USA 2003 : Allan MINDEL : 95 mins
Milwaukee, Minnesota isn ’t the best of titles: most non-Americans wouldn ’t know that Milwaukee is actually in Wisconsin, and the bit of dialogue where the title is (kind of) mentioned isn ’t especially revealing or pivotal. A more accurate choice might have been Jim Thompson ’s Fargo Gump, which summarises the mood and content of this amiable but somewhat over-familiar slice of American indie cinema with its predictable array of quirky characters, culty casting, offbeat 70s-flavoured setting, low-rent criminal shenanigans and obligatory chinky-chonky Thomas Newman-ish score (by Michael Convertino).
Only the admirably lustrously and slick cinematography departs from the norm – the FotoKem-shot, reds-and-oranges-heavy images by Bernd Heinl (who started off with Ingmar Bergman and shot three of Percy Adlon ’s features) are a world away from the cheapo-grainy look that afflicts so many films from Sundance/Slamdance low-budget ghetto.
Albert (Seinfeld lookalike Troy Garity) is an easy-going, thirtyish idiot savant who lives in snowy Milwaukee with his selfishly over-protective mother Edna (Debra Monk). Though he spends his days working in the store run by crusty Sean (Bruce Dern), Albert ’s main source of income is via local ice-fishing contests at which he has an almost supernatural knack: you ’ve heard of the ‘horse whisperer ’, now meet the ‘fish listener. ’ Edna has total control of Albert ’s winnings, but as his reputation – and fortune – grows, he attracts the attention of unscrupulous predators keen to get their hands on the cash. And when Edna is killed in an auto “accident, ” Albert is left defenceless as con-artists Jerry (Randy Quaid) and brother-sister team Tuey (Alison Folland) and Scott (Hank Harris) move in for the kill. But he isn ’t quite so simple as he seems …
While there ’s much to like about Milwaukee, Minnesota, the film is always struggling to overcome its over-cute premise. Also, while having such a less-than-bright character as the hero isn ’t a problem, Albert is a bit too much of a stock “movie simpleton ” character, and it was perhaps a mistake to let us hear quite so many of his daydreamy thoughts – imagine American Splendor narrated by Judah Friedlander ’s character. Albert doesn ’t even get to quote Faulkner ’s famous Sound and the Fury line, ‘My mother is a fish. ’ The well-related Garity – who ’s only just played a similar role in the less widely-seen Soldier ’s Girl – does his best with a very tough role, and he gets strong support from the desiccated but spry Dern and the oily Quaid, whose face seems to have been basted and/or marinated.
It ’s the less-familiar Folland who steals the show, however, as the motormouthed, airily amoral Tuey – whenever she ’s on screen, Milwaukee suddenly becomes a better movie. You do wonder why she ’s done so little high-profile stuff since sharing scenes alongside N.Kidman and J.Phoenix back in Gus Van Sant ’s To Die For in 1995, and hopefully this picture will get her career back on track. More fleeting pleasures are provided by legendary Warhol survivor Holly Woodlawn (immortalised by Lou Reed as the “Holly from Miami, Fla. ”), who pops up as a bad-tempered transvestite – at one point briefly accompanied by a sleazy-looking Josh Brolin in a role perhaps intended as a hommage to Woodlawn ’s tough-guy former co-star Joe Dallesandro.
Taken in a slightly different direction, this could easily have been a downbeat misery-fest along the lines of Maggie Greenwald ’s 1991 Thompson adaptation The Kill-Off, but R D Murphy ’s script is always much more soft-boiled than hard. There ’s never much doubt that Albert, the rabbit among jackals – or rather the seal among sharks – is always going to have the last laugh. This is a film that walks a very tricky line between the annoying and the beguiling: it ’s perhaps only right at the very end that the balance tips in the right direction, thanks to a final shot sums up the whole story in a single, striking image.
14th November, 2003
(seen 30th October : ICA, London – London Film Festival)
click here for a full list of films covered at the 2003 London Film Festival
by Neil Young