Judge Michael Rankins prefers comparative metaphors involving the Pope's Catholicism and the fecal habits of bears.
"Call me Jimmy."
Think Akihito Dynamite.
Facts of the Case
When it comes to loveable losers, they don't come much more loser-esque than Hajime (Hiroshi Watanabe, Letters From Iwo Jima), who, in true Issei fashion, prefers to be called "Jimmy" upon arrival on American shores. A 40-year-old dinosaur-obsessed nerd with boundless enthusiasm to contrast his equally boundless stupidity, recently divorced Jimmy comes to the States from Japan to leech off his long-suffering sister Aiko (Nae, another Letters From Iwo Jima veteran), her stiff-necked, much older husband Tak (Mio Takada), and their 10-year-old son, a future captain of industry named Bob (Justin Kwong).
Jimmy is determined to find a new woman to replace the wife who (understandably, from this viewer's perspective) abandoned him. Specifically, he's fixated on Ramona (Lynn Chen, Lakeview Terrace), Tak's comely young niece and ex-girlfriend of Jimmy's closest American friend, Tim (James Kyson Lee, Heroes). Jimmy will go to any length—no matter how bizarre—to ingratiate himself with Ramona (or the nearest convenient Ramona substitute) and to fit his idiosyncratic square-peggedness into its adopted American hole.
White On Rice opens with an odd, yet arresting, pre-title scene, in which a Japanese-American family watches a badly dubbed samurai movie on television. The samurai actors' English voices are supplied by two pop culture icons, Bruce "Ashley J. Williams" Campbell and Pepe Serna, beloved for his appearances in such cult classics as Car Wash and Buckaroo Banzai. If you stopped watching White On Rice at the end of this sequence, you would have already gained most of the film's entertainment value, while saving yourself an hour and a half of precious life.
Over the last decade or two, filmmakers succumbed to the idea that adult men who think and act like emotionally stunted teenagers are hilarious. Sometimes this concept works (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and to a lesser degree, Knocked Up), and sometimes it doesn't (did someone mention Adam Sandler?). White On Rice qualifies for the latter camp. Its sole hope for connection with the audience rests entirely on our finding humor in the buffoonish behavior of Jimmy the child-man, who has no redeeming or appealing characteristics unless arrested preadolescence is inherently funny. Those of us for whom it isn't find ourselves twisting in the wind.
That's an unfortunate miscalculation on the part of director and cowriter Dave Boyle, who assembles a cast of charming, likeable actors, then pillories them against the grating Jimmy, grotesquely overplayed by Hiroshi Watanabe. Boyle clearly has a sense of style—although his unrefined technical chops often betray him—and an affection for Japanese mores and culture that shines through his work. Had he chosen to focus on the secondary characters here—in particular Justin Kwong's deadpan, preternaturally precocious Bob, who steals every scene in which he appears—Boyle might have had something. (I'd eagerly watch an entire movie about Bob and his mismatched parents.) Instead of a real story, however, we get a tsunami of Jimmy's annoying antics.
Jimmy is especially obnoxious because he's an exaggerated example of the sexless stereotype from which Asian actors in Hollywood have been battling to break free for decades. I'm certain that wasn't Boyle's intention, but it's what he serves up. Ethnically sensitive viewers who still have nightmares about the caricatures portrayed in the 1980s by Gedde Watanabe (or who more recently bridled at Masi Oka's guileless Hiro on Heroes) will really have something to squawk about after watching Hiroshi Watanabe (no relation, I think) here. The director could have told this same tale to greater effect by making his hero a bright, capable, compassionate man who simply finds himself at loose ends in unfamiliar surroundings, rather than a mugging clown with a Japanese accent.
As noted above, Boyle's genuine love for all things Japanese is evident in White On Rice. He deserves credit for opening a window into a subculture—Japanese immigrants living in middle America (suburban Salt Lake City, Utah, to be precise)—that few other filmmakers would deign to touch, and that most Western audiences would not even think to explore. Perhaps Boyle thought that a nation whose perspective has been shaped by the likes of Jackie Chan would never accept a realistic, human Asian male lead. Or perhaps he just wasn't thinking, period.
Sadly, because Jimmy is writ large all over White On Rice, none of the other elements have a prayer of coming together. There are several deft performances here—by Nae, Lynn Chen, and the sublime Pepe Serna, who in addition to his voiceover cameo makes an on-camera appearance as a geology professor to whom Jimmy gravitates—and a nicely turned comic moment or two, but everything subtle and sensitive evaporates into the ether when Jimmy enters the frame. In the face of this one substantial error in tone, good will just isn't enough.
White On Rice looks like the low-budget effort that it is—not that that's necessarily a bad thing. The visual presentation calls constant attention to the discount grade of film stock used in the production, making the movie appear older than it is. But hey—it's a comedy, not an action blockbuster, so we can deal. We can always see what we need to see, and can hear what we need to hear if we crank the volume up. (Fortunately, all of the Japanese-language dialogue sections—perhaps one-fifth of the total speaking time—are nicely subtitled.)
The most prominent of the DVD extras is writer-director Dave Boyle's audio commentary, which makes up in rough-hewn sincerity what it lacks in energy and polish. (Boyle begins the track by apologizing for the fan running in the background; later, his cell phone rings in the middle of his chat.) The challenges of moviemaking on a shoestring almost always provide intriguing commentary fodder, and Boyle does not disappoint.
Next on the menu, we find a selection of eleven deleted and extended scenes. These range in duration from a few seconds to over two minutes. All are preserved in raw footage without color correction, and with time code running in the margins.
Also included is footage from White On Rice's premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. Boyle and actors Hiroshi Watanabe and Nae are interviewed onstage in a theater, and field questions from a live audience. This entire 24-minute segment is in Japanese with burned-in English subtitles—director Boyle speaks fluent Japanese. It's well worth a look, as the questions move the participants to reveal inside information that Boyle doesn't touch on in his commentary.
Music lovers may appreciate the promotion video of the song "White on Rice," by singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura. Then again, considering the inanity of this dubious little acoustic ditty (Nakamura may be the only lyricist in history to rhyme "weekends" with "Fibonacci sequence"), true music lovers may elect to pass.
A batch of trailers, TV spots, and other miscellaneous marketing paraphernalia closes out the disc.
Eye-opening cultural insights squandered on the altar of slapstick. If the director of White On Rice decided to revisit some of these characters and settings absent this film's overwhelming central caricature, this Judge would be all over that like…well…you know.
Guilty of perpetuating ethnic stereotypes, and juvenile comedy. Sentenced to a two-week run of Gung Ho. We're adjourned.
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