Saturday, May 29, 2010

Film Review: 'How I Got Lost' (2009)

By Lars Trodson

Here is a film, "How I Got Lost", that actually has the feel -- depth is a better word -- of time and place. It is too easy these days to watch a movie, even a movie you have liked, and emerge from it with the feeling that it has floated away on air; those movies have the gnaw of an undernourished meal. Often enough it is because the film has no sense of place -- or time. The place could be New York, or Chicago, or even L.A., but the architecture has a slight hint of Europe, or Toronto. And no one in movies seems to go anywhere any more.

So it's with more than just a hint of satisfaction that Joe Leonard's "How I Got Lost" (from Osiris Entertainment) shows off Manhattan to great effect. You are on Wall Street, you are in a New York City taxi, and you're having a drink in a New York bar (when you could still smoke inside!). As someone who believes that film should be, as much as anything, an honest chronicle of time and place, then it is easy to say that "How I Got Lost" is a minor miracle.

This would not be enough praise of an independent film, of course, to have you see it. But there are other attributes here that are not minor. The cinematography by Chris Chambers is lovely. The city looks beautiful, and so does the Ohio farmland where two of the characters end up. The lighting is excellent; everything seems carefully played out. The sound is clear and warm. This is an instance, you can tell, where the filmmakers, the technicians and the actors, had respect for the story and what they were trying to accomplish. The acting is almost uniformly excellent; Leonard, the writer, may have thrown in one too many attempts at poetry, and I think the flashes of Nicholson/DeNiro/Pacino anger that may have once thrilled audiences could be too tired to have any spark any more, but that's a quibble.

Leonard may or may not be a student of Billy Wilder, but Wilder always made sure that even his minor characters had a personality, and so it is with "How I Got Lost." The gas girl (a beautifully understated Lily Holleman), as well as Gregory Konow as Ivar, a cab driver with attitude, and Rosemarie DeWitt, who manages to stop her character, the coffee shop waitress with a heart of gold, from becoming an instant cliche are all characters you'll actually remember after the film is over. How often can you say that? DeWitt's acting is that sharp kind of acting you associate with Jodi Foster, but without Foster's iciness. DeWitt is warmly intelligent.

The story itself is slender and begins dubiously. Andrew Peterson, played by Aaron Stanford, is the hard-drinking, disillusioned, self-destructive character that is more a direct descendant of the Caulfields of Manhattan, or the denizens of "Bright Lights, Big City" or "Less Than Zero" than an actual person. I was not, at first, happy to spend any time in his company. He is the hyper-smart, smart-ass cousin of the early Robert Downey Jr. The film also begins in the immediate days after the 9-11 attacks. Uh-oh, I thought.

In the opening scenes, Peterson emerges from a mid-town jail, rescued by his best friend, the practical Jake (Jacob Fishel). Jacob covers women's basketball for a New York tabloid who would rather be writing his own fiction. This did not seem encouraging, either.

But here is the thing. There was a very specific instance when I knew this film was going to work, and that was when Jake walked into his newsroom and has a brief, acerbic encounter with his editor. Here is a fact about how Hollywood movies portray the news industry and the very specific ambiance of a newsroom: 99.9 times out of a hundred they get it wrong. I don't care what movie you see, if it involves newspapers, it's almost assuredly dead wrong (let us specifically say that "All The President's Men" was distinctly right).

But director/writer Joe Leonard got it right. It's a brief scene, no big deal, but the dirt and clutter and the nicknacks that always fill a newsroom were all right there, and it was at that point I could relax. (I say this because I spent two decades as a newspaper reporter and editor.) The interplay between reporter and editor felt exactly right, and I thought to myself, well good for this film. It was then I realized I needed to ease off my initial prejudices and allow the film to unfold.

The arc of the story is propelled when Peterson receives a call, the purpose of which is revealed over time, and which I will not divulge here. In fact, to betray any of the plot elements would deny fresh viewers the chance to encounter these characters on their own, and in their own way. Stanford and Fishel have an easy, natural rapport (another accomplishment; how many films have you seen where the interaction between best friends seems cringe-worthy in its insincerity?). Stanford may have the flashier part, but any actor will tell you that playing the quieter, more self-assured person is the harder job. Fishel has both grace and charm, and he also helps keep the movie real.

I have some other quibbles, but why bother? There is too much to enjoy here to worry about any of the things that don't work. And what didn't work for me may be fine with you, anyway.

When I went back to my notes a few days after watching the movie (I watched it twice), I had written "it feels like an American journey." I was happy to have written that because I think it is the best description of "How I Got Lost." It has the feel of a real journey, one that moves from actual place to place across the American landscape. It is filled with the kind of people you would hope to meet along the way.

Writer and director Joe Leonard has created an American movie that is filled with affection for both its characters and the places from which they come.

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