The Indie Spirit's Alive in On the Run.

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:59

    On the Run Directed by Bruno De Almeida

    The story is more than familiar; it's one of the six or seven most convenient plots for low-budget, acting-driven movies ("Wild person enters life of mild person; complications ensue"). And it borrows on a diverse array of sources, from the 1962 Italian comedy Il Sorpasso, which starred Vittorio Gassman, to the 1979 Alan Arkin-Peter Falk classic The In-Laws ("Flies with beaks!") to about half of all films starring Matthew Broderick as a quiet, polite young man whose life is turned upside down and inside out. Yet the vibe is wonderfully fresh, and there isn't a dull or unpleasurable scene in the movie, thanks to De Almeida's ability to build spare but sustained comic setpieces and give the actors room to maneuver within them.

    The central incident occurs in the past and is seen in fragmented flashback: young Louie convinces young Albert to steal some candy from a bodega, after which Louie gets off scot-free and Albert is punished. To Albert's mounting horror, this scenario will be repeated again and again as Louie draws him into a series of increasingly tense situations. Though Louie is invariably the instigator, somehow Albert is the one who receives punishment, from an impromptu police interrogation to a couple of narrowly averted beatdowns in bars. The comedy stems from Albert's sheer anxiety at breathing the same oxygen as Louie, an utterly charming sociopath who is to tense situations as gasoline is to a match.

    Though the characters are types, the universally realistic tone and recognizable details invest each scene with the ring of truth: Louie, calling his old pal Albert after springing himself from the joint, convincing the poor guy that he wrote him from prison, then asking for his address so he can come over; Albert attempting to sever himself from Louie's company by giving him $160 in traveling money, unwisely agreeing to have a farewell drink with him, then watching incredulously as he spends most of the cash buying drinks for everybody in the bar, assuring Albert that it's all right because "It's my money."

    Ventimiglia and Imperioli have been in movies for over a decade, often taking small roles in the same ensemble pictures. Their most visible work has been in The Sopranos, in which Imperioli plays the dangerous hoodlum Christopher and Ventimiglia the responsible, hardworking restaurant owner Artie who often lets himself be used by bad people. The actors have no trouble playing old friends because they really are old friends; if you didn't know this, you'd figure it out by watching them move together through the director's locked-down, medium-distance compositions, setting each other up and pulling each other back, working endless variations on the theme of exploited generosity. Some of their small exchanges and bits of body language are just marvelous: Imperioli's stammering politeness and mounting desperation suggest Matthew Broderick with an ulcer; Ventimiglia, with his infectious grin, cocked head and black wool cap, might be the kid brother of Jack Nicholson's character in The Last Detail.

    Though the film is mostly a two-actor showcase, each scene lets supporting players shine: Joaquim de Almeida as a thoroughly dangerous associate of Louie's; granite-faced Victor Argo as a commuter Louie subtly takes advantage of in a Port Authority men's room; Suzanne Shepherd as a customer of Albert's who is always making elaborate travel plans and never following through. At the risk of overselling the movie's charms?and please bear in mind that they are modest?it's also possible to view On the Run as a commentary on a couple of concurrent and perhaps thematically related real-world trends: the evolution of Hollywood movies and New York City since the 60s. The film's human-scale situations, performances and production values are not just a function of the limited budget, but also deliberate invocations of the grunge Americana movement that flared briefly in the Nixon, Ford and Carter years?a movement typified by small, character-driven pictures like Midnight Cowboy, The Heartbreak Kid and Scarecrow. On the Run isn't a copy of any of those films, and it's not as good as they are, but it's made in the same spirit; it prizes behavior over plot, atmosphere over momentum and miniature truths over grand statements. One can draw a parallel between what has happened to New York since the 80s and what has happened to Hollywood movies since the 80s: just as there's no longer as much of a place for On the Run's school of storytelling and performance, there's no longer much of a place for guys like Louie in Giuliani's corporatized, yuppified New York. Viewed in this context, an early scene where Louie takes Albert to Times Square gains an eerie and unexpected poignancy: Louie wants to check out the raucous human carnival he enjoyed before he went to prison and is saddened to see that it has been replaced by the Gap and the Disney Store.

    On the Run isn't an ignorant plea for the return of anarchy, but it does make a valid, sideways point about the transformation of both New York and American popular culture: in our rush to purge ourselves of Louies, we risk becoming a nation of Alberts.

    Chutney Popcorn Directed by Nisha Ganatra

    I want every film to be good?especially every debut film. Bad movies are rarely pleasurable, and bad first movies are more than unpleasant; they're painful. You can sense all the love that went into the movie; it might have redeeming elements?standout supporting performances, crisp cinematography, interesting music, a milieu you haven't seen before. But something's missing. I've just described Chutney Popcorn, the debut from director Nisha Ganatra. In the grand scheme of things, there aren't a whole hell of a lot of serious movies released each year on lesbian themes, and even fewer films about the experience of East Indian groups in America. (The last one I can recall was 1992's vastly superior Mississippi Masala.) I don't think it's unfair or p.c. to give the film points just for existing; it's hard to get any independent movie about minority groups released, least of all a twofer like Chutney Popcorn.

    But beyond the virtues I mentioned above, it's not especially noteworthy except as a breakthrough in subject matter. Cowritten by Ganatra and producer Susan Carnival, this story of a young lesbian photographer trying to reconcile her cultural roots with her sexual identity is a pretty rich ensemble piece, if you just look at the characters and situations on paper. But the individual pieces don't come together and pop off the page into your imagination, the central plot takes way too long getting going and even longer to flower, and the film's aimlessness eventually torpedoes whatever goodwill the cast can generate. A big part of the problem is the heroine, Reena, a young New York photographer who tools around town on a motorcycle and is so wrapped up in her art that she...well, I'm still not entirely sure what her problem is. Sometimes the film seems to think it's her selfishness. Other times it appears to be a matter of cultural disjunction; her sexual identity places her so far out of the mainstream of Indian-American culture that I suppose she feels more at home with her lesbian friends than with her blood family.

    I say "I suppose" because this aspect of Chutney Popcorn is not articulated with much grace. A lot of the time it's barely articulated at all. The heroine spends entirely too much time taking photographs and riding around on her bike. I say that not because these activities make her unlikable?I wish they did; it would have made her interesting?but because they prettily occupy narrative space where real character development should rightly go. It would be tempting to blame this central fault on the lead actress, who happens to be the filmmaker herself. She gives an opaque, distracted performance; half of acting is listening, and much of the time Ganatra seems to shut down when other people are talking, so her performance is like a place-holding experiment; it's like she's keeping the part warm until somebody good comes along. In fairness, the press notes reveal that Ganatra, who played small parts in other films, had to replace a leading lady who backed out two weeks before the start of production; the anxiety level must have been tremendous. But this is the lead role, and it's not as well-written as the supporting parts. It's one of those not-too-likable, not-too-nasty, borderline-ingenue protagonists you're supposed to like and root for just because she's the protagonist. It takes sheer charisma, technique or some combination thereof to make this kind of role seem more than a cutout; Ganatra can't supply those qualities.

    But I'm not entirely convinced that the world's greatest actress could have elevated Reena above the level of slightly bland audience surrogate. The writing doesn't flesh out the character; much of the time we're instructed to accept things about both Reena and the rest of the characters that we haven't been shown. We're told that Reena envies her "perfect" sister, the straight and married Sarita, but as played by the excellent Sakina Jaffrey (the filmmaker's sister), Sarita is so grounded and likable that Reena's resentment seems an arbitrary plot contrivance. Reena volunteers to have the baby that the infertile Sarita cannot, which leads to an array of initially very funny but ultimately wearisome scenes involving rubber gloves and turkey basters. We're never completely sure if Reena decides on this course of action out of guilt, generosity, a need to make something big happen in her life or some other impulse. It might have something to do with the demands of her mother (Madhur Jaffrey, also superb), but this smart, diminutive woman seems so tolerant and loving that it's hard to accept her as a source of deep anxiety for the heroine. I don't think we are supposed to accept her that way, but, again, I just can't be sure; like so much of Chutney Popcorn, it's hard to tell what the filmmaker was thinking or where she wants to take us.

    The supporting cast is, as I mentioned, outstanding. Besides Madhur and Sakina Jaffrey, there's bang-up character work by Nick Chinlund as Sarita's hyperarticulate goofball of a husband and Ajay Naidu as a would-be suitor of Reena's who's a polite, homeland-accented mama's boy around authority figures and a wannabe-homeboy with everyone else. The biggest surprise is Jill Hennessy, a capable actress best known for her stint on Law & Order. She's endlessly amusing as the bright, caring girlfriend of mopey, blank-faced Reena. Scene for scene, this is the loosest, funniest and sexiest part she's ever been given?a smart-assed, outer-borough cousin of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall?and I liked watching her so much that I didn't mind when the movie inappropriately detoured two-thirds of the way through to show her straying from her increasingly entangled affair. Why are the most original characters always supporting?