Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Duane Incarnate

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #4 (Boston Film Fetival)

As I started watching Hal Salwen's Duane Incarnate, I got a little worried. The narrated montage that opens the movie seemed rather mean-spirited, as narrator Gwen (Caroleen Feeney) described her three best friends, Fran (Kristen Johnston), Connie (Cynthia Watros), and Wanda (Crystal Bock). Gwen, Fran, and Connie are all beautiful, successful women with great boyfriends, while Wanda... Well, she falls short in every category. Fortunately, while the movie is mean-spirited, it sets its targets on the right people.

Because, see, the pretty girls can't cope when Wanda gets a new boyfriend, Duane (Peter Hermann), who is apparently everything a girl could want. He's handsome, sensitive, incredibly intelligent, gregarious, a good dancer, has a great job, and is skilled and considerate in bed. He can, it seems, do a lot better than Wanda, and he makes the other girls' boyfriends look bad.

Understand - even as the audience feels vaguely disgusted by how Gwen and company patronize Wanda, they understand it. Wanda is plain-looking, out of work, and even if she is smart, she doesn't articulate herself well; she also has a sort of annoying voice. There is a sort of cruelty to her relationship with the others, as if they keep her around in order to feel better about themselves, while she puts up with their patronizing comments and actions because, hey, at least she's hanging with the cool crowd. Very high school, when you think about it.

Of course, I might also sort of looking down at these characters because we don't really get to see grown women as comic leads that often and aren't used to it. Mean Girls and the slapstick comedies on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel show teenage girls acting silly, but once they're old enough to vote, it seems women in comedies are either objects of men's desires, the sane wife/girlfriend who reels the stupid man in, or a comic character with little screen time. Duane Incarnate is somewhat unusual in that it gives the women almost all of the jokes.

The movie's world reminded me a bit of Just A Kiss, in that it seemed to recognizably be our world, although the characters sort of push the envelope of believable behavior. The characters are aware of that, though, as they see the events of the story as an anomoly, nay, a danger to an orderly and comprehensible universe. Writer/director Salwen is good at convincing the audience to go along with it, though, especially with the introduction of Sheena (Amber Cather), a potential rival for Wanda who seems as unlikely a creation as Duane himself.

The movie's most recognizable cast members, Johnston and Watros, have a sitcom background, while most of the rest are (I assume) New York stage actors. Given the off-kilter style of the movie, though, this acting style actually works better than I think the usual (for film) naturalistic approach; it heightens the unreality of the situation. The movie looks good, and appears to use the independent "we'll use what locations we can get" situation to its advantage ("a bowling alley will let us shoot there if we thank them in the credits? Well, heck, this is an opportunity to show that Wanda's not good at anything").

Duane Incarnate is a quirky, off-kilter thing. I like this brand of comedy when it's done well, which isn't that often: It's hard to create a sort of exaggerated environment without going too far and leaving the audience without context. This movie is occasionally shaky, but mostly manages the trick.

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