Sunday, March 22, 2009
The Indie Problem
These are trying times for the little indie movie that lacks a big hook. They're hard to finance. Even harder to market. And next to no-one wants to see them. This weekend I was next to no-one as I sat through two such examples of why the indie movie is in such perilous health. One actually made it onto screens, the other slid through the cracks destined only to be seen by the people who paid for it as they weep over what might have been.
"Sunshine Cleaning" premiered at Sundance a couple of years back and lay moldering on the shelf until now. It's about a pair of sisters so strapped for cash they start a business cleaning the blood and brains from crime scenes. Amy Adams and Emily I -will-watch-her-in-anything Blunt are the sibs with the sponges. Alan Arkin and Steve Zahn offer capable support. It's easy to see why on-the-rise types like Adams and Blunt would offer their services to a tiny movie that likely swelled their personal fortunes by something close to four figures. "Sunshine Cleaning" offers an interesting, measured, offbeat take on a subject that, had it been made by a major studio, would have been a wacky caper comedy. The sisters would have been hapless cleaners who accidentally witnessed a mob slaying and then saved their own skins by doing a bang-up job disposing of the evidence, thereby becoming gangland's go-to post-hit cleaners. Adams would find herself falling for a mob dude who turned out to be undercover FBI and Blunt would acquire a taste for gunplay and...I TOTALLY WANT TO SEE THAT MOVIE!!! It sounds like so much fun. "Sunshine Cleaning" isn't any fun at all. It's sluggish when it's meant to be subtle and it ends up being just as sentimental and sappy as any chick flick.
A few years ago, Brittany Murphy was in the same position Anna Faris is in now: a scene-stealing character actress moving into leading parts. The problem with Murphy was that all those quirks and tics that seemed so diverting when she was the funny best friend made her seem like a mental patient when the entire plot revolved around her. The first few minutes of "The Ramen Girl", one of the teeny-tiny indies she's been churning out since her big studio viability evaporated, demonstrate exactly why the world found her impossible to endure. As a clingy, whining American bubblehead who follows her web designer boyfriend to Tokyo only to be dumped seconds after arriving, she's an whispering, shuddering, eye-bugging horror show. Then she goes for comfort to the ramen shop across the street and finds her destiny. She begs the grumpy ramen cook to become her sensei, to impart his wisdom and teach her to make the perfect broth. And there we have a movie. Not just any movie: 'The Karate Kid' with noodles. There's something entirely satisfying about someone as affected as Brittany Murphy starring in a film where she's constantly called on her shit. The grumpy ramen chef heaps endless subtitled abuse on her and when we reach the sentimental climax-- which surprisingly doesn't take the easy way out-- and the old guy grudgingly admits respect for his dimwitted, eye-bugging protege, the tears are earned.
I'm not saying this flimsy little movie deserves wider recognition, I'm not even saying it;s worth a Netflix rental. But if it shows up on cable one wet weekend afternoon months from now, there are worse indies you could sit through.