Saturday night mirrored Friday night at the Eccles Theatre, world premiering a pair of star-studded affairs that are mostly designed to get famous faces on the red carpet. It also mirrored it in the way both films in the primetime slots were of completely different genres, and, sadly, that both films were disappointing, although neither a complete disaster thanks to their top-billed stars.
The first premiere was David Wnendt’s “The Sunlit Night,” an adaptation of the novel by Rebecca Dinerstein, starring Jenny Slate, Alex Sharp, Zach Galifianakis, David Paymer, and Gillian Anderson. It’s a clunky, episodic movie about finding yourself, but I think it’s the kind of movie that’s supposed to be messy. It’s about messy people going on journeys that teach them to embrace their messy lives. In other words, it’s very much what has been called a “Sundance Movie.” It’s a phrase I often avoid because it’s lazy critical shorthand, but I swear if you put every Sundance Premiere in a computer and asked it to write a movie, it would spit out this script.
The always-charming and still-underrated Slate plays Frances, a woman having a very bad Summer. She’s not doing well as an artist, she gets dumped by her asshole boyfriend, and learns—over the same dinner—that her sister is getting married and her parents are getting separated. She basically flees life, taking an art residency in Norway, at the top of the world, where the sun never sets. There, she’s an assistant to an irascible Norwegian artist whose latest project is to paint a barn—inside and out—using only the color yellow. While there, she meets another person unmoored from predictable life in a baker named Yasha (Alex Sharp), who has come to the top of the world to give his father a Viking funeral. A man from Cincinnati who pretends to be a Viking played by Galifianakis and an icy Russian redhead played by Anderson fill out the quirky ensemble.
And I do mean quirky. The episodic structure of “The Sunlit Night” likely worked better on the page than it does on film, and there’s a fine line between a movie that’s messy because it reflects the nature of its characters and a movie that’s just, well, messy. Slate’s inherent charm goes a very long way, and the cinematography of this beautiful part of the world is often captivating, but “The Sunlit Night” has a few too many forced moments and scripted relationship beats to feel genuine. You always know you’re watching a movie. Well, you always know you’re watching a “Sundance Movie.”
Believe it or not, despite their radically different subject matters, a structural problem betrays Joe Berlinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile” too. The great documentarian has what could now be viewed as a companion docu-series on Netflix right now called “Conversations with a Killer,” a fascinating examination of the Bundy story over four hour-long episodes. That series plays to Berlinger’s strengths as a filmmaker, hitting on so many of the beats that make Bundy such a fascinating case for true crime buffs (which I definitely am, by the way). The film does not.
Berlinger introduced “Extremely Wicked” by noting how many times he’s looked into the eyes of convicted men who have been professing their innocence with all of their hearts, and yet he’s had to go home and wonder if they were telling the truth. This aspect of Berlinger’s filmography in works like the groundbreaking “Paradise Lost” films clearly drew him to Michael Werwie’s script, based on the book by Liz Kloepfer, Bundy’s longtime girlfriend. Liz had to confront the fact that she was in love with a sociopath, and ask herself if she should trust the arrested Ted, who professed his innocence almost to the bitter end. Berlinger tries to keep us in Liz’s POV, never showing Ted’s crimes, sticking with the public perception of the case and Ted & Liz’s relationship.
Well, mostly. If Berlinger had stuck with Liz’s POV, there could have been a powerful film about learning that you can sometimes be fooled by the people you love the most, but “Extremely Wicked” is not that movie. It doesn’t stick with Liz, practically leaving her entirely in the back half to focus on Ted’s trial and even his relationship with Carole Ann Boone, who would marry him and have his child. “Extremely Wicked” should be a story about Liz Kloepfer, but Berlinger falls for Ted like the cameras did during his televised trial, turning her into a secondary character in the back half of the film. So then why keep up the pretense of possible innocence that comes through not showing us the crimes? It makes for a piece that leans into the charisma of Ted Bundy without ever commenting on it or digging below its surface.
It’s particularly disappointing that “Extremely Wicked” doesn’t work given that Zac Efron is giving it his all here. He’s an increasingly interesting actor, and he both embraces his natural charisma and finds ways to convey the malevolence underneath. Lily Collins is good too, and the cast is filled out with familiar faces that include everyone from James Hetfield to Jim Parsons. They’re just all let down by a movie that looks too much like a made-for-cable affair, complete with an on-the-nose period soundtrack of classic rock, and never finds the right voice to tell this story. We should hear Liz Kloepfer’s voice, but the movie lets Ted Bundy’s drown her out.