Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Off the Shelf: Lunch with Charles (2001)

Theresa Lee and Nicholas Lea in Lunch with Charles.

Lunch with Charles is a relaxed and genial romantic comedy about a number of couples who begin to feel dislocated and dissatisfied with the lives and partners they've chosen. Making his feature film debut, writer-director Michael Parker sets in motion a charmingly low-key Feydeau-style farce that's sprinkled with granola and cured in heady coastal air. Set in British Columbia, a province most easterners wrongly assume to be catatonically relaxed, Lunch with Charles examines with a droll undercurrent a number of partners who fear they've lost the itch for love, but turn out to be anything but sedate. The movie puts these mismatched duos, who are from different cultures as well as different walks of life, on a collision course that leads them to question the choices they've made in their lives.

April (Theresa Lee) is an ambitious career woman from Hong Kong who grows distant from her husband, Tong (Sean Lau), whom she leaves behind when she emigrates to Canada. As Tong struggles between his desire to succeed as a singer/songwriter and his urge to save his marriage, April sends her wedding ring back to him with an ultimatum that if he doesn't come to Canada, she's calling it quits. (The movie's title comes from April's assistant, who continually tells the frustrated Tong on the phone that April is busy having lunch with Charles and can't speak to him.) Since Tong has been unhappily toiling as a realtor in Hong Kong, he makes the impulsive leap to Canada. But while on a bus to Banff, where April has gone, he gets off at the wrong stop, which inadvertently hooks him up with Natasha (Bif Naked), who owns a bed & breakfast with her Buddhist husband Matthew (Nicholas Lea). Eventually, Natasha, who continually struggles with her dependency on men, breaks up with Matthew, while Tong ends up on a road journey with Natasha looking for April. Meanwhile, Matthew, accompanied by April, attempts to chase down his estranged wife. Along the way, the mismatched couples come to confront needs and desires they've never faced before.

Lau Ching-Wan (credited as Sean Lau) and Bif Naked.
What makes Lunch with Charles more surprising than most chasing-your-dreams romantic comedies is that Michael Parker isn't so single-minded about the quest. In this clever roundelay, the characters' lives work out in surprising and unexpectant ways, and Parker doesn't stress the cultural clashes, either – he merely lets them bubble over and effervesce. Sean Lau, a Hong Kong actor making his English-language debut, has the perfect hang-dog face for a guy who's been spending most of his life in a state of pining. When he comes to Canada, his stoic despair gets shaken up as if he were Buster Keaton dropped in a rustic setting. By the time Tong gets together with Natasha, her counter-culture frankness allows his confidence to percolate. Lau brings a welcome bemusement to a laconic character who appears to be waking from a long, deep slumber. Bif Naked, the Vancouver-based singer, also gives an appealingly relaxed performance as a woman who crowds herself with New Age talismans and sayings, when what she really needs is room and space as she struggles with her marriage to Matthew. Nicholas Lea provides Matthew, a hopeless idealist who's completely helpless at being pragmatic, with a demeanor that's wistfully determined until he meets up with April. While Lea brings some drive to the picture, it's a shame that Theresa Lee, who isn't bad in the role of April, doesn't have a moment that allows her to truly open up to the intoxicating surroundings. She never gets a scene where we come to see how the mountains and Matthew's homegrown humour wear down her defenses.

Lunch with Charles has a few bumbling scenes (including a poorly staged one involving a car at the mercy of a chugging train), but the movie combines some of the casual open-endedness of some of Jonathan Demme's early pictures (especially Handle with Care) with some of the quirky drollery of Bill Forsyth's comedies (like Comfort and Joy). The score by Simon Kendall, formerly of Doug and the Slugs, isn't intrusive, either, but instead provides a beautifully decorative Celtic backdrop to the comic episodes. Most of Lunch with Charles deals with stripping away our false assumptions and how a change of scenery creates a sense of comic alchemy that makes that possible. When Matthew sees what he thinks is a Tibet Buddhist on a train, and asks him, "Is that a Tibetan accent?," the man answers cryptically, "I was born in Chicago." Lunch with Charles, to paraphrase The Rolling Stones, is about people thinking they're searching for what they want. But they end up getting – when they are least expecting it – exactly what they need.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

No comments:

Post a Comment