Monday, June 14, 2010
SON OF A SEAHORSE (2008)
Son of a Seahorse, the latest zero-budget oddity from Mary and Tom Russell, commences with a prologue of such protracted lunacy that I wasn't sure whether I wanted to rip my hair out or applaud its sheer, patience-trying audacity. Put-upon everydude Nick (David Schonscheck), under the stern instruction of his brow-beating wife Madison (Adrienne Patterson), dials the cable company to contest an unusually high service bill. The ensuing ordeal, which finds our defeated hero bounced between help-desk jockeys (including mumblecore figurehead Joe Swanberg and a hilarious, swiveling robot operator) runs an excruciating 23 minutes. The sequence is a bone-dry, long-form bit of situational comedy; it goes from funny to borderline-intolerable in no time flat. Yet by the fifteen minute mark, through sheer courage of its nightmare-banal convictions, it's cycled back around to hysterically funny again. This kind of comedy, predicated as it is on pushing the boundaries of audience expectation and good faith, requires go-big-or-go-home commitment. The Russells go big.
I wish they went bigger. Watching this opening set-piece, I had the wild (and admittedly rather unreasonable) hope that it might actually just keep going–a feature-length phone call of the damned, a meekly lovable loser trapped in customer service purgatory for 90 long minutes. That would be something else: an exasperating endurance test of a practical joke, told at the expense of both protagonist and viewer. Instead, Son of a Seahorse belatedly stumbles into an honest-to-God story, into what passes for forward-minded narrative structure. And I couldn't help but find it considerably less satisfying the more it resembled, you know, a movie.
Which is not to say that the Russells are cut from any shape or variety of traditional Hollywood cloth. These two are loud and proud indie guerillas. They favor marathon takes and lengthy digressions, long shots and longer conversations. It's tempting to lump them into the mumblecore camp, except their sense of humor is somehow both drier and broader, with an affinity for garish caricatures and bizarro non-sequitors. Then again, as with Swanberg and Co., they treat aesthetics like something of an afterthought. (Nifty animatronics aside, this puppy looks about as cheap as it must have been to make.)
Son of a Seahorse is all over the map. It sets up Nick as a kind of perpetual straight man, and then subjects him to the judgments, scolds, rants and taunts of various weirdos and walk-ins. Schonscheck has a certain hangdog charisma, but he's also inconsistent. His performance seems to fluctuate in proportion to his co-stars, who range from accomplished improvisers to transparent amateurs. The first scene, for example, works like gangbusters, mostly because Schonscheck is evenly matched by Swanberg. A later encounter with a raving lunatic (Tom Russell himself, moonlighting as an authentically unhinged cameo player) establishes the lead as a skilled comic foil. He's undone, alas, by some faulty support– from lisping cartoon bit actors to deer-in-headlights non-professionals. (I definitely could have done without the tired There Will Be Blood parody, too.)
If Son of a Seahorse often seems like a different movie scene to scene, its saving grace is its uniting principle: that marriage is the most rewarding pain in the ass you'll ever willfully subject yourself to. It's hard not to have a certain affection for any film that deals with married life in a way that's neither cloying nor rigorously cynical. The Russells, husband and wife filmmakers with a word or two to share on the subject, invest their hit-or-miss comic enterprise with an endearing breadth of genuine feeling.
If but their leading lady, the exasperated "better half" of this imperfect union, were possessed of a greater range. Patterson seems to have two settings on her dial: severely peeved and coyly condescending. I wanted to throttle her, which is maybe the point, but she and Schonscheck generate precious little chemistry, and their scenes of domestic discord wandered too often from enjoyably painful to just plain painful. Marriage may be tough, but comedy? Now that's the real bitch.