Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tribeca: TiMER

First of all, I want to dedicate this review to my friends Kelsey and Laura, who waited in the rain for this movie but then let me join them late and take the last rush ticket ahead of them. Wow, writing that out makes it sound way more heartless than it seemed at the time. Anyway, they are awesome.

Now, to the rambling introduction after the unnecessary preamble. In the course of 11 days of Tribeca movie binging -- not just seeing a bunch of films but talking about them in the rush lines, with friends, etc. -- I've become sensitive to the powerful, I would argue primary, role of expectations in your moviegoing experience. Before the festival there were two films that I thought I was sure to love: The Girlfriend Experience (Soderbergh + call girls) and American Casino (shadenfreudish polemic against banking greed). Thanks to the frothy buzz accompanying the first title, I wasn't able to see it (expectations can be contageous). I did get into American Casino and found it ... average. It was well done, made some interesting points; it just didn't blow me away.

On the other hand, one of my favorite screenings was a Russian shoot-'em-up called Newsmakers that I saw on a complete whim. (I'd planned to see Transcendent Man but got cold feet about a brainy doc full of deep thoughts.) Newsmakerswas not an exceptional film, but it was pulpy and brisk and just what I needed at the time. I'd describe it as a Russian Die Hard; it had that same cheesy but endearing quality. However, if I'd gone back in time and told myself it was an awesome Russian Die Hard before the screening, non-future-me would have grumbled over the insane holes in the plot, the buffoonishly inept special ops soldiers, the evil bureaucrat's Act 3 awakening of conscience. I would have left the theater deflated (not to mention deeply suspicious of my future self's integrity and possibly time travel in general). It's all about expectations.

What does this have to do with TiMER? This is the Tribeca movie I enjoyed probably more than any other, and it's because I was certain it was going to butcher its story in an unspeakable way. I'm going to quote the entire short description from the Tribeca program:

  • Finding true love is easier than ever thanks to the TiMER, which counts down to the exact time people meet their soul mates. Love-starved Oona (Emma Caulfield, TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is pushing 30, but her TiMER hasn't even started counting yet. Worse, she's falling for a guy who's set to meet his true love in four months. This smart romantic comedy leaves behind the burning question ... would you want to know?
Intriguing, no? But when you think about it a second, this is the type of high-concept premise that invariably leads filmmakers astray, especially in comedies. Kelsey compared it to Freaky Friday. I prefer to call it the Idiocracy principle. It states, when you start with a crazy idea, you're tempted to make a crazy movie. You end up with cheap laughs, unrelatable behavior and lots of silly, antic scenes that lead nowhere. That's what I expected here; if this hadn't shown up in the top-10 in audience voting, I never would have waited in line for it.

TiMER never falls prey to the high-concept traps. It takes its weird alternate world, in which everyone wears wristbands that tell them when to fall in love, and fills it with utterly human characters who react the device in believable ways. They feel like people you just saw at the coffee shop down the street. The script is ballsy and precise, boring relentlessly into the paradox of dating: We want the excitement and mystery of finding a partner but not the risk of getting hurt. The movie asks us to consider, if we experienced neither of these feelings, would we miss them?

One climactic exchange gets at the heart of the issue. A TiMER-less guy attempts to profess his devotion to the very pragmatic, lovelorn heroine. "What do you want from me?" he asks.

She says, "I want a guarantee."

It's a chilling moment. What person who's spent even a few weeks on the dating scene can't relate to her character. The soulless system of quasi-arranged marriage wrought by the TiMER no longer seems preposterous; it almost seems desirable. That's the near-impossible trick this movie pulls off. Its exotic circumstances, instead of obscuring reality, bring it into sharper focus. The TiMER universe invites us to consider our own feelings about love and commitment from a different angle.

I also credit TiMER immensely for allowing its complicated story to unwind toward a messy, somewhat uncomfortable ending. The movie's power could have been skewered in an instant by a lazy deus ex machina. (This is very high praise from me; I usually nitpick movie endings to death.)

I just wish someone had told the filmmakers that In Good Company (another love story that surprised me pleasantly) had already used Iron & Wine's "The Trapeze Singer" as its bittersweet fade-out song. Still, when a movie's first glaringly unoriginal beat happens at the closing credits, you can expect to feel pretty happy about it.

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