Dir: Michael Keaton. US. 2008. 110mins.
In his directorial debut The Merry Gentleman, Michael Keaton reveals some of the same flair for the off-beat, moody and unconventional he has acutely demonstrated as an actor. He summons a wonderful performance by Kelly Macdonald and strong character distinction to the secondary players, but otherwise his movie works only in fragments.

Keaton's own performance is quite frankly a part of the problem. It needs some modulation and spark. His characterization is opaque and corresponding movements so lugubrious and solemn, his turn as a contract killer seems frozen in space, a perverse parody of Jack Nicholson's work in Prizzi's Honor. His mannered work seems fatally at odds with the funkier and more naturalistic, down and dirty work of Macdonald. Ron Lazzeretti's script has some sharp and engaging by play, but it seems patched together from other works and never quite achieves that lived in, expressive shape.

The Sundance title debuted in the premiere section. The movie's more in the vein of John Dahl's You Kill Me than the graphically hyperbolic Shoot 'Em Up. Macdonald's strong notices from the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men and her strong work in the Sundance competition title Choke could deliver the right boost of timing. With the obvious exception of Pulp Fiction, most art-driven hit man movies struggle to stay afloat (Hampton Fancher's 1999 Sundance film The Minus Man). Internationally, the strongest play is likely in ancillary markets, particularly DVD.

Keaton's Chicago-set movie unfolds in a burg of split bungalows, forlorn neighborhoods and seedy one-night motels. The story tracks the intertwined fates of two quietly desperate people, the hit man Frank Logan (Keaton) and an emotionally scarred woman Kate Frazier (Macdonald) fleeing an abusive marriage. Following the commission of a job in the same office building where Kate works as a secretary, Logan appears ready to leap off an adjacent building to his death. He's startled by her scream and he falls backward.

In the aftermath of the murder, Kate finds herself suddenly courted by two very different men, the killer who is drawn to her purity and grace, and a gruff detective (Bastounes) assigned the case. Logan turns up her building one night as she is trying against odds to wheel home to her apartment a Christmas tree. The script never has quite the nerve to suggest whether he is there to kill her. Through a protracted series of events, she becomes his protector and arouses the jealousy of the cop.

The movie's recurrent iconography of the fallen redeemed is too insistent and finally suffocating. The first time Logan spies Kate through the telescope of his rifle, she holds her hands perched like a saint. The metaphor reaches its nadir during a painfully written and performed sequence in which Kelly's disgraced husband cop (Cannavale) locates her and asks penance for his own sins. Likewise, Bastounes is a good actor, but the movie has two scenes with him trying to romance Kate and they are both disastrous, partly because they are manipulated by his own need for redemption.

The strikingly odd and strange moments distract from some of the genuinely fine work from the secondary players or Keaton's oddly telling moments, like making the detective's partner an observant Jew, or the funny and bracingly drawn sequences between Kate and her office colleague Diane (Hunt). These quietly drawn scenes have an off the cuff naturalness the rest of the movie is sorely in need of. Macdonald is superb in her body language and quiet strength, but the movie never adequately conveys any real chemistry or a plausible attraction between her and Logan.

Keaton and cinematographer Chris Seaton are after a certain meditative stillness, and it results in some visually striking tableaux. But it also renders the work too emotionally detached and drained off local color or humour.

Production companies/Backers
Southwater Pictures
Jackson Income Fund

Executive producer
Paul J. Duggan

Tom Bastounes
Ron Lazzeretti
Steven A. Jones

Director of photography
Chris Seager

Production designer
Jennifer Dehghan

Howard E. Smith
Grant Myers

Music supervisor
Tracy McKnight

Main cast:
Michael Keaton
Kelly Macdonald
Darlene Hunt
Bobby Cannavale
Tom Bastounes
Guy Van Swearingen
Larry Neumann, Jr.
William Dick