During a chat last week at the Cannes Film Festival, director and actress Jodie Foster openly talked about the habit of some male directors to use rape and other sexual trauma as the primary driving force for many of their female characters – “I wonder why she was a box of tears…she was raped. I wonder why she’s having trouble with her boss…it was rape. The motivation was always rape,” Foster said – an observation that’s hard to shake in the face of Brian DeCubellis’ feature directorial debut, “Manhattan Night.” Based on Colin Harrison’s novel “Manhattan Nocturne” and billed as a contemporary film noir (at last night’s premiere in New York City, the genre-specific term was bandied about repeatedly during a series of long-form introductions and thank-yous from cast and crew).
But while DeCubellis – who has been working in the industry for decades now, churning out such varied fare as commercials, music videos and short films – appears to have both a deep affection for the cinematic genre and Harrison’s original novel, “Manhattan Night” repeatedly misses the mark, a hammy (and ham-fisted) biff that thinks that darkness equals drama and that characters don’t matter as much as the big, heaping traumas that drive them. Despite a few highlights, including Yvonne Strahovski as a femme fatale with a big secret, Jennifer Beals as the only person with a moral compass in the entire film and Campbell Scott doing some very weird “Singles” cosplay, “Manhattan Night” flames out quickly, woefully unable at harassing the strengths of a genre it so blindly struggles to be part of.
Porter Wren (Adrien Brody) is known around town (that town is Manhattan, obviously, mostly portrayed as bright lights and shifty scaffolding and lots of ugly apartments) as an investigative journalist to be reckoned with, a stringer that goes hard on his beat and has had some big successes along the way (like the frequently referenced story about the time he found a missing girl while writing about her case, a twist of fate that made him a huge hero, but that he sadly passes of as a matter of luck, not skill). Porter works for a daily newspaper and is constantly (and understandably) worried that his job is going to be cut, particularly once his paper is bought by wealthy Australian businessbro Hobbs (Steven Berkoff) who clearly does not care about the products his properties are turning out. Which explains why he’s in attendance at a swanky party thrown by Hobbs, all the better to butter up the big guy, a sequence that marks what is likely the last cogent series of events in the feature.
At said soirée, a dazzling blonde dame (Strahovski) eyes Porter up and down, all while he’s eyeing her up and down, despite early claims (delivered via voiceover narration, so you know they’re real) that Porter cherishes his wife (Beals), their children and their farmhouse (??) in the middle of the grit and grime of Manhattan. His family is his sanctuary, and though Strahovski’s Caroline Crowley is alluring and striking in all the right ways, that Porter almost immediately falls prey to her charms in a jarring plot twist that never quite settles. Still worse, Brody (who fits nicely inside the kind of noir world that DeCubellis tries to build for him) and Strahovski exhibit zero chemistry, roughly banging up against each other during their many passionless and eventual trysts, all dry mouths and heavy breathing.
Porter may be eyeing up Caroline, but she’s really there for him. See, this dizzy dame has got a dead fella, and she needs some help cracking the case. Could a big, strong man help her out? The details of Caroline’s dead hubby and the twisted (like, really twisted) story that ultimately unwinds are mostly inconsequential, because the feature metes them out with a strange sense of timing and a worse feeling for tone, zinging between an urgency foisted upon the duo by some major blackmail attempts and a number of breaks for the pair to get down, as aided by copious gin and tonics. Huge plot points hinge on things like “the guy who got his manhood butchered” and “that girl who was raped throughout her childhood,” and while the film captures the darker, more unsettling aspects of sex, it does it with little grace and zero respect for its characters.
Strahovski, however, is excellent, easily infusing her Caroline with both big time charm and a hard-to-pin-down undercurrent of evil that’s never over-the-top and often quite rewarding. It’s clear from the start that Caroline is on the hook for something, either the actual murder of her husband, the weirdo filmmaker Simon Crowley (Campbell Scott), or the illogical blackmailing of Porter’s own boss, the sardine-sucking Hobbs, but those big plot movements are overshadowed by a series of frankly icky conversations and actions that make Caroline out to be a run of the mill baddie when she is anything but. Campbell Scott, apparently influenced by Kurt Cobain in his Kool-Aid red hair days, appears to be performing in an entirely different film than the rest of the cast, gleefully dancing about as the masochistic and deranged Simon, whose motivations (besides, probably, “just be evil”) are never, ever, not even once appropriately explained.
For all his big-talking skills, Porter doesn’t actually read as a crackerjack reporter, and his biggest breaks in the case come from things as borderline dumb as “realizing a very large pen holds a flash drive” and “finding a very important envelope just sitting on a shelf.” His observational skills are lacking too, and more often then not, he’s firing off forehead-slappers like “this guy’s fucked up” when watching Simon’s cuckoo short films or grunting, “God, I’m so going to Hell” when he beds Caroline. Early glimpses at Porter’s work and the craftsmanship that goes into are swiftly tossed out in favor of some of the year’s least sexy sex scenes and a “mystery” that is so twisted as to read as incomprehensible.
The film doesn’t trust its audience to understand and contextualize even the most simple of clues – we are repeatedly told that Simon’s father was an elevator repair man, and a damn good one at that, but DeCubellis somehow finds it necessary to linger over a clearly made-at-Kinkos certificate that proclaims his achievements as “Elevator Repair Man Employee of the Month,” no company or date given – until viewers are all but beaten into accepting that, yeah, sure, okay, an elevator is going to play some larger part here. Despite being rife with crime, sex and darkness, “Manhattan Night” feels increasingly like a cheap ripoff of the genre it so very much wants to fit into. At one point, a dead horse figures prominently in the narrative, but at least everyone has the good sense not to actually beat it.
“Manhattan Night” hits limited theaters and VOD this Friday, May 20.