of a relationship and the loss of a loved one and, more than anything, that’s the theme of ‘Wild.’
While on her journey, there’s no bear (or another dangerous animal) that Strayed has to slay in order to save her own life. There are certainly challenges – spoiler alert: it really is hard to walk that far! – but the trip is fairly uneventful. It’s probably pretty similar to the experience that you or I would have if we undertook such a thing. It’s pretty much just Witherspoon and us, the audience, spending some meaningful time together. And we all needed this time. And, you know what? It was really nice.
It feels like Kristen Wiig has been experimenting since ‘Bridesmaids’ and hasn’t had a ton of success in the process, but it’s hard to fault Wiig for trying. So many people in her position would be crapping out ‘Bridesmaids’ clones and ‘Bridesmaids’ sequels and making truckloads of money in the process. Instead, Wiig has starred in (not counting smaller, ‘Anchorman 2’-type roles) ‘Girl Most Likely,’ ‘Hateship Loveship’ ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ and ‘Skeleton Twins.’ Those first two movies are really bad. ‘Mitty’ garnered mixed reviews. ‘Skeleton Twins’ received positive reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival and we will find out soon if wider audiences will respond to the material.
Anyway, this brings us to ‘Welcome to Me’ -- which premiered this week in Toronto – and is certainty Wiig’s most interesting role to date. Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a woman suffering (and being treated for) multiple personality disorder. Alice wins $84 million in her state lottery, then uses that money to purchase herself a television show on a small and struggling cable network. Klieg wants to be the next Oprah.
Her show, titled ‘Welcome to Me,’ becomes a disturbing stream of conscious that soon finds a cult following. Her show has no structure – eventually it just becomes Klieg neutering dogs on live television – and becomes more and more bizarre and more and more dangerous.
Honestly, I’m not sure what to make out of ‘Welcome to Me.’ It’s the only movie I saw while at this festival that I don’t quite have an answer yet for the question, “So, what did you think?” (Fun fact about film festivals: Publicists are waiting outside the theater as you exit just to ask that question. I am terrible at forming an opinion that quickly and usually find myself enunciating the sound, “uhhhhhhhh” for what seems an eternity.)
Though, gosh, it’s hard not to appreciate what Wiig is trying to do. There are moments I felt guilty for laughing, because Klieg is obviously a disturbed woman. And I’m sure that’s the point. It’s not that much different from the fearless (and polarizing) comedy Wiig traded on during her run on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Perhaps ‘Bridesmaids’ is the outlier in Wiig’s career. Maybe she won’t ever be front and center in something that mainstream and successful again. And I suspect she doesn’t care that much.
September 22 will mark the 20th anniversary of the first episode of ‘Friends,’ which means September 22 will mark the 20-year anniversary of Jennifer Aniston becoming a very famous person. It’s a weird thing as an actor, being that famous. I don’t think that audiences still look at Aniston as Rachel Green – audiences have instead accepted Aniston in movies like ‘We’re the Millers’ and ‘Horrible Bosses.’ And she’s received acclaim in movies like ‘Friends With Money’ and ‘The Good Girl.’ The problem is, it’s been awhile since Aniston has had acclaim. She’s been in few successful movies, but when’s the last time we’ve seen her act?
Aniston’s gifts as an actor are that she’s very funny and has impeccable comedic timing. But, this is also a detriment to her work, because that means there’s a lot of Aniston’s own personality coming out when she’s being funny on the screen. It might not even be that she’s too famous – George Clooney is very famous, yet he has had a lot of acting success – but there’s kind of this weird feeling that we know Jennifer Aniston. And not in a close way, like how we felt like we knew Robin Williams, but more that we just all know her personality so well. We know her mannerisms. Aniston isn’t just famous; she’s also familiar.
Aniston’s Toronto movie is called ‘Cake.’ In the film, Aniston plays Claire, someone who has obviously gone through a lot of trauma (she has scars on her face, but what happened isn’t specifically explained, though all of the pieces are there). Claire becomes fascinated with the suicide of an acquaintance and rival, Nina (played by Anna Kendrick), and spends the movie retracing Nina’s jump from an overpass, getting to know Nina’s widower (Sam Worthington) and having drug induced chats with Nina’s ghost.
‘Cake’ is not a good movie, but I strangely found myself drawn to Aniston – in that it just feels like it’s been so long since we’ve seen her give this kind of an effort. It’s too bad the hokey material doesn’t quite support Aniston’s performance, but maybe Jennifer Aniston doesn’t just have to live her life as a famous person. Maybe Aniston has something interesting to say after all.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.