Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On DVD: "Good Dick"

Through much of Good Dick’s brief running time, I couldn’t decide if it was charmingly off-beat, or if it was trying too hard to be charmingly off-beat. It ultimately won me over, but for no good reason; it’s chock full of problems, from its unsympathetic characters to its somewhat inert pacing to its schizophrenic tone. But it just kind of grows on you; like Justin Theroux’s unfairly maligned Dedication a couple years back, it’s a dark romantic comedy with the too-rare trait of being unpredictable, and that uncertainty gives it a real edge.

Jason Ritter plays the (never-named) male protagonist, who works in a suspiciously overstaffed video store (so there’s plenty of funny clerks hanging around) and is currently living out of his car. As the story begins, he is harboring a crush on a female customer (also never named, played by writer/director Marianna Palka) who frequents the store, taking home stacks of 70s erotica. He decides to act on his attraction, kicking the film off with a good old-fashioned stalking before embarking on one of the most peculiar courtships ever captured on film.

It’s basically a drag-and-pull; he’s crazy about her, she’s repulsed by him (or so she says), but she keeps letting him hang around, coming over after work to fix her food and bring her free movies. She’ll watch the dirty flicks with him, but with rules: “If you get a boner, you’re gone.” It is, for all intents and purposes, a psychologically abusive relationship, but he keeps coming back for more; his slow-but-steady push into her good graces has some pretty tart comic payoffs (the playing and shooting of his attempt at a first kiss is just about perfect), even if her mean-spirited rebuffs become somewhat tiresome as the film goes on.

Ritter (who co-produced) is quite engaging—it takes skill to pull off a character like this, and the actor must negotiate the fine line between dedicated, never-say-die romantic and creepy, needy, horny stalker. He pretty much pulls it off, though he has to navigate some pretty rough patches in the first act. Palka avoids the trap of writing herself a charming, beautiful ingénue role; she’s given herself a fairly impossible character, and though her tics and rules try the viewer’s patience, you can’t stop watching her.

Palka’s script is admirably low-key; she doesn’t push for effects, gives the characters plenty of room, and subverts expectations on several occasions (most notably with regards to her character’s eventual discovery of the big lie at the beginning of their relationship). Her direction is similarly unobtrusive—most of the picture plays in loose mediums and wides, allowing the scenes to breathe and occasionally expand (as with the loosely funny video store sequences featuring ace supporting players Mark Webber, Eric Edelstein, and invaluable Apatow regular Martin Starr).

Things get sharper and stronger in the last twenty minutes or so, with an outstanding single-scene role by Tom Arnold (I know, I should stop being shocked when he’s good in things) and a lovely, restrained closing scene. Good Dick is an odd duck of a movie, equal parts warm and wormy, but somehow, in its own, weird way, it works.

Good Dick is far from perfect—it has a strange, off-kilter feel, its tonal shifts are jarring, and its title is all wrong, a 15-year-old’s idea of clever branding. But it is honestly unique and continuously intriguing, sustaining viewer interest from scene to scene and taking its peculiar story into unexpected places. The film is far from being a crowd-pleasing entertainment, but those wary of conventional romantic comedy may find it strangely compelling.

"Good Dick" is currently available on DVD.

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