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Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench
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by Jay Seaver

"Don't expect excitement from a movie whose title describes sitting."
2 stars

First impressions can be a heck of a thing to shake. Even before talking to the other people at the screening, I knew there were a lot of things that rookie filmmaker Damien Chazelle did well in "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench". This one rubbed me the wrong way early, though, and then never rose high enough above average to earn its way back into my good graces.

Guy (Jason Palmer) plays jazz trumpet in Boston, scraping the odd gig together, either still in college or not long graduated. Madeline (Desiree Garcia) was his girlfriend, but they've recently broken up, so she's looking for a post-college job and place to live, and having trouble moving on. Elena (Sanddhha Khin) is Guy's new girl, and there doesn't seem to be much to her.

Nobody says "mumblecore" any more, except maybe when referencing certain specific filmmakers, and besides, that's a stripped-down style, and Guy and Madeline has a fairly elaborate score and impressively choreographed musical numbers for a film of its clearly minuscule budget. The promotion mentions other influences, such as the French New Wave and MGM musicals. However, there's a reason that the plot description doesn't go much beyond listing the characters who take center stage; they don't actually do a whole lot. It's a movie about underemployed young people who don't know what's next, and who aren't hugely proactive in going after it.

And while the occasional song and/or dance number is an interesting way of giving expression to their feelings, by the time Chazelle is doing this in earnest, it may not be enough. Once the brain has stamped a movie as "boring" - which mine did roughly ten minutes in, after a jump to a few weeks before the opening scene showed nothing surprising or unusual by the time the movie caught back up - every scene, fairly or unfairly, gets put under the microscope in real time. Is this the one that shows why these characters are special or has them do something that creates anticipation for what they'll do next? More often than not, no, and each time it isn't, a little more is needed from the next scene to make up for it, to the point when the movie finally does something interesting, it's not enough.

It's frustrating and really no fun to be watching a movie in that frame of mind. It drains the joy out of scenes like the one where Guy teaches his mother to play piano, or when Madeline's job busing tables at a restaurant erupts into a song and dance number that, while a bit rough in spots, is extremely well-executed for such a small production. The music is also very high-quality - contracting the orchestra to perform the score probably tok a large chunk of the film's budget - and the black-and-white 16mm photography gives the image a bit of a timeless quality. But for every scene as well-conceived and shot as the one where Guy and Elena meet on an MBTA train, making a silent flirtation out of where their hands are on the pole and which way they lean as the car turns and accelerates, there's an extended sequence like the one where Elena meets a creepy, lonely ex-cop that makes the movie seem much longer and slower than it actually is.

What it comes down to more than anything else is that the characters, no matter how well-played they are, just aren't that interesting. Guy is an unusual character type - the introverted jerk - but that doesn't do much to engage our curiosity. Even though Jason Palmer is, by trade, more musician than actor, he's adept enough at his second job; he's just stuck in a movie whose writer/director makes the common mistake of assuming musical/artistic talent actively counters an unpleasant personality. Guy being unpleasant means the audience can get impatient with Madeline moping over him specifically, although Desiree Garcia gives the character just enough spark to let us see potential in her. Sandha Khin's Elena is at least lively, even if she is kind of empty-headed and ridiculous.

She's maybe the only lively thing in the movie - or at least, the only lively thing that's not a digression. That's a killer; "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" is impressive for its low budget and sometimes impressive period, but it lacks the spark that elevates a movie about everyday things to something extraordinary. It's tough to overcome boring, and this movie doesn't manage it.

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originally posted: 11/17/10 03:44:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 03-May-2011



Directed by
  Damien Chazelle

Written by
  Damien Chazelle

  Jason Palmer
  Desiree Garcia
  Sandha Khin

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