Judge Daniel MacDonald is allergic to cats.
"I became a private investigator because I like the 'private' part."—Jack Stanton (Edward Burns)
Edward Burns' latest effort as writer/director/actor is an ultra-low budget, digital video affair with a just a handful of characters but a fairly engaging premise. While flawed, it continues his Woody Allen phase with another love letter to New York City, cold weather and all.
Facts of the Case
Private eye Jack (Edward Burns, Saving Private Ryan) gets thrown a bone from an old friend: a missing persons case that promises to be easy money. And his first meeting with Abe (David Krumholtz, Numbers) does little to change this perception.
Abe, a reserved baseball coach who only eats "American" food and sports an impressive 'stache, is in New York City for the first time, looking for his wife Kitty. It seems Kitty has run off, possibly to reunite with an amusingly-named rock star, Ron Stewart (Max Baker, The Island).
At first, Jack is all business, pressing Abe for money up front and refusing his request to tag along. But he can't pass up the extra cash Abe is offering to act as partner, and acquiesces provided Abe always stays outside.
As Jack and Abe walk and drive the streets, spending an awful lot of time standing around in the chilly winter weather, they start to learn about and appreciate each other's idiosyncrasies. Jack lost his wife a couple of years before, and as he helps Abe deal with the fact that Kitty might not want to take him back, he starts to find a way to heal his own wounds, an "unlikely" friendship forming between the two men along the way.
The film also features Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights), and Saturday Night Live's Chris Parnell and Rachel Dratch.
Looking For Kitty is a relationship movie, juxtaposing the growing friendship between Jack and Abe with the more complicated relationships both men have with the women in their lives. It depicts both as committed, pensive, and determined, emphasis on the committed—Jack spends much of his downtime pining for his deceased wife, while Abe just can't seem to give up on Kitty, no matter how clear it appears Kitty has made it that she's not interested in salvaging the relationship. Men of their word, they say what they mean and do what they say.
The story is framed as part detective story and part quest. The men stake out "suspects," pull together clues, and try to build the puzzle that is Kitty's disappearance. Much of the movie reminded me of The French Connection, featuring a similarly cold New York that was communicated through the characters' foot stamping.
At the same time, there is a quest for self-discovery going on, with each exchange of dialogue between Abe and Jack bringing Abe enlightenment into his relationship with Kitty, and Jack closer to moving past his grief. Hardly mythic, but there's certainly a chartable path the men take, which drives this narrative more strongly than is often the case in this type of film; less skilled writers struggle to tell a story through a progression of conversations between the same two people.
Abe is an odd duck, to be sure, but the more we get to know him, the more we come to appreciate him. His idiosyncrasies make him human, real, and Krumholtz deserves credit for making the character such an easy person with whom to empathize.
Jack, too, is both likable and complex, but is not as finely drawn as Abe. Burns does well to play him as an introspective fellow who's lonely but won't admit it, not a huge stretch from his previous roles, but an enjoyable character.
The supporting cast, featuring a few recognizable faces who drop in and out of the picture, adds some variety to the proceedings, and its fairly apparent that much of the material was likely discovered through improvisation. They do not, however, have much affect on the overall story, which belongs to Abe and Jack alone.
Burns' career as a writer/director can be divided into two phases so far: pre- and post-Sidewalks Of New York. Before making that film, Burns' pictures, while sweet and sincere, they seemed to be more of a showcase for Edward Burns The Actor, as opposed to launching the career of an ambitious director. Which worked, with Burns finding himself in some high-profile roles. Then, in 2001, came his best film, Sidewalks of New York, with a large ensemble cast and an irreverent style mixing on-camera interviews with dramatic scenes. It was no big hit financially (although its $2 million gross doubled its budget), but it seemed to be the first Burns film with a distinct stylistic flair, and let to him being heralded by some as the next Woody Allen. His subsequent film, Ash Wednesday, was less Allen and more low-rent Scorsese, but was still a satisfying work.
On a whole, this is not Burns' greatest film, but it is engaging, which is more than can be said of many films with a thousand times the budget.
The picture can be viewed with a director's commentary, which I would highly recommend doing for anyone with an interest in low-budget filmmaking. Burns is organized and thorough, having an acute understanding of what his audience wants to know—namely, "How did you do it, and how can I do it too?" And he's not afraid to be candid, as he even points out his sub-par acting in one scene (which, admittedly, is less than great). I enjoyed the film, but listening to the commentary improved my opinion of it even further.
A lengthy alternate opening sequence is also included, some of which I thought worked better than what appears in the film, some of which I didn't. Worth checking out, regardless.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On the other hand, the (few) female characters are each struggling with their own fidelity, seemingly all looking for something new, or at least someone else. This is an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise charming film, as, while I enjoyed the picture throughout its running time, I found the gender-line archetypes to be disconcerting. Couldn't there be one faithful female in this movie? (I suppose we could assume Jack's wife was faithful, but I wouldn't count on it).
Picture quality is definitely below standard, understandable given the budget and equipment used. Colours shift regularly, and digital grain is pronounced in lower light scenes.
Finally, I found the music to be kind of annoying, especially the song "Kitty, You're The One," which is just a little too on-the-nose for this reviewer.
There is an insert inside the DVD case of Looking For Kitty (a rare thing nowadays) featuring a director's letter from Edward Burns, and I would highly recommend reading this letter prior to watching the film. It explains how Burns was intending to make a larger budget picture but couldn't get the funding together, and so he decided to try the digital angle. He made the movie for a staggering $200,000, purchasing a Panasonic digital camera for three grand and casting friends who could help him out for a couple of weeks. Knowing the history of the picture might make you a bit more forgiving of its flaws, and appreciative of what it has to offer.
By turns touching and funny, this is a decent rental, especially for anyone looking to make a fairly polished film with his or her lunch money.
Not guilty of being cheap, but the court recommends finding some different female friends.
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Scales of Justice
• Filmmaker Commentary with Edward Burns
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