An indie-mainstream mystery woven from idiosyncratic, metaphysical curlicues. Sound tempting? Sure, like The Matrix via Donnie Darko. But too many sideways manoeuvres can leave a flick stranded up its own backstreet. Welch on ballast and you drive blind; fail to deliver a slam-dunk payoff and you’ve wasted a trip; skirt a payoff and you appear precious. Such are the problems part-faced, part-embraced and part-missed in this allusive, enticing, bracing but, finally, over-elusive behind-camera debut from John August, whose tellingly mixed-bag career includes scripts for Go (good), Big Fish (good catch) and...Charlie’s Angels (go figure).
August’s puzzle-box plot packs in three tales, each starring the increasingly, rightly bankable Ryan Reynolds. In The Prisoner, he’s a crack-head actor under house arrest, who becomes wary of his chirpy home guard (Gilmore Girls’ Melissa McCarthy) and foxy neighbour (Hope Davis). Next, a mock reality-TV show focuses on a producer (Reynolds) whose pitch goes up the spout; McCarthy is his let-down lead. Finally, Reynolds is a videogame designer in a tale that might tie up the levels of turmoil…
So far, so good. August weaves these threads into sticky webs of creativity and identity, flirting with Big Questions of religion, existentialism and masturbation en route. Reynolds is a confident lead, McCarthy does winningly waspish, likeably vulnerable and much more, and a patchwork of heady references pulls in Darko, TV, alternative reality, gaming, The Prisoner (der), Sunset Boulevard, David Lynch, Voltaire’s Candide, Fight Club, Charlie Kaufman and more.
But August’s head-trip doesn’t quite secure a photo-finish, instead dipping into murky metaphysical waters without mustering the nerve or nous to dive in. We’re left with a sense of unfinished business, dangling from threads of fact and fantasy, creator and creation, actor and role. These are witty, sharp and – crucial, this – never dull. But they get tangled up in themselves, self-consciousness spinning in downward circles. Should you see it? For sure: it’s far better than The Number 23. But it’s a six next to Kaufman at his nine-est.
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Intriguing in fits and starts, with perfect-fit performances from the very watchable Ryan Reynolds and Melissa McCarthy, John August's first step behind the camera falls frustratingly shy of target.