Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Don McKellar Hot and Cold: The Grand Seduction and Sensitive Skin

Brendon Gleeson and Taylor Kitsch in The Grand Seduction

Considering his myriad credits as actor, screenwriter, playwright and director, a true Renaissance man, it comes as something of a surprise when you realize that The Grand Seduction (2013) is only Don McKellar’s third film as a director. That’s all the more shocking when you take into account that his debut feature, the quietly powerful and moving apocalyptic science fiction movie Last Night (1998), was simply stunning. (I chose it as one of the best Canadian films of all time when polled by the Toronto International Film Festival.) But perhaps it’s due to the vagaries of a local film industry that has become more fixated on box office of late that when McKellar’s second movie Childstar (2004), an uneven but smart comedy about a spoiled American child actor on the loose in Toronto, did very badly commercially (I heard five figures in total box office) that it took nearly a decade for McKellar to get another cinematic shot behind the camera. Fortunately, if he needed an impressive calling card to remind people out there of how good he is then The Grand Seduction fits the bill nicely.

The Grand Seduction is, also, likely, the first ever English Canadian adaptation of a French Canadian film La grande séduction (2003), which played in English under the title Seducing Doctor Lewis, though some Quebecois movies like Ken Scott's Starbuck have been adapted by Hollywood, as Delivery Man in 2013 (co-written and directed by Scott, and starring Vince Vaughn). Ken Scott, who co-wrote the French language original, penned the script with Micheal Dowse for The Grand Seduction. Relocating the action from a rural Quebec village to a rural Newfoundland and Labrador one isn’t really all that jarring since the plotlines of both films are almost identical and, in fact, Quebec producer Roger Frappier had originally mused about setting La grande séduction in Newfoundland and Labrador, so the translation is more apropos than you’d think.

Director Don McKellar (Photo courtesy of Canadian Press)
The Grand Seduction is set in the not so quaint Newfoundland town of Tickle Head where virtually everyone is on welfare and the future looks bleak. Murray French (Brendan Gleeson), whose wife (played by Cathy Jones) is the latest islander to leave for the opportunities of the big city of St. John’s, finds out from the town’s mayor that Tickle Head was negotiating for a petrochemical factory to be relocated to the island to get the town up and running again economically. The catch: Tickle Head must have a doctor in residence which it never has. The solution: when Canadian Dr. Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights, The Normal Heart) is caught with some cocaine at St. John’s airport and word gets out to the islanders, he agrees to spend a month in Tickle Head as payment for having the drug bust covered up. But that’s only part of the plot, as now Murray and pals must get Dr. Lewis to agree to stay on permanently in order to convince the powers that be to bring the factory to Tickle Head.

Both films revolve around the townsfolk pretending to be what they’re not, in order to seduce the doctor into staying there by showcasing how much they have in common. That means acting like they’re cricket fans instead of hockey ones – they make sure they get access to a cricket cable channel but like most of us cannot fathom how the game is actually played –  or pretending to love fusion jazz, which they hate. And with Murray, in particular, because the townsfolk have bugged Dr. Lewis’s house phone where’s he residing, and know a lot about him, aspiring to become the younger man’s father figure, to replace the dad he never knew.

The Grand Seduction is amiably funny stuff, from the five-dollar bills planted in Dr. Lewis’ path each night for him to find so he’ll think the town is lucky for him, to Murray’s frustrated attempts to get Kathleen (Liane Balaban, New Waterford Girl), the local postmistress, to show interest in the doc even though he has a girlfriend back home, while suggesting to Dr. Lewis that Kathleen is mad about him. And while the portraits of the townsfolk could easily have been caricatures, the smart script and McKellar’s smooth, confident and atmospheric direction elevate the film above clichéd comedy. It’s sentimental, admittedly, but it's never cloying and the acting, including that of Newfoundland legend Gordon Pinsent (The Rowdyman, Away from Her) as Murray’s best pal, is consistently fine. Kitsch’s Lewis, is especially enjoyable; he’s a bit of a prig, a tad superior but eminently likeable. And Gleeson (The Guard, Cavalry), an Irish actor whose accent is spot on here, has fun with his conniving but bighearted character. Add a few digs at the Ottawa mandarins who control the fate of towns like Tickle Head and aren’t incorruptible either and the islanders’ jealousy and insecurity vis-à-vis the big city (nicely depicted, in a montage at the airport where Dr. Lewis is busted, as a multicultural place not at all comparable to the rest of the province) and you have a little more sketched onto a pretty basic story.

What’s fascinating about the two movies is that I found the Quebec original, directed by Jean-François Pouliot, to be competent but slight, likely because compared to so many meaty films from Quebec, its whimsical, light tone made it seem dramatically wanting. Yet its English incarnation seems more substantial somehow, perhaps because it reflects an entire province’s economic woes and not just that of one remote corner of Quebec. (Newfoundland and Labrador is on the economic upswing now but traditionally its been one of Canada’s have-not provinces.) It also might have something to do with the fact that on the English language ledger of our national cinema, dominated as it is by the tone-deaf, tedious likes of Atom Egoyan (Ararat, Chloe) or the inaccessible art house, silent (and tiresome) movie tropes of Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World, Brand Upon the Brain!), a film like The Grand Seduction, concerning real people and authentic situations, is something of a rarity. That the movie involves and engrosses you as much as it does has a lot to do with McKellar’s deft filmmaking skills which steers the movie in the right direction. This is one big screen helmer who's been gone for much too long.

Don McKellar and Kim Cattrall in Sensitive Skin

By contrast, Sensitive Skin, McKellar’s six-part TV series for HBO Canada, which he stars in and directs, is piffle: a flat and pretty unimpressive look at a long married couple, whose distaff half (Kim Cattrall) is suffering from ennui and trying to find her place in life. Cattrall (Samantha from Sex and the City) is good as Davina, an art gallery employee who is wondering what she’s doing with her husband of thirty years, Al (McKellar), a hypochondriac and kvetch who is not very attentive to her needs. But the writing in Sensitive Skin, which is based on Hugo Black's UK TV series of the same name and which I have not seen, is really trite and doesn’t allow Davina to do much more than mope and endure/enjoy various guys making passes at her.

I can’t blame McKellar for that; it’s entirely scripted by Bob Martin whose previous writing collaborations with McKellar include the brilliant book of the highly inventive award-winning satiric musical The Drowsy Chaperone and the entertaining CBC show Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays. The CBC series, which only ran for one season, wasn’t great, but Martin’s performance as a screwed up shrink was provocative and the show, like The Drowsy Chaperone, was indicative of McKellar’s edgy, hip persona. Though Sensitive Skin was made for Canadian cable, it doesn’t have a scintilla of the breadth or depth of the best cable offerings. Good actors (Colm Feore and  Joanna Gleason, as Al’s in-laws) are stranded in one-dimensional roles; others, such as Nicholas Wright, as Al and Davina’s whiny son, aren’t any good at all. There are a few bright spots, Elliot Gould as Al’s doctor who lives to and loves to prescribe extra medical tests (basic health care is covered in Canada but special tests often are not) and Mary Walsh who pops up as a libidinous ex-lover of Al’s, but they only serve to remind you of how unfunny most of Sensitive Skin actually is. The biggest disappointment is McKellar’s Al. You can usually depend on McKellar’s acting to liven up even the weakest movies (Rub & Tug, Monkey Warfare) and often to rivet the screen (Highway 61, Last Night and, of course his brilliant TV series, Twitch City where he played a disturbed shut-in and TV addict), but he’s going through the acting motions here. His arch, cynical Al isn’t anything we haven’t seen from him before. (Al's supposed to be a regular newspaper columnist but we rarely see him writing.) It doesn’t help that McKellar has zero chemistry with Cattrall; you don’t believe for a second in Al and Davina’s relationship, much less that they’ve been married for so long. Even the show’s dark conclusion doesn’t pack the jolt it ought to, since it seems grafted onto the proceedings and not an organic outgrowth of what has come before.

Toronto, in McKellar's Last Night (1998)
I’ve even more astounded by how lacklustre McKellar’s direction of Sensitive Skin is. The filmmaker who really got Toronto’s mix of grit and gentility in Last Night, drops the ball here. The series’s few fantastical elements are duds and the depicted cityscape, mostly the newly condo-developed south of Toronto seems under-populated, which it decidedly is not. I can only assume this is not a project Don McKellar actually believed in; his disinterest definitely shows.

If, however, The Grand Seduction, which appears to be financially successful (it’s been playing all summer in Toronto) can get McKellar more directorial gigs, Sensitive Skin’s many failings won’t matter a whit. Don McKellar has already shown that he is one of Canada’s most talented directors. If he can get to make films more often, he’ll be able to demonstrate that he’s one of our more important filmmakers, too.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years that began on May 9, at Ryerson. On October 10, he’ll be starting a new course: My Favourite Movies – And Why.

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