For many film buffs The Big Lebowski remains one of the great cult movies of all time. A film noir that obeys every rule except one it’s not a film noir, it’s a comedy is pitch-perfect. So whisper it whisper it very quietly Small Apartments, at times, matches it for tone, comedy and script.
Bear with me, I know what you’re thinking Matt Lucas in a comedy noir? In LA, with Billy Crystal? Come on I had exactly the same reservations, especially after watching the dreadful trailer. But watching the film itself is a Coen-inflected, quirky, visually stunning, occasionally very funny delight. It has an internal logic and mood that it never breaks, even when the characters threaten to get too kooky.
Lucas, an unlikely a lead man to have ever headed a film, stars as Franklin Franklin, a sad loser living in a decrepit flat in a grubby part of Los Angeles. He lives alone apart from his dog, which is equally rancid-looking and wanders around his greasy, dripping flat in his pants, drinking pop , spying out of the window and playing his Swiss horn. His neighbours are an equally downbeat bunch. James Caan is his grumpy old man next door whose wife has died, Johnny Knoxville is a lazy stoner with a Jesus-worshipping alcoholic mum and Juno Temple is a wannabee stripper deluded into thinking she is going to make it big in Las Vegas.
Franklin has a problem his landlord’s dead body in his flat, and the opening hour is spent trying to dispose of said cadaver. It might bring back memories of dreadful farces like Weekend At Bernie’s, but it’s way funnier than that. Having left enough evidence to let CSI convict him in about five minutes, instead we get Billy Crystal’s fire investigator, another hopeless character with an estranged wife and a cynical outlook the gumshoe of the piece.
Meanwhile Franklin reminisces about his beloved brother (James Marsden), who was his reason for living until being led astray by a weird cult figure played with scenery-chewing glee by Dolph Lundgren. A film that makes Lundgren funny, without the usual I’m too old for this shit’ Stallone-esque cheesiness has a lot going for it. And yes, the idea of the handsome Marsden being brothers with Lucas, with his hairless, baby-like body and cartoon-like face is utterly unlikely, yet the film has such surprising charm it’s hard not to go with it.
Every character, however small, has a scene that explains their character and all of them are extremely well-written and delivered, but some may find that a little too neat and cute. On the whole though it works, and director Åkerlund pieces it together with just the right amount of pacing, while allowing his scenes to breathe. His visual style too really works his history is in pop videos, but here the quick-cutting and time-delays are understated and all the more powerful for that. Los Angeles has never looked so grubby or ruined, despite the relentless sunshine and primary colours.
Small Apartments might exist to give Lucas a vehicle to branch out into Hollywood, and may well be too left-field and quirky to gain much of a mainstream following. However in a piece in its own right it works, and given Lucas’ previous film roles that’s a triumph. He was terrible in The Infidel, and mercifully brief in The Look Of Love, but here he is allowed to be as weird as he wants, and that actually works.
Overall verdict: An offbeat comedy/drama that calls to mind The Big Lebowski, and, at times, matches it for wit, charm and quirkiness. A totally unexpected delight.
Reviewer: Mike Martin