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Guest of Honour
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Years Of The Lepus"
1 stars

There was once a period of time—historians may one day refer to it as “the 1990s”—when Canadian-Armenian Atom Egoyan was considered to be one of the most exciting filmmakers on the planet thanks to a series of formally and narratively inventive works that were cerebral and emotional in equal measure and filled with a number of extraordinary performances to boot. If I was to sit down and make a list of the most powerful moviegoing experiences that I had during that time, his back-to-back triumphs “Exotica” (1994) and “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) would rank very high among them. And yet, following the release of “Felicia’s Journey” in 1999, his career undertook such an immediate dip in quality that even the most dedicated of auteurists would be hard-pressed to justify misfires like “Chloe” (2009), “Devil’s Knot” (2013) and “Remember” (2015), a film that somehow contrived to bring together modern-day Nazi hunting and Alzheimer’s into one jaw-dropping saga. And yet, even those cinematic misdeed pale in comparison to his latest, loopiest and least effort to date, “Guest of Honor.” Here is a film that in the opening scenes offers us the sight of Luke Wilson as the pastor of a Canadian church and it is not the hardest thing to swallow in it and I am not even talking about the deep-fried rabbit ears that inexplicably prove to be a key element.

As the film opens, Father Greg (Wilson) is visited by Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) to help plan the eulogy that he is to deliver for her father, Jim (David Thewlis), a man who once had plans to become a restauranteur but who wound up becoming a food health inspector instead. Luckily, Father Greg freed his calendar because the talk becomes an opportunity for Veronica to talk at length about her somewhat troubled relationship with her dad. For starters, it turns out that Veronica, a former high school music teacher, has only recently been released from prison after serving time for improper conduct with one of her students, a 17-year-old walking hormone named Clive (Alexandre Bourgeois), while on a school band tour. We discover fairly early on that nothing actually happened and that the charges were leveled by a creepy bus driver (Rossif Sutherland) out for revenge after being turned down by her. Nevertheless, she inexplicably confesses to the crime—sparing the need for a formal trial—and when Jim visits her in prison to talk about her applying for early release, she refuses to even consider it, believing her sentence to be a just punishment for a dark secret from her past that leads to another series of flashbacks involving her childhood piano teacher and that woman’s instantly infatuated son who is not long for the world or the film. (Since this kid’s instrument of choice is the water glasses, this loss may not be as tragic as it may seem.)

As for Jim, we see him blandly going about his professional duties—sometimes going out of his way to cut someone a break for an infraction and sometimes abusing his position for vaguely defined reasons—while going home to tend to Veronica’s still-living childhood pet bunny rabbit. (No, this is not the source of the aforementioned deep-fried delicacy, though it winds up supplying another plot-advancing item of note.) Despite Veronica’s wishes, he continues to probe into her case to figure out why she is so obviously lying about her guilt and this inevitably leads to them confronting the issues that indirectly led to her imprisonment—issues that she insists occurred despite his deep denials. Oh yeah, while on the job, he almost busts an Armenian restaurant and its owner (Arsinee Khanjian) for doing its own illegal rabbit meat processing, which leads to a climactic sequence that contains an abundance of both complete absurdity and those crispy crunchy rabbit ears.

With a narrative that involves fraught father-daughter relationships, guilt, sex, death, fateful school bus trips and an overly tricky time structure, “Guest of Honor” is essentially a remix of Egoyan’s greatest hits from the Nineties. However, the execution is so appallingly off in almost every possible way that you could not possibly discern from the available evidence that it was made by someone who had even seen those films on cable, let alone actually made them. There hasn’t been a combination of overwrought plotting and undernourished logic along these lines since the infamous “Life Itself” (2018) and at least no one had ever accused that film’s creator, Dan Fogelman, of having ever made anything remotely resembling a masterpiece. The various plot lines would seem insanely overdone in the context of an exceptionally ludicrous soap opera—even going strictly by her own observations, Veronica’s guilt over her past seems wildly out of proportion to the reality of the situations—and the flashback-upon-flashback structure adds nothing to the proceedings other than page confusion. The central characters are equally troublesome—Jim is relentlessly unsympathetic throughout, Veronica is never as complex as bewitching as Egoyan seems to think she is and Father Greg is such a painfully obvious plot device that the only real mystery comes from wondering if his character will actually serve any other dramatic purpose. (Unfortunately, he does, though this particular develop comes across as practically staid in comparison to the rest of the proceedings.)

The actors seem just as lost and confused in front of the camera as Egoyan clearly was behind it, though it is hard to blame them when you consider the material that they are struggling with here. David Thewlis is a fantastic actor and is easily the best thing but there are more than a few times when he seems as lost and confused at some of the scenes that he is asked to play as viewers will be—not even his prodigious talents can help make much sense out of his extremely unconvincing scene of catharsis towards the end. At least he has something resembling a character to work with , which is more than his co-stars can say. De Oliveria is an undeniably striking presence but she never a way of transforming the collection of contrivances she has been asked to play into something remotely resembling a convincing human being while Wilson basically tries to draw as little attention to himself as possible in order to avoid have people point out how ludicrous his presence really is.

“Guest of Honor” is a film that goes off the rails so quickly and so thoroughly that you cannot even really get mad at Egoyan for whatever mad lapse of judgement he suffered that made him think that it was in good enough shape to put in front of a camera, let alone have something of importance to say. Frankly, I am more upset with his support system of financiers and film festival programmers who have continued to provide him with funding and screening platforms for dross like this instead of projects that actually deserve them. All I can say is that if you are a fan of Egoyan’s or are curious to see the kind of films that he was once capable of making, you should go to The Criterion Channel, which is currently streaming a number of his early triumphs, including “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter” and leave “Guest of Honor” to its all-but-certain oblivion.

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originally posted: 07/08/20 12:27:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Atom Egoyan

Written by
  Atom Egoyan

  David Thewlis
  Luke Wilson
  Rossif Sutherland
  Sima Fisher
  Gage Munroe
  Tennille Read

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