Oct 4, 2000 at 12:00 am
The opening sequence of Urbania captures the disorienting aesthetic that author Paul Auster uses to great effect in novels like City of Glass, a fragmentary narrative style which heightens the central character’s sense of dislocation within an unforgiving and menacing metropolis. Like an Auster character, Charlie (Dan Futterman) feels distinctly alone in a crowd; realizing he’s slipped the boundaries of real life and now inhabits a self-made shadow world where the ghosts of former lovers exist alongside the ceaseless flow of strangers’ faces that forms the living wallpaper of New York City.

An insomniac working the white-collar graveyard shift, Charlie’s one of the walking wounded, reeling from the loss of his beloved, Chris (Matt Keeslar). “Distract me, man, take me out of my own head for two minutes,” Charlie pleads to a bartender, looking for a good yarn. Charlie’s favorite tales are urban legends, those outrageous stories which always happen to a friend of a friend and invariably involve a random sexual encounter gone terribly awry.

Director Jon Shear (he co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Reitz from his play Urban Folk Tales) shifts effortlessly from documenting Charlie’s existence to visualizing these fables without any of the usual signifiers (changes in lighting, color, film stock), so they play like events happening right around the corner. That’s an important choice: Since Charlie can no longer distinguish his role in the narrative of his life, Shear places the audience into his mind-set and gives all the events of Urbania equal weight, whether they’re real or imagined.

During one long night, an anger-fueled Charlie ricochets around the neighborhood where he was wounded during a vicious gay-bashing, charming his way into the lives of near-strangers one minute, antagonizing them the next. Charlie’s real agenda is stalking Dean (Samuel Ball), the pretty-boy thug who initiated the attack, and when they fall into the rambling rapport of guys bonding, actor-turned-director Shear injects their growing intimacy with the dread of a first-rate suspense thriller.

As hypnotic as Urbania often is, it’s also a jumble that doesn’t quite add up to a satisfying whole, like a set of short stories uncomfortably pieced together. Yet in his feature debut, John Shear has encapsulated the source of those urban legends: the fear that something wild is lurking just beneath a city’s urbane facade, and that safety is merely a cruel illusion.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].