Blade Runner Scribe Concocts a Friendly Poisoner

Hampton ( Blade Runner ) Fancher’s The Minus Man , from Mr. Fancher’s screenplay, based on the novel by Lew McCreary, manages, as its title suggests, to mesmerize an audience more by subtraction than addition, which is to say that this narrative of a wandering serial poisoner violates most of the rules of psychotic killer genres and ignores the rest. Actually, I’ve never seen a movie quite like The Minus Man , and though I give it high marks for originality and unexpectedness, I’m not looking forward to seeing anything like it again. For one thing, The Minus Man is a very difficult film to review or even describe. Next to genuinely deserving crowd pleasers like Psycho or The Sixth Sense , Mr. Fancher’s film plays out more like a shaggy-dog story with no real ending beyond the open road, which itself is symbolically open-ended with its two arrows flashing in the night toward two divergent and unknown destinations.

Owen Wilson’s Vann Siegert is just about the nicest guy you ever want to meet, at least on the surface. From his first shot to his last, he projects an image of polite, unassuming, soft-spoken innocence. He listens intently to everyone he encounters to the point that he encourages them to confide in him and, in some instances, to become his soul mate. The production notes reveal that Mr. Fancher conceived his central character as “a cross between Psycho ‘s Norman Bates, Melville’s Billy Budd and Being There ‘s Chauncey Gardner.” But the comparisons only emphasize what is unique in the eerie protagonist originally created by Mr. McCreary in his novel.

The polite, soft-spoken Norman Bates occasionally explodes into violence, if only in drag, as his presumably jealous and possessive long-dead mother. Billy Budd impulsively commits the one act of violence in his otherwise kindly moral existence out of his passionately outraged and fatally inarticulate innocence. Chauncey Gardner is a half-baked pseudo-philosopher like Vann, but he is not a murderer. No, Mr. Fancher, Mr. McCreary and Mr. Wilson(who co-wrote both Bottle Rocket and Rushmore ) have collaborated on something and someone new in Vann Siegert, whose occasionally seemingly self-satisfied smirk reminds me of no one so much as Martina Hingis after she has outlasted an opponent in a long baseline rally. But there is no aura of triumph in Vann Siegert’s drifting life style. He is not out to outsmart anyone or avenge anything. Yet, even when no one laughs at his increasingly bizarre life-story jokes, he smiles to himself at the effort he has made to entertain at his own expense.

He remains as mysteriously unexplained to us as he is to everyone he encounters on the screen, including two surreal characters lodged in his inventively self-flagellating unconscious, played with high irony by Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert. This biracial detective team may serve as Vann’s conscience, but it winds up asking questions without getting any real answers, and Vann thus remains a psychological cipher despite the imaginary invasion of his skull.

Vann’s first victim, Sheryl Crow’s debilitatingly drug-addicted Casper, is long dead before we realize that Vann has poisoned her with his spiked amaretto, and that she has not died from a self-inflicted heroin overdose. This is typical of Mr. Fancher’s leisurely and oblique tendencies in his pacing, cutting, camera angles and overall mise en scène . Where he is right on the money, however, is in the synergistic rapport he establishes with two dozen imaginatively idiosyncratic characters from a mythological middle of nowhere, U.S.A., without a mindlessly cruel caricature among them. Hence, there are no easy victims to make Vann more sympathetic, no empty-headed citizens clucking around him to make him seem like a culturally superior angel of death, as well as an amusing bringer of excitement to dull and humdrum lives, to borrow a phrase from Jean Hagen’s immortal Lily Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Indeed, Vann almost falls in love with Janeane Garofalo’s incandescent Ferrin, one of the most enticingly endearing female movie characters in recent years-witty, bubbly, but at the same time lonely and terrified of rejection. (Some of my movie buff friends actually hate Ms. Garofalo because they consider her the reigning anti-babe, which in their ever-lustful eyes makes her the Antichrist, the date from hell, the smart girl in high school whom they rejected as prom queen, if only in their nerdish fantasy life.) Ferrin works as a postal clerk in the small, anonymous, suburban West Coast community in which the ever-amiable Vann has settled temporarily. The romance between Vann and Ferrin blossoms when he comes to work at the post office on the recommendation of another postal worker, his landlord, Doug, played by Brian Cox. Doug and his wife, Jane (Mercedes Ruehl), are in the last days of a terminally midlife-crisis marriage, brought on partly by the apparently permanent departure of their teenage daughter Karen, and they both clutch at Vann as a surrogate child. He does his part by keeping a safe distance from the tormented couple, as a real child would.

The loose network of relationships our Mr. Nobody establishes during his unobtrusive reign of terror fails to break his facade of well-meaning anonymity. As the poisoned bodies grotesquely begin to pile up, the random pattern of the crimes would tax the ingenuity of the industrious detectives on Law and Order . A female drug addict, a high school football hero and an exasperated white-collar worker are played respectively by Ms. Crow, Eric Mabius and the novelist Lew McCreary in a darkly humorous cameo. A surging undercurrent of black comedy drives us out to sea without ever breaking to the surface with glib psychological or sociological explanations. We cannot laugh out loud, nor can we feel any grief. We have been cast adrift by the Messrs. Fancher, McCreary and Wilson, and since we never have any way of knowing what will happen next or who the next victim will be, we are too nervous to know what to feel.

The point is that there is no payoff, emotional or otherwise, in The Minus Man . The movie is not exactly cold but, rather, mysteriously detached, and the only message I get is that life in America is not so much connected to the alleged banality of evil as to the presumed normality of evil in a nation of quietly raging losers, misfits and nobodies mixed with a sprinkling of lunatics for the benefit of the tabloids and the cop shows on television. Indeed, Vann Siegert himself cannot understand why there is not more violence in America what with all the defeated people who cannot beat the system. Vann is nothing if not fatalistic about his own destiny. So see the movie, but don’t expect easy answers. Just enjoy the subtle and intricate artistry involved.

Bedroom Gays

I have tried to make it a point never to call attention to performers either in film or in tennis on the basis of their rumored or self-proclaimed sexual orientation. I just look at the final score both on the screen and on

the court, and adjust my rankings accordingly. Rose Troche’s Bedrooms and Hallways , from a screenplay by Robert Farrar, opened the 11th annual New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in June of this year with a generously good-natured and humorous treatment of a triangular bisexual romance involving an overly earnest gay man, a susceptible straight man and a warmly adaptable straight woman. Bedrooms and Hallways projects the wit of the now cautionary The Boys in the Band (1970), adapted from the play by Mart Crowley by director William Friedkin, without the alleged bitchiness and self-hatred. But in another instance of damned if you do and damned if you don’t, Ms. Troche’s festival opener has been dismissed by some critics for completely ignoring such current problems as AIDS and still widespread homophobia.

Ms. Troche adopted a similarly roman-tic approach in her previous film Go Fish (1994), her first feature, which dealt with a group of very frank and funny Chicago lesbians, two of whom enter after many false starts and hesitations into a passionate love affair. I cannot pose as an authority on this semi-segregated genre, but after seeing her first two films I am prepared to acclaim Ms. Troche as a talent well worth watching in the future as an auteur capable of taking lesbians and gays out of the cinematic ghetto and into the mainstream, where both Go Fish and Bedrooms and Hallways belong.

If Ms. Troche and Mr. Farrar have won game, set and match with Bedrooms and Hallways , it is largely because they have been blessed with a splendid cast, Most notable is Kevin McKidd as Leo, the permanent-commitment-seeking gay protagonist floundering in a sea of one-night stands. Add to that James Purefoy as Brendan, the Irish charmer of both straight women and gay men; Jennifer Ehle as Sally, a marvelously tactful and passionate straddler of the great sexual divide; Simon Callow as Keith, the guru of a hilariously British version of the “Iron John” craze; Harriet Walter as Keith’s spouse Sybil, his counterpart as consoler of sexually confused women. Then there’s Tom Hollander as the impish Darren, gleefully allowing himself to be seduced by the snobbish and pseudomasterful real estate agent Jeremy, played by the enormously gifted and ever adventurous Hugo Weaving; Julie Graham as a platonic big sister to the childlike Leo and Darren; as well as Christopher Fulford, Paul Higgins and Con O’Neill all in a kinky Masterpiece Theater romp highlighted by a delightful Jane Austen dream embellished with S&M timeliness.

Remember Blake Edwards?

To this day, Blake Edwards remains one of our most underrated filmmakers. I must part company with my dear French friends, for instance, who choose to prefer Jerry Lewis to Mr. Edwards’ star Peter Sellers, who in my humble opinion is the funniest screen comedian since the silent era. Perhaps the French were overly sensitive to his devastatingly French-accented English in the Clouseau series.

On weekends in September is a long overdue Blake Edwards retrospective at the American Museum of the Moving Image, 36th Avenue at 36th Street, in Astoria, Queens (718-784-4520). On Sept. 11, they’ll be showing Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Experiment in Terror (1962), followed in later weekends by Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The Pink Panther (1964), A Shot in the Dark (1964), Operation Petticoat (1959), What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), The Party (1966), S.O.B. (1981), Darling Lili (1970) and Victor/Victoria (1982).