Magical regionalism

No genre of film is quite as beleaguered as the humble romantic comedy. Ideally suited to the modest budgets and limited chops of the burgeoning filmmaker--no horses, no explosions, no alien embryo pods filled with disgusting slime--the genre often takes the blame for twentysomething tales told without the benefit of life lessons. And more than almost any other organizing mythology--man against the system, intruder/redeemer, last-chance idealism--true love in these cynical times seems the widest suspension of disbelief to get across.

First-timer James F. Robinson faces these ample problems square-on in his new storybook romance, Still Breathing--fashioning a supple fable of kismet, wonder, and star-crossed destiny out of the very cynicism that would preclude it. Brendan Fraser, wisely investing the box-office credibility afforded him by summer smash George of the Jungle, plays Fletcher, a San Antonio eccentric who favors sleeping on the piano, and whose old Texas family has one quirk in common: its male legatees invariably picturing the women they will marry in a vision. When his own calling finally comes stamped with the word "Formosa," he dutifully sets out for latter-day Taiwan, before a momentary layover in Los Angeles acquaints him with the Formosa Cafe, conveniently located down on a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.

There he meets Roz (Joanna Going), a pliant beauty and failed idealist making ends meet by duping rich simps into buying overpriced art for her; she's been sent to the Formosa by partner-in-crime Ann Magnuson to reel in a wealthy Texan. (Her previous mark is Tomas, played by Paolo Seganti, who was last seen as Johnny Stompanato in L.A. Confidential--at the very same booth at the Formosa!)

In this way, the film sets up a nifty turnabout whereby the fated lovers find each other in the first 10 minutes, but spend the rest of the movie trying to locate themselves, passing the time by debating the very romantic-comedy conventions which inevitably circumscribe them. And Still Breathing manages to strike just the right balance of cravenness and whimsy, splitting itself evenly between their two landscapes. When Fletcher, with his doleful hound-dog eyes and oblivious-Einstein tangle of hair, takes a room at the Roosevelt Hotel with a view of the Mann's Chinese marquee, he's just another sucker up from Vine, ready to fall for the first pair of eyelashes that bats him silly.

Except his straight-shooting guilelessness throws her for a loop. Taking a cue from Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's The Lady Eve, sharpie Roz vows to teach him a lesson, trailing him back to his native Tex-Mex habitat. Everything she finds there carries the tinge of magical realism--from his puppet shows and Dixieland jazz combo, to the cairns (temporary stone sculptures) he makes from river rocks, to the inspired-by-love history of the florid architecture, to the otherworldly transport of simple air-conditioning. And, swept downstream along with it, her layers of disguise slowly peel away, from facile seductress, to hard-bitten realist, to finally--as at the heart of every cynic--true romantic. Even the title, at first glance soft and fuzzy, bridges these two points of view: in one world a status check after the routine assaults of daily life, in the other a pathway to enduring calm.

Celeste Holm, whose All About Eve pedigree telegraphs these intentions nicely, brings a welcome reverence to the material as Fletcher's world-wise grandmother. Toby Huss, a standout as one of Fletcher's "oddball cracker friends," inadvertently delivers the film's moral: "That's exactly what's wrong with the world today--there's way too much reality happening." And the regional Texas flavor is spot-on--from Lou Rawls' languorous baritone sax solo posed against the Alamo, to the HemisFair reference, to the Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez on the soundtrack, to the incidental reverie in praise of the tamale.

But ultimately, the film works because it sticks to what it knows--the long con. Its arm around your shoulder, its fingers fanned out to the horizon, it sucker-punches you with the happy ending, even as it assures you it's all a load of crap. And you--you fall like a row of dominoes.

Still Breathing.
Written and directed by James F. Robinson. Starring Brendan Fraser, Joanna Going, Celeste Holm, and Ann Magnuson. Playing now.

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