Thursday 25 April 2013

Putzel (2012)

Director: Jason Chaet
Stars: Jack T Carpenter, Melanie Lynskey, Susie Essman and John Pankow
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Putzel won the Best Picture award at this year's Phoenix Film Festival in a very tough year indeed. I saw seven of the ten features in competition; five of them had a decent chance at this award and the other two weren't exactly bad either. It sounds cheesy but the biggest winners this year were the people selecting these movies to be screened because they outdid themselves, but the award goes to a feature film and they chose this one. In the heat of the festival, I enjoyed this very much and felt it was a very strong contender; looking back, I'm surprised that it won out over Favor and especially The Retrieval because it wasn't quite as consistent as either and it doesn't say anything remotely new. It's a relationship comedy from debut feature director Jason Chaet with a strong tie to the Jewish culture of Manhattan's Upper West Side, though it remained thoroughly accessible to a goy like me whose exposure to this sort of thing is entirely through the movies.

The Putzel of the title is a person, Walter Himmelstein by name. He works at the family fish store, Himmelstein's House of Lox, and really wants to take it over. It doesn't appear to be a particularly family dominated family business, given that there's a Chinese guy working at the counter and a Russian guy cleaning the place, but it was started by Walter's grandfather and now it's run by his Uncle Sid. Walter can feel the change in the air though and he's waiting to be handed the keys at the upcoming family meeting, but no, it's not to be. Sure, Uncle Sid is moving to Wickenburg, AZ, for reasons even he can't quite quantify, but he never promised to hand over the store, not even to sell it to 'creepy, spineless Putzel'. And so we appear to be at the end even as we begin, but if that's the case, we wouldn't have a movie, so you can be sure that things are going to get shaken up from here on out in ways that prove worthy of a Best Picture award.

The catalyst for much of what follows is Sally, played by Melanie Lynskey. She's a Kiwi actress with an enviable career, having kicked it off at only fifteen as one of the two murderous leading ladies in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, alongside Kate Winslet. After finishing high school, she took a prolific collection of character roles in movies as varied as Coyote Ugly, Flags of Our Fathers and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It's easy to see why she's so in demand, as she grounds this film completely. While Putzel is the title character and the lead role, everything revolves around Sally and every performance revolves around Lynskey's. She's deceptively powerful here, appearing to be almost throwaway, partly because she's always on the verge of leaving wherever she happens to be, but in reality she's the reason everything happens. She sparks the story into motion at the beginning, she keeps its wheels moving and we know it's arrived at the end because she's there.
You'd expect that an enticing young lady would be in the picture to snag young Putzel and help to carry him through his story arc and you'd be right, but not immediately. When she shows up in the store and clearly knows her way around the fish, it's Sid who falls in lust with her. Sure, he's been a married man for decades but he's quickly smitten and he takes to hanging out at the Abbey Pub, where she's working behind the bar, wooing this much younger lady with abandon. It's as Walter attempts to dissuade Sally from her relationship with Walter that their own sparks begin and it's clear from moment one that they would be a much better match than Sally and Sid. But Walter has his own marital conflict too, as he's also married, albeit also split up from his wife, Willa. To complicate matters still further, nobody else knows because he goes to great lengths to hide the split, such as taking the holiday they'd planned to go on and spending it locked up in a local hotel.

There are a number of reasons why Putzel succeeds. Perhaps the biggest one is that the romance is believable. It's realistic, awkward and utterly right, and it remains so even though Sally spends 250 days a year on the road as a dancer and Walter has a phobia of leaving the Upper West Side. So while they're clearly meant to be together, they just as clearly can't be, thus keeping the story well and truly on the tracks. It doesn't bode well for these young lovers, of course, but each and every moment we see that reminds us that there's isn a future here suggests that maybe there might be after all. That's a neat trick to pull and it's one that's rarely successful. Here that's only one of the comedic coups it achieves. There are many good moments, not all of which are tied to Jewish humour. The attempt by a friend of Walter's to seduce Sally away from Sid is hilarious and we don't even see it. There's also one of the funniest sex scenes I've ever seen on film.

Yet it's not entirely successful. The nuanced and deceptively loose script by Rick Moore, his only credit thus far, deserves a great deal of praise for what it achieves here, but it's also the reason that the story ventures a little over the top on occasion. Moore manages to plant a lot of wisdom here a layer or two below the surface, sourced from Jewish, Irish and American culture, and he's patient enough for it to be imparted through character growth instead of force feeding it to us in caricatures. It's when the caricatures show up that things slip, because they're funny only on the surface. Sid walks that line though actor John Pankow ends up on the right side of it, but Tunch the Russian cleaner has only one joke to tell and he keeps telling it throughout the movie until he becomes nothing more than a raunchy transplant from a Broken Lizard picture. Similarly, Fran Kranz deserves a lot more than he ends up with as a man in a fish costume.
That's not to say that these two aren't memorable, because they certainly provide the most iconic visual moments of the film, along with Hector, another supporting character which is a peach of a part for Adrian Martinez. Jarlath Conroy makes the most of his brief screen time too, as McGinty, Sally's boss at the Abbey, but it's Steve Park who does best in support. As Song, he's less obvious and more substantial; he looks most out of place of all the employees at Himmelstein's but he's nonetheless probably the most comfortable there. I enjoyed his work here and I like it all the more now that I belatedly realise he was also Dr Ling Li in The Brass Teapot, which I embarrassingly saw immediately before Putzel. The two characters are very different in tone but are both patient and stoic, so he did a great job delineating them. Realising that he was also Mike Yanagita, Marge's inappropriately sinister schoolfriend in Fargo back in 1996, raises my respect for him even more.

All these character actors are here to populate the film with background colour and texture. The lead is Jack Carpenter as Walter Himmelstein, who as the title character is surely the one we're supposed to be concentrating on throughout. I was surprised to find that Carpenter is one of the least experienced members of the cast because he does a solid job, playing up to enough of the expected stereotypes to keep the feel of the film in play but neatly avoiding the rest to ensure it stays fresh and accessible. I liked Walter, though I wanted to see more of the fraught relationship he has with Sid and, by extension, with his dead grandfather, and less of his attempts to get past his phobia that keeps him imprisoned within the Upper West Side. Beyond his phobia, he felt far more real than I'm used to seeing in quirky romantic comedies. Carpenter played him more as a character actor than a lead actor, which certainly worked for me.

I feel like I should pull down my dictionary of Yiddish slang and pepper my last paragraph with hip terms, but it would demean this picture which benefits from its cultural setting but deserves to fly far beyond it. Even though the upper west side of Manhattan, neatly animated at points, becomes something of a character itself, the film deserves to do what Putzel consistently can't do, namely to escape its boundaries. Each faux Yiddish review is surely going to do it a disservice by helping tie it back down. The focal points here aren't Manhattan and Jewish culture, they're the refreshing lead performances of Jack Carpenter and especially Melanie Lynskey, and the surprisingly deep debut script by Rick Moore that hints at future greatness. It's too early to haul out Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder as comparisons, especially as the finalé doesn't live up to the build, but I won't be the only one waiting with them in mind. This is a great start for the next couple to build upon.

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