A Scotswoman, a hit man and a wife-beater . . .
Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? The kind you'd hear after a few cocktails have loosened up the party. Well, this is no gag. And those three stock characters don't walk into a bar; they muddle through a movie whose most noteworthy characteristic is that it marks Michael Keaton's directorial debut.
In "The Merry Gentleman," the Scotswoman is Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald), a socially reticent newcomer to a northeastern city. The hit man is Frank Logan (Keaton). And the beater is the abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale) that Kate is running from. Frank and Kate become involved when she looks up to see a lone figure contemplating a leap from a tall building. Her cry causes Frank to jump back to safety. Feeling she's part of his destiny now, Frank befriends her without letting her know he is the would-be jumper.
That's already more than enough material for equal helpings of banal nuance and cliche. And unfortunately, "The Merry Gentleman," which played at the Sundance Film Festival, revels in it. Macdonald's good-faith efforts breathe no life into Kate. And Keaton's character is a tired reprise of a thousand cooler hit men. There's no compelling reason Frank and Kate -- too one dimensional to qualify as hand puppets -- would become so attached. But darn it, screenwriter Ron Lazzeretti wants it so.
It's too bad the filmmakers didn't take a breath, look at the rushes and see what a comedic gem they had. With just a few tweaks, "The Merry Gentleman" could have made a wickedly funny parody of the over-earnest, lyrically hard-edged indie movie. But it's too late for do-overs.
-- Desson Thomson (June 12, 2009)
Contains profanity and violence.