Monday 28 July 2014

Love a la Carte (2014)

Director: Tim McSpadden
Stars: Aaron Ginn-Forsberg, Chauna Mae, James Ray and Kimber Leigh
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Whenever I review a film, I try to figure out what it's trying to tell me because there's usually something burning to get out, whether the movie is successful or not. From the various synopses I'd read of Love a la Carte, I expected it to tell me something about relationships, but it seemed far more driven to tell me about the man who made it, Tim McSpadden. He wrote, directed, produced, edited and shot the film, took care of the sound and even found a small role for himself on screen too, so clearly it's his baby, for good or bad, and it's no stretch to imagine that he put a lot of himself into it. I've only met him a time or two in passing, so don't know him, but this film screams at me that he has a strong sense of humour, but tries too hard to make sure we're aware of that, and that he has a more severe case of ADHD than I do. Both of these aspects are noticeable immediately and constantly reaffirm themselves as the film runs on. I'm not sure how many breaths I took during the hour and a half but I doubt it was enough. It's a busy picture!

Initially, it feels like an interesting approach. We're given a rapid fire history of sex, from sexual freedom to crabs, from Nancy Reagan as president to Al Gore inventing the internet, before we meet Phil Anders and his wife Evelyn, all in what feels like seconds. The editing is breakneck, the narration quirky and the really cheesy credits in Comic Sans, for God's sake, with animated gifs to boot. Much of it appears to be shot like a commercial. Or a cartoon. Or both. It gleefully breaks the fourth wall. It would surely break the fifth if only it could find it. And I find myself talking. With periods. I need to take a breath and calm down. What's important to note is that this initial sequence sets the stage for the film proper, because it's rapid fire stuff, leaping around like a shoal of blue fish and with a host of innovative ways to present material. There are discussions here that take place on the road with apparently deliberately awful rear projection, set up that way for stylistic effect. McSpadden likes stylistic effect and showcases a variety of it here.

While the French girl can't act, the leads are all decent. I've seen Aaron Ginn-Forsberg in a whole slew of films but I don't remember seeing him tasked with carrying a feature before. I learned two things about him here: that he's insanely good at playing a self-absorbed ass and that he looks Scandinavian with a beard. He's well cast as Phil Anders. I've never seen his screen wife before, but Chauna Mae does a fair job as Evelyn, hindered by her character being both tough and tired. They've been married for a dozen years, she's coming up on forty and she's very aware of both of those facts. Their relationship hasn't gone quite the way she expected, even if they live in a dream of a mansion. Their staircase is sprawling, their windows huge. They have a pool. And a bar. And a lobby that's bigger than my house. I'd buy that place for a dollar! I remember this house coming up on the market and drooling at the online images. I can't buy these two remotely affording it, even if they smuggled illegals through the west wing.
As if McSpadden worried that we might start looking at this relationship somewhat seriously, he enforces a lower tone. I think we're supposed to laugh at the inappropriateness of many scenes, like the one where Phil goes to the doctor for a prostate exam and the doctor lights up a cigarette after retrieving his fist. It's all about sex, apparently. Phil needs to have more of it or he'll get blue balls, but his better half is always tired. So, he wonders what he can do about the situation and the answers he conjures up are the ones a man going through a midlife crisis would conjure up. This is where James Ray comes in, looking odd with hair. He's Phil's best friend, though we continually wonder how they get on. Phil wants to screw everyone with legs and Gene tries to talk him out of it. He's less a friend and more of a conscience, but Ray carries the sincerity angle easily so isn't stretched at all here. Unfortunately for him, this is a cynical movie that's looking for truth. That's as easy as finding a marriage counsellor who isn't divorced, right?

The answer, as the title of the film suggests, is Love a la Carte, a website for 'people stuck in relationship quagmires.' By the way, the most surprising moment of the entire film for me was McSpadden not using the word 'giggety' immediately after introducing this website. Instead, he distracted himself by showing us every landmark in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Every talking point in the city is here, from the light rail to the LOVE statue at the Art Museum to the funnel art thing downtown to the bridge over the Tempe mud pond. With Saturn in the sky? Huh? Oh hey, the Bookmans book maze. Even the corner in Winslow, AZ. Monument Valley. The horse ride at Glendale Glitters. I lost track. And yes, that was Saturn. I have no idea what the point of that was, but I enjoyed the stylistic shenanigans that arrived with the website. His pitch to Love a la Carte takes the form of a political speech ('Yes, you can have it all!') and his first dates through it are phrased as a nature documentary. McSpadden certainly has imagination in bucketloads.

Eventually Phil meets Angela Heavens, played by Kimber Leigh, through Love a la Carte, and we wonder who we're supposed to care about in this movie, while McSpadden attempts to distract us with a karaoke version of the theme song. Phil has charm, but we've been firmly introduced to who he really is. 'Who am I to deny these women me?' he asks us. No, we're not with you, dude, even before you turned into Overly Confident Midlife Crisis Idiot. Kimber Leigh is one of the nicest people on the planet, so we automatically want to care about her character, but Angela is also married with kids and screwing around on the side with no regrets whatsoever. Sure, Phil seems to connect far better with Angela than he does with his wife, but we're neither rooting for adultery nor wanting anyone to get back with anyone. In another picture, this might have been the start of a beautiful friendship, but that's clearly not where we're going. All we can assume is that things are going to go horribly wrong somehow, which somehow we want to see.
I'd heard a lot of bad things about Love a la Carte and I can see why, because it's never quite sure what it wants to be. Much of it goes too far, the tone of the comedy never staying consistent. While I laughed out loud at some scenes, there are a whole bunch of supposedly funny ADHD moments that just aren't funny at all. Many of the little gimmicky ideas thrown into the movie like confetti might have been hilarious half a dozen pints into a night, but don't stand up the morning after. Many are ill-advised, adding nothing but a 'Huh?' reaction; Saturn above the Mill Ave bridge is a great example of something that looks really cool but makes no sense at all; the internet meme conversation and the mountie led evacuation fit the same bill. The more insightful parts of the film aren't particularly insightful, while the juvenile scenes are, well, juvenile. The character names we read in the credits are thankfully not brought out within the movie, for the most part. The political bits fall flat. Yes, there's a lot of negative here.

The positive side is grounded in the actors, but I have to admire the relentlessness of the piece, the way that McSpadden kept layering on the humour. The leads do find their way through mostly successfully, though they do struggle with a few of their more dubious lines. It's a very dialogue heavy picture, which these actors have no trouble with. Aaron Ginn-Forsberg does very well, able to find most of Phil's angles, even if they made no sense. This is a great demo reel for him and it highlights how he should play leads more often. Chauna Mae was decent but her role had her play bored, tired and blasé for most of the film, which doesn't allow her to be magnetic. James Ray was fine but he had very little to do. While he played what might be the only sympathetic character in the film, Gene is notably one dimensional. Kimber Leigh impressed too, showing a little more of herself than I expected. Like the others though, Angela is mostly just a prop for Phil to bounce off. And is that four roles for Gary Herkimer? He's only credited with three.

I can see an audience for Love a la Carte, even if that audience isn't me. While many films aim at being cinematic paintings, McSpadden aimed this film at being a cinematic collage. It's far from your average romcom, but while it phrases itself as a meditation on relationships, it's less about the relationships and more about the meditation. It's the sort of feature a decent cast on Whose Line is It Anyway? might have improvised if given the right set of props in the right order. I didn't connect with any of the characters or the choices they made and really don't buy how they all wrap up in the end, but I enjoyed a lot of how it all went down. There's a section devoted to Evelyn Anders that shows up just as we're really wondering where the film is going and it plays so closely to a visualisation of a therapy session that we realise that the picture as a whole does something very similar. I wonder if this is a film to come alive only after the director's commentary track explains where all the elements of the collage came from.


Burner II said...

I'm going to try to check out some the films you are reviewing this year. Thanks!

Unknown said...

You can always watch "Love a la Carte" here - - (or Google for the latest online platform ) - For special promotions & discounts, follow along with the movie on Twitter @LovealaCarte or on Facebook --

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks, Tim! People are asking how they can see these Arizona features I'm reviewing, so details like this are much appreciated.