Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Table manners: a good pool movie is hard to find, but Turn the River's not bad

There’s this moment in
Turn the River (2007) where this guy who sells phony passports waits for a client in a pool hall, one of these gloomily slick looking joints where the proprietor actually brushes the tables, where everyone seems to be on the make, and amateurs don’t feel too welcome. Passport guy’s been waiting for a while, killing time shooting stick on his own, and once his client finally arrives he can’t keep himself from venting his sheer annoyance at the game, its tedium and unforgiving geometries. His client, who happens to be a lithe lady pool shark, someone so attuned to the game she actually sleeps on a pool table, tells him the reason he doesn’t like pool is simple: he sucks.

This moment struck me because, well, I suck. Okay, I can probably beat my grandma best two out of three, but basically I stink. Yet I love pool. Which means that I steer clear of halls like the one in Turn the River, sticking to musty dives where the sticks are warped and the tables shabby, booze-stained and uneven, where the jukebox is always in the way when you need to make that decisive shot and everyone’s too drunk to bother noticing how we bend all the rules just to stretch our buck as long as possible—that much more time to sip beer and listen to the happy snap-drawl of those chalk-smeared spheres rolling along the spot-lit green expanse. How, you might ask, can I enjoy something so much when I’m so bad at it? I don’t know, blame it on the movies maybe.

I probably saw The Color of Money (1986) on pay-TV a dozen times as a kid. I remember my astonishment, even then, at how much I actually kinda loved Tom Cruise, how perfect he seemed as the young hot shot, how elegant and infinitely more alluring Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson was, the aging version of some other young hot shot from some movie of 25 years ago I’d never seen, and how Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the woman with tenuous allegiances to both men, was the most intriguing of the three. But mostly I loved the atmosphere, that is, of the game as it played cinematically. And it’s a good thing I dug The Color of Money as much as I did back then, since, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor, the field of pool movies would prove either barren or badly tilled in the subsequent 20 years.

I knew zilch about Turn the River, but it had Rip Torn, a friendly quote from critic David Edelstein on the case, and a rather fetching cover image of Famke Janssen confidently handling a cue stick. It’s the writing/directing debut of Chris Eigerman, a seasoned actor, which perhaps explains why he wanted to make what is essentially a character study in the New Hollywood vein, a movie about a loner who lives out of a truck, apparently owns maybe two outfits, has what we call “a past,” and does one thing really well: beat the pants off of cocky pricks, taking them for all they’ve got in merciless rounds of one pocket. Every character study is of course also a study of milieu, and Turn the River promises viewers a 92-minute plunge into those long-neglected pool halls.

Kaily (Janssen) is wearying of the hustling life. We know this because whenever some old acquaintance sees her again—like Torn’s crusty sage—they always tell her how she looks like shit. (I just kept thinking, “Dude, that’s Famke Janssen. She looks
good.”) She’s got a plan to snatch her estranged preteen son (Jaymie Dornan, a great find, with a goofy, Tobey Maguire smile that catches you off guard) from his dad and head for Canada, exactly the sort of lame-brained plan that these loner antiheroes always seem to make, but hey, people do stupid stuff in real life, too. All she needs to do is build up some serious funds for those passports…

The movie’s not bad. It does indeed generate a pleasingly distinctive air, lurking along the peripheries of the tables, echoing those theatrical overhead lights in other interestingly stylized scenes, and even offering a colorful array of eccentric supporting characters to back up Janssen’s genuinely compelling, textured lead, like Kaily’s ex, a sad dad nakedly jealous of his own son, and Kaily's ex's mom, an overbearing Jesus freak. But the movie’s awkward, too, and doesn’t quite earn its tone, faux-urgency, or ending. That this is Eigerman’s first feature is fairly obvious to anyone with even a passing habit of nitpicking—did those same two extras just pass by three times in the last 30 seconds, walking in the same direction?—but what matters is that Eigerman seems to have decided on what kind of movie he wanted to make before he actually made it, failing to capitalize on what he actually had in the can. To narrow it down, I’d argue that the biggest single problem here is actually the music, which comes courtesy of Clogs and is perfectly interesting in itself, but steals all the potential humour—sorry, but sleeping on a pool table should be funny, guys—and the actual sense of studying this character, rather than just dunking her in a bath of generic indie moodiness. …Still, she looks just right craning her long body over those tables.