In 2011, Madeleine Olnek’s debut feature, “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, premiered at Sundance to positive (if ultimately limited) reception. Made on a shoestring budget, (think space ships made out of tin foil), the warm and witty spoof on sci-fi B-movies firmly established the writer-director’s singular comedic sensibility. In her follow-up, “The Foxy Merkins,” Olnek turns the male hustler genre on its head to imagine what a lesbian prostitution ring in might look like. Re-casting the previous movie’s charmingly deadpan duo Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan, on paper, “The Foxy Merkins” has all the right ingredients to please Olnek’s niche audience. Unfortunately, after a truly hilarious and fresh first act, the film can no longer sustain its premise as superfluous subplots and extraneous episodes slow the overall momentum almost to a halt.
Lisa Haas plays Margaret, a down-and-out gay woman who’s not quite cutting it on the streets. In the opening scene, we find the overweight, bespeckled Margaret leaning more uncomfortably than casually against the wrought-iron gate of a Manhattan apartment building. Clad in an unflattering t-shirt and hoody and sporting a pair of orthopedic sneakers, Margaret seems like she’s the furthest thing from a harlot one, and indeed, most passersby don’t so much as glance her way. But after moments of awkward eye contact with a well put together young woman seemingly more interested in yelling into her phone, Margaret finally gets propositioned: “I’d like to be fully serviced,” the woman says, “and I’d like to pay more for it. It turns me on to pay more for it.” It’s an offer most lesbian hookers couldn’t refuse, but the still-inexperienced Margaret just doesn’t feel right about it.
Hungry and needing a place to sleep, Margaret meets the more seasoned Jo (Monahan), who offers to take the floundering ingénue under her wing. Taking up residence in the Port Authority bathroom and hooking in front of Talbots—a known goldmine of middle aged women in sweater vests—under Jo’s tutelage Margaret manages to get a few “dates” with a motley crew of clientele. From upper class housewives to lowly MFA students, the solicitors demonstrate a wide range of sexual predilections and fetishes that humorously de-romanticize popular conceptions of inter-female intimacy. The frank execution of absurdist situations is key to Olnek’s brand of comedy, a style the director has dubbed “Cinéma Hilarité” for its reliance on a vérité aesthetic. But as the same joke is stretched too thin, the film’s slight 90 minute running time begins to feel significantly longer than it really is.
As was the case with “Space Alien,” Olnek uses the low-budget aesthetic to the film’s advantage. The freewheeling location shooting does justice to the city her characters inhabit, allowing them the space to play and improvise. Drawing on both “My Own Private Idaho” and “Midnight Cowboy,” the film is a buddy movie at heart and fittingly, the central relationship between Jo (who is straight) and Margaret (who is gay) tows the line between erotic and platonic. Respectively tall and thin and short and stout, the two are a natural comedic pair: queer cinema’s answer to Abbot and Costello. But while Monahan’s pep provides a necessary counter balance to Haas’ disheveled self-deprecation, the former’s performance becomes grating after a while and Haas is left to carry the weight of the film on her shoulders.
Despite an unpolished vulnerability that makes her an entirely loveable presence onscreen, even Haas can’t save the film from its lack of cohesion. A hazily defined search for Margaret’s estranged mother feels haphazard and tangential, even if it does provide a framework for a few direct visual references to “My Own Private Idaho,” and an uncomfortable scene that attempts to make a comment on race is one of a myriad detractors. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of delight throughout the desultory journey. An entertaining graveside rendez-vous with a clandestine merkin salesman played by a well-cast Alex Karpovsky, and a sex scandal with a former client revealed to be a republican congresswoman, rank among the film’s highlights.
Already a seasoned playwright, Olnek is clearly a talented writer, and it’s unfortunate for a film with such a promising premise that the one-liners and situational humor don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Criticwire Grade: C-
HOW IT WILL PLAY? Catering to an already limited audience, “The Foxy Merkins” may find it’s cultish groove on the festival circuit but will likely get limited exposure beyond VOD platforms.