Film critics rank just ahead of television meteorologists as the worst roadside psychics in the media: We make all kinds of predictions about a movie's box office impact and Oscar-friendliness, and even anticipate whether said flick will be a beloved classic 25 years from now. Just like when weighing the weather forecast, ticketbuyers would be safer sticking their heads out the window and surveying the climate themselves.
But I'm going to dust off my crystal ball and predict the trajectory of Julian Po, a disjointed little black comedy that's nevertheless audacious and unpredictable enough to keep you hanging around till the end credits roll. I see a fifteen-minute theatrical life span, followed by a video release before the year ends that'll be taken up as a cause celebre by a small number of print critics, followed by recurring mention in future books about cult films and a healthy reputation on the university repertory circuit.
It's not as if Julian Po is ahead of its time or even out of the indie loop; its mordant sense of humor and weirdly ambiguous perspective on the oft-times bloodthirsty shenanigans of its small-town characters can be traced all the way back to David Lynch, who, as David Foster Wallace points out in an essay from his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is the real spiritual godfather of today's Tarantino-credited noir schizocomedies.
It also bears the typical crimps and creases of a debut feature; it was written and directed by newcomer Alan Wade, who occasionally veers all over the road while trying to steer the absurdist tone he patiently builds. There are plenty of unexplained motivations and contrived behaviors, which take some of the steam out of this curious fable about a stranger whose declaration of suicidal intent transforms the lives of a small Northern town into which he wanders, suitcase and pocket tape recorder in hand.
We never learn much about the newcomer Julian Po (a mustachioed Christian Slater), except that he's a 30-year-old accountant and something of a pushover whose life has been a big disappointment so far. On a trip to see the ocean for the first time in his life, he breaks down in a dreary town full of nosy residents whose suspicion verges on the hostile. He is a rather strange sight, wandering the streets and muttering reflections and observations into his tape recorder. Children and adults alike not only stare at him from the sidewalks, they begin to follow him around in packs. People he encounters, like the redneck, gun-collecting operator (Michael Parks) of the boarding house where he stays, the macho sheriff (Frankie R. Faison), and the shy loner (Zeljko Ivanek) who runs a men's clothing store, begin to ask more and more personal questions about his arrival.
Finally, when confronted in a coffee shop by an angry mob who demand to know if he's either a drug dealer or a serial killer, a threatened Julian Po admits that he was attracted to this nowhere burg because he wanted to find a quiet place where he could kill himself, anonymous, alone, and without fanfare.
It's the reaction of the townspeople that makes Julian Po both frustrating and intriguing. Writer-director Wade skips crucial character exposition that would establish exactly why these bored rubes are heartened, even inspired, by an unknown man's imminent suicide. But that's exactly what happens; suddenly realizing that life is too short not to take risks, they begin to make career and relationship decisions they'd previously never had the guts to attempt. Julian Po becomes a near messiah to the riled-up population, and people start consulting him on the most intimate aspects of their lives, bringing him food, and even offering sexual favors in exchange for his wisdom. Julian's glum life takes a turnaround when a lovely but clearly unhinged young woman (Robin Tunney), who claims to have anticipated Po's arrival in a series of dreams, pledges her eternal love. But new hope for a more fulfilling life doesn't jibe with the construction-paper martyr the townspeople have created in Po's image; when most of the changes they instigate in their own lives backfire, the news that Julian is no longer suicidal doesn't sit well.
The high-decibel comic tone that filmmaker Wade instigates careens uncomfortably between Franz Kafka and the Coen Brothers. But there's real courage in the way Wade sticks to the conventions of his own hyperrealism; this jacked-up display of lost souls desperate for direction, however exaggerated and inexplicable a few scenes are, remains true to the bitter end the filmmaker has determined.
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In its ironically bucolic take on the cult of personality (the director shows lots of scenes of babbling brooks and peaceful forests, and indicates the passage of time with a series of dissolves from one moment to the next, eschewing the plant-and-shoot documentary style that a less agile director would've applied), Julian Po invokes a chilling response to the hurray-for-the-little-folks cheerleaderism that has made the late director Frank Capra an icon. Invoking Capra's name in this context isn't frivolous; two of his most famous films, It's a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe, concern how a hypothetical suicide affects large numbers of people. Those of us who've always been kinda creeped out by Capra's quasi-fascist appraisal of a mythological, innately wise many who invariably vanquish evil or selfish individuals can't help but snicker at this revelation of mob whims. Julian Po roughly follows the vector of Meet John Doe, wherein reporter Barbara Stanwyck creates a phony Everyman whose despair touches an entire city. Julian Po extends the saga a little further, when a love fest turns into a feeding frenzy; once the residents of Wade's town smell blood, they won't be satisfied until they're provided a carcass.
The filmmaker's themes are helped immensely by a series of attuned performances. Slater may be most famous right now for public drunkenness and battery, but he impressively cuts against that grain, and the rest of his smart-ass-manipulator career, by proving he can play a malleable sad sack. A trio of nuanced turns by Broadway stage stars Cherry Jones, Frankie R. Faison, and Zeljko Ivanek provide indispensable velocity in helping the director score the few bull's-eyes he can claim. Tony Award winners Jones (The Heiress) and Faison (Fences) play, respectively, a deaf-mute maid with an unrequited crush and a small-town sheriff whose familiarity with homicide extends beyond the role of investigator. They render these little people in big, but never broad, strokes of color.
Julian Po never quite graduates from indie curiosity, thanks to the director's plodding devotion to his themes. At a paltry 84 minutes, it still feels repetitive and a bit unfocused. But those who choose to hang in there will find themselves provoked in ways that few films can boast.
Christian Slater, Michael Parks, Frankie R. Faison, Cherry Jones. Written by Alan Wade, based on a short story by Branimir Scepanovic. Directed by Wade. Opens Friday.