(Speakeasy) Jessica Biel, Ray Liotta, Forest Whitaker, Lisa Kudrow, Patrick Swayze, Kris Kristofferson, Eddie Redmayne, Sanaa Lathan, Alejandro Romero. Directed by Timothy Linh Bui
Big cities are a terrible place to look for redemption. Cities are impersonal, seedy, uncaring and mean. Still, redemption can be found in places where you least expect it.
Charlie Bishop (Whitaker) is a former clergyman who is carrying a load of pain greater than he can bear. The death of his wife has left him overwhelmed and looking for release. He drives the city streets of Los Angeles in the dark of the night with a bag containing his life savings of $50,000. He intends to give this to whosoever can deliver him from his pain – with the gun that is also in the bag.
Rose-Johnny (Biel) is a stripper but not because she wants to be. Her son lies in a coma in a hospital bed and is unlikely to ever come out of it. She rails against the doctors and the world that is insensitive to the needs of a single mom who only wants to hold her laughing son once again. Her boss (Swayze) is more interested that she makes it to work on time than in the heartache she feels for the only one in the world she cares for.
Qwerty Doolittle (Redmayne) has inherited the mortuary that his father started and is barely keeping his head above water. He has no time for dating and partying and is intensely lonely, generally only kept company by the dead. He wanders through life knowing he wants more than just existing and also fully aware that he is unlikely to get what he wants.
Jack Doheny (Liotta) has just been released from prison after 25 years behind bars, but not because his sentence is up or because of good behavior. He has terminal cancer and nowhere to go, nobody to be with. An old buddy (Kristofferson) gives him a briefcase full of money and the name “Rose-Johnny” written on a piece of paper. What this is for is anybody’s guess.
Sally (Kudrow) is a waitress who is separated from her husband. She, too, is lonely and scared and wants to reach out to somebody but working the night shift in a coffee shop isn’t exactly conducive to meeting a nice guy. She remains cheerful and upbeat, but deep down she has needs and fears that are colliding in her heart.
For those who have seen movies like Crash and Traffic, these stories are meant to be separate but related, interweaving until the very end when they are theoretically supposed to be tied together with a nice big bow. It’s a means of storytelling that Robert Altman was a master at and that many independent filmmakers of the first decade of the 21st century have tried to imitate with varying degrees of success.
There’s not a lot of success here. Liotta fares the best out of all the actors, bringing dignity and pathos to a character who is Mickey Spillane-tough. Kudrow is also likable and sympathetic in her mostly supporting role.
The problem here though is not the actors, who do their best, but with a script that is scattershot and sometimes senseless, giving the actors lines to say like “You’re not a doctor! Doctors cure people! You’re not curing anybody!” Some of the dialogue is equally cringeworthy. You have to feel for the actors in cases like that, especially for Swayze (whose final screen appearance this is) who is made up in excessive eyeliner and looks like a transvestite version of his character in Road House had that character been castrated early on, and Biel who went to great lengths to learn how to be an exotic dancer and does indeed go topless. Not many actresses of her caliber are willing to do that these days.
Bui has a good eye for color and tone but at times he goes for style over substance. The strip club in which Rose-Johnny toils is a neon palace where the strippers are lit like rock stars and the patrons cheer, whistle and throw dollar bills like confetti on cue. Not that I spend my time in strip clubs, but I’ve seen my share and I’ve never seen one like that.
The problem with these kinds of interweaving stories is that you have to care enough about the characters to want to follow them through the weave of the tapestry that is being unfolded before you. That doesn’t happen here; even the great Forest Whitaker chews his scenery like he hasn’t eaten in weeks. The only thread I cared about was Liotta’s and I found myself wishing he was in more of the film. That’s a bad sign for a movie with this means of storytelling. Considering the top-of-the-line cast Bui assembled, this should have been a far better movie than it turned out to be.
WHY RENT THIS: Liotta does a solid job as the dying ex-con.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A scattershot script and some wacky over-the-top performances submarine this effort.
FAMILY VALUES: Much foul language, plenty of nudity and sexuality and some scenes of graphic violence. All in all, much more suitable for mature audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The color blue is featured in some way in every scene.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 4/10
TOMORROW: Don’t Tell (La bestia nel cuore)