Phil the Alien (Rob Stefaniuk) Rating: NNNN
Canadian Bacon, with aliens, as retold by some very funny Gen-X barflies. Phil, the shape-shifting, telekinetic alien (Stefaniuk), crash lands in northern Ontario, where he discovers alcoholism, befriends a hyper-intelligent talking beaver, finds Jesus and takes to singing gospel with a bar band on a tour toward a secret American spy base under Niagara Falls. (All the spies wear colour-coded fur coats.) It's reckless, unpretentious and extremely silly, but it wins you over by the sheer density and variety of its laughs. (85 minutes, September 11, 10 pm, Paramount 2; September 13, noon, Varsity 1 or 6)
Rob Stefaniuk is slumped over a pint of beer and a bowl of honeydew melon on the sunny, breezy, wasp-filled patio of Shanghai Cowgirl.
He's just, in the past 24 hours, put the finishing touches on his film and sent it to be blown up, while keeping up his duties as Toronto International Film Festival's official blogger ( www.e.bell.ca/filmfest/2004/livefromthefestival/blog.asp ). He looks exhausted and slightly dazed.
Stefaniuk wrote, directed, edited and starred in Phil The Alien, the buzz-heavy comedy that's premiering in the Canada First! program of the Toronto International Film Festival. It's the inspiring story of an alien who crash-lands in northern Ontario, develops a drinking problem, becomes a born-again Christian and battles American spies in a secret bunker under Niagara Falls.
I thought it was hilarious, but because a friend of mine is in it I called in a disinterested third party for a second opinion. He laughed all the way through it.
"It's Canadian," was his verdict, "but it's funny."
I knew what he meant. There are beavers in Phil The Alien, a bar called the Canada Tavern, and Rush is on the soundtrack - but there are no suicides, no cold winds sweeping across rocky plains, no fluorescent-lit, incest-plagued 15-year-old junkies choking back tears over chipped mugs of grit-silted black coffee in the local suburban/coastal/prairie/Montreal greasy spoon.
It's a bizarre state of affairs. This is the birthplace of Mike Myers, Eugene Levy and Jim Carrey, the home of SCTV, Codco and the Kids in the Hall. Check out our stand-up circuit; frequent our bars. Everything in Canada is funny except our movies.
"I've always felt that Canadians should be running comedy. And we're not," Stefaniuk says. "We don't market it properly. We don't have the distribution for it. I'm thinking that's going to change. I mean, obviously, I've bet my career on it."
His career, yes, and an awful lot of energy over the past couple of years, too. Writing, directing, editing and starring in a film is a lot of work. But he knew from experience it was what he had to do. In 1996, when he was working as an actor in L.A., one of his scripts, The Size Of Watermelons, was produced, to mixed reviews.
"There was nothing wrong with the director or the editor - they were great," he says, "but in comedy, if you want the rhythm of what you've written to survive the process, you have to edit it yourself, and no one's going to let you edit unless you direct."
It worked. Phil The Alien is funny because the gags are varied and densely, polyrhythmically layered. They're visual, verbal, slapstick, highbrow, middlebrow and plain silly, in steady succession and sometimes two or three of those things at once.
Some of that facility with laffs comes from a childhood spent following his brother, a stand-up comic, around the bars on the b-circuit, soaking up the routines. But the lesson was driven home when Stefaniuk saw Watermelons with an audience.
"I sat there in the theatre at the Slamdance Film Festival," he says, "and I knew where the laughs were, because I'd seen it, and I knew there wasn't another joke for 10 minutes. You tell yourself, 'Well, it's not a knee-slapping, yuk-yuk comedy. It's smart comedy, it's about slackers.' But fuck it. Those 10 minutes were the longest 10 minutes of my life."
He's clearly learned from that experience. You can measure the lags between laughs in Phil The Alien in seconds.
"Everybody says they're going to go down to L.A., make a million dollars and then come back and build a cool Canadian film industry. But then they go down and make a million dollars and don't come back. Luckily for me, I didn't make any money. So I came back and developed morals."
He laughs and takes a bite of melon. "Convenient morals."
So far, the morals seem to be panning out. Last year he worked as a line editor on his girlfriend, Kris Lefcoe's, movie, Public Domain, which was funded by Telefilm's low-budget feature film fund. When he saw how well it worked for her, he decided to give it a shot himself.
"It's basically the best deal you'll ever get," he says. "They give you the money, and then they're hands-off.
"And comedy doesn't have to be expensive. As long as it's funny, you don't need $40 million. Usually, when you do, it ends up not being funny, because you get studio control, and everyone has to weigh in."
The buzz on the film is getting louder all the time. Stefaniuk seems to be the de facto poster boy for new Canadian cinema at the film fest: Phil The Alien is the only film screening at the TIFF celebrity golf classic, plus he's the captain of the aforementioned Filmmaker's Blog, where he posts photos, videos and journal entries about his life at the festival as a first-time director.
Making Canadian comedy in Canada might be an idea whose time has come. Phil The Alien and Public Domain both draw on a common stable of talent that includes local stand-up comics Jason Jones and Mike Beaver, who also recently made their own comedy feature, Ham & Cheese, produced by Black Walk, the company behind Phil The Alien.
It all fits together so neatly: one circle of friends, two years, three comedies. It almost sounds like the foundation of a dynasty. He leans in toward the tape recorder and puts on a radio-announcer voice. "We're the New Wave. Tell the world!"
That could be good news. While I like dark psychological dramas about incest and suicide as much as the next guy, the idea of a Canadian comic renaissance has definite appeal.
And we've got the talent, as Stefaniuk knows from his long years trolling the comedy circuit. "I know who's out there," he affirms. "I know who's funny. And it's a waste to not use them."