Buffalo-set film noir attempt falls flat
“You had me at death ray, “ one character says to another in writer/director Jenna Ricker’s new film The American Side, expressing his interest in an unfolding mystery. Too bad the audience won’t feel the same way while watching this convoluted, ridiculous attempt at modern film noir, set against the awe-inspiring backdrop of Niagara Falls (hence the title).
Co-written with actor/writer Greg Stuhr, who also stars in the lead role as private investigator Charlie Paczynski, The American Side wants to be a hard-boiled detective story, but, thanks to clunky dialogue, stilted acting, and amateurish directing, most of the time it ends up feeling more like a ludicrous, unintentionally funny parody of classic film noir. Ricker and Stuhr throw in all the tropes: the constant cigarette smoking and whiskey guzzling in seedy bars, the desperate woman in the shadowy alley whispering “help me” (seriously), the femme fatale, the shady business men, the darting foot chases, and the double crosses. A few implausible plot coincidences also ratchet up the absurd factor. The whole thing plays out like one of Garrison Keillor’s “Guy Noir, Private Eye” radio sketches, only sillier.
The plot, such as it is, concerns Charlie’s search for his friend Kat (Kelsey Siepser) a stripper who partners with him to blackmail married men. She inadvertently gets in the way when her latest mark turns out to be wanted by more than just an angry wife. This man later turns up dead (suicide in the Falls – or is it?), and thus Our Man Charlie’s case becomes something much more sinister than just a missing persons investigation.
What Charlie slowly (painfully slowly, for those of us watching) uncovers is a mystery having to do with the inventor Nikola Tesla and one of his designs, which has gone missing, and is of interest to a rogues’ gallery of characters, including a slick business tycoon (Matthew Broderick, whose presence here is the real mystery), his beautiful sister (Camilla Belle), a DARPA agent (Janeane Garofalo, underused), an engineering student (Alicja Bachleda), and some gruff Serbs, among others. At one point Charlie is told, “What’s happening here – you can’t begin to comprehend,” which, as it turns out, is fair warning to the audience as well. The plot is improbable to the point of being nonsensical, so instead of trying to follow it, you can amuse yourself by laughing at such gems of cringe-worthy dialogue. Another eye rolling example: “You ever just want to disappear?” one character asks another. “I already have,” is the deadpan reply. And you can count how many times Charlie calls a female character “kid,” which, I assume, is supposed to be reminiscent of 40s noir pictures, but Stuhr is no Bogart.
Stuhr, a character actor mostly know for TV work, in fact seems to be struggling to bring his screenplay’s hackneyed words to life. His delivery is much too mannered, and his portrayal of Charlie mostly consists of looking angry and melodramatically shouting, “Goddamn it!” over and over. Not surprisingly, the strongest acting in the whole film comes from noir film veteran Robert Vaughn, who has a small role as a neighbor of the dead man; the film might have been more watchable had he been cast as Charlie.
The only strength the picture has going for it is its Buffalo, NY setting; it’s nice to see the upstate city get its cinematic due. Cinematographer Frank Barrera masterfully captures the gritty, industrial, worn out feel of the city, and his shots of Niagara Falls are appropriately menacing and powerful. But stunning visuals ultimately aren’t enough to recommend this picture, which badly wants to be taken seriously, but ends up being uncomfortably laughable. Take my advice, kid.
The American Side opens today at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco.