WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU: Brian Goodman (right, with Mark Ruffalo) has turned his felonious life into an outstanding crime melodrama.
Wicked awesome! Pride of the Hub! I’m back from the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival, where the unexpected hit among discerning critics — check the chirpy reviews in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and Screen International — was a Boston-made crime melodrama written and directed by an ex-drinker and ex-cokehead and ex-jailbird from Southie. You’ve never heard of Brian Goodman, who bravely re-creates his own seedy, impaired, felonious life in WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU? Neither had I. But in his first stab at filmmaking, this brawny, unschooled director goes straight to the summit of authentic Boston movies, from The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) to Mystic River (2003). Dare I say it? What Doesn’t Kill You is better, more credible Boston cinema than Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed. It’s certainly far more heartfelt.
Since 1998, Goodman — paroled and rehabbed — has parlayed his Southie street brio into a freelance acting career, doing character parts in films and TV series. But he couldn’t shake the psychological scarring of his former existence: destitute, sleeping in Southie hallways, years up the river, and almost losing his alienated wife and angry children because of his life of violence and drugs. In search of catharsis, he wrote up his story as a screenplay. In 2001, he brought the script to a new actor friend, Mark Ruffalo. He wanted Ruffalo to play him in a movie.
“Brian hands you a script, ‘This is my life story,’ ” Ruffalo recalled at Toronto. “Thank God I liked it.” He liked it so much that he spent seven years back-of-the-scenes in Hollywood trying to get the movie financed. He related to Goodman’s grim biography so deeply that — and I’ve never seen this before at a press conference! — he broke down crying and became totally speechless when a journalist queried him about playing Goodman.
After a few minutes, he did manage a few words: “It’s a huge responsibility. To know Brian as I do, with all his disadvantages, to see him reliving his life as we shot. It was extremely powerful. I was bowled over.”
“The reality is me and Mark are friends,” said Goodman. “The reality is we’ve both been in a lot of pain. He’s motivated by fear like me.” And when Goodman realized that the gathered journalists really liked What Doesn’t Kill You? “I’ve got stage fright. I feel like I’m in front of the parole board again. This is a miracle dream come true.”
As always at Toronto, where more than 300 features unspool, you have to make impossible choices, picking among six new films all press-screened at the same hour. And it’s inevitable that at some point you’ll go wrong. I managed to miss the fest’s most popular movies, Darren Arnofsky’s THE WRESTLER, Mickey Rourke’s comeback to acting respectability as a has-been mauler, and Danny Boyle’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, in which a poor boy in India becomes a contestant in his country’s version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? I also got stuck in Richard Eyre’s howlingly bad THE OTHER MAN, in which Liam Neeson stalks Antonio Banderas, who’s been sticking it to Neeson’s wife, Laura Linney. At one moment, Neeson tells Banderas that someone has died of cancer. “Was it bad?” asks Banderas, at which point a cynic in the audience whispered loudly, “No, it was the good kind of cancer!”
Funny! And speaking of chortles: there was the Bill Maher-starring RELIGULOUS, directed by Larry Charles, the helmer behind Seinfeld and Borat. This is the one where Maher traverses the world to make jest of the deeply religious: Jews, Christians, Moslems. Hallelujah! Religulous is manna to the 14 percent of Americans (count me among them!) who find belief in a holy spirit a superstition and an idiocy. In Religulous, Maher blasphemes without guilt and is happy to patronize those who profess the gospel. Bless him for his iconoclasm!
“I always say I’m a rationalist,” the ex-Catholic Maher explained at a Toronto press conference. “I don’t like the term ‘atheist,’ it’s too dogmatic. I’m saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know what’s out there.’ It gives you a headache to think about it, but I have a feeling it’s not a human god. Anyway, nobody has made a movie like this. Religion is the last taboo, the one topic that needs debunking.”
“We went as far as we could,” piped in Charles, a bearded, ZZ Top look-alike. “We wanted to destroy more than debunk.”
“We’re throwing rocks at a wall,” Maher conceded. “Religion is not going to come down, or go away like high-button shoes.”
A Canadian journalist asked, “Why is religion so important in the US?”
“Because we’re a dumber country than yours,” Maher answered. “Western Europe, where religious attendance is down, seems to be thriving. The US is more closely tied to countries like Iran and Turkey. That’s where we are philosophically.”