engagingly off-kilter exploration of how a suicidal book-keeper becomes a
make-shift messiah, "Julian Po" is a beautifully controlled
fable whose profound underpinnings are buoyed by luminous comic
timing. Scripter-helmer Alan Wade's debut is a commercial
zero but is certain to stick in the minds of those who see it; peculiar
yet endearing pic marks the filmmaker as a talent to watch.
Wade adapted and expanded a 40
page novella by Yugoslavian author Branimir Scepanovic adding characters,
compressing time and trading Montenegro for the Catskills, all to
excellent effect. Story has face value charm to spare, but also
slyly comments on the cult of celebrity, the perils of inertia vs. the
impetus to action and the ways in which the meaning and personal identity
can crystallize where least expected.
Having recently purchased a cheap
tape recorder that he uses for an audio diary (which serves as V.O.
narration), 30-year old title character (Christian Slater) is a fairly
anonymous, nondescript fellow who is on a journey to see the sea for the
first time when his car breaks down. Po ambles into a tiny, old
fashioned town off the beaten track, checks into the only hotel and
immediately becomes the focus of every citizenís rabid curiosity.
The wholesome but eerie locale has rarely, if ever hosted a stranger, and
the residents are naturally suspicious.
Convinced that he is up to no
good, the townspeople demand that the visitor reveal his intentions.
Under pressure, Po blurts put that he plans to kill himself. This
admission touches a collective nerve: Impressed by their guestís courage
and starved for entertainment, the gawking locals follow his every
move. Po finds himself the recipient of constant kindness Ė and
confessions. Cornered into uttering inspiring platitudes, he
becomes a catalyst for all sorts of personal momentum.
The sheriff, the barber, the
haberdasher, a garage mechanic -- even an elderly woman who sells lottery
tickets to folks who want to bet on which day Po will off himself -- find
their lives transformed. The town pastor undergoes a particularly
amusing change of heart after interacting with Po. But problems
emerge when, having raised local expectations Po stays on yet takes no
concrete steps toward doing himself in.
Slater put on weight -- and a mustache -- for the role, details that help
impart a likable vulnerability to the frequently exasperated Po.
Pithy character roles abound,
including Harve Presnell as the mayor and Alison Janney as his wife,
Michael Parks as the innkeeper, Robin Tunney as an angelic woman who
throws herself at Po and Cherry Jones as a deaf-mute chamber maid.
Costumes and setting have an
appealingly timeless quality, although tale is contemporary.
Saturated colors in exteriors and a lovely score [by Patrick Williams]
with GershwinĖlike overtones contribute to picís special atmosphere.
- L. N.
THE DENVER POST
Friday, September 5, 1997
Po' a Mayberry Tale with a Serling Twist
Po" is as mysterious and unusual as its title characterís odd
enigmatic name. Itís pronounced "Poe" as in Edgar Allan.
Set in a meticulously detailed but
imaginary American mountain town, the movie has the feel and pacing of a
macabre and absurdist fable, perhaps a religious parable. Yet in the
way it is mistrustful of religion and wary of the human raceís
capability to accept goodness, it is much like a French existentialist
First time director Alan Wade has
based his screenplay on a short story, Branimir Scepanovicís "La
Mort de Monsieur Golouga." But "Julian Po" has a
traditional American look with a twist. The small isolated mountain
town populated with eccentric characters is like sleepy
Mayberry. In fact "Julian Po" could be an Andy
Griffith episode written by Rod Serling.
The movie has darkly comic
elements, but Wade keeps the tone relatively realistic. While the
story is far-fetched, you buy in to the director's quiet but persistent,
dedication to plausibility. It wins you over.
The acting is uniformly pitch
perfect. As Julian, Christian Slater is especially winning Ė and
remarkably restrained. His character is a timid and frightened man,
at a loss for a meaning in his life. But heís not passive or
resigned to unhappiness. Heís capable of showing humor and
anger. He has a determination to try to experience pleasure,
even heís not sure what it entails. He is a moving everyman.
Julian is a 30-year-old
bookkeeper who is regretful and disdainful of his lifeís accomplishments
to date. "Itís not worth mentioning," he speaks into his
omnipresent portable tape recorder. He has never been to the sea, so
heís taking a vacation there, wearing a suit and a drably conservative
shirt. When his car breaks down, he walks into a mountain town that
has seen few outsiders since the Depression and seems to like it that way.
As created by production designer
Steven McCabe, the townís look is one of "Julian Poís" best
assets. It has the weather beaten sorrowfulness of an Edward Hopper
painting, only pushed farther and made grotesque.
Cinematographer Bernd Heinl is
very careful about letting bright light and color into this town, as if it
doesnít deserve too much of it. Muted colors predominate,
underlining the townís rickety, time capsule look. It is kind of a
place you might fall into if you stumbled in to a big hole while
sleepwalking through real life.
Julian stays at a creepy decrepit
place, a rooming house run by the viscously, leeringly evil Vern (Michael
Parks, of the cult favorite "Then Came Bronson" TV
series). He decides to stay awhile, because itís a hard town to
leave without transportation. This makes the townsfolk extremely
suspicious. Is he a drug dealer? A serial killer?
They confront him in a cafť, and
the scared Julian confesses that he has come to kill himself. He may
not even mean it; he may have just gotten tongue-tied out of fear.
But he immediately becomes a tourist attraction in a town where nothing
interesting happens. And cruel fate sets in.
For some, Julianís impending
suicide is a source of bemusement or pleasure. They want to help him
get on with it. Vern offers him the use of a gun; the town barber
says heíll slit Julianís throat with his straight razor. Kids in
baseball caps follow him around on the streets, like stalking
paparazzi. A woman sells chances on the time and the date of his
But for others, Julian planís
somehow set them free to be intimate with him. Itís as if they
believe Julian is sacrificing himself for them. The town sheriff
(Frankie R. Faison, a Tony award winner for his role in
"Fences") confesses he once killed a man and kept it
secret. And, he says, he enjoyed it. The nervous melancholy
clothing- store owner (Zeljko Ivanick) reveals that heís a closeted gay
man who loves the sheriff. Another man tells him he wants to flee
his wife and child to become an actor.
Julian, uncomfortable with such
confidences, answers with heart-felt but not always deep platitudes about
lifeís meaning. And these are taken as the gospel truth by others,
with disastrous results. Only the deaf rooming house maid seems to
accept him for what he is.
Among those who put faith in
Julian is Sarah (Robin Tunney), a frail, freckle-faced young woman with
spectacularly long brown hair and a consistent air of despondency about
her. She has had visions of Julianís arrival, and appears to see
suicide as an act of bearing witness. "She looks and smells
like the beach," says Julian, who desperately wants to see the
ocean. They begin a love affair of tragic consequences.
Julian says one thing thatís
hard to shake, and it is the intellectual center of this strange
film. When pastor Bean (Bruce Bohne) asks if he believes in God,
Julian answers that there probably is one. "Somebody has to
apologize," he says. It is the movieís world view, and it
sneaks up on you in a seductive and devastatingly effective way.
"Julian Po" believes that love means saying your sorry.
"Julian Po" is a bit reminiscent of another
strange American movie about the macabre underside of a small-town
American life; 1968ís "Pretty
Poison." In it a teen (Tuesday Weld) persuades a troubled, timid young man (Tony Perkins)
to help her with a murder.
Denver Post Movie Critic