Fleurs du Malaprop
I once spoke to an actor, Emily Bruni, who had worked for Alan Rudolph (in INVESTIGATING SEX, which never came out in the UK at all) and I asked her what his direction was like. “He just made us all feel incredibly loved — and that was his direction,” she said.
I am curiously up-and-down with Rudolph. There are films of his I love — CHOOSE ME, TROUBLE IN MIND, THE MODERNS, MRS PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, AFTERGLOW, INVESTIGATING SEX. Then there are films he didn’t write, which seem like work-for-hire and which I never care for — ROADIE, ENDANGERED SPECIES, SONGWRITER, MORTAL THOUGHTS. But then there are films which he did write which are personal but where the alchemy just doesn’t seem to come together right — WELCOME TO L.A. (turgid), REMEMBER MY NAME (dour), MADE IN HEAVEN (compromised by studio interference), LOVE AT LARGE (uneven), EQUINOX (shapeless) and especially BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (a book I love, and a director I love, but they don’t come together at all).
This might not strike some people as strange at all, but usually when I like a filmmaker I like everything they do, or near enough. My early practice loving the compromised films of Orson Welles probably stood me in good stead here. But I can’t love the Rudolph misfires — they grate too much. Maybe he loves his actors a little too much, and doesn’t always filter their excesses (though I really like AFTERGLOW for the Nick Nolte and Julie Christie stuff, the young couple are a bit irksome, especially Lara Flynn Boyle). But then again, he has drawn some career-best work from a wide range of players.
So to TRIXIE, where Rudolph evidently loved the hell out of Emily Watson, who plays a cop/security guard who gets mixed up in a murder case. Trixie mangles the English language, which is the one joke about her, and it’s a joke that works much better with a supporting character than it would with a lead. So the flaw is in the writing to begin with. One-note characters are delightful when done well — you just keep hitting the same button whenever they show up, and the predictability and inflexibility of the character because a source of pleasure. But you can’t play that card with your protagonist — they need a second dimension, possibly a third. Trixie does have other layers, but the need to have her jam a malapropism into every line — “You can’t drink yourself into Bolivia” — obscures them.
Then there’s the performance. Watson had just made a big splash in BREAKING THE
WIND WAVES, a film I hate (every story point is repeated three times in three consecutive scenes, because the movie thinks we’re stupid), but it’s an undeniably ballsy perf. I once had a drink with another actor who had auditioned for that role, who did a bitterly twisted parody of Watson’s delivery, right there and then at the bar, which was startlingly accurate. She decimated the performance, not by caricaturing it, but by reproducing it exactly, affirming the Warhol line that “the best form of parody is the thing itself.” But I still think it was a bold piece of work.
Well, Watson is big as all outdoors in TRIXIE, but it doesn’t work so well. Firstly, she augments her Amurrican accent by chewing gum, a trick borrowed from the Kenneth Branagh school of verisimilitude. So now we have a character constantly masticating while mangling her dialogue, which is a bit much. And then, visually, the approach seems borrowed from Burt Young (above) — Watson can somehow protrude her eyeballs, as if she’s clenching her skull until they pop out. It seems like she might sock her co-stars in the jaw with these great orbs. Everything that’s going on underneath the actorly tricks is fine — there are still moments which fascinate. But the pyrotechnics and schtick seriously get in the way.
(I think Nick Nolte’s only good Rudolph performance is in AFTERGLOW, btw. He’s a man who has been known to overplay, as we know, and Rudolph seems to encourage or at any rate allow this. His best moment here is simply staring in astonishment at Watson, which feels just right, although you wonder why nobody else was equally amazed at this freak in their midst.)
What the role demanded was a sort of Giulietta Masina or Rita Tushingham — a female clown. Those actors are rare. But, frustratingly, the movie features one in a supporting role — Brittany Murphy is delightful in this, big and broad and goofy but NOT ANNOYING with it. When she’s around you can see the movie this could have been.