An interesting failure

Few filmmakers, independent or otherwise, are quite as idiosyncratic as Alan Rudolph. Fans of Jim Jarmusch or Robert Altman (Rudolph’s mentor and frequent producer) know what to expect, even when these demanding auteurs tackle unexpected subject matter such as a western. But during his 25-year career, writer/director Rudolph is unmatched in his sheer unpredictability.

From ensemble period pieces about bohemian life (The Moderns, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) to intimate tales of obsessive love and the pull of memory (Choose Me, Afterglow) to strangely metaphysical films noirs (Trouble In Mind, Equinox), Rudolph is all over the map. Even his abject failures are interesting, and he’s made two in a row: Last year’s loopy (but oddly faithful) adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, and now Trixie, a strange hybrid of a screwball comedy with a detective story which manages to be neither funny nor mysterious.

The problem begins with erstwhile private detective Trixie Zurbo (Emily Watson), who tells would-be suitor Dex Lang (Dermot Mulroney), a hapless mob errand boy, the following: "You’ve been buttering up your own nest, you’ve gone to the top of the tree and you have caught the tip of the iceberg."

Trixie’s persistent use of mixed metaphors and mind-boggling malapropisms runs throughout the film — unfortunately, it’s contagious. The goofy wordplay seems to please Rudolph to no end, but filling a dialogue-heavy movie with this kind of cutesy doubletalk does nothing but turn characters who are supposed to be endearing into annoying houseguests who just won’t leave.

Even when he’s established a promising scenario — Trixie works the night shift in a cheesy lakeside resort casino — Rudolph quickly loses his way. By getting involved with the dubious Dex, and, by extension, his boss Red Rafferty (Will Patton) and the exquisitely corrupt Sen. Drummond Avery (an oily Nick Nolte), Trixie finds herself enmeshed in an honest-to-goodness murder.

Of course, this idiot savant will stumble upon the truth in her own inimitable way. To make matters worse, Watson plays Trixie as an infantilized gun moll, a maniacal gum-chewer who spits out her lines in a Depression-era Chicago accent.

Nearly lost in the mix is really terrific work from Nathan Lane, who gets to camp it up as a Rich Little-style lounge singer while also turning in one of his warmest onscreen performances, and the spitfire Brittany Murphy as a past-her-prime Lolita anxious to recapture her glory days.

For Alan Rudolph, this may be the time to reconsider his move into quirky comedies, because he just doesn’t have the knack to make them click. Or as Trixie herself might tell him, "It’s time to swallow the bullet."

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

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