Saturday, May 18, 2024

“POOLMAN”

THE STORYLos Angeles pool cleaner Darren Barrenman is approached by a femme fatale to help uncover corruption in a shady business deal.

THE CASTChris Pine, Annette Bening, DeWanda Wise, Stephen Tobolowsky, Clancy Brown, John Ortiz, Ray Wise, Juliet Mills, Ariana DeBose, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Danny DeVito

THE TEAMChris Pine (Director/Writer) & Ian Gotler (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME100 Minutes


Chris Pine is a good actor. He seems like a nice guy. As social media has recently noticed, his wardrobe choices represent each and every neighborhood in LA, depending on the day. That may be why when Chris Pine stepped behind the camera, he created, maybe, the most LA movie of all time. Or rather, he made a movie that embodies everything people dislike about LA. His directorial debut, like the city is sprawling, rambling, loud, messy, sanctimonious, pseudo-intellectual, narcissistic, only intermittently attractive, and often very annoying. The problem is, unlike LA, “Poolman” lacks the many charms that counterbalance the bad.

“Poolman” follows Darren Barrenman (Chris Pine), a Ne’er do well pool cleaner at a run-down Los Angeles apartment complex. He spends his days meditating in the pool, ignoring his long-suffering girlfriend, Susan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), tormenting city council members day after day over his pet projects like installing Los Angeles trolley systems, and writing letters encapsulating his delusions of grandeur about his city-saving efforts to Erin Brockovich, a pen-pal who never responds. Like everyone in LA, Darren is involved in the movies (or trying to be). His neighbors (played by Danny DeVito and Annette Bening) follow his quixotic grandstanding day after day in front of the city council, hoping one day to create a documentary of some merit.

When one of Barrenman’s city council rants gets him arrested, he attracts the attention of June (DeWanda Wise), a city council staffer who informs Barrenman that the council is corrupt and hires him to investigate a council member (played by Stephen Tobolowsky) who she believes is involved in shady business dealings involving Los Angeles real estate and water rights.

If it sounds like “Chinatown,” it’s because that is the intent. Barrenman watches the Jack Nicholson classic early on in the film and fancies himself Jake Gittes for the rest of the movie, investing in a conspiracy that has the likes of Ray Wise and Clancy Brown in John Huston-esque roles. The deathly serious “Chinatown, with its famously convoluted mystery and cynical detective, no doubt provides fodder for a parody. The problem is that the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson, among others, have already done it and done it much better. Chris Pine clearly wants his Darren Barrenman to be the next Dude from “The Big Lebowski, or Doc Sportello from “Inherent Vice, an airheaded stoner detective who stumbles his way to the answer to a mystery. Instead, he constantly reminds the audience that you could be watching any of those three much better films.

Anyone who has seen “Smokin’ Aces knows that Pine, despite his striking good looks, can play an effective antisocial weirdo. The problem is Pine playing weird works for supporting characters but proves insufferable as a lead. Darren Barrenman could have worked as a supporting character or as the lead of an SNL sketch. But as the lead of a feature film, onscreen in every scene for forty minutes, his loudness, tics, and embodiment of all the worst cliches of an LA slacker prove grating. Moreover, in the likes of “Lebowski and “Inherent Vice, the protagonist turns out to be at least marginally competent at times. Barrenman really never is. Lebowski and Sportello were lazy and clutzy but not completely stupid. Barrenman is clearly very dumb. One character even notes that he is “not playing with a full deck of cards. He does very little mystery ‘solving, and the script seems to know this because the mystery rushes jarringly to its reveal and conclusion. The character stumbles around, and people just…tell him things. When Barrenman finds himself in hot water in the third act, the film rushes past, building any sense of suspense or stakes and providing easy outs. And what’s more, the mystery isn’t intriguing. The film wants to have its cake and eat it too, recreating the exact same scheme as in Chinatown, but also trying to spin it in a “Hot Fuzz esque twist, but the result is neither exciting nor particularly funny. The supporting characters are all broad, written (and played) as caricatures. The only character with any sort of depth is Tobolowsky’s city council person. Perhaps realizing that the film has failed as a comedy or as a mystery, Pine goes for a saccharine message about finding your people at the end and resolving childhood trauma and fears of abandonment. But it feels tacked on and unearned and is indicative of a film that wants to be many things and settles for none.

This isn’t to say there aren’t sporadic laughs. Pine knows LA well and has landed a few nice jabs accordingly. For example, there is a running joke that every single character in the film had ambitions of being in the film industry at one point. Additionally, Pine’s mugging is sometimes amusing, as is his (and every other character in the film) fixation on therapy. But often, these LA gags are trying too hard. The references to terrible traffic and the narcissism present among every character just feels lazy. Sometimes the “gags” aren’t even really gags, but rather just easter eggs for people who live in LA (“Oh look, they name-dropped Langer’s Deli,” “Oh he’s wearing a Bob’s Big Boy shirt”).

Pine’s directing leaves something to be desired. He seems to have staged most scenes for a variety of generic medium shots and frequently cuts between them rather than trying for anything unique in terms of framing or blocking. He also ends up with several 180 breaks and issues with off-kilter eyeliners that seem to have been oversights rather than intentional artistic choices. He also opts for a dreamlike state at times, and his sometimes hallucinatory transitions at times make the narrative and timeline confusing to follow.

Every now and then, there are flashes of inspiration. Cinematographer Matthew Jensen (“Wonder Woman“) lenses a few moody noir-esque shots in June’s apartment (which is decked out with an appropriately noir-ish production design). The idea that because these characters are all obsessed with Hollywood, they also focus on costumes is a nice touch in terms of justifying why characters in the present day would be dressed like the 40s as well. 

Not every actor is a natural behind the camera. In fact, many aren’t. Some get better with time. John Krasinski whiffed with his first directorial outing, “The Hollars before he struck gold with “A Quiet Place. Pine deserves credit for choosing to make his directorial debut something that clearly was not a vanity project. Unfortunately, that is all the good that can be said about it. Save yourself the time and go rewatch “Chinatown,” “The Big Lebowski, or “Inherent Vice” instead.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Sporadically funny in its LA gags.

THE BAD - Bland direction, incoherent storytelling, an annoying protagonist, an uninteresting mystery, and unfunny comedy. A mess.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 2/10

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Will Mavity
Will Mavityhttps://nextbestpicture.com
Loves Awards Season, analyzing stats & conducting interviews. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Sporadically funny in its LA gags.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Bland direction, incoherent storytelling, an annoying protagonist, an uninteresting mystery, and unfunny comedy. A mess.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>2/10<br><br>"POOLMAN"