Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 10, 2020 8:07 pm 
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Rabbits, a bus, prison, and a web of tangled absurdities

In Atom Egoyan's peculiar new film, a muddled blend of plot elements he's used before, David Thewlis plays Jim, a food inspector and former restaurateur who has a thing for rabbits. Egoyan is an excellent director who hasn't made a good movie in many years. Since 1997, in fact, when he made The Sweet Hereafter, about a bus crash. This new one has a bus too, but the movie crashes instead of the bus. Writing from Toronto, Mike D'Angelo called it "Easily his dumbest original script." (Unfortunately he has had dumb ones drawn from other sources too.)

It's a layered picture of the past held together by Jim's impending funeral, and an impossibly lengthy discussion beforehand between Jim's daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) and the priest, Father Greg (Luke Wilson). It seems in order to help Father Greg prepare the funeral eulogy, Veronica has to unpack her entire twisted relationship with her father to him. Perhaps they sort things out. But not for my satisfaction. This is a nice looking, well-made film. Only it's terrible. How does Egoyan do this?

The one recent not-so-bad film, his 2008 Adoration, helps explain. It's as I wrote a "quintessential think piece," more interesting to ponder the ideas in than actually to watch. Guest of Honour is doubtless meant that way, but is actually neither. Bad screenplays are the key to Egoyan's bad movies. He lucked out with The Sweet Hereafter. It's the kind of thing he likes - a layered over-and-over-ing of past events, of guilt and deeds. It just happened to work. This time, the central events are far less compelling, in fact not compelling at all. Egoyan doesn't seem often able to recognize, or to write, a good script - only ridiculously complicated ones.

What are the ingredients of this one? First, the "persnickety" food inspector. Then, lessons in playing the glass harp (or water glasses), given to his little daughter. This provides occasional nice tinkling sounds in the score - the visuals and sound of the film aren't bad.

Then, there is a lurid relationship between the grown up Veronica, the little girl who got the water glass lessons, and a boy on a bus trip. Her glass harp lessons have led her to become a music teacher taking a student orchestra on a bus tour. Mike, the jealous bus driver (played by Rossif Sutherland, Donald's son) thinks something inappropriate was going on between her and the boy most interested in her, Clive (Alexandre Bourgeois).

It seems, from the criss-crossing flashbacks, that Veronica let herself get sent to prison for sexual harassment - she's out now, as she addresses Father Greg - because of stuff that went on between her father and the music teacher while her mother was deathly ill. What was she thinking? Jim, her father, doesn't understand, so why should we? It's not only that the characters lack emotional depth or clear motivation: it's impossible even for me to follow what was supposed to be, or to have been, going on.

We spend a lot of time with Jim, the father and food inspector, which is good since Thewlis is a good actor. De Oliveira, who plays Veronica, is definitely not. She makes her character simply abrupt and rude. Thewlis makes Jim subtle, even if he's unsympathetic and ultimately simply nutty. He frequently threatens to shut restaurants down, in one case simply to get Clive to talk to him. In another it's an Armenian-Arab restaurant where the violation involves four large dead furry rabbits with their ears cut off. Meanwhile Jim has been taking care of Veronica's rabbit while she's in prison. Forgive me if I've forgotten the rabbit's name. I can't tell you why rabbits are a recurrent theme here. Armenian food? I hope not good luck, because they don't bring any.

The Armenian eatery, called the Wild Orchid, is an opportunity to use Egoyan's wife and regular collaborator, Arsinée Khanjian, who gives a speech in Armenian to a private party. Jim has forgiven the rabbits, and comes back for the party, gets drunk, and gives a confessional speech. (His forgiving return leads him to be called the "guest of honour.") You might think the speech would settle some things, but it only rolls out more lurid absurdities and awakens more incredulity in the viewer.

Guy Lodge in his Variety review calls Guest of Honor "overplotted and under-reasoned." That sums up what's wrong. Occasional good acting, Paul Sarossy's "autumn-chill lensing" and Mychael Danna’s "overbearing but glassily ornate score" provide "sporadic glimpses" of the director's "former frosty artfulness" (Lodge again)), but they don't save the movie.

It's not pleasant to survey a disaster like this. It looks good and even at first sounds and feels good. And then at the end you say: What just happened? This is a think piece that provides noting coherent to think about.

Guest of Honour, 105 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2019 and subsequently played at eleven other international festivals including Toronto Vancouver, Busan and London. It has gotten no theatrical release. It comes to the internet via Kino Marquee July 10, 2020. Metascore 50%.

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