Tribeca Wrap: Life Imitates Art in New Alec Baldwin Movie

When Alec Baldwin signed on for a lead role in the comedy "Suburban Girl," he didn't know he'd be part of one of the most embarrassing life-imitates-art moments in recent memory.

In the film, which premiered recently at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, Baldwin's character talks about his strained relationship with his daughter in dialogue that unintentionally sounds like the actor's own reality.

The scene isn't meant to be funny, but turned out that way because of its uncanny parallel to Baldwin's real-life troubles, which surfaced last month when a vicious voicemail he left for his 11-year-old daughter calling her a "rude little pig" was leaked to the media.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" star Sarah Michelle Gellar plays protagonist Brett Eisenberg, who is having an affair with Baldwin's character, the much older publishing mogul Archie Knox. At one point, Brett asks Archie about the tensions with his daughter.

"You never talked to me about why she never talked to you. Did you call her?" Brett asks, eliciting guffaws from the audience during one of the film festival's screenings.

"I left her a message," Baldwin-as-Archie replies, to more whoops from those in the theater.

Later, after describing his divorce and custody battle, Baldwin — er, Archie — admits: "I am a sh—ty father."

The film is based on portions of Melissa Banks' popular chick-lit book "The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing," and other than the accidental comedic relief provided by the aforementioned back-and-forth, the movie is stilted, poorly executed and mostly forgettable. Moreover, the romantic pairing of Baldwin and Gellar is not only unbelievable but unseemly to watch.

"Suburban Girl" was one of many movies featured at the sixth annual Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month. The festival, founded after the Sept. 11 attacks by actor Robert De Niro and producer Jane Rosenthal to bring business and people back to lower Manhattan, has become one of New York City's largest and most inclusive tributes to independent film.

But this year, documentaries about real people and their true-life stories outshone many of the stars and the feature films they acted in.

The following is a round-up of some of Tribeca's hits and misses:

Sept. 11 Widows Touch Hearts

Though this year's festival was criticized by some for lacking focus, it did continue to keep a spotlight on its roots. Sept. 11 and the resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were, as they are every year, at the heart of a number of Tribeca films.

The powerful documentary "Beyond Belief" follows two Boston-area soccer moms-turned-Sept. 11 widows as they channel their grief into establishing a charity for widows in Afghanistan.

The two women, Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, didn't know each other before they both lost their husbands on planes that flew into the World Trade Center. After that tragic morning that forever altered the course of their lives, they were introduced and decided to turn the violence of the attacks into a positive act of love.

Instead of thinking about retribution, they focused on raising money for the scores of widows in Afghanistan who have lost husbands to decades of war in the ravaged nation. Retik and Quigley named their organization Beyond the 11th, proceeds of which support charities that help Afghan widows become self-sufficient.

"If we can teach love and kindness rather than hatred, that is the way terrorism would end," Retik says through tears in the film.

"Beyond Belief" juxtaposes Retik's and Quigley's stories with those of the few hundred Kabul women they help: those who live in poverty after having lost husbands to war and bombings. The documentary culminates in an emotional, face-to-face meeting between the American and Afghan widows.

Through it all, director Beth Murphy captures the range of feelings the women in opposite corners of the world share: grief, frustration, loneliness, motivation, excitement, hope. Though the film doesn't yet have a distributor (as is the case with many festival offerings), she hoped showcasing it at Tribeca would help her find one.

Paint the Town Orange

Another popular Tribeca documentary, "The Gates," looks at how the unusual and controversial sunset-orange art project of the same name came to cover Central Park in the winter of 2005.

Eccentric husband-and-wife artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude delighted the film festival's audience with their candor, wry wit and spontaneity.

Filmmakers Albert Maysles and Antonio Ferrera shrewdly depict the history, drama and comedy surrounding the project's realization. Once The Gates are mounted, they come alive onscreen through stunning cinematography.

"It's beautiful, even if they say it looks like a car wash," one onlooker observes in the film, after The Gates — consisting of steel arches draped with flag-like swaths of thick nylon — are unveiled.

"I was happy with it," Christo told after a screening.

HBO Documentary Films plans to air this quirky, charming film on television in February 2008.

Heroine Emerges From 'Shame'

Far more serious subjects — rape and the "eye-for-an-eye" tradition of honor crimes — are the focal points of still another Tribeca winner, a documentary called "Shame."

Gang rape victim-turned-activist Mukhtaran Mai snatched the hearts of those who watched her recover from her 2002 attack and find the courage to try to bring positive change to her tiny community in Meerwala, Pakistan — and to her culture.

Mukhtaran was about 30 when she was raped by four men from a rival and more powerful village clan as punishment for her brother's alleged sexual indiscretions with a girl from that clan.

Though she is illiterate and uneducated when her ordeal begins, she is wise beyond her circumstances, and director Mohammed Naqvi successfully communicates the depth of her character and the raw emotion of her story on film.

Not only does Mukhtaran's quiet strength and determination land the six men in jail and bring them to trial, but her selflessness leads her to use the compensatory reward money she receives to establish schools in Meerwala, where she still lives in spite of near-constant death threats. She also begins to educate herself, and by the end of the documentary is up to the fifth grade.

Stranger Than Fiction?

Feature movies like the U.S.'s "Charlie Bartlett" starring Robert Downey Jr., a rated-R teen movie about a troublemaking but enterprising lad who positions himself as his school's resident therapist, and France's "My Best Friend," the story of a dour misanthrope who takes on a bet to find himself a best friend, were among Tribeca's success stories in that genre.

But others, including "Suburban Girl," the highly anticipated Forest Whitaker flick "The Air I Breathe" and the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced "Gardener of Eden," were more disappointing.

"Numb," a film with Matthew Perry about the actual experiences writer/director Harris Goldberg had with a psychological condition known as depersonalization disorder, was another film audiences liked — in large part because it was a true story. One med-student moviegoer said afterward that the main reason she wound up being a "Numb" fan was because it was real.

Though parts of the movie are silly and seem implausible, like when the protagonist and his sexy-but-unstable therapist (played by Mary Steenburgen) suddenly have sex during one of his sessions, Goldberg said "Numb" accurately shows what happened to him.

"This is completely autobiographical," he said during a Q-and-A session.

Perry's performance is the best thing about "Numb." The "Friends" star explained on the way into the premiere that he signed onto the film because "I love the road this guy goes along."

In the end, Tribeca 2007 — a festival born out of the very real historical event of Sept. 11 — will be remembered for the truths it revealed, not the fictional tales told there.

"When it's somebody who could be your next-door neighbor or the mom dropping her kid off at soccer practice, it has a greater ability to inspire self-reflection," said Murphy, the "Beyond Belief" director. "That's the power of focusing on real people: You can relate to them."

Even movie stars' real lives are sometimes more interesting than those of the characters they play. Just ask Alec Baldwin.