NYFF '99 REVIEW: Devor Running for Laughs in Noir Ode "Woman Chaser"
by David Bourgeois
A stealth entry in The New York Film Festival, Robinson Devor's "The Woman Chaser" has its world premiere Friday tonight. The black-and-white American comedy -- still in search of a distributor at press time -- is a somewhat refreshing take on the soon-to-be-exhausted genre of "films about filmmaking." Based on a 1960 pulp book by hard-boiled Charles Willeford, it stars a perfectly cast Patrick Warburton (best known as Puddy, Elaine's quondam boyfriend from "Seinfeld") as the pot-bellied Richard Hudson, a middle-aged, slick-talking car salesman who dreams of doing something "artistic."
The film is incredibly derivative -- to the point of parody. Hudson's daffy mother is reminiscent of a slightly younger Norma Desmond of "Sunset Boulevard." Although the mother (Lynette Bennett) is well past middle age, she continues to prance about in sexy lingerie, and in one bizarre scene, she and Richard (whom she calls "angel pants") perform a rather pointless ballet routine. Even the opening credits hearken back to another film; they're almost a direct replication of the masterful credits designed by Saul Bass for the film "The Man With the Golden Arm."
The second half of the film concentrates on Hudson and his fervent desire to make a film. He eventually abandons his day to day duties at the car lot and decides it's "time to create something." He admits freely that he lacks the talent needed to be a novelist, painter or sculptor. So movie making, he decides, is the only art form that he's able to do.
His henchman in the project is his father-in-law, Leo (Paul Malevitz), a washed-up movie producer with an uncanny resemblance to Wallace Shawn (but lacking the actor's talent). In the best scene of the film, a brazen and enthusiastic Hudson pitches his idea to the milquetoast Leo. Warburton delivers a blistering, frenetic movie pitch about a miserable, depressed, and out of control truck driver who runs down a little girl. The humor is not just in Warburton's passion and rapid-fire dialogue, it's also in the fact that the character actually believes this story to be a metaphor for what's wrong with America.
Leo agrees to help Hudson, and they pitch the story to a belligerent studio executive who finally agrees to fund the project. At this point in the film, any semblance of originality and cohesion comes to an abrupt halt. The film unfortunately at this point becomes a cliched story about the banal pitfalls of movie making. Nothing causes the eyes to glaze over more than another I-won't-let-the-studio-bully-my-artistic-vision kind of film.
The casting of the film -- with the exception of Warburton -- is clearly indicative of the film's low budget, but one would think that even a low budget film could have attracted better talent than Malevitz. In most scenes he looks like a stunned child, unaware that he is even being filmed. It's not his fault; he's never acted before and met Devor while volunteering at a drug treatment center. No doubt Warburton was an interesting choice for the lead, and he proves that he has the presence to carry a movie by himself.
All the missteps can't detract from the fact that Devor is a talented director. He has perfect knowledge of the 40's noir-ish landscapes of Los Angeles depicted in the film. Expect to hear more from him, and once "The Woman Chaser" gets distribution, it should find an appreciative audience hungry for B-movie noir.