Swedish filmmaker Jonas Åkerlund used to be the kind of director whose every move was worth following. He started out building buzz for his career by making controversial music videos, helming the sensational, barely-seen “Smack My Bitch Up” clip for Prodigy and, way more successfully, the “Ray of Light” music video for Madonna (a clip that won a record seven prizes at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards). Even his lesser videos (like his Cardigans‘ “Favorite Game” clip) were compelling and vital compared to most pedestrian and run-of-the-mill music videos. Åkerlund’s videos were often defined by a willingness to delve into the scuzzier aspects of life (like the Prodigy video and Metallica‘s “Turn the Page”) – visually his style was slick but also grimy, lit up by garish neon lights and high contrast colorization.
And then… something happened. Or rather nothing happened. While his contemporaries moved into artier fare and critically acclaimed film work, Åkerlund struggled with unremarkable work or outright mediocrity (though to be fair, still within lucrative and successful music video directing career). Last year he directed the inert “Hold It Against Me” music video for Britney Spears, a lifeless clip that all but solidified music videos’ place in the obsolete pop culture graveyard. Now he’s back with a new movie, “Small Apartments,” and you feel that struggle continue – this is his attempt at something important and meaningful and bold. But instead it comes off wishy-washy, both too grotesque and too cute to make much of an impression and certainly not the work of a guy whose videos had to be accompanied by a warning from Kurt Loder about the explicitness of their content.
Based on a novella by Chris Millis (who also wrote the screenplay), “Small Apartments” masquerades as some kind of dark comedy. It thinks it’s Altman-esque, with its weaving stories and squiggly interpersonal sprawl, but it’s too contained, too restrained, and ultimately, too cute. While watching it you think that the movie should have pushed things further – many sequences are too grim and morose to be funny and/or not nearly as grim or morose as they would have needed to be in order to be really funny. It occupies an awkward middleground that it never overcomes, although by the end it gives itself over to cloying sweetness over genuine sentimentality.
The main storyline concerns Franklin (Matt Lucas from “Little Britain“), an overweight, bald, socially inept shut-in who lives in a dingy apartment filled with Swiss memorabilia (including a culturally accurate horn that he plays, much to the chagrin of his neighbors). His apartment is lined with empty bottles of some grade-Z soda, his poor dog often getting locked in the pantry, everything coated in ugly, grimy filth. (You kind of feel like they should have passed out scratch-and-sniff cards, like “Polyester,” to really get the full effect.) Franklin lives in a decrepit strip mall/apartment complex that looks like a place designed for people looking to die by heroin overdose. The colorful cast of characters that surround Franklin include his neighbor, a crotchety widower named Mr. Allspice (James Caan), a doped-up punk rocker/convenience store clerk Tommy Balls (Johnny Knoxville), and a slutty teenager (Juno Temple) who dreams of life as an even-sluttier Las Vegas showgirl.
None of these characters are all that interesting – they’re too broadly drawn and unsympathetic to warrant much attention – but something akin to a narrative engine is introduced when we find out that Franklin has murdered the owner of the apartment complex, Mr. Olivetti (Peter Stormare). This isn’t a spoiler – he’s dead on the kitchen counter about fifteen seconds after the main credits stop rolling – but the death (which we don’t know is accidental or on-purpose) remains a mystery for much of the movie. Franklin’s clumsy attempt at staging Olivett’s death as a suicide leads detective Burt Walnut (Billy Crystal) to investigate. This is about as much forward momentum as the movie can drum up – an outsider investigates the apartment building and slowly various threads start to knot and come together.
But, really, who cares? Every character, and virtually every performance is one-note and off-putting. The stoner punk rocker who’s past his prime? The weird shut-in who spies on his neighbors? The investigator with alcohol and woman problems? The sexually abusive landlord? The funny dog? These are all shopworn clichés, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. What is a problem, however, is that nothing is done with these clichés. Åkerlund used to be known as a subversive provocateur and, once upon a time, he could have drummed up something to put these characters in a fresh light. Instead, they’re just left to flounder, walking around sets and locations lacquered with a thick varnish of nihilistic urban decay.
Attempts at humility, including an elongated subplot involving Franklin’s mad brother (played by James Marsden) and a quack television doctor (Dolph Lundgren) fall even flatter. Instead of bringing us into the story, Åkerlund’s narrative tangents and frequently gonzo casting choices (Amanda Plummer and Saffron Burrows show up as mothers, neither speak much) distance the audience and keep them from ever truly connecting.
“Small Apartments” is Åkerlund’s third feature, not that you would really notice. His debut film, “Spun,” was a largely mirthless, exceedingly disgusting drug world “satire” that featured many of his visual signatures but was bereft of bite or wit (it also wins a special prize for making the affable Jason Schwartzman completely unlikable). He then made “Horseman,” a drab serial killer movie, for his music video cotemporary Michael Bay. It was a stab at naked commercialism but the movie was too dry and downbeat, despite its cool premise and some occasionally striking visuals. With “Small Apartments,” Åkerlund has attempted to marry the two approaches, with his visual and editorial accents (doors snap-cut shut, characters are sped up if they’re taking too long like a character on a VHS tape) and interest in the scummier aspects of human existence, partenered with naked commercial instincts, which end up unraveling any mood he has attempted, especially in the crucial third act. “Small Apartments” wants to be spiky and tough, and yet ultimately it’s far too safe and cuddly. [D]