Star: Matthew James
It's pretty clear from the provocative title that this film will find an audience, but it's less clear if it'll find the one it's aiming at. It's a fair title, given that we see a good deal of both nipples and palm trees as we follow its lead character through Los Angeles, but it's also a little misleading. It conjures up visions of a lost Andy Sidaris movie or perhaps a glitzy HBO Hollywood exposé, but this is deliberately grounded in the reality of everyday life at ground level in the city of Angels. The film's creators, Matthew James and Dylan Reynolds, claim inspiration from 'maverick filmmaking movements' from the French new wave to mumblecore and I can buy that, as it felt to me like a Tom Sharpe novel translated into American and adapted by John Cassevetes. Given that Sharpe wrote situations and Cassevetes was all about performance, the two approaches do clash but it's clashes that make the picture, not least the one between love and sex.
James, best known for his recurring role as Merl the demon on TV's Angel, wrote and produced Nipples and Palm Trees, presumably as an expansion of his 2009 short film, Jackson Harmony. More obviously, he reserved the lead role for himself and the camera rarely leaves him. It's fair to say that this picture stands or falls on his performance, but that's fortunately one of its high points. Jackson is a struggling artist in Los Angeles, which makes him Everyman, but he has a day job doing some sort of phone support for a photocopier company. Harmony is his girlfriend, or at least he thinks so. She doesn't live with him and she doesn't answer his calls but she does pop over out of the blue every once in a while to jump in the sack with him. I wouldn't describe that relationship as anything substantial, however stereotypically romantic the trip they take to the fair ends up being. Certainly her name isn't mirrored in any quality she brings to his life.
In fact Jackson's life is about as far away from harmony as it can get without becoming unstable. Everything in his world seems to be a struggle. He struggles as an artist, because people aren't buying his paintings and the galleries are jerking him around, so he has to work to make ends meet. He struggles with his relationship, obviously looking for more than Harmony is, more than she's willing or able to give back. He struggles with his urges too. For someone who's trying to get more out of his girlfriend than sex, everything else in his life appears to be driven by it. His paintings are pornographic, his conversational banter is built entirely from sexual metaphor and a couple of weeks of phone silence from Harmony is all it takes to drive him back to an Asian massage parlour for the full package from his favourite girl. Finally believing it's over, we quickly find that he can't keep it in his pants, literally honing in on girls who walk past him in the street.
The other main character isn't really Harmony, though of course everything returns to her in the end. It's the city of Los Angeles, because the suggestion here is that what we see is normality in LA, that the city should be about love but is somehow unable to rise above sex. Given that the production quality is solid throughout, I can only assume that the shots of Jackson against the window in his apartment that have him bathed in so much light that he almost fades into it are a deliberate suggestion that he's one with the city. Of course, if we buy into the concept that all the men in LA are really looking for love while apparently looking for sex, we also have to buy into the flipside, that all the women are seriously crazy and absolutely only looking for sex. The women that Jackson finds certainly fit that bill, as evidenced through a succession of quirky, surreal and outright bizarre encounters that provide much of the humour in the film.
An uncredited Jacqui Holland is the first, an unnamed girl who literally struts past Jackson. 'I'm not just some hussy you met on the street,' she says, giving him a handjob in a back alley within a minute of meeting him. By the time she gets his name, it's over. It's hardly a good start for his quest to find 'a nice girl, not some crazy ass', but the next one is crazy as a loon. Then there's Liz, who he has high hopes of being the nice one, even though he meets her at a grocery store, but the romantic dinner at her place that he expects becomes hilariously weird before she ever gets there and gets weirder still by the minute. It's telling that the most down to earth girl that he meets is the most unusual: Cali, who lifts weights and tends plants outside a neighbouring apartment, but is played by Dallas Malloy, a female boxer and bodybuilder who plays guys more often than girls. It's also telling that she's the only girl in the film that he doesn't hit on.
And I do wonder about that. This is obviously a long term project, not only a 2012 indie feature but a 2009 short film too. James didn't merely star in both, he also wrote and produced. Dylan Reynolds edited, produced and directed. So how does something that they've worked on for so long feel so loose? Maybe it's finding actors who can keep both our belief and our attention as they spout inanity, like Akihiro Kitamura as Jackson's co-worker. He says absolutely nothing of substance and we can easily believe that he and James improvised their entire conversation on the spot, but it adds just the right colour to the background. Maybe it's by carefully writing key moments of meaning but improvising the blanket of banality around it to highlight how rarely Jackson encounters substance. Maybe it's all in the floating camerawork, which is rarely jerky and handheld but often so up close and personal that it's almost a conversation partner.
However it was achieved, Nipples and Palm Trees succeeds at being carefully loose, like one of the impressionistic paintings that fill Jackson's apartment. Like them, there's nothing here that we haven't seen before. Like them, it's painted in broad strokes that still manage to provide us with a coherent picture. Like them, it's full of emotion but may not have a soul. Its achievement may be in what artists always aim at with their paintings but rarely achieve, an immersion that forces us to ask questions, not just to wonder about what happens next but to take away what we see back to our own worlds. This isn't a groundbreaking piece of art, and it's not going to be for everyone, but it's successful at what it aims to do and it's difficult to suggest ways in which it could do it better. There are a hundred things that I'd like to have seen differently, but I realise that they're all about Jackson's life not about the movie. It is what it is, right?