The Merry Gentleman (2008)

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Sometimes a film falls through the cracks because it is treated poorly by the studio or is unable to find a distributor and other times it happens because of disputes between the creative and fiduciary forces involved in making it. The latter scenario is the reason The Merry Gentleman never received its due and it’s high time to correct this oversight.

The disputes over this film have been bitter, so much so that one of the Producers actually filed a lawsuit against Michael Keaton last year; essentially accusing him of sabotaging the post-production and release of The Merry Gentleman via a variety of bad behaviors (which I detailed in this 2013 posting) and dooming the picture to a poor box office showing despite decent reviews and a warm reception at The Sundance Festival. This matter is still in litigation at this time.

Despite all the acrimony and problems, The Merry Gentleman is still a fine film which deserves to be seen by a wider audience. The fact that the movie itself survived all these travails essentially intact (although there are some problems with the editing and few other minor issues) is a testimony to the excellent script by Ron Lazzeretti (who was slated to direct until a bout of appendicitis right before shooting led to Keaton taking the helm), the fine performances by the cast (top to bottom), and (regardless of whatever happened in post-production) a good job of directing by Keaton.

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Michael Keaton’s experience as an actor and his thoughtful approach to the craft served him well in his directorial debut.

The film begins with Kate Frazier (played by Kelly Macdonald) fleeing her abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale) by escaping to Chicago and starting a new life. This fresh start is complicated however, when (while leaving work) she notices someone (Michael Keaton- who shines as a depressed hit man) standing on a building ledge contemplating suicide. Her scream startles him and he slips and falls backward onto the building roof instead of jumping to his death. Macdonald then calls the police to report the incident. These two acts trigger a chain of events which demonstrate that, although a woman can flee an individual abuser, it is far more difficult for her to escape from the attentions of men with deep emotional issues.

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Kelly Macdonald plays Kate Frazier; a woman who flees an abusive husband but can’t seem to escape the controlling desires of men in general.

The next day she is questionedĀ about what she saw by two homicide detectives investigating a murder which occurred in the same building as her employer. The detectives correctly surmise that the man she saw committed the crime and try to obtain whatever details they can from her. In the course of the interview one of the cops becomes infatuated with Macdonald and begins questioning her about her personal life (in particular why she has a black eye). She is evasive and oblique; partly because she doesn’t wish anyone to know her situation (her abuser was a policeman which further complicates the matter) and partly because it’s none of this nosy cop’s business. But the damage has been done and the detective (played brilliantly by Tom Bastounes) is now fixated on her.

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Guy Van Swearingen and Tom Bastounes play Chicago Homicide Detectives.

The fact that she can’t escape from men who want to claim her is further reinforced at a company Christmas party when she is besieged by guys who all want to “get with the new girl.” On her way home from the party she stops and buys a large Christmas tree (which her cab driver refuses to help her with) and is pinned underneath it while trying to drag it into her building. She is rescued by Keaton, who has sought her out to discern if she can identify him (and perhaps kill her) but is also fixated on her emotionally after noticing her as he looked around through the scope of his rifle while waiting to kill his victim the previous evening. He helps her carry the tree up to her apartment and as she opens her door they are interrupted by a phone call from Bastounes, who wheedles a date out of her via the pretext of “wanting to discuss new developments in the case.”

 

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If you see this man, it probably means you are about to die. Keaton plays his hit man character with an understated matter-of-fact manner that’s still quite menacing.

Keaton rings her bell a few days later, but succumbs to a case of pneumonia and passes out in front of her building as she answers. She then visits him in the hospital and they begin an awkward yet tender relationship; with her unaware that he is the man she saw on the ledge and he oblivious to her past. The budding romance between the two is complicated by Bastounes’ jealousy and increasing suspicions about Keaton, as well as an appearance by Macdonald’s now completely unhinged husband.

 

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Bobby Cannavale was denied recognition for his excellent cameo in The Merry Gentleman by the limited exposure of the film, but this performance likely helped him land his role as a psycho MobsterĀ in Boardwalk Empire.

 

I won’t explicate any further so as not to spoil the drama, but I really encourage you to either rent or purchase this movie. While it is admittedly on the somber side, it is by no means a depressing film. Aside from being a fine understated drama, it’s also a thoughtful meditation on the nature of power dynamics, particularly in relation to violence against and oppression of women. Whether he is aware of it or not, Lazzeretti has fashioned a brilliant illustration of how the philosophical concept of Male Privilege operates in the day-to-day context of society as the story follows a woman who seems to want nothing more than to go about her life and be left in peace but is continually having to deal with unwanted attention from men who feel that the fact she is female entitles them to impose their will and desires upon her. The ultimate irony of the film is that the one man who is truly kind and understanding to Macdonald’s character is from a world steeped in violence and treachery and the supposedly “good” policemen want to abuse and/or own her.

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Keaton and Macdonald have a certain chemistry that makes their oddly mismatched relationship believable. Whatever you do, avoid the terrible trailer for The Merry Gentleman which tries to make it seem like a quirky Rom-Com.

I know I’m making this film sound like some sort of Gender Studies or Feminist Theory thesis, and although these elements are implicit in the narrative, it’s still just an extremely interesting film about lonely people trying to cope in this world.

And you should check it out.

PS- Another fabulous reason to check this film out is that three people involved in it are featured/interviewed in Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition; Producer Steven A. Jones and Line Producer Christina Varotsis (neither of whom are involved in the aforementioned lawsuit whatsoever BTW) and Special Effects Foreman John Milinac.

It also uses locations in areas not normally seen in other Chicago films; such as Lincoln Square (opening scene is right in my ‘hood in Welles Park which was quite a kick for me), Ravenswood, and North Center.