Sunday, May 24, 2009

SIFF Report #1: "The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle" and "Paper Heart"

The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle is a movie about work and, secondarily, about corporate malfeasance. Its oddball corps of janitors, pictured above -- sweet, dimwitted Methyl (Tygh Runyan), puckish O.C. (Vince Vieluf), former data-entry slave Dory (Marshall Allman), goth goddess Ethyl (Tania Raymonde), and their boss, cross-dressing Gulf War vet Weird William (Richard Lefebvre) -- have adventures, affairs, and clashes with each other, and everyone learns a life lesson or two along the way. One thing all the characters learn is not to eat too many cookies.

Indie darling Natasha Lyonne plays Tracy, who works for a company called Corsica whose hot new product is a cookie that heats up in your mouth when it interacts with your saliva (for that home-baked feeling). The substance that brings about this miraculous chemical reaction still needs to be tested on humans, so Tracy begins leaving batches of the individually wrapped cookies out for the night crew, our trusty team of janitors, to nosh on while they work, have sex on conference tables, and so on. Unfortunately, the cookies turn out not only to be addictive but also to cause a reaction in certain people that's a lot more dramatic than their makers intended.

Seattle-based writer-director David Russo plays what could have been horror-movie material for laughs in this fanciful, scrappy, satiric work that recalls the nutty, sharp-toothed humor of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. I'd already seen one of Russo's short films at Bumbershoot; it was an arty stop-motion thing that somehow seemed to move in three dimensions -- across the length of the screen, but also towards and away from the viewer.

Dizzle shows that Russo can concoct a ragtag band of characters and a pretty compelling plot without losing the aesthetic he established in that short. The feature includes several cookie-induced hallucination sequences that could stand alone as exercises in inventive cinematic style, but they also fit nicely into the larger film's loopy vision. (The gorgeous opening credit sequence, which follows a message in a bottle through various seasons and seas, is a perfect example.) Shot in Seattle, Dizzle has a pleasingly anarchic spirit and a lot of energy, and considering that its budget must have been pretty low, it looks great. Much like Kaufman's Being John Malkovich, Russo's film immerses us in a world that looks a lot like our own but has surprising new rules, and by the end I was a little sad to leave it.

Paper Heart, the quirky romantic comedy I'd been anticipating pretty eagerly, is an endearing, low-key semi-mockumentary about a geeky comedian/musician, Charlyne Yi, who doesn't believe in true love. She clearly believes in the kind of love that sustains a friendship, since she has a best friend, and she seems to get along well with her family, so that sort of love makes sense to her, too. It's just the falling-in-love variety she has doubts about. After conferring with a number of comedian friends more famous than she is (Seth Rogen, Adventureland's Martin Starr, and Demetri Martin, among others), she and director Nicholas Jasenovec (played in the film, apparently, by Jake M. Johnson) set out on a cross-country road trip to interview regular folks about love.

What ensues is a series of chats with happy couples, possibly not-so-happy couples, Elvis impersonators, romance novelists, and kids on a playground. Charlyne often asks couples how they met, or how they knew their love was true, and their responses resemble the "interviews" sprinkled throughout When Harry Met Sally..., a canonical work in the romcom genre. Along the way, Charlyne becomes friendly with Michael Cera, star of Juno and Superbad, and Nicholas raises the inevitable question: Is Charlyne finally head over heels?

The film succeeds because of its overarching sweetness, and because of Yi, who has pretty much got to be every nerdy boy's dream girl. She's smart, opinionated, fun, odd, and complicated, and she's also pretty in a very real way. As Louis Menand once wrote in The New Yorker, there are three kinds of love stories: the kind where you, the viewer, fall in love with both lovers; the kind where only one of them wins your heart; and the kind where you don't really care all too much about either of them. Though Michael Cera fans will enjoy his usual stumbling, sensitive-boy mannerisms, Yi is the real find here, and her lightly sardonic toughness and rare moments of vulnerability play beautifully against the intentionally gimmicky premise.

What I especially like about the movie is that it presents a heterosexual man who doesn't have conventional masculine tendencies and a straight woman who's both strong and feminine, and there's no direct commentary about the shift in traditional gender roles. It's very 21st century: Geeks are chic now, and geek love has the transcendent power to mostly avoid fossilized ideas about what a man and a woman should be like in relationship. On a similar note, the romance novelist Charlyne interviews uses the term "H.E.A." to refer to her genre's stock ending. (It stands for "happily ever after.") Without driving the point home too obviously, Heart reveals how naive that old saw is without denying that the right partner can make your life more complete. And that's always nice to see.

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