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The Hustle 

Why the biggest deal at Sundance was no big deal at all.

One great performance and a mediocre film can hit the jackpot at Sundance.
  • One great performance and a mediocre film can hit the jackpot at Sundance.
PARK CITY, UTAH -- John Singleton, director of Boyz n the Hood, was all warm grins at the frigid outdoor party on January 22, and with good reason. Hustle & Flow, a movie he produced for 33-year-old writer-director Craig Brewer, was in the process of being sold for $9.5 million to Paramount Pictures, which will release the film this summer in conjunction with its Viacom sibling MTV. In addition, the studio was offering to pay Singleton for producing two future movies, at a cost of $3.5 million apiece, which put the total deal at more than $16 million -- a whopping first in the festival's history. Singleton and the movie's stars, chief among them Terrence Howard (The Best Man, Ray), posed for pics alongside American Idol Ruben Studdard and John Leguizamo, and gripped and grinned their way through the packed party, sponsored by Premiere magazine. Hustle & Flow, about a Memphis pimp named Djay (Howard), who dreams of escaping the lifestyle by turning hip-hop star like his idol Skinny Black (Ludacris), had received a standing ovation at its screening that night. Moments later, it was on its way to jumping into a pile of cash.

Welcome to the Sundance Film Festival, where studios spend dollars on the penny in the thin mountain air; here, it seems, good judgment's as rare as a warm breeze in January. The news of the mammoth deal was shocking, even at a fest where $1 million used to be considered outrageous scratch and the $5 million spent last year for Napoleon Dynamite turned out to be a bargain. Hustle & Flow isn't any good at all -- just a great performance by Howard propping up a hackneyed, up-by-the-bootstraps tale populated by do-right ho's and done-wrong bitches, who turn tricks to pay for Djay's recording equipment. It's poorly written and drably directed, and its high price tag prompted one female film critic at a major monthly magazine to privately damn Paramount for spending millions to peddle black stereotypes to MTV's primarily white audience, which will see ads for Hustle & Flow more often than The Real World reruns.

Early during the fest, which began January 20 and ran for 10 days, Hustle & Flow wasn't the only film to be acquired for distribution: Photographer David LaChapelle's Rize, a documentary about the New York City-born art of "krumping" -- that is, dancing to hip-hop while sporting clown costumes, among other things -- went to Lions Gate, which also bought the drama Hard Candy. And on Sunday night, a colleague and I bumped into comic-turned-director Paul Provenza while he was in the middle of selling The Aristocrats, in which dozens of the most famous comedians around, from Robin Williams to Phyllis Diller to Jon Stewart to South Park's Eric Cartman, offer their variations of a single, infamously crude joke repeated and repeated over some 92 minutes.

At Sundance, friends and strangers greet each other not with hellos, but by asking, "So, what have you seen that you liked?" The answers, at least during the early days of the fest, grew numbingly familiar: Brick, a film noir set in the bright sunshine of high school, was a common favorite, as was Murderball, a documentary two and a half years in the making, about quadriplegic rugby players who do battle in customized wheelchairs. So beloved was the latter entry in the doc competition that even the fest's shuttle-bus drivers and hotel workers knew about Murderball; affection for the movie was as common as a James Woods sighting on Main Street.

Woods has a bit part in one of the worst movies screened at Sundance: director Marcos Siega's Pretty Persuasion, a sort of sexed-up, knotted-up Heathers, starring Evan Rachel Wood as a manipulative high school actress who convinces her best friends to falsely accuse a teacher (Ron Livingston) of sexual assault in order to become instantly famous. The movie's an absolute mess, a morality tale wrapped up in a series of oral sex gags and anti-Semitic rants, but it's likely to find a distributor. "It could make money," said one bizzer, who figured that Newmarket Films, distributor of The Passion of the Christ, The Woodsman, and other controversial movies, might take it off the producers' hands at a discounted price. If it makes a nickel, it's made four cents too much.

But one of the glorious things about Sundance is that you can walk out of trash early and seek out the treasure playing a few blocks away. Though it hadn't accrued much buzz during the early days of the fest, even with a cast including Michael Keaton and Bebe Neuwirth and Robert Downey Jr., director Michael Hoffman's Game 6 is a genuine delight -- an intimate tale about fear and the romanticizing of failure that happens to be remarkably funny. In the movie, based on the only screenplay written by novelist Don DeLillo, Keaton stars as playwright and Boston Red Sox fan Nicky Rogan, who has a hell of a day waiting for opening night of his new play and the beginning of game six of the 1986 World Series (when Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner found a ground ball rolling between his legs to allow the Mets' winning run). Nicky's college-age daughter informs him his wife wants a divorce, his mistress-producer warns him of an acerbic critic named Steven Schwimmer out to kill the play before it opens, and a fellow playwright reveals the psychic devastation caused by one of Schwimmer's nasty reviews. If there were justice at Sundance, Game 6 would sell for $9 million -- it was made for far less than even a single mil -- while nonsense like Hustle & Flow would be left hustling for spare change.

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