Wednesday 24 April 2013

The Brass Teapot (2012)

Director: Ramaa Mosley
Stars: Juno Temple and Michael Angarano
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.
I was looking forward to The Brass Teapot at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, not for a particular actor but just because it looked like it would be right up my alley. The synopsis included 'magical dark comedy' which is a phrase that I tend to leap at, however often it's led me astray in the past. I'm a sucker for this sort of material and perhaps I'm more forgiving than I should be on occasion because of that. If they'd have added 'quirky' to the description, I'd probably have seen it already. It turned out to be an anomaly in a genre of clear hits and misses, as it drew me in immediately with its substantial charm and energy, but began to collapse in on itself a third of the way through and continued to tear itself apart all the way to the end credits. The obvious flaw is Tim Macy's script, which expands on the one he wrote with director Ramaa Mosley for a short film of the same name in 2007. Maybe it was better as a short, maybe it would work better as a different feature.

It starts very well. We're in Laurel Springs, a sort of American everytown, and we're here to follow Alice and John Macy, a young couple who are very much in love but haven't yet found the success they hope and believably expect to find. John sells warranties for TVs over the phone at the Laurel Springs Office Building, as generic a job in as generic a building as you can find in this town. He's a little klutzy but in an enticing way and he's funny to boot. No wonder Alison married him, even though she's a gorgeous young thing who was voted 'most likely to succeed' in high school. She's looking for work after completing her undergraduate degree in Art History, but she's restricted by the tight niche and a lack of experience. And so they're broke, taking it in stride through strength of character but still wondering how they'll cope. Juno Temple and Michael Angarano replace Ben Weber and Traci Dinwiddie from the short film and we're on their side from the outset.

Much of the early charm comes from their performances, which are delightful. Temple is probably still best known for the modern St Trinian's films but she's growing in stature, coming to this film from a role in The Dark Knight Rises and with another upcoming in Sin City: A Dame to Die For, to mention just two of ten films from 2012 and 2013 that are either out or in post production. She's certainly a name to watch and spending half this film in her underwear is not going to hurt any of her prospects. Angorano has been prominent for long enough to have been one of the last three actors in contention for the role of Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. Luckily for him, he didn't get it. Unluckily he did land the lead role in The Forbidden Kingdom, which meant that we ignored him in favour of Jet Li and Jackie Chan. He also dated Kristen Stewart for five years, which only makes him enviable in circles that don't count. He has done good work too, as he does here.
And so when they're sideswiped on the road because someone sawed off a stop sign, we feel for them. We still feel for them as Alice spies an old lady picking up a brass teapot on the other side of the road, follows her into her antiques store and steals it while she isn't looking. It's irrational and completely out of character but she's drawn to it. Perhaps it's fate, because she discovers a curious property of the teapot: when she hurts herself in its proximity, money appears inside it. I don't mean just coins, I mean big money. Hundreds at once. Stolen or not, it's the answer to their prayers, especially as John is promptly laid off at the same time. Apparently he fails to smile when talking to people on the phone. He must work for the Erich von Stroheim school of salesmanship. He comes home to a nightmare: stuff scattered everywhere and his wife covered in blood. She says she fell down the stairs but they don't have any. And then she lets him in on the secret.

This is a great setup for a movie. No wonder Mosley chose to expand it from her short film for her debut feature. There are so many potential avenues to explore, some obvious, some a little more obscure but even more satisfying, and for a while that's exactly what Tim Macy's script promises. He has John do the honest thing and take it back, only to discover that the antiques store is gone, but then Macy gets truly inspired and has him take it onto The Antiques Roadshow so viewers all over the world see it on television. That means that once Alice and John have progressed through a set of innovative, not to mention painful, ways to prompt the teapot into lucrative action, from a Brazilian waxing treatment to a spanking session, we have other characters thrown into the mix. The humour is lively if not particularly edgy, until a pair of Hasidic Jews break in to get mediaeval on their asses. Then it finds that quirkiness I was so hoping for.

Unfortunately this is also where it starts to fall apart through clumsy writing. It becomes clich├ęd, convenient and inevitable. Of course they need to do research, but they do it within a mess of a scene that is nonsensical, sloppy and overly convenient. Of course they start spending their new found wealth but there's no attempt at either realism or believable fantasy, beyond John wanting his very own vodka label. It's overplayed and disappointing, losing sight of why the early scenes worked so well by giving us less of the characters we want to watch and more of those we don't. The only saving grace is that Mosley must have landed some sort of lucrative sponsorship deal with an underwear company because the leads spend so much time in a partial state of undress. Juno Temple is rather pleasing to the eye, so I'm not going to complain. I'd assume that Michael Angarano fits that bill too, so the women in the audience aren't going to complain either.
The catch is that the film needs something more to keep its momentum going than two leads in underwear who scrub up well. For every scene elevated by well played comedy, there's another lessened by throwaway stupidity. For every scene that reveals another intriguing aspect to the teapot's power, there's another that wastes it. It becomes as frustrating to us watching as Alice and John's inevitable slow shift to the dark side is to the character who's in the movie as a force for grounding and insight. Eventually we reach Crank territory and find that Macy really doesn't have a clue what to do with the monster he's created. By this point I was actually wishing for a deus ex machina artefact to rewind time and try another approach, but that's another 'magical dark comedy' entirely, more's the pity. If Mosley had landed Bill Murray to play Dr Li Ling of the Theosophist Society, perhaps the script would have stayed magically on track.

I'm probably sounding more negative than I intended to be, but if there's anything worse than a bad movie, it's a good movie that turns into a bad movie. This one was a great movie that turned into a bad movie and that's an intensely annoying change to sit through. By the time we find our way somehow to the final act, the sloppy writing has become so prevalent that it bashes us over the head with its sloppiness. While I knew where the story arcs of certain characters had to go, it still felt unfulfilling and not because of anything in the way they were played. It felt like Macy was just having so much fun writing the script that he lost track of how long it had become and found that he had to wrap it up quickly. It's the same problem that George Lucas had with the prequels to Star Wars: by the time he got to the end, he realised he'd forgotten to set up a transition to the originals, so shoehorned something in. The difference is that they sucked from moment one.

There are some moments even in later scenes that sparkle with humour. I even liked the Lord of the Rings nod that played all the better for not being explained. Both Temple and Angarano play these scenes as well as is possible, somehow remaining sympathetic and engaging characters even as their stories floundered. Even as the script falls apart, there are still viable new potential directions that leap out of it asking us to pick them, but Macy handles them with an acute case of ADHD and jumps from blue fish to blue fish, so none of them satisfy for more than brief moments. Worst of all, the endings aren't surprising. They do make sense and they tie up the plot strands pretty well, but it's clear that Macy's Hollywood resistance was too weak and that's really the big problem throughout. This leaves the gate like an indie film, a great one with everything going for it, but it makes it home as a Hollywood movie, and that's the worst thing that could happen.

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