Dir. Richard Ledes, 2008, US, minutes.
The Caller is an unusual hybrid, a thriller about corporate corruption that is also a Holocaust memoir. A man facing the certainty of murder looks back sixty years to his survival of the Nazi occupation of France. But the result is also a hybrid, a tender evocation of youth that turns ponderous as it crawls towards a company's revenge on one of its executives.
Richard Ledes's latest feature doesn't look like a film produced to make money, and it probably won't, although Frank Langella and Elliott Gould in the leads could rally the cinephiles and theatregoers who have been watching these actors for the last 40 years - if the film gets a theatrical release after a run at festivals. France could also be a foreign market for the story of survival there during World War II, which was co-written by the French psychoanalyst Alain Didier-Weill.
The Caller starts out as a corporate crime mystery, in the style of New Wave veteran Andre Techine, triggered by an executive-turned-whistleblower, Jimmy Stevens (Langella). Jimmy knows that his honesty about his energy firm's abuses in Latin America will bring retribution, in the form of murder. In this Enron-inspired twist on The Insider, we watch as the company prepares his punishment.
Knowing his fate, Jimmy begins an unusual gambit. With his voice disguised over the telephone, and calling himself 'John Doe', he seeks out private detective Frank Turlotte (Gould), who is retired from the NYPD, and offers the reluctant private eye several times his fee to investigate Jimmy Stevens. Turlotte is unaware that his client ('the caller') is the same person as his quarry.
The Caller adds new wrinkles to the Odd Couple formula, with the aloof cerebral Jimmy and the rumpled curmudgeon Frank falling into a relationship where they discover each others' secrets. Among those is Jimmy's wartime experiences as a Jew in occupied France, which the film presents through flashbacks. He and a friend are saved by Americans, suggesting that blowing the whistle on corrupt corporate practices decades later is the 'American' thing to do.
Despite such potential for drama, The Caller plays more in the head than in the heart. Also, for a film about the dark reaches of memory, it's annoyingly overlit by DP Stephen Kazmierski, as if it were shining light into the recesses of history or onto the shadowy misdeeds of global corporations. The effects are more glaring than dramatic.
As Jimmy, the urbane Langella holds much mystery that keeps the film ambiguous throughout. One mystery is the sideshow with Gould, the detective. Heading towards his own killing, which his own act of honesty set into motion, is Jimmy hiring a private eye to stalk him as a distraction' The staged 'investigation' that might have come from a novel by Joseph Conrad seems too trivial for a man who is giving his life as a matter of moral necessity.
In what plays mostly as a two-hander, Elliott Gould as Frank brings back fond memories of the bumbling private eye Philip Marlow in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, who stumbles through investigations and through a lonely life in Los Angeles. Gould is once again a pleasure to watch, if only for the grin or the puzzled reaction that the film's most serious moments can elicit. He saves The Caller from sinking under the weight of its own existentialism.
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