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By Peter Simek | June 27, 2012

Nantucket is no stranger to celebrities. Locals chat about the notables with summer homes on the island, from clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger to the New England Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick. MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Mathews has a home there, and the Stiller family has been spending summers on Melville’s “elbow of sand,” 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, since Ben was a 17-year-old whiling away the hot months as a scuba instructor. Spotting Jerry Stiller shuffling about Nantucket’s cobblestone streets in a Hawaiian shirt is as common a sight as Lobster Roll on the menus of the island’s renowned restaurants.

So it is no surprise that the 17-year-old Nantucket Film Festival is a star-studded event, with a schedule full of notables and impressing more with panels and discussions than its film lineup of tried and tested festival circuit fair. The festival runs a screenwriting competition (this year’s winner: Stella Meghie’s Jean of the Joneses), as well as a screenwriters’ colony, and it honored Nancy Meyers (Private Benjamin, The Parent Trap) with friend and actress Diane Keaton paying tribute to the writer after introductions by Brian Williams and Chris Matthews. Matthews also hosts a series of casual discussions with actors and filmmakers during the festival (Frank Langella dropped by), and for the past four years, Ben Stiller, a festival board member, has hosted a comedy roundtable. This year’s edition featured Jim Carrey and Chris Rock, and was moderated by Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader.

Hader, like many audience members who crammed into an unseasonably stifling Nantucket High School auditorium for the comedy roundtable, seemed a little star-struck by the heavyweights on the panel. He stumbled over questions, apologized for not being funny, and dropped his stack of colored index cards (“That’s comedy,” Carrey jabbed as the cards scattered to the floor). It is not like it was the first time Hader has met these comedic idols. In fact, one of the more interesting anecdotes of the roundtable was the story about Stiller meeting a 17-year-old Hader when he was still a high school student in Tulsa, OK. Stiller happened to be a friend of Hader’s high school drama teacher, and the younger comedian remembers the sincere attention Stiller paid him during the visit, watching Hader’s short film and even later drafting a college recommendation letter. (“That was written by an assistant,” Stiller assured him. “I didn’t get in,” Hader shot back.) Stiller also took the teenage Hader to a movie, Casino, which was enough to prompt one of the roundtable’s recurring comedic motifs: Carrey making out Stiller as a predatory pedophile.

Carrey’s energy and animation drove most of the roundtable’s funnier moments, particularly in stories about Carrey’s worst moment on stage, when he was belted with a towel drenched in urine at a rock club, and his best, the time he broke into the Hollywood Bowl to have sex on the famed stage with a woman he was trying to impress. “That was in my ‘big shot’ stage,” Carrey admitted. Chris Rock’s worst moment on stage? Playing the very last The Joan Rivers Show, which took place the day after the host learned of both her show’s cancellation and her husband’s suicide. “The show does not always ‘must go on,’” Rock said.

Screenwriter/Director Alexander Payne

Nantucket’s focus on screenwriting stems from the island’s history as a writer and artist’s retreat. No, Melville didn’t write Moby-Dick here, but Henry David Thoreau is said to have taken walks out by the eroding bluffs of ‘Sconset. And besides the screenwriting awards and honors, it was the unveiling of the new script by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor during a staged reading that was the Nantucket Film Fest’s real centerpiece attraction. The reading brought together more stars, including Steve Zahn, Stephen Root, Anne Meara, and Cara Seymour. The new piece, entitled The Lost Cause, explores familiar Payne/Taylor territory: white, middle-class, middle-aged American males adrift in a setting of suburban banality, wrestling with an elusive sense of purpose and persisting existential malaise.

In The Lost Cause, CJ is a divorced father who works at a Wal-Mart, but gives every free moment and dollar over to his hobby as a Civil War reenactor. The film unfolds like a Walter Mitty story, the camera dissolving through time and imagination, blending sweeping battle scenes with a contemporary landscape dominated by parking lots, big box stores, and Getty gas station signs. CJ’s commitment to his “duty” as an adult play soldier has already cost him his marriage, and it may cause him to lose shared custody of his teenage son, not to mention his job. But however deluded CJ and his buddy Capt. Jeremiah Oaks, the ringleader of the little group who is himself convinced that he is a reincarnated Confederate officer, actually are, it is difficult not to empathize with the very human characters, likeable precisely because of their familiar, if exaggerated foibles. CJ and his buddies have the feel of the disenfranchised cubicle warriors in Office Space with a dash of the deluded ambitions of Dignan from Bottle Rocket. But true to the rest of Payne’s milieu, he uses a darkly-rendered comedic and emotional sensibility to drive his American types through a dramatic ringer – with an honest dose of suffering and death – that challenges the inner strength of these lackluster everymen.

Still from "Ethel"

You could probably spend five days at the Nantucket Film Festival and never set foot in a movie screening. But one of the main attractions at this year’s festival was Ethel, a documentary biography of Ethel Kennedy, the wife of the late Robert F. Kennedy, by filmmaker and Kennedy daughter, Rory Kennedy. Screening just miles from Martha’s Vineyard, a large sampling of Kennedys were in attendance (including Ethel herself), which, honestly, added an air of emotional tension to the screening, particularly when it recounted the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.

Much of the movie necessarily deals with the life and legacy of RFK, but told from an uncommon perspective, with emphasis on the fizzy, charismatic personality of the politician’s wife, Ethel, a firecracker of a woman portrayed as a leavening agent in the Kennedy clan. Inspiring and informative, the film has its shortcomings. I would have liked to learn more about Ethel’s relationship to Jackie Onassis, and later year familial tragedy, which included the deaths of two of Ethel’s children (one by drug overdose), is reduced in the film to a brisk montage highlighting Ethel Kennedy’s enduring strength. But this is an homage, made by a daughter for her mother, and taken as such, Ethel is an often candid and moving feature. The documentary is set for broadcast on HBO this fall, in-the-flesh Kennedys not included.

Alexander Payne photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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