Saturday 10 January 2015

The Test Case (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Angela Haines, Brian DeMarco, Michael Hanelin and Tenley Dene
Week 16 in Running Wild's 52 Films in 52 Weeks project proved to be a huge departure for many reasons. For a start, Travis Mills aimed 'to lighten up the mood amongst our Joyce adaptations' with a comedy, but chose one by P G Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves and Wooster, so it's about as far from contemporary Arizona as could be imagined. While almost all of the non-Joyce stories adapted thus far were by classic American names like Hawthorne, Twain and Conrad, P G Wodehouse was emphatically English. I couldn't highlight this better than by quoting the opening line of The Test Case, which was first published in 1915 in Pearson's Magazine: 'Well-meaning chappies at the club sometimes amble up to me and tap me on the wishbone, and say 'Reggie, old top,'—my name’s Reggie Pepper—'you ought to get married, old man.'' I can't help but see any attempted adaptation to modern Arizona as a Gordian knot level puzzle. Mills had an Alexander the Great moment and discarded almost everything in the story.

Wodehouse's story revolves around Pepper, a blusterer in the vein of Nigel Bruce's Dr Watson, whose girl, Ann Selby, describes him to his face as 'entirely vapid and brainless' and suffering from 'the handicap of large private means.' Reggie and Ann are now serious, but she's having second thoughts about marriage for precisely the reasons she mentions above. 'You're one of the idle rich, and your brain, if you ever had one, has atrophied,' she tells him and he determines to impress her by doing something notably clever to prove otherwise. 'Suppose I pull off some stunt which only a deuced brainy chappie could get away with?' he asks her. 'Would you marry me then?' She answers in the positive only because she doesn't believe he could do such a thing, but a discussion about a mutual friend, Harold Bodkin, inspires him. Harold lost his first wife, Amelia, five years earlier and has married again, to Hilda. He loves both wives, but is alienating the latter by idolising the former. Pepper decides to simultaneously fix the problem and win Ann's hand.

Of this story, Mills retains only two things. His adaptation revolves around two couples, albeit neither Ann and Reggie nor Harold and Hilda, and one of them isn't yet married and may just never be. That's it. His version follows an awkward couple called Alfred and Judy, who are engaged and planning a honeymoon in Paris but don't seem to have much of a clue about the whole marriage thing. Beyond gender, Alfred's only similarity to Reggie is his awkwardness and Judy may not have anything at all in common with Ann; she's more like a female version of Alfred. Deciding that they should learn more about what they have in store for them as man and wife, they visit another couple who have been married for over a decade. I'm not sure if they expect to gain insight or that Gary and Alexandra might take them under their wing, but the evening to which we're made privy is surely far from what they might have imagined. The last scene is a strange but satisfying one, which might just show what Mills took away from The Test Case.
Alfred and Judy are portrayed with suitable awkwardness by Brian DeMarco and Angela Haines, but Mills needed them to be shocked too and only DeMarco seemed able to find that reaction. I like the situations into which their hosts relentlessly placed them and I love the acute discomfort that Michael Hanelin and Tenley Dene sent their way in waves. Paired off by gender, the first question Gary asks Alfred is, 'Do you like guns?' and Angela's first to Judy is, 'How big's his dick?' Perhaps partly because Gary and Alexandra are completely in control of the evening, Hanelin and Dene automatically find themselves in the driving seat, but they milk it throughout. Hanelin especially shines in a comedic role, something I don't believe I've seen him in before; his timing is pristine and his reaction when Alfred assumes his guns equate to a love of hunting is priceless (they're vegetarians who don't eat anything with a face). Dene keeps up with him well in the scenes they share and takes over when alone with Judy. They own the film.

While it's fair to say that anyone watching this because it was written by P G Wodehouse is going to feel rather misled if not utterly outraged, I enjoyed the new story Mills put together. In fact I can laugh at the idea of dialogue like, 'All any man really wants is a home cooked meal and a place to put his wiener' in a Wodehouse adaptation. Trying to imagine the dry wit of Fry and Laurie in a conversation like the one that Alexandra leads Judy into in the appliance room is a riot all on its own. Certainly I want to see Hanelin in more comedy; all I can remember prior to this is Star Babies, but he's hardly the focus of attention there, more of an in joke for people who are used to seeing him paired off with Colleen Hartnett. I appreciated a longer running time, twenty minutes or so, in a series where even the longest stories Mills adapted got a lot less than that. It allowed the actors to play things slower, build in awkward silences and react with the thoughtfulness that the characters deserved.

I also appreciated some of the technical decisions behind the film. While I do wonder why Angela Haines, tasked with playing a stunningly naive young lady, would be placed in a dress that shows off her tattoos, not to mention emphasises her bust, she did otherwise look the part, as did the other actors. When they meet for the first time, 'the newlyweds' are in the dark while their evening's hosts are in the light, a clear analogy for their respective experience levels. The camera's focus is also consistently well chosen, some scenes focused on the characters rather than what they're looking at (of course, that also helps budget concerns) and others focused on reactions rather than actions. The dinner scene in particular highlights both connection and disconnection and, in tandem with the editing, it's superb. As Gary moans in delight at his wife's salad, we don't watch him; we watch in turn Alexandra enjoying the tease and their lost and embarrassed guests. It's also the film in microcosm; it's those who get it who will enjoy it most.

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