There’s a whole lot of Chinatown in Chris Pine’s directorial debut Poolman, an Angeleno neo-noir with a script that gives Robert Towne more than fair grounds to sue for damages.
In one scene, characters actually watch Roman Polanski’s byzantine saga of LA corruption on VHS while enjoying what the town paper once called “the Marilyn Monroe of pastrami sandwiches” from the world-famous Langer’s Deli. On two occasions, they quote Robert Towne’s dialogue about their city’s foundation atop a paved-over desert and its consequence of a desperate need for potable water. While staggering through his own labyrinth of misdeeds from big business and city government, our brain-fried gumshoe Darren Barrenman (played by Pine with a sun-bleached mane and mild perma-sunburn, looking like he just walked six miles to escape Burning Man) even visits the neighborhood that lends his spiritual roadmap and Pine’s primary influence its title.
But where Towne’s screenplay remains the model of the form for the cruel grace with which it unties its many knots, Poolman’s (co-penned with Pine by one Ian Gotler, a producer on the film heretofore best known for founding the “boutique DJ collective” RedShoe) provides a thorough lesson on what not to do. Circuitous, cluttered, unfocused, derivative, and “vibey” — that’s Darren’s word, not mine — this paranoid wild-goose chase through the City of Angels’ unglamorous outskirts goes around and around in circles until it winds up nowhere in particular.
Speaking with a space-cadet semi-lucidity as if his brain produces a natural supply of THC, Darren has a pretty sweet setup: he lovingly cleans his complex’s pool like he’s following Voltaire’s instruction to cultivate your garden, meditates underwater, types up adoring and delusional fan letters to his hero Erin Brockovich, bangs his sorta-girlfriend Susan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) when he can work up the motivation, and chips away at a long-gestating documentary about city hall incompetence with his buddies Jack and Diane (Danny DeVito and Annette Bening).
That’s all thrown into disarray once a femme fatale (DeWanda Wise) shows up at his door with an urgent warning that her city councilman boss (Stephen Tobolowsky) has gotten in bed with a sinister mayoral candidate (Clancy Brown) and a creepy almond magnate (Ray Wise, working the aura of evil still lingering from his Twin Peaks days). This all sounds like a perfectly fine time on paper, lots of fun actors playing dyed-in-the-wool weirdoes — Stephen Tobolowsky performing Golden Girls scripts in drag, a thing that happens in this movie all too briefly, deserves a feature of its own — but the cross-talking faux-clever manner of speech misses its mark of clever screwiness nailed by elders in the microgenre such as The Big Lebowski and Under the Silver Lake. It’s not a positive sign when the funniest joke in two hours of non-stop affectation is one character being named “Theodore Hollandaise.”
Susan presumably hangs out with a guy who’s always mentally elsewhere because he looks good, and that’s the most that can be said of this grating non-romp otherwise unfit to fetch The Long Goodbye’s cat food. DP Matthew Jensen (his last three feature credits are Josh Trank’s ungodly Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, and Wonder Woman 1984) shot on 35mm for an amber luster worth the trouble, even though projection issues dogged both screenings at the DCP-default Toronto International Film Festival.
Far from the pessimistic click of Chinatown’s ending — though who wants to be compared to the greatest of all time? — Pine’s shaggy-dog turd runs out of plot and ties itself up with a dull deus ex machina that could’ve been made to work, if its dazed bent-reality had been more fully developed. But like so much else in a film that squanders more resources than any first-time filmmaker not already a name brand would dare to dream of, the stoney-baloney atmosphere never rises to an enjoyable high, sitting as stagnant as chlorinated water.
Published 14 Sep 2023