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'Assisted Living' Never Gets Old

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2005; Page WE37

AFTER WATCHING the enjoyably slackerish Todd in the movie "Assisted Living," it got me thinking of all those other Tods and Todds I have appreciated over the years.

Remember Bill Murray's nerdy character, Todd, in those classic "Saturday Night Live" sketches? Gilda Radner, playing Lisa Loopner, called him Taaaaahd. Then there was also Keanu Reeves's dudish Tod in "Parenthood." His girlfriend's mother (Dianne Wiest) always called him "That Tod." Of course, we have Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber who killed his customers and served them up in meat pies. And Tod happens to be the German word for death, a theme that figures often in Germany's great era of darkly themed movies of the 1930s.

Todd (Michael Bonsignore), a janitor, bonds with nursing home resident Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley) in the experimental film "Assisted Living." (Cowboy Pictures)

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So much for the Todd nod. In "Assisted Living," this one's a pot-smoking janitor (played by Michael Bonsignore) who works at an assisted living facility in Louisville. On this particular day, as usual, he sleeps late, throws on his clothes, takes a quick hit and stumbles into the institutionalized oblivion of Bingo and bedpans.

Punctuality and professional attitude are not in his working vocabulary, so once again, he finds himself called up before management. But after weathering a routine chastening, Todd goes about his real business: being Todd for the old folks.

This means, on one level, cleaning the bathrooms, mopping up messes and wheeling residents to and from their rooms. But on a deeper level, he's everyone's user-friendly X-factor, a dose of real life that, somehow, never gets dispensed in this sad place. And for eccentric resident Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley), he'll prove to be even more.

Writer-director Elliot Greenebaum filmed this in a real facility in his Louisville home town and employed local actors from the area. (Bonsignore was the only out-of-town pro.) Wanting to find the intersection between documentary and fictional filmmaking, he directed his actors to mix in with the real routine and the residents of the facility. The result is an intriguing amalgam of real and made-up, and gradually, you're often hard-pressed to tell the difference.

There are some charming scenes, including one in which residents use role-playing techniques to reject unwanted telephone solicitors. It's funny on one level, as seniors try to parrot the vocabulary of assertiveness. But it's also touching because, for them, rejecting telemarketers is a very intimidating ordeal. Todd also has a sort of God phone, from which he pretends to be the almighty speaking from heaven for the more demented residents.

He uses it, too, to satisfy Mrs. Pearlman, who desperately wants to reach her long-lost son from Australia. Her desire to be with her son becomes so earnest and all-consuming, Todd is forced into a role that goes beyond punching the clock. In a delicate and affecting way, both parties begin to realize how much they need each other, whether they know it to be the truth or not; and this finale turns "Assisted Living" from fascinating experimental film into something finer.

ASSISTED LIVING (Unrated, 77 minutes) -- Contains the less salient aspects of cleanup duty. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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