Wednesday, September 13, 2006

TIFF review: ober ("the waiter")
dir. Alex van Warmerdam, 2006

If anyone has stopped by my little site here over the last several months, they will have noticed that I have been remiss in actually posting anything. I have been on an undeclared hiatus as I struggle to finish the schoolwork necessary for the completion of my Masters degree, and must reserve as many words as possible for the purposes of essay writing. Though it is still in its infancy, this blog has become one of my favorite tools for procrastination (second only to watching films), and when one has a readership of three, it is hard to justify one's blogging efforts as anything but frivolous. So Did I Miss Something?? was relegated to the back-burner for a little while.

Now, this post represents only a brief hiatus from my hiatus ... The 2006 Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing, and it's the most wonderful time of the year; after a summer of schlock, movies are suddenly worth raving about again. Perhaps once I've seen all ten of my selected films, I will recap the experience with a few summaries. One screening in particular, though, prompted me to take a break from real life and return to cyber-criticism in an effort to share the wealth.

Alex van Warmerdam's Ober was well received by the audience at yesterday's TIFF presentation. Spectators can be fickle at 9:45 a.m., and it is a testament to the director's talent that his film elicited a laugh-out-loud response from beginning to end. Sadly, this is a film that will never garner the mainstream spectatorship that it deserves-- When's the last time you saw a movie from the Netherlands at a theatre near you? In all fairness, I tend to be skeptical of films from the Netherlands (which are similar in style to Scandinavian cinema). I'm no philistine, but I have encountered several movies from these regions that I can only describe as "weird." Now, I won't claim that there aren't unusual elements in this film, but they are employed in the service of comedy rather than abstraction.

Warmerdam, himself, plays Edgar, a middle-aged waiter who suffers through confrontations with his belligerent customers, unruly neighbours, his chronically ill wife, and his demanding mistress. Warmerdam's dead-pan performance is so consistent that the passivity that defines his character is not compromised when Edgar visits Herman, the screen-writer who is controlling his destiny; he is simply worn out, and has come to request, not demand, that his life might be propelled in a more agreeable direction.

Herman concedes, mainly to protect his own privacy (he doesn't feel that it's appropriate to have a fictional character visit his apartment). He strikes the plot line involving the invalid wife, and grants Edgar temporary solace in the arms of another woman. But, as any screen-writer will attest, a compelling narrative requires conflict, and Edgar is not off the hook in terms of the misery he must bear. As I mentioned, some of the circumstances in which Edgar is placed are unusual-- there's an hilarious scene in which he purchases a bow-and-arrow set from an eccentric hunchback, for instance. It sounds strange, yes, but don't mistake Ober for some kind of surrealist art film; scenarios like this are outrageously funny because they are unexpected, and refreshing because most contemporary comedies are ridiculously predictable.

Another film playing at TIFF this year is Stranger than Fiction, starring Will Ferrell and Dustin Hoffman. It has a similar premise: the destiny of a character (whom we perceive as real) is controlled by an author who is writing fiction. I had wanted to see this movie at the festival, but tickets are issued by way of a lottery system and it was sold out before my selections were considered, so I can't assess whether or not it is as successful in its execution. I have talked to a number of people who have seen Stranger than Fiction, and their feedback has been positive. I suspect, however, that Ober is the better of the two. I say this, not because I am snobbishly pro foreign films, but because I honestly believe that mainstream audiences will respond to the "gags" in Ober with more pleasure.

I know: you're afraid of subtitles ... And, yes, subtitles take some getting used to; but it is a mistake to discount foreign films as erudite or pretentious. Alex van Warmerdam's film has the potential to satisfy a wider audience than it will ever encounter, and I would urge people to seek it out. It is a film with great depth, but it needs to be emphasized that, first and foremost, Ober works as an accessible comedy that even the most skeptical movie-lover will enjoy. So, please, don't forget this title ... It may surface at a specialty video store in your neighbourhood, and I guarantee that it will provide a satisfying night of entertainment.

(note: this commentary contains excerpts from a review I posted on

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