J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Charlie Countryman: Next Time, Budapest

A grieving man-child is in for a heavy dose of fear and loathing in Bucharest.  It should have been fear and loathing in Budapest, or so everyone tells him as part of the film’s running refrain.  Viewers will wish they were there too, since the Hungarian city has nothing to do with Fredrik Bond’s ambitious but disappointing Charlie Countryman (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

When Countryman’s comatose mother is taken off life support, he does not handle the rush of reality well, but her ghost (or his mental projection) forgives him.  As therapy or to broaden his narrow horizons, she makes him promise to visit Bucharest before going on her spirit way.  You might think he would develop a complex when the old fellow sitting next to him on the flight also shuffles off the mortal coil and gives Countryman a few ghostly parting words.  However, when Countryman meets Victor Ibanescu’s daughter Gabi in the airport, he does his best to comfort her with his dopey presence.

As a professional cellist, Gabi Ibanescu is way out of his league, but Countryman falls for her hard.  Further complicating matters, her ex is the sociopathic gangster, Nigel.  It seems Victor had some incriminating evidence he had used to keep the Euro crime boss at bay.  With the stakes and MacGuffin clearly identified, Countryman and his youth hostel cronies proceed to get really high and run afoul a mobbed-up strip club.  At least it advances the plot.

Shia LaBeouf seems to have a knack for getting Alec Baldwin’s goat, so hats off to him.  In fact, he deserves credit for taking on such an unlikable character and following through on it.  Unfortunately, he cannot single-handedly rescue this weird mishmash. Nonetheless, he is completely convincing as the whiny and immature Countryman.

On the other hand, Evan Rachel Wood as a Romanian femme fatale?  Not so much.  Mads Mikkelsen does his thing as Nigel, but we have seen this shtick before.  Probably the most colorfully assured turn comes from an actual Romanian, well regarded actor and former Minister of Culture Ion Caramitru as the ill-fated Ibanescu. Bizarrely, quite a few big names are completely wasted here, including Aubrey Plaza in a thankless walk-on cameo as Countryman’s fed-up ex-girlfriend.

Frankly, the real star of Countryman is cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, whose neon noir look is seductively ominous.  In contrast, Matt Drake’s more-holes-than-Swiss-cheese screenplay does not do anyone any favors, particular the talking dead people motif.  Whether intended as magical realism or psychological expressionism, it comes off as a clumsy affectation.  There are some wonderfully evocative shots of Bucharest by night, but the vivid sense of place is not enough to recommended Countryman.  Never really coming together, Charlie Countryman opens this Friday (11/15) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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