SXSW FILM 2012
By Linc Leifeste | March 13, 2012
Director: Jonas Åkerlund
Writers: Chris Millis (Novel), Chris Millis (screenplay)
Starring: Matt Lucas, Billy Crystal, Juno Temple, James Marsden, Peter Stormare, David Koechner, Rosie Perez, Dolph Lundgren, James Caan, Johnny Knoxville
I went into my South by Southwest Film Festival screening of Small Apartments almost completely in the dark, having been drawn in mainly by the eclectic cast. With several big names involved (particularly Billy Crystal), my biggest concern was that the film might be too mainstream (read mundane) for my tastes, but I can say without a doubt that my concerns on that front were completely unfounded. I found the film to be as quirky and off-the-wall as anything I’ve seen in a good while but disappointingly it also struck me as ironically distant and off-putting.
Franklin Franklin (Matt Lucas) is an odd duck. Apparently all alone in the world, his only known relation is an institutionalized brother (James Marsden), who sends him daily packages consisting of a cassette-tape with various odd messages and an abundance of toenail clippings. Franklin is overweight, completely hairless and lives alone in a seedy L.A. apartment, seemingly spending the vast majority of his time sitting around in only his tighty-whities while chugging two-liter jugs of Moxie soda and watching his aspiring Vegas stripper neighbor Simone (Juno Temple) through a pair of binoculars. While daydreaming of life in Switzerland, his other favorite pastime is blowing on the gigantic alphorn that takes up much of the room in his apartment, much to the dismay of his eclectic neighbors Mr. Allspice (James Caan) and Tommy Balls (Johnny Knoxville).
But that’s just the beginning of Franklin’s quirks. It’s soon revealed that he has killed his unkempt despotic landlord (Peter Stormare), more or less accidentally, his body left lying on the kitchen floor for Franklin’s lapdog to nibble on. Much like with everything else that befalls Franklin, he seems to have no emotional reaction to his landlord’s death. After graphically daydreaming about various ways to dispose of the body, he ultimately decides to create a staged suicide but botches the effort so profoundly (and hilariously) that it’s no time at all before fire investigator Burt Walnut (Billy Crystal) is on the case.
The film has the look and feel of a music video or short sketch that has unfortunately been drawn out to feature film length (no surprise that director Jonas Åkerlund has an extensive background in music videos), with an overly-slick yet squalid appearance, vivid contrasting colors, with an artificial almost-neon back-lighting. There are cartoonish flashbacks and dream sequences, plenty of visual tricks, and endless cuts and jumps, making for a visual experience every bit as jarring as the story and characters being portrayed on the screen.
It feels like Åkerlund has tried really hard to make a meaningful film, a black comedy that packs a punch. In the end it is both too perverse and too precious, starting out nearly too grotesque to be funny and ending with mawkish sentimentality, the whole package wrapped in a nihilistic bow. The film is filled with an endless stream of bizarre characters and subplots but I found myself unable to care much about any of them. There’s a subplot involving Franklin’s brother and a late night infomercial self-help guru, Dr. Sage Mennox (Dolph Lundgren), which like much of the film is completely lifeless but visually entertaining. Combining the generally cliched characters with the inspired but gonzo casting choices makes for a film that isn’t lacking in flash but is starving for depth, leaving me mildly entertained but cold.