TORONTO — As I watched Cory Monteith's final two performances on Monday at the Toronto International Film Festival, all I kept thinking about was what promise Monteith was showing as an actor and a leading man. I just wish the movies themselves also lived up to that promise.
In the Canadian ensemble drama All the Wrong Reasons, Monteith's character, James Ascher, feels like a kind of variation on Finn Hudson from Glee, if Finn Hudson grew up to be a well-meaning mall manager whose Quebecois wife Kate (Karine Vanasse, of ABC's Pan Am) is suffering from such profound post-traumatic stress disorder that she can't be touched by anyone. The film is actually more about Kate than James, and the tentative relationship she develops with Simon, a mall detective (Kevin Zegers) who lost his left hand as a fireman. James, meanwhile, is so lonely after spending over a year not even sleeping in the same bed as his wife that he drifts Into an affair with a loathsome checkout girl (Emily Hampshire). But Monteith is so innately likable that you don't really blame him, even when the script tries to paint his character as a careerist asshole.
But I want to be clear: This movie is not good. It's pointlessly slow and shot like a cheap basic cable drama — some of the acting doesn't even rate that high. An independent production, it could be a long wait before a prospective distributor figures out what to do with it, even with the curiosity about Monteith's perfectly fine performance. I suspect it is destined for a quiet DVD and VOD release.
Monteith's second film, the hard-bitten crime drama McCanick, is also looking for distribution at TIFF, and it does at least have a better shot at a run in theaters. (UPDATE, 9/11/13: Well Go USA picked up all U.S. distribution rights to the film, and is planning a theatrical release in early 2014.) The film is designed as a showcase for David Morse (The Hurt Locker, The Green Mile), who plays the titular Philadelphia cop, a tough sonuvabitch who becomes obsessed with hunting down the character played by Monteith, a former street hustler named Simon Weeks. We learn early on that McCanick framed Weeks for murdering a congressman, and as the cop stalks the streets of Philly searching for Weeks after he's released early from prison, we get just quick glimpses of Weeks, both in the present and flashback, as the real story behind the frame job becomes clear.
Though the film is just the latest in a parade of anti-hero cop thrillers, at least the filmmakers seem to recognize it — at one point, someone accuses McCanick of trying to be Gene Hackman's tough sonuvabitch cop Popeye Doyle from 1971's The French Connection, and later McCanick chases a subway in a car much like Doyle did in that movie. But while Morse works hard to make McCanick relatable, if not exactly likable, the script doesn't give him a new dimension to play that makes him all that interesting — even with its (somewhat) surprise twist ending.
Monteith is a different story. The film plays keep-away with his character for much of its runtime, but there is zero trace of Finn Hudson in his performance. Monteith pitches his voice higher, and suppresses the earnest charm honed after four seasons on Glee. He's able to get inside the bone-weary cynicism of a kid who lives on the streets and sells his body. It is almost certain that the sad circumstances of Monteith's death have in some way colored my impressions of this performance, especially since the actor had a somewhat similar tough adolescence. And neither McCanick nor All the Wrong Reasons would be coming under such scrutiny were it not for their unfortunate place in Monteith's biography.
Nonetheless, after screening both films, I was left feeling like this was a young man whose career was just getting started, who was able to make a strong impression even in films that did the opposite. Sadly, that is all we'll ever be left with: an impression.