Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger says this gun misfires half the time, but that means it still manages to hit the target a few times.
A comedy about the American dream.
Comedy can be tricky, especially dark comedy. My New Gun takes a risk by treading the path of dark comedy, but doing so with an exquisite subtlety that is not the norm for the genre. The comedy in My New Gun is founded in keen observation of detail and quirks of character, and it never points out its own sense of humor. Unaccustomed as many are to such nuance, My New Gun's trail will vanish right under the eyes of viewers who are attuned to a stronger frequency in their comedies. When the faint trail takes a couple of unexpected shifts, it loses even more viewers. By the time My New Gun is finished unloading, I suspect most of the audience will think they've just sat through a spotty drama with an undercurrent of weirdness.
Facts of the Case
Debbie and Gerald Bender (Diane Lane, Unfaithful; Stephen Collins, 7th Heaven) are a well-to-do suburban couple who live in an emotionally antiseptic nirvana. He runs a successful radiology practice with his brother Irwin (Bruce Altman, Matchstick Men), which leaves Debbie free to vacuum the pile carpeting, read the newspaper, and maintain the lawn.
When Irwin stops by one evening with his new fiancée Myra (Maddie Corman, Mickey Blue Eyes), we see that Gerald is more invested in keeping up with his brother's materialistic one-upmanship than in relating to his wife. This conflict is brought into sharp focus when Gerald buys a revolver for an unwilling Debbie just to prove a point. She is inordinately distracted by the gun's presence, and Gerald is annoyed by her distraction.
The only person who seems aware of Debbie's feelings and needs is the Benders' neighbor, Skippy (James LeGros, Catch That Kid). In fact he is intently aware, catering to her every whim. His infatuation borders on the creepy. Gerald views Skippy as a likely candidate for drug addiction or Satan worship, and not worth much thought. Debbie isn't sure what to think of Skippy. But she'll have to make up her mind, because soon Skippy's problems become intertwined with Debbie's problems—and it will take more than a gun to fix them.
Stacy Cochran's directorial debut, My New Gun, is an easy film to dismiss. Though many of the writing, acting, and directing touches reveal a smart core, the execution is muddled. Is it a satire on American suburbia? At first. Then it becomes an exploration of a withering relationship with a humorous "stalker crush" side plot thrown in for comic relief. My New Gun then morphs into a suspense/mystery. Somewhere in the mix we have a "woman coming out of her shell" romance, a chase scene, a slapstick "look how bad my day was" routine, and a game of cops and robbers. By the time this film is done switching gears, the audience is sitting in neutral with one foot on the clutch, waiting for a gear to stick so that the car can begin moving forward predictably.
But tone is what stalls My New Gun the most. The film seeks the note of ironic detachment that fuels many dark comedies. It succeeds; the scenes have a noticeable feeling of deadpan observation, an artificially heightened paradox of normalcy and tension that has us hyperaware of every detail. We are steeled for Cochran's dark observations, ready for anything, however absurd or shocking it may be. Yet all of the careful setup and weirdly woven threads of innuendo never form into a definitive conflict. Instead, the threads of weirdness continue to writhe, the deadpan becomes deadening, and we find ourselves along for a ride. Eventually, Cochran decides she has woven enough, the threads are cut, and the movie terminates.
Lest this sound like a harsh condemnation, let's get back to the smart writing, acting, and directing touches, because they are as noticeable and enjoyable as the shifting plot is disconcerting.
My New Gun throws a dying relationship into high relief. Subtle digs in the dialogue reveal more than five minutes of teary diatribe would have. For example, Gerald either refuses to or cannot accept that it was his action of purchasing the gun that led to the chaos in the Bender household. Another example is when Gerald breaks a pitcher in the kitchen and then asks Debbie to stop what she's doing to clean it up. These details in the writing build upon each other to reveal complex characters and relationships. The same subtlety is extended to what could have been a stereotypical character. Skippy begins as a creepy misfit, but in reality he is more wise, observant, and quick thinking than Gerald. By the time the film ends, we've experienced two relationships laced with verisimilitude. In fact, the mystery component of My New Gun is revealed almost totally through nuances of behavior.
Of course, the actors must run with what is written and make it come alive. Diane Lane outshines everyone in this regard. Her Debbie is emotionally traumatized, yet vibrant and responsive. Diane's approachability, sex appeal, and poise spill over into her character, which is a boon to the viewer. Diane admirably projects moments of dulled sensation to protect Debbie from emotional pain, while giving Debbie a spark of life at key moments. The end result is that when Diane is on screen, we're riveted.
Less successful, though adequate to the task at hand, are the competing duo of Collins and LeGros. Collins immediately distances himself from the goody-two-shoes dad of 7th Heaven, but it is still a hurdle we have to cross to meet his character. He completely sells the materialistic, insecure, and competitive Gerald. On the other hand, there are moments where Collins isn't misogynistic or cutthroat enough to convincingly spew his bile. When he accuses Skippy of being a Satanist, it is laughable rather than forceful. On the whole, Collins is a good choice who may be a victim of previous typecasting.
LeGros plays another incarnation of his typically subdued misfit/creep. The last time I critiqued his acting was in Damaged Care, where he played a Gerald. This earlier performance finds him on the other side of the coin, and he's much more likable in this role. LeGros perfectly projects a benign misfit aura while capably revealing Skippy's streetwise intelligence. On the other hand, LeGros doesn't imbue Skippy with the raw charisma that explains why Debbie might fall for him. He is attentive and smart, and he insinuates himself into Debbie's life, but we intuit the sparks between them rather than beholding them ourselves.
Perhaps the best performances aside from Diane Lane's come from Maddie Corman and Bill Raymond (A Hole in One), who plays a character introduced later in the film. Corman is ostensibly bland, but a few double-edged conversations reveal her sharp social perception. Corman turns a throwaway character into someone interesting. For his part, Raymond makes an interesting character even more interesting through realistic (and chilling) mannerisms.
It is obvious that Cochran knows what kind of vibe she wants to create, and she draws it out of her actors. A handful of key scenes thrive solely because of a specific look or gesture that tells the viewer what is going on (assuming that the viewer has paid close enough attention). In that regard, Stacy's direction is sure. Where the direction stumbles is in establishment. We never get a sense of the pre-troubled Benders, or the happiness between Skippy and his mother, Kimmy Hayes (Tess Harper, The In Crowd). We see everyone after the cares of the world have been dumped on them. That certainly ties in with the movie's themes, but it leaves us catching up. Even that isn't much of an issue, except that we must pour so much concentration into maintaining the tension through a gantlet of plot twists. Something gets lost along the way, and the picture doesn't feel as cohesive as it promised to be.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Part of why I had so much trouble following along is that some of the most telling phrases are whispered or muttered under the breath, and the sound fidelity is not high enough to support such low volume. I had to skip backward at least three times to engage the subtitles, which breaks the flow of the movie. In general the sound quality was spotty, with moments of volume fluctuation and harshness.
This is an independent film, and the video quality is on the high end for such an effort. Nonetheless, it does draw attention to itself on several occasions. The print is slightly too grainy, and there are many white specks in darker scenes. The use of heavy blue filters in night scenes gives them a note of artificiality: at one point I actually stopped to ponder whether the actors were really in full light with a heavy blue gel over the lens or whether it was just overuse of blue spotlights. A couple of exterior shots of the house that seem to be night shots look unreasonably purple. Edge enhancement become prominent in a couple of scenes. Otherwise, the colors are vibrant and the contrast is high. Challenging color choices are handled well, such as Skippy's home of red linoleum and dark taupe.
A featurette describing some of the subtleties present in this movie would go a long way toward evoking viewer goodwill. We have to put more into My New Gun than we should in order to be able to appreciate it. Reinforcement in the form of a director interview would have been welcome. As it happens, we get nothing at all.
What comes out in the wash? Diane Lane is a sexy woman and a capable actress, and she makes My New Gun shine. Several scenes possess such ineffable nuance that you may do a mental double take. My New Gun is intelligent and sly. Nonetheless, it often stalls itself, which detracts from our wholehearted enjoyment. The film is full of promise, and delivers on half of it.
The actors are free to go. Columbia TriStar is held accountable for the lack of extras, and Stacy Cochran is guilty of misdemeanor ambivalence.
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