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Paul Dood's Deadly Lunch Break
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by Jay Seaver

"Too little revenge too slow in coming."
2 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's a weird desperation to the back half of "Paul Dood's Deadly Lunch Break", like the filmmakers are desperate to make the audience invest in the pursuit and violence of what's going on because they are acutely aware that they squandered the first half-hour of the movie and need to catch up if they're going to make the points they intend. Not that those are particularly interesting or novel points; a story about a delusional social-media addict/would-be entertainer needs to be more interesting than this to stand out.

And that's what Paul Dood (Tom Meeten) is, well into his forties but still dreaming of show business success; he's currently using livestreaming site "TrendLadder" as an outlet but very far down the ladder in terms of viewers, and for every person who watches him sincerely like his co-worker Clemmie (Katherine Parkinson), there is probably at least one more watching to mock him like Bruce (Jarred Christmas). His mother Julie (June Watson) - elderly, ailing, and in a bit of a fog - supports him unreservedly, so it's important she go with him to the TrendLadder Talent Show audition hosted by Jack Tapp. A series of setbacks from unkind people has the day end as badly as it can, and soon Paul is planning a livestream that will really get him noticed - the one where he takes his revenge.

There are many, many worse premises for a dark comedy than "middle-aged theater kid goes on a rampage", but even something with that potential demands to be set up with a little more care than this manages. Paul and Julie aren't given any sort of backstory at all, and while they don't need to have some sort of unique situation that has kept them down, anything to make them less generic could have helped, even the slightest personality quirk. Even if Paul is meant to be some sort of everyman despite his discount-rack flamboyance, the crawl to the audition is just brutal viewing, something like a half hour going for dry and acerbic but instead winding up mostly dull, with even the meanness not packing any zip after the first first jerk the Doods encounter. Some of the situations also make Paul feel frustratingly stupid; while he's not supposed to be particularly clever, it's not unreasonable to yell something along the lines of "just walk out of that extended sketch about an absurd tea-house rather than just leaving your wheelchair-bound mother on the street! If this place exists, there must be a shop where you can buy a bottle of water nearby!"

A slow build can pay off, but director Nick Gillespie and his co-writers suddenly seem to get cold feet, like they're afraid to actually pay off the situation they created with Paul over-avenging himself on all of the people who caused him to snap. Instead, they've got to supply more reasons why each of these people really deserve it, or have circumstances arrange themselves so that Paul isn't actively violent enough for the audience to turn on him. It's a confused mess, because this is one movie if Paul is pushed to murder, and another if he's caught up in a situation where he could easily be suspected, but this film isn't sharp enough to be both, much less comment on how broken circumstances are to allow both to be viable options, and it just gets messier as the filmmakers try to patch together some sort of climax.

By the time that ending comes, the film is leaning hard on Mandeep Dhilion as the community police officer whose sensible nature is quite frankly a delight after a solid hour of almost everybody being stupid or cruel (see also Chris Willoughby as Jack's assistant); giving the audience someone they relate to as she tries to sort things out amid the chaos. It's impressive how well Tom Meeten holds things together until she arrives; Paul is something of a caricature but he's also not so out there that he doesn't feel real. There's this sort of peppiness to him that is clearly intentional but not exactly fake, with Meeten never overselling how Paul's belief that he's just a tiny distance being discovered and having everything change has become a delusion that shatters on this day, but making that moment count and pointedly not playing Dood as "normal" after that; just because some scales have fallen away from his eyes does not mean his whole personality and way of thinking have changed. June Watson is impressively on-point as Julie, but the rest of the characters are kind of scattered, only fitfully able to wring a personality out of their one note each, with Alice Lowe standing out for how her character is deadpan but also self-aware about her awfulness.

There's material for a decent black comedy in here, but the filmmakers never seem to decide on a target, eventually ending on a predictable "ha ha, isn't it messed up how things wind up?" bit before the credits. Pair that with a first act that takes forever to grind into motion, and it's frustrating both for what it is and what it maybe could have been.

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originally posted: 08/06/21 06:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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