Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Review: "Amateur" (1994)

I've never been to New York, but I plan on going soon. Even when I go, however, I don't think I'll ever experience the New York of film without actually living there. I'm not talking about the New York we see in big films like "Ghostbusters" or "When Harry Met Sally", just to name two. I speak of the arty New York of SoHo, Greenwich Village and Chelsea you see in independent films; The bohemian New York of "Kissing Jessica Stein", "Happy Accidents" and, most notoriously, "After Hours". This is the kind of offbeat New York that would be most interesting to me.

"Amateur" is definitely an offbeat New York kind of film. It's also impossible to describe the plot without it sounding totally bizarre, so I'm not going to even try. A man named Thomas wakes up in an alley with no memory of who he is. He is taken in by Isabelle, who used to be a nun but is now a nymphomaniac who writes fiction for porn magazines (except that she is still a virgin and has yet to publish anything). With her help, he finds out that he is a criminal with a history of violence. His girlfriend and porn actress, Sofia, is now on the run from two sadistic accountants who works for the crime lord that used to employ Thomas.

Got all that? Despite the lurid description, the film is not what you think. The film is all talk and little action. There is some physical comedy in the second half when one character goes mental after one of the accountants tortures them (It's more zany than it sounds). Other than that, it's characters sitting and reciting too clever dialogue while maintaining a straight face. Two examples:

Thomas: "How can you be a nymphomaniac and never had sex?"
Isabelle: "I'm choosy."

Sofia: "So I'm an article of trade?"
Kurt the Accountant: "Yes. A useful thing in terms of classic capitalism. I studied economics, I know what I'm talking about."

When I first watched the film, I thought it was hysterical. On repeat viewings, however, it comes off a little stiff and...yes, I think I can say this, pretentious. The movie wants the whacked out comedy and for us to see the characters as real people. The former works, but the later doesn't, no matter how much serious subtext you put in the last line of dialogue. Still, it can be a lot of fun while it lasts.

These kind of New York films play like old episodes of "Law & Order": They recruit lots of local struggling actors who sometimes go on to be bigger names. In the case of "Amateur", there are blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances by Michael Imperioli of "The Sopranos", Tim Blake Nelson of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and Parker Posey of "You've Got Mail".

It's definitely not for everyone, but it's a good rental for those looking for a comedy out of left field. And a follow up viewing of "After Hours" couldn't hurt, either.

Six out of Ten

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