REVIEW: Killing Us Softly With His Song; Taylor Dreams of "Cherish"
by Andy Bailey
[Editor's note: This review originally ran as part of our Sundance 2002 coverage in January, 2002. Fine Line releases the film Friday].
For all those slackers who spent the last decade with too many songs floating in their heads and too many flashy movies etched onto their retinas, along comes Finn Taylor's romantic-comedy-drama-action-thriller lollapalooza to hold you hostage against your better judgment and take you places you never imagined. One of the few genuine surprises of Sundance 2002, this wholly unique movie plays like an extended homage to the French cinema du look movement of the early Eighties, which spawned or later influenced Luc Besson, Leos Carax, Jean-Jacques Beineix, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet -- filmmakers for whom image and style collide with intricately detailed, often rhythmic story lines featuring fashionable outlaws grappling with thwarted romance and the cruel passing of time.
Ostensibly a story about romantic obsessives who let cheap pop songs guide them through the long night of the soul (until Hall & Oates have claimed them irrevocably), "Cherish" transforms into a visceral sugar rush of plot turns and revolving styles, finally emerging as the most audacious, infectious and hard-to-peg film in this year's Dramatic Competition. Critics will probably loathe "Cherish" for the same reasons they attacked Jeunet's "Amelie" -- it's another Rube Goldberg-like contraption with an overabundance of imagination and a stalker's sensibility masquerading as a heart of gold. But audiences will likely respond with rapture. It's a deliriously entertaining example of Generation X taking revenge on its detractors. It's attention-deficit filmmaking at its most sublime.
Taylor's second feature (following 1997's "Dream with the Fishes") begins disastrously enough with a neon and pastel overload of convoluted hues and cryptic set-ups that make you wonder just where the hell Taylor plans to take this unwieldy beast. As the Modern English classic "I Melt with You" blares over the soundtrack, we're dumped headlong into a San Francisco dot.com workplace "environment," an instant reminder that the youthful positivity of the Eighties (remember the power this song wielded in "Valley Girl") has coalesced into something more insidious.
Robin Tunney stars as Zoe Adler, a neurotic, overworked computer animator in her 20s whose condescending co-workers, including her boss, played by grunge babe Liz Phair, and cocky office hunk Andrew (former "90210" pin-up Jason Priestley) treat her with haughty indifference or outright disdain. Charming in her geek-girl awkwardness, Zoe finally lands a date with Andrew only to have her rendezvous thwarted when she's kidnapped by a deranged, music-addled stalker who takes control of the wheel while she's driving, resulting in the death of a police officer. The stalker flees with Zoe's cell phone, leaving the tipsy charmer to answer to manslaughter and DUI charges with no evidence to prove her innocence. While she awaits trial, Zoe's feisty lawyer (Nora Dunn) secures her a place in an electronic house arrest program; lodged in a desolate loft in a shitty neighborhood, she's forced to wear a surveillance bracelet on her ankle, installed and monitored by an aloof probation officer named Daly (Tim Blake Nelson), who's clearly smitten.
Zoe spends her initial days rollerskating around the sparsely furnished loft (an ode to Beineix, who used the same scene to more zen-like effect in "Diva") and lip-synching to eighties classics until she short-circuits the building's electricity, pissing off her downstairs neighbor, a gay paraplegic dwarf named Max (Ricardo Gil), who eventually becomes her only friend. It's here, 30 minutes or so into the film, that "Cherish" finally takes off after numerous false starts and shifts in tone.
You could call it an indie house arrest comedy with menacing overtones, but there's something deeper at work here as Zoe endures under the influence of three decades of AM radio classics. Desperate for escape, stalked over the airwaves by an unseen figure who dedicates songs to her, Zoe's finally issued a reprieve by the amorous Daly, who places her on a furlough program that allows her to leave the loft for a few hours each day. Zoe races against time, through the streets of San Francisco, to track down her stalker and clear her name before she's sent to prison for 25 years-to-life.
Robin Tunney lords over virtually every scene in the film in a breakthrough performance that requires as much of her body as it does her mind. She already demonstrated her gift for tortured physicality in Bob Gosse's Tourette's syndrome potboiler "Niagara, Niagara," but here Tunney is catapulted to a whole new level of acrobatic frustrations. And she acquits with an almost balletic grace, considering the physical hardships of this role.
Tim Blake Nelson makes for a sheepish delight as Daly, the lovelorn sadsack who gets reinvigorated by Zoe's grunge-cum-Holly Golightly effervescence. A cross between Roman Polanski and Prince Charles, Nelson is independent film's niftiest new nebbish. And although Finn Taylor may wear his cinematic influences on his sleeve -- echoes of everything from "Run, Lola, Run" to "La Femme Nikita" course through "Cherish's" manic, runaway plot -- he's the sort of couch potato director who has managed to absorb all the right movies and transform them into all the right moves.
"Cherish" is disarmingly familiar, but it's never predictable and its irrepressible energy pummels you like a brisk swig of Red Bull at 2 A.M. The film's furiously palpitating heart beats with the refrain of a thousand pop music nuggets from the ages. And when the music finally stops, the sugar coma hits. Finn Taylor, whatever you do, don't go on Prozac.