Director: Michael Keaton
Writer: Ron Lazzeretti
Producer: Steven A. Jones
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Michael Keaton, Tom Bastounes, Debbi Burns, Bobby Cannavale
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 110 min.
Full disclosure: big Michael Keaton fan here; huge. From Mr. Mom to My Life to The Company to Jackie Brown, if having me in stitches is the goal, it is success constantly and consistently. If you just need a confident, cool (and believable) cop for your police procedural film you can look no further than Keaton. He can be the creepy guy as in Pacific Heights or take on the role of relentless villain in Desperate Measures. And to this day he’s stars in the one film that can still get me to lose some water weight through the eyes with a wonderful performance in My Life. I personally believe he should’ve been nominated for an Oscar at least twice and he’s been a staple of my film watching career since I was old enough to hold a remote control and flip to HBO. And now, to my great pleasure, he’s slipped behind the camera for his latest outing, The Merry Gentleman. So yeah, big time bias here.
The Merry Gentleman stars Kelly Macdonald as Kate; a woman escaping an abusive husband to a new city and hopefully a new life. As a rather attractive young woman she has no shortage of advances from men and understandably no shortage of paranoia and distrust either. Until through circumstances that unbeknownst to her are of her own doing, she is approached seemingly coincidentally by an older gentleman who seems to be rather good natured, but also very quiet and private. Little does Kate know that her new gentleman friend, though very gentle and quiet around her is actually a cold-blooded, professional hit man. After Kate makes a 911 call to police due to seeing something odd in her workplace, she is romantically pursued by the lead investigator, who of course gets very interested in her past and who her new, quiet friend is.
While I have so much to say about The Merry Gentleman, I’m not entirely sure how it should be said. The film meanders from genre to genre and while handsome and engaging through most its 110 minutes, I couldn’t help but be distracted from time to time with strange direction choices and musical cues that are even stranger still. The plot devices are somewhat clever and don’t venture into familiar territory but at the same time feel unfinished and not sure where they want to drive the story. Instead we get what feels like needless exposition and a different angle from what we would expect. While this sounds like a great way to tell a story in theory, in practice it just feels directionless.
I’m not looking for a film to pander to me and The Merry Gentleman certainly does not, but at several turns I did feel like the story could really take off with quiet excitement had it only done this or done that. But maybe the film doesn’t want to be a thriller, even though that is what it is set up as? Maybe it wants to be a romantic story? Well if that’s the case it doesn’t really succeed there either. There is a relationship and there are elements of cheese that shouldn’t be there to make it feel like it’s about to be a romance, but then the film shifts to a bit of a darker heart and goes on to explore other avenues of potential intrigue.
Now I’ve obviously seen No Country for Old Men, Trainspotting and Choke, but I’m not entirely familiar with Kelly Macdonald’s work and certainly have never seen her take the lead of a film. This is unfortunate as Macdonald absolutely shines with The Merry Gentleman. With onscreen time at about 95%, Macdonald is engrossing and captivating throughout. Her accent is not hidden (which is critical to her character) and she is completely adorable always. She is physically striking and is that person at a party of whom everyone wants to engage in conversation with and instantly falls in love with.
While Keaton gets top billing, he’s surprisingly not in the film as much as he could be (or arguably should be). As always he is marvelous in the role and despite his good nature through most of his screen time, there are moments where the calculating anger, suspicion and dare I say, evil is conveyed. During the opening credit sequence (which is about two minutes in length) we learn everything we need to know about Keaton’s character. With zero dialogue, it’s a fantastic case of “show me, don’t tell me” bit of film making. Also, in natural settings, certain creatures have a way of telling the curious to “stay the hell away.” During one fantastic scene in which Keaton is verbally inspected by the head detective, all it takes is a straight face and few expressive eye movements that give a clear warning not to come any closer or pry any deeper – there will be consequences. It’s totally brilliant. Coupling these two leads (Keaton and Macdonald) in several one on one scenes then becomes really what makes this whole movie hold my interest and attention; and ultimately an enjoyable experience.
In the end, the film is not so much of a thriller; not a romance; not a noir detective story and certainly not a comedy – though it does have elements of all of these. No, The Merry Gentleman is more about redemption and saving grace. Miracles. The existence or nonexistence of God. Human response to threats and uncomfortable interaction. In this way it is very vague and open to interpretation. Though not without some glaring faults, I do find that as I let the film digest and even now as I write here, I find myself enjoying the film more and more and pondering its meaning. Certainly I look forward to a second viewing. As a first time director, apparently sort of thrown into the project, I say to Keaton, “Kudos.”