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TIFF 2014: Reese Witherspoon Stars in "The Good Lie," "Wild"

I am sure that at some point during her long-overdue Reese-connaissance this year, Ms. Witherspoon will tell all on why her career took such a downward turn after she won a best-actress Oscar as country legend June Carter Cash in 2005’s "Walk the Line." Maybe to Oprah. Maybe to "60 Minutes." Probably not Barbara Walters, unless they speak on the phone.

Maybe closer to the time when awards season nominations begin later this year.

I suspect that this Southern gal with the personality of an entire cheerleading squad, who won our hearts in "Legally Blonde" and scared us half to death in "Election," fell into the trap that other trophy owners often do. They try to seize the day and capitalize on a chance for a larger payday or grab big roles in the wrong type of movies and for the wrong reasons.

Choosing with your business acumen and not with your heart can be a dicey business. But, to be fair, actresses have a much harder time than men when it comes to translating the most prestigious showbiz honor in the world  into a long-term opportunity. Just ask Nicole Kidman or Halle Berry.

But until Witherspoon does open up about such issues beyond starting her own production company to find pursue better projects for herself, at least we have three new movies coming out to remind us about her unique place in the Hollywood firmament that only she can fill.

One of those, "Inherent Vice" directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, will premiere at the New York Film Festival next month.

But TIFF was lucky enough to snag the other two–"The Good Lie" and "Wild," both fact-based journeys–and they provide an interesting contrast on just where Witherspoon is heading these days.

First thing you need to know about "The Good Lie," opening Oct. 3, in which Witherspoon plays a spirited Midwesterner who takes a trio of displaced Sudanese refugees under her feisty wing, is that she is a supporting player in the film. Yes, those trailers are a good lie–meaning, a fib told to achieve a higher purpose.

And that purpose here is to immerse us in the meaningless and random violence unleashed upon the people of that still turmoil-filled land from the perspective of those who survived it. For the first 35 minutes, you will be riveted by four actors who grew up either immersed in or knowing about such horrors.

The truth that the child performers (whose parents were involved in the civil wars) and their grown-up counterparts (who are mainly survivors themselves) provide on screen as they journey 800 or so miles to a refugee camp in Kenya where they await for asylum in the United States for 13 or so years can’t be taught in an acting class.

Director Philippe Falardeau (whose 2011 Oscar-winning "Monsieur Lahzar" vividly portrayed children dealing with death) wisely keeps actual scenes of graphic bloodshed off-screen, and relies on the emotions and incredible bond formed by his cast to help the audience imagine the terrifying situations themselves.

By the time the core makeshift family of four refugees take their first plane ride and land in United States, it is difficult to not believe these humans who have overcome so much in their young lives will be able to deal with any obstacle or incident of culture shock that comes their way, with or without Witherspoon’s persistent employment worker. That includes facilitating the transfer of the female member of the group who was forced to go to Boston instead of Kansas City with her brothers.

As for Witherspoon, she has some funny moments doing tequila shots with a church group volunteer and cutting the line at a customs office, but she can’t compete with three happy Lost Boys of Sudan hearing the joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” for the very first time.

“Wild,” however, belongs entirely to Witherspoon (who is also a producer). That is, save for a glorious uplifting turn by Laura Dern as her mother, a survivor of an abusive spouse whose sudden death from a virulent cancer sends her character on a destructive path of drug abuse and promiscuity.

Yes, Dern is 47 and Witherspoon is 38. Get over it. You will be glad that the not-so-elder actress is along for the ride in the flashbacks in the woman vs. nature and herself drama, opening Dec. 5..

In the present day, Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed is about to confront her inner demons after living in a years-long hell of her own making while hiking 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. There is plenty of cute stuff about her character’s ineptitude as a trekker–including the visual joke that her backpack is nearly twice her size. But the petite actress looks more like she is ready for gym class than about to encounter rattlesnakes, challenging terrain, physical ailments (including a wretched infected toenail) and even potential rapists.

As for the sequences that reveal her rampant drug use, unfaithfulness to her very sweet spouse and quickie encounters with strangers (including her first instances of onscreen nudity), let’s just say I had a hard time buying Witherspoon as a heroin addict no matter how greasy her hair or how dead her eyes.

While I am sure she will be in contention for the usual awards for this role, and it is her best movie lead in ages, I left the theater underwhelmed. When you consider the ride taken by Matthew McConaughey’s character in "Wild " director Jean-Marc Vallee’s "Dallas Buyers Club" last year, this trip pales by comparison. Witherspoon's character might be doing it for herself. That’s fine. But McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof did it for himself and countless other HIV-infected sufferers.

Another problem? I saw "The Good Lie" first. Hiking through the Sudan with gunners in helicopters shooting at you willy nilly? Now that is a challenge.

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