Dir/scr: JJ Lask. 100mins. US. 2006.
In On the Road with Judas, novelist and television-commercial editor JJ Lask shows aptitude for making sense of a complex, multi-character narrative that in less sure hands would be chaotic and incoherent. However his achievement is more technical than emotional as beneath the Charlie Kaufman-like layers of meta-reality is an underwhelming and obvious observation about romance that doesn't seem worth the trouble.
The title, which was in Sundance Film Festival's (American) Dramatic Competition, left without a distribution deal. Having no recognizable names beyond Kevin Corrigan, it's likely to stay that way. But it can do the domestic/international film-festival circuit before ending up on cable channels with a taste for reasonably accessible avant-gardism.
As is, it's best appreciated by those curious about the way deconstructionist weirdness is working itself into movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All of those Kaufman-scripted films have found audiences, thanks especially to their use of stars in key roles. Storywise, Judas is especially reminiscent of Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep, although it lacks that film's wonderfully imaginative cinematography.
Lask has taken characters from his 2002 novel of the same name and allowed them to contribute running self-analyses of their motivations in that story. They mostly do so as guests on a bizarre television talk-show called Let's Do Drinks, in which a sympathetic, gently prodding host (played by Lask, himself) interviews them amidst rococo furniture and a kitschy cape-wearing statue. These are mixed with flashbacks of the actions they are talking about.
The flashbacks address a youthful tale in which Judas (Aaron Ruell) and Francis (Alex Burns) steal college computers for a lucrative business they run. Francis is caught during a break-in and sent to prison; Judas falls in love with a beautiful dancer named Serra (Eleanor Hutchins) but has trouble getting past the friendship level with her.
But it's trickier than that, in a 'hall of mirrors' way. The film starts with Corrigan appearing as Lask, himself, to talk about the impact of the book. And the talk show is presented as a kind of promotion for the movie version of the book. Thus, there are actors playing the actors who play the book's characters (Eddie Kaye Thomas is Judas, Leo Fitzpatrick is Francis and Amanda Loncar Serra). They alternate scenes and sometimes intermingle with the 'real' characters.
But it just doesn't go anywhere revelatory. At the bottom is a 'seize the moment' admonishment for shy romantics that's just too obvious. And all of Lask's structural cleverness seems to be covering up the shallowness of the message. Plus his oblique religious references add nothing.
Yet at least the character-switching is easy to keep track of. Lask keeps it all straight, no doubt aided by his extensive commercial editing experience. (He co-edited the picture with Jason Kileen.) He also made a wise choice to have the 'real' characters and the actors playing them look remarkably different.
All of the young actors have bought into the film's conceit and give relaxed, convincing performances free of the kind of deadly wink-wink 'I am acting' irony that could sink it in pretension.
Original music by four-man group Human is compellingly modernist. And cinematographer Ben Starkman adds a nice touch with occasional still shots of such objects as radios and Mac computers. It renders them mysterious even if the film overall isn't mysterious enough.
All Day Buffet Films
Ronan P Nagle
Eddie Kaye Thomas