There's a lot wrong with French star Julie Delpy's new indie flick, 2 Days in New York, but there's one thing that's very, very right: Chris Rock.
As Mingus, Rock is the saving grace of an often disjointed mess of a film, a screwball comedy that tries to force quirkiness with brute strength rather than wit. Mingus is the boyfriend of Delpy's Marion, a co-worker from The Village Voice who enters the picture after her break-up with the father of her son (the film is actually a sequel to 2 Days in Paris, also written and directed by and starring Delpy, which follows this earlier relationship). "Was it pity?" asks Marion in a voiceover of their romance. "Was it love? Was it my innocent comment about a blow job?"
At the final installment of the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts Talk Cinema series on Tuesday, the audience is laughing - but it's a stilted laugh, a knee-jerk response to surprise and embarrassment (like a first-grader who hears the word "underpants"), or a desperate attempt to make the time pass more quickly by at least performing enjoyment.
The film centers around thevisit to New York City of Marion's dysfunctional family
: her nymphomaniac/child psychologist sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau); Rose's inappropriate, pot-smoking boyfriend, Manu (Alexandre Nahon); and her sweet but foolish father (played by Albert Delpy, Julie Delpy's real-life father).
Mingus is our rock in the midst of the chaos that ensues, driven just as mad as the audience is by this cast of aggressive misfits (he has one hilarious nightmare in which he imagines Marion's family all dressed in pre-French Revolution finery, stuffing their faces like Marie Antoinette before the guillotine got her).
He is the only really likeable character, but more than that, he's the only genuine, believable character - and that includes Delpy's Marion, who spends the film launching into tirades like clockwork: Here we need comedy; here we need drama; here we need profanity; here we need sex appeal.
In a film in which every actor is playing to the cheap seats (like Helena Bonham-Carter described all the Death Eaters in Harry Potter as constantly trying to one-up each other in sheer ham-iness), Rock's Mingus is distinctly, refreshingly measured and calm.
His comedic dialogue is almost muttered under his breath, so completely opposite of Rock's shouting stand-up persona, and even in monologues (delightfully delivered to a cardboard stand-up of President Obama he keeps in his office) he maintains this restrained demeanor. Rock has noted in interviews just how excited he was to get a script that challenged him to be a character, not just a stand-up comedian; providing this opportunity to showcase a new side of Rock's talent is easily the greatest contribution to the art made by Delpy's film.
Not that Rock is the only bright spot: Visually, 2 Days in New York is a beautiful spectacle of bright colors, masterful editing, and detailed sets. The backgrounds are rich and layered (look for Mingus's collection of vintage radios), but, like the dialogue, the props can sometimes hit you over the head. If you haven't guessed by 10 minutes in that the character are political liberals, then the framed anti-Bush articles and the strategically-placed dartboard baring Dick Cheney's face provide some not-so-subtle hints.
It's an unusual experiment to invite audiences to the movies without telling them what they'll see, and one that - if you listen to the many pre-screening comparisons of who walked out of which film this season - has clearly not always been successful for Scottsdale's Talk Cinema series.
The choice of venue (the remodeled Virginia G. Piper Theater) is no help: The theater space is too large and the leg room almost nonexistent, both of which prove troublesome for moderator Chris Hazeltine as he bounds up and down the stairs with his microphone chasing after the rare raised hand.
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That said, the Talk Cinema series provides a great opportunity to see international and indie films that you may never otherwise get the chance to see in theaters. Tickets run a bit steep at $19 each, but discounted ticket packages and student rates (50 percent off) are available.
Plan ahead now and, with any luck, the few small problems of space and format will have been ironed out by next season.