Matt Dillon’s obligatory shot at life-rafting his career with a sullen, self-directed quasi-indie, City of Ghosts radiates an old-fashioned literary vibe. Concerned largely with amoral ambience and a moody vision of American loners vaguely lost in the humid corners of civilization, the film shadows the Hemingway legacy right through to Paul Bowles, Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, Thomas Sanchez, and co-screenwriter Barry Gifford. This dynamic—interior desolation expressed as port tropique chaos—rarely functions compellingly as a movie, and Dillon’s film musters gobs of atmosphere and touristy menace without attending much to story or character. As a parable of glib American righteousness ensnared in a third-world shitstorm more or less manufactured by American greed, City of Ghosts has a thin prescience, but as drama it stagnates.
The setup has potential: Dillon is an insurance agent whose company’s mysterious bigwig vanishes when scores of hurricane-devastated policyholders are ripped off. Told by investigators to sit tight, Dillon’s cagey dope instead hightails it to Cambodia to locate his partner in crime (James Caan). From there, the filmmakers merely sunbathe in local color, leaving their hero to dawdle with blustery Phnom Penh bartender Gérard Depardieu, flirt with archaeological preservationist Natascha McElhone, and bicker with fellow goldbricker Stellan Skarsgård. Amid the ceiling fans, gulped liquor, and sweaty T-shirts, the need to find Caan’s smooth-talker is a shruggable dead end, and little remains for Dillon’s opaque moper besides retrieving his stolen passport and eventually trying to buy the kidnapped Caan back from corrupt Cambodian military. City of Ghosts has a few haunting tableaux, most of them in a fog-blanketed minefield, but for the most part the movie wanders on a slack leash. Saying the film indulges in exoticism—in the alien texture and lawless qualm of Southeast Asian life as it’s perceived by outsiders—doesn’t mean it’s only a fantasia of stereotypes. Thanks to our intervention, Cambodia remains a bombed-out semi-anarchy riddled with political murders and gang commerce. Dillon’s larger misjudgment isn’t ethnocentric tunnel vision so much as thinking that simply lollygagging around this sad wasteland was enough of a statement.
For world-class lapses of judgment, Andrei Konchalovsky’s House of Fools is a berserk overachiever. Based on a fascinating news item that arose from the Chechen war—a mental hospital on the region’s border was abandoned by its staff thanks to nearby combat, and the inmates sustained themselves in the interim—the movie is a blast crater of preening caricature and stupefying narrative ideas. In the tradition of Philippe de Broca’s odious cult fave King of Hearts (at Film Forum next month), the mentally disabled (including a fair number of actual handicapped) are portrayed as cute, goofy, spirited, and endearingly eccentric. The script folds in a shaggy dwarf, a mincing cross-dresser, and an obese anarchist, and with the cast being encouraged to howl and twitch, the institution comes off as Monty Python’s Hospital for Over-Actors. Konchalovsky’s idea of how the mentally ill behave without supervision or medication is to have them swinging naked from chandeliers. The movie’s heroine, Janna (Julia Vysotsky), is an impish, lisping gamine in delusional love with Top 40 relic Bryan Adams—who, as if to evoke for us the fresh hell of a maddened consciousness, makes several appearances as himself in Janna’s dreams, singing the same awful Bryan Adams song seven or eight times.
Konchalovsky seems to think this collision of tastelessness and trampolining nonsense makes for some kind of humane poetry, but House of Fools only settles its boots on the floor once a troop of Chechen soldiers occupies the facility, initiating a series of skirmishes and bombing raids, as well as Janna’s pointless heartbreak. Konchalovsky takes no side in the conflict—the generalized war-is-bad aphorisms fall profoundly from the mouth of an awakened catatonic, natch. Still, nothing will linger in your nightmares like the soft-focus image of Bryan Adams pouring champagne for a posh trainload of raving mental patients, to the relentless tune of “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman.”
Relatively harmless, Michael Prywes’s local indie Returning Mickey Stern takes aging Yiddishe cronies Joseph Bologna and Tom Bosley (who boasts a Snagglepuss version of the rote Eestin Yuh-up accent) to Fire Island’s Ocean Beach after burying Bologna’s wife. Immediately, silly magical realism manifests, as doppelgängers of all three appear, post-pubescent and in need of matchmaking. The notion of grievingly happening upon your dead beloved, young and lovely again, is simple and potent, but the film’s airless amateurism, belabored ethnicism (“Oy gevalt!”), and trite dialogue kill it in the water.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 22, 2003