by Jon Bastian
It’s Preston Sturges on acid, as girl meets boy… and boy… and Mr. Right in this screwball comedy that marks a total departure for director Gregg Araki.
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Quoth Gregg Araki, “After completing my Teen Apocalypse Trilogy… I was really looking to do something new and different that was far outside the realm of angst-ridden eighteen-year-olds.” With Splendor, he achieves his goal, getting about as far from angst as possible. Inspired by the old screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s, Araki brings us a romantic love story that follows the old pattern. However, since this is still a Gregg Araki film, he gives the trusty genre a big twist and makes it all his own.
In a nutshell, here’s the plot. Girl meets boy. Moments later, girl meets another boy. She falls for them both and dates them both, unable or unwilling to pick one over the other. After a drunken game of Truth or Dare, she convinces them to share, and the three of them are soon living together in an unconventional but happy ménage.
Then, she meets Mr. Right, and things get complicated…
In essence, this is the classic screwball plot: Cary Grant would meet Katharine Hepburn, the total free spirit, and fall for her, but he’d already be engaged to the stuffy socialite, and the movie would be about him finally making the right choice — that choice being no secret to anyone but him from frame one. Araki swaps the genders though, and his Cary Grant is Veronica (Kathleen Robertson, Nowhere, Beverly Hills 90210), who ends up in love with a brooding writer, Abel (Jonathon Schaech, The Doom Generation, Hush), and a pretty but rather dim-witted drummer, Zed (Matt Keeslar, The Last Days of Disco). Again in the screwball tradition, Veronica has a best friend to whom she can vent. This role is ably filled by Mike (Kelly Macdonald, Trainspotting), a blue-haired, chain-smoking lesbian artist who is convinced that Veronica is insane.
Now, in a traditional screwball comedy, there would be no question which couple belonged together. Araki doesn’t play it that easy, and when he throws a monkey wrench at Veronica in the form of up-and-coming TV director Ernest (Eric Mabius, Cruel Intentions), the deck is stacked so that any rational person would realize that, well duh, she belongs with the successful loving guy who can provide for her, and not the two losers she’s shacking up with. Because of this refinement, we literally don’t know until the last moment what Veronica decides to do.
Araki first hooked me with Nowhere, and he hasn’t let go since. That film inspired me to catch up with almost all of his work, and I have yet to see a film of his that didn’t completely involve me with its characters, its story and its style. Splendor is no exception, and yet it really is a hundred and eighty degrees from the rest of his oeuvre. Where his Teen Apocalypse Trilogy is unrelentingly dark and hopeless, Splendor is almost giddily light-spirited and happy. It’s not all sunshine and three-ways, but the usual sense of impending doom that haunts his other work is absent here. As always, he gets phenomenally gutsy work from his performers. Robertson is a real find, with a passing resemblance to Nicole Kidman, but none of the bitchy edge. Schaech and Keeslar work well together as one half of the happy couple, morphing from butch poseurs to virtual guy pals, linked by their unusual relationship with Veronica. Macdonald upholds a long tradition, and gives us an Eve Arden for the new millennium. The real standout, though, is Mabius, who hits all the right notes in a part that could easily have been played as a clueless dupe. It’s largely because of his work in humanizing this role that the movie keeps us guessing to the end — he could quite believably be Veronica’s Mr. Right.
As usual, Araki tosses familiar faces into cameos. Keep an eye out for Adam Carolla, Mink Stole and LA newsman George Pennacchio. There’s even an appearance by Nathan Bexton, previously seen as James Duval’s buggy object of desire in Nowhere.
As unusual, Araki doesn’t focus on sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. There’s plenty of music, but hardly anything stronger than pot to be seen. As for the sex, it’s greatly toned down, particularly in comparison to The Doom Generation, although the early moments of the film leading up to Veronica, Abel and Zed hopping into bed together are sizzling with erotic tension. Taking the place of the missing elements are the emotional minefield Veronica is tap-dancing through, and the humor of the characters and the situation. Splendor is a funny film, but every joke is earned.
Up until this film, while I admired Araki as a filmmaker, I had wondered whether he was a one-trick pony. His other works dealt with similar characters and themes, and felt alike in structure and tone. However, when a director can jump genres while maintaining his style and sensibility, it’s a very good sign. Splendor is an excellent sign that Araki is going to be with us for a while, and is only going to keep getting better. If you’re a fan of his other films, you’ll probably love Splendor too. If you’ve never seen an Araki movie (or are a little afraid to), this is a great place to start. You won’t be sorry you did.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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