‘90s indie filmmaker Hal Hartley has made 12 feature-length films, but even ask certain-aged cinephiles and they’ll only have a limited grasp of who he is and what his peculiar, chatty and philosophically arch lo-fi serio-comedies are actually about. Normally, one could attribute this to ignorance, but being an expert on Hal Hartley is perhaps akin to being a connoisseur of similar promising Gen X ’90s indie director Tom DeCillo or Alexandre Rockwell films — not many of us exist anymore.
But perhaps even more so than Rockwell’s “In The Soup” or DiCillo’s “Living In Oblivion,” Hartley’s films are of a time and place and his audience, those who went to college in the ‘90s living off a steady diet of college-rock (which transformed into its mainstream alt rock form) have dwindled over the years now that many of them have grown into Gen X boomers and don’t always have time to seek out films in ultra limited release. Such as Hartley’s latest, “Meanwhile,” a film partially funded by the Kickstarter campaign (which honestly feels a little sad, even if its by choice), that opened at the IFC Center this week.
Centering on Joe Fulton (D.J. Mendel, a bit player in Hartley’s films since 1996’s “The Book Of Life” in his first starring role for the filmmaker), “Meanwhile” bares all the hallmarks of the idiosyncratic filmmaker’s pictures, the non-realistic dialogue, the waxing philosophical quips, the dramatic swells of a climactic event worth stopping for and the theatrical rhythm that runs through his body of work. And yet, this time, the scale of the picture seems almost smaller than ever, just a half-day walk from the bottom of Manhattan to its top (and meta-like, the destination goal is Hartley’s Possible Films offices on the Upper West Side).
But this mini-journey is much easier to accomplish when you have some spare change. Joe’s central dilemma is that his bank account assets have been frozen due to unpaid taxes. Pitched perhaps somewhere between the unreliable lead of “Henry Fool” (though nowhere near as noxious) and Hartley’s typical empathetic anti-heroes, the struggling and broke man is a multi-talented hyphenate, who’s had a string of bad luck and never tasted any real success. His day begins while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. He sees a beautiful, but forlorn woman in red (Chelsea Crowe), senses her pains and tries to assist best as he can, but she waves him off. By the time he’s reached a friend’s apartment in lower Manhattan, he’s heard a report that a woman has jumped into the East River from the bridge and Joe can’t help but feel partially responsible.
And while seemingly penniless and always in need of someone to lend him a buck, this side of Joe’s personality is balanced by a resourceful inventiveness and a true sense of selflessness. A constantly tinkering fixer, Joe’s a sort of renaissance man without the renaissance. He does everything from fixing sinks, producing online advertising spots to arranging international financing for a construction project. He also freelances as a drummer and has written a novel, but this success has eluded this jack of all trades.
And perhaps it’s because of his empathy and need to “fix.” The simple and straight-forward “Meanwhile,” documents Joe’s day in Manhattan, trying to find out why his money is gone, finding a place to stay and trying to draw his brother into his importing scheme, but along the way he’s distracted either by fixing a man’s typewriter, trying to get an actor paid for a gig she was never compensated for, and or just visiting an ex-girlfriend.
So while the themes are apparent — a multi-tasker that can’t really connect with one thing, perhaps too busy with other people’s lives — and the film tries to broker the idea of little relationships and moments in life, adding up to a much bigger picture, the film doesn’t add up emotionally. While coming in at a brief 60 minutes — Hartley clearly unconcerned with traditional theatrical run times and just telling the story he has to tell — “Meanwhile,” is not as engaging as short-attention-span cinema should be. While Hartley’s score is perhaps his best in years (they’ve been distractingly poor or simply far too conspicuous in recent years), it can only raise the small stakes so high.
While ultimately breezy and harmless, it’s also not the most memorable 60-minute mini-feature you’ve ever seen. Though Mendel is a decent lead and the character an interesting one, it’s hard not to be somewhat heartbroken for die-hard fans, as there’s no denying the spark and sheen of Hartley’s offbeat pictures has lost its lustre. Part of it might be Hartley’s dogged DIY approach which is perhaps liberating from a creative standpoint, but severely limited in scope. [C]