Wednesday 12 February 2014

Mike Case in: The Big Kiss Off (2013)

Director: Justin Baird
Stars: Les Mahoney, Debra Mayer, Devai Pearce, Atoy Wilson and Dale Shane
I watched The Big Kiss Off and I enjoyed The Big Kiss Off, but I'm still not sure exactly what I saw. I think what it boils down to is an equivalent to The Big Something that merely plays a little closer to its source inspirations. The Big Something is a microbudget Arizona feature film that takes an idea conjured up by Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep, the first of his Philip Marlowe novels, and runs with it, namely that in reality, detective stories don't unfold quite as cleanly as they do in the movies. The traditional model sees a crime solved through insight, intelligence or intuition. Watch enough of them and you'll begin to realise whodunit a few minutes in. When Howard Hawks adapted The Big Sleep to the big screen in the late forties, he followed Chandler's approach instead, which was to concentrate on the feel of the piece, building a story not through plot but through character. He even asked Chandler who killed one of the supporting characters, only to be told that even the writer didn't have a clue. It simply wasn't important.

In other words, what The Big Sleep did was to have its detective stumble about poking a stick into every hornet's nest he could find until he got the sort of reaction he was looking for. Eventually, he stirred up enough reaction for the villain to come to light so the story could be wrapped up. It has a beginning and an end that appear to tie together, but what comes in between is completely up for grabs. Who knows who did what? Who knows if Marlowe found the right clues or acted on them in the right way? It doesn't matter. He got his man in the end. Well, a man, at least. Some have complained that The Big Sleep is a confusing, hard to follow mess, but they're missing the point; it's supposed to be! It's an attractive idea, one that has been played with in many other movies, usually with titles that reference the original. The Big Lebowski is the most obvious thematic return to this idea, but The Big Something does exactly the same thing on a much smaller budget and with a much quirkier feel. That's why it leaps to mind here.

I've now seen almost eighty films by Travis Mills and Running Wild Pictures and The Big Something, his debut feature, is probably still my favourite, even if it isn't the best. Talking with regular Running Wild actors at the 52 Films/52 Weeks event last weekend, I found that I'm not alone. It must have cost about as much as my granddaughter has in her piggy bank and it's certainly not without its flaws, but it takes that stumbling detective idea from The Big Sleep, hauls it into the modern day and endows it with some gloriously quirky characters and situations. It's a lot of fun, like The Big Lebowski without a budget. The Big Kiss Off does precisely the same thing. Shot in Hollywood, it clearly isn't a Hollywood movie; it's an indie feature that takes neat advantage of its lack of budget. Mike Case, for instance, is a classic PI with his name inevitably stencilled on his office window; but here, that office is his car. It's this sort of little touch that does a lot more than merely recycling character names from Double Indemnity.
The screenplay tasks its hero less with solving a case, which has to do with finding a missing husband, and more with just bouncing from one quirky character to another. This is the film's greatest success, but it couldn't work without a strong character to ground all the wackiness and, fortunately, that's the other obvious success. Les Mahoney would seem to be responsible for both of them, as he co-wrote the script with Sherman Hirsh and took the role of Mike Case for himself. He's not your usual leading man, even if he wears the usual hard boiled detective's suit. He often looks older than he is, because his face has the sort of worn in look we might expect from a jaded private dick who's been there, done that a few times too often. He feels somewhat like Doug McClure playing Tom Waits, if you can imagine that combination. He also often feels out of place, like a forties character lost in time, because this movie is emphatically modern, however it wears its film noir influences on its sleeve.

The contrast is highlighted early on. Case suffers through a wonderful early scene at the Freaky Tiki Bar where he follows the detective movie rulebook, only to be ripped off by a bartender in a Hawaiian shirt. Bogie wouldn't have stood for it; he'd have slapped him into dishing out the dirt. As this lost opportunity highlights, Case isn't quite the hardboiled dick that he thinks he is. That's underlined soon after, as he visits Lt Lorena Dietrichson at home for police insight. He relentlessly tries to pump her for information while she just wants him to pump her. So Case thinks he's like Bogart's Philip Marlowe, but he's more like an alien stuck in Marlowe's skin with only a bunch of films noir as reference. Fortunately Mahoney plays Case straight throughout. Had he played him for laughs, this would have gone horribly wrong, but Case doesn't see humour in setting the Magnum, PI theme tune as his ringtone, tweeting his new case or driving around with bloody fuzzy dice hanging from his rear view mirror. We do, of course.

Most of the humour comes from the situation comedy and the wild characters that Case encounters as he blunders his way towards the end. Viewers who expect every movie to look like it cost $50m won't get too far here, but the live or die moment for those with more discerning tastes may be when Tamal Dupta shows up about the seventeen minute mark. He's a young conman masquerading as a bad guru and every scene he's in feels like it was improvised on the spot. Maybe that is the key. Everything else is when Dupta's on screen. He's easily the wildest character thus far and his arrival is the point where the film emphatically moves from being a detective movie with humour to a comedy with a detective. Anyone who doesn't appreciate this switch probably isn't going to enjoy where the picture goes from there, but if you find yourself laughing at his blatant attempts to fleece an undercover Mike Case, you should stick around and have a blast. And a beer. That would probably help too.
As Dupta, Sunil Sadarangani may play the most outrageous character in the picture, though Guillermo Jorge would battle him for that title as a Vegan bullfighter, but they're not alone. S W Thomas is surely my favourite as a crazily cryptic character with a stream of consciousness mouth. Like Jorge, he shows up out of nowhere, as does Maxim cover girl Erica Ocampo to slide into Case's hot tub and discuss the size of his gun. Given how little connection any of these have to the actual plot, maybe they're all just creations of his subconscious juggling things around. Then again, he does that sort of thing much more overtly with post-it notes on his car's bonnet. William Tell Mitchell brings a memorably broken voice to an art dealer with a line in therapy. Dale Shane proves a neatly apologetic enforcer and Atoy Wilson an eccentric informer. Hannah Pierce has a way of stealing scenes, even though she isn't even an actress; she's the waitress who served Hirsh and Mahoney when they first met for lunch to discuss the script.

There are experienced actors in the film. Debra Mayer, veteran of many a Full Moon movie, is a lot of fun as a nymphomaniac cop, even if she can't bring the proper nuance to film noir lines like, 'I've been well; now I'm better.' David Alan Graf seems to make his way into every other indie feature nowadays, but his role here has even less screen time than he had in Biology 101. Inevitably, they're more solid than some of the less experienced names. Devai Pearce has a decent shot at Victoria Billows, the wife who hires Case to kick off the film, given that she's earned precious few credits thus far. She has some good moments too but not enough of them. I'd still watch Scream, Zombie Scream though to see how she does with three roles in the same movie, one that was directed by one of the writers of this film, Sherman Hirsh. Throughout this surreal journey, it's Mahoney who is the only real constant. Everyone else is here for him to bounce off for a few minutes and move on.

As a film noir, this is clearly an affectionate tribute to the days of yore but it doesn't remotely follow in their footsteps. It's a detective movie without detection, not to mention a porn movie without the porn. It knows what it needs to include, but the obvious lack of budget, improvised feel to the dialogue and lack of emphatic sets means that a number of scenes feel like they might play out a little differently in the non-existent hardcore version. As a comedy, it's a lot more successful; once I managed to adjust to what I was actually seeing, I laughed my way through. The story is pretty terrible, possibly deliberately, but everything spins out of the offbeat characters and scenes, which are varied enough and frequent enough to keep us interested. I'd certainly watch it again (I laughed as much on a second time through as a first), but it would certainly play better in good microbudget loving company with a steady supply of alcohol to add to the ambience. Maybe that is the key. What do you say, Dupta?

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