TORONTO, Canada—Conspiracies are everywhere in Poolman, although the greatest mystery might be how anyone involved was attracted to this tidal wave of dire kookiness. Aiming for ramshackle neo-noir comedy in the vein of The Big Lebowski and Under the Silver Lake, Chris Pine’s star-studded directorial debut (premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival) spins convoluted webs that are both nonsensical and humorless. It’s difficult to remember the last time a wannabe-zany film worked this hard for so few laughs.
At rundown Los Angeles motel The Tahitian Tiki, Darren Barrenman (Pine) tends to a tiny pool with the meticulous care of an artist. Listening to opera via his vintage discman and archaic headphones, latticed fingerless gloves worn on hands that wield a skimmer, he goes about his duty in the early morning sunshine with a Zen calm that he additionally exhibits during his frequent meditations at the bottom of the deep end. During those quiet, closed-eye sessions, he has puzzling visions: tree branches swaying in the light; standing in a cave while wearing a suit that doesn’t match his scraggly long blonde hair and graying beard; and hearing about “the secret thing” and other oblique enigmas from a talking lizard. The last of these is somehow related to Darren’s belief that there are “humanoid shapeshifters” walking among us, not that it ultimately matters.
As conceived by Pine and co-writer Ian Gotler and embodied by the leading man, Darren is a collection of weirdo-isms. He’s an origami artist who gives out his creations as gifts, and he’s simultaneously a crusader, incessantly appearing at city council meetings (577 in a row!) to put on detailed presentations (aided by posterboard supporting materials) about the need for more trolleys, a new bus schedule, and an end to rampant urban development. At these hearings, he’s accompanied by his therapist Diane (Annette Benning) and her director husband Jack (Danny DeVito), who’s making a documentary titled “David and Go’Lie’Th” about Darren’s efforts to revitalize L.A. Jack and Diane are Darren’s Tahitian Tiki neighbors and friends (and, strangely, named after John Mellencamp’s hit song), and also in his life are his right-hand man/gofer Wayne (John Ortiz) and his quasi-girlfriend Susan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has a habit of sleeping with other people.
These characters prattle on at a mile a minute about all sorts of semi-coherent things, and Darren likes to report all of them—as well as details regarding his relationship status, emotions and misadventures—in letters that he writes on an archaic typewriter and sends to none other than Erin Brockovich, his advocacy idol. At some later juncture, Darren admits that he does this because it eases his loneliness, yet Poolman doesn’t suggest that he has any discernible inner life. Regardless of his crying and blathering about the “feelings in my heart,” he’s a compendium of juvenile hang-ups, uninhibited flights of fancy and delusions of grandeur. He, and his ensuing story, strive for screwball wildness and come up with only exhausting affectation, with Pine chewing scenery so hungrily that he doesn’t notice he’s forgotten to give himself something legitimately amusing or intelligible to say or do.
Poolman’s tale is a curlicued riff on Chinatown in which Darren, already coping with a severe drought that’s causing his pool water levels to precipitously drop, is visited by a femme fatale named June (DeWanda Wise) and hired to look into her city councilman boss (Stephen Tobolowsky), who’s apparently crooked. Reluctantly at first and then with great fedora-wearing gusto, Darren accepts this gumshoe mission and initiates an investigation that leads him to an opulent mansion where he spies June with a nurse and a silhouetted male figure in an upstairs window, and to a racetrack where Tobolowsky’s politician meets with two heavies and accepts an ostensible bribe. Darren surmises that something wicked is underway in the City of Angels, and in short order he begins to suspect that it might have to do with Theodore Hollandaise (Clancy Brown), a powerful real estate mogul who’s trying to pull off a Venice housing project that anti-establishment eco-warrior Darren instinctively opposes.
Art deco interiors, deep shadows, and nocturnal hotspots are all pieces of Poolman’s puzzle, dutifully borrowed from innumerable prior La La Land genre efforts. Everyone speaks in riddles and rambling monologues, races about like coked-up cartoon characters, and wears and does funny things, the only problem being that none of them are actually funny. Worse, the film isn’t intriguingly intricate or surreal despite the fact that Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise eventually shows up as an almond magnate with clandestine ties to Hollandaise. It’s just a lot of going around in circles, to the point that—at least for a time—it’s not clear if the proceedings are real or simply a figment of the scruffy protagonist’s warped mind. After twenty minutes, the issue proves irrelevant, since the action is so gratingly frenzied that one’s only concern is when it’ll mercifully come to an end.
Bening, DeVito, Leigh, and the rest of the impressive cast are game for this madcap mush, doing their best to infuse their characters with off-the-wall spirit. Poolman, however, doesn’t offer them a single witty line or bonkers situation. Instead, it tumbles down a rabbit hole of dreary encounters and drearier revelations that have to do with The Golden Girls-inspired drag shows, wealthy little old ladies, and furtive sexual and romantic affairs. There’s no doubt that Pine is going for bewildering, sun-bleached shaggy-dog noir in the tradition of his ancestors (which also include Robert Altman’s seminal The Long Goodbye). Yet from a script that’s overflowing with mirthlessly manic dialogue, to a plot that feigns complexity while traveling only a short distance from its starting point—not to mention ends with answers that raise more questions—his execution isn’t sharp or silly enough to pull off the trick.
As for Darren himself, Pine piles on the quirks but never figures out how to synthesize them into a memorably entertaining whole. Whether leaping into bushes, running around nighttime streets, bursting into dressing rooms or surveilling various targets, he’s a half-formed joke in search of structure, purpose, and a punchline.
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