Friday, September 4, 2009

In Theaters: "Tickling Leo"

If overall quality were based solely on good intentions, Tickling Leo would be one of the year’s best movies; it’s so earnest and likable, you want to just give it a pat on the head and send it on its way. Unfortunately, it’s just not terribly compelling. It marks the writing, directing, and producing debut of actor Jeremy Davidson, and it feels like a first film—deeply felt and clearly personal, but also derivative and predictable.

Daniel Suli plays Isaac “Zak” Pikler, a New York writer estranged from his mentally unbalanced father Warren (Lawrence Pressman). A phone call from his uncle Robby (Ronald Guttman), inviting Zak to join them for a visit to Warren over the high holidays prompts him to take a trip to the Catskills, where his father lives with his dog and spends his days wandering around, frequently nude. Warren doesn’t respond well when Zak and his girlfriend Delphina (Annie Parisse) show up in his living room, but their presence, and that of Uncle Robby and his wife, ultimately opens up old wounds from which secrets spill out, particularly those concerning Warren’s father Emil (Eli Wallach), whom he hasn’t spoken to in thirty years.

Davidson’s screenplay follows a pretty standard floor plan—the troublesome family conflict, the simmering tension and buried bitterness, the reveal of past hurts via impassioned late-night monologues. So we’re not exactly dealing with a shockingly original narrative—but a film like this isn’t about the plot, it’s about character and texture, the execution and the playing.

On those fronts, it’s rather a mixed bag. Pressman, a ubiquitous TV character actor (if you’re like me, you’ll spend half the movie trying to figure out what all you’ve seen him in) is very good—his role is a bit of an old hat, but he slugs some life into it (and indulges his director admirably—in all seriousness, I know we’re supposed to get right away that he’s losing his marbles, but how much old man nudity do we need in the first reel?). Parisse is an engaging presence; she has an easy, natural way with a line reading, and her scenes with Pressman are quite effective (even if they involve a turn to flashbacks that the picture has trouble negotiating). On the other hand, Suli, without many interesting notes to play, comes off as a bit of a dullard. And though Guttman brings a nice energy to his scenes, his performance is too broad—he plays like a stage actor who hasn’t quite toned himself down enough for the camera.

The technical elements are pretty mediocre; it’s full of smeary, grainy video photography and frequently shoddy camerawork, and Davidson (and cinematographer Peter Masterson) can’t find a way to make the film feel aesthetically consistent. The handheld look of the picture doesn’t seem to grow organically from the material (as it does in something like The Celebration)—it feels like what it probably was, a necessity of a low production budget. Abel Korzeniowski’s tinkly score doesn’t help either; it gives numerous scenes the feel of a made-for-TV movie.

By the time Eli Wallach finally turns up, there is, without question, some involvement in the film’s narrative; the fact that we know roughly where it’s going doesn’t mean that we’re not interested in getting there. But it is a work in a deliberately minor key, and it frequently attempts to take on more than it can handle. Tickling Leo has, no doubt, a soul and a real heart—and that’s almost enough. Almost.

"Tickling Leo" opens in limited release on Friday, September 4th.

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