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Only in 'Urbania'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2000


    'Urbania' Dan Futterman and Alan Cumming explore "Urbania." (New Line)
"Urbania" is an Olympic guessing game, a snappily edited, intriguingly assembled conundrum that keeps us wondering: What's going on with Charlie?

But in Jon Shear's one-of-a-kind movie, we also wonder, more deeply: What's going on with people? In this movie's Naked City, clearly New York, where there must be at least 8 million stories, "Urbania" isn't just one of those stories. It's about the infinity of urban myths, absurd ideas and other apocryphal anecdotes knocking around uselessly in our heads.

These are the stories that we've either heard from the "friend of a friend" or we've simply made up. But in the movie, we're asked to ponder, are they really make believe?

Is it possible that an old lady really did attempt to dry her poodle by shoving the poor critter in the microwave? Was there really a one-night-stand lover who left his or her love in the morning after etching "Welcome to the world of AIDS" in lipstick on the mirror? This movie impishly puts these questions to rest – or does it? The fact is, "Urbania" creates enough doubt all around to make everyone uncomfortable.

Charlie (Dan Futterman) is the kind of savvy, hiply grungy guy you'd expect to see nursing a drink and a smoke in a Greenwich Village bar. Something happened to him a few months ago, something painful and troubling.

Beset with fleeting, nightmarish memories, Charlie's thoughts have become a crazy cluster of the past and present as he negotiates his way through life.

Charlie's life consists mainly of meetings or chance encounters with former lovers, neighbors, strangers and, most tantalizingly, a good-looking man named Dean (Samuel Ball) whose arm is tattooed with a heart, surrounded by a snake.

"I think I met him," Charlie tells his friend Brett (Alan Cumming), referring to Dean. "The guy who will put everything right."

And what, exactly, needs to be put right? That's an intriguing tidbit that remains so for much of the movie. Charlie's in mourning for someone, we learn. But is that someone dead or a man he broke up with?

You almost have to treat "Urbania" as one of those Magic Eye stereograms, those abstract color schemes that become figurative when you stare at them long enough. If there's an answer to Charlie's quandary, it can only be understood through his emotional journey, which takes place over the course of one night, much in the style of Martin Scorsese's "After Hours."

That journey includes encounters with a narcissistic actor named Ron (Gabriel Olds), a friendly bartender named Matt (Josh Hamilton), an old flame named Chris (Matt Keeslar) and a homeless guy called Bill (Lothaire Bluteau), who insists that he's on the wagon and is deeply insulted when Charlie gives him money for "something to drink."

Charlie finds himself almost fatalistically drawn to Dean, the drunken, modelish man who detests gay men, but seems drawn to their nightly meeting places. Charlie thinks, in Dean's case, the lady doth protest too much. And in what amounts to an epic finale, he tags along with Dean, pretending to be a heterosexual who also thinks of gays as "wildlife." Eventually, Charlie and Dean face off, as they were fated to.

"Urbania," a $225,000 movie, which was shot originally in super 16mm but blown up digitally, has picked up a handful of prizes on the smaller festival circuit, such as the Seattle International, the Provincetown and the San Francisco Lesbian & Gay. It's the kind of movie that defies categorization and teaches us to watch movies without that ready-for-Julia-Roberts glaze across our eyeballs. And no matter what you make of it, there's no denying its surreal, hypnotic effect. You can't watch this movie without an exhilarating rush of introspection. And I submit, that sets this movie and this filmmaker apart from the crowd.

"Urbania" (R, 105 minutes) – Contains sexual scenes, obscenity and violence.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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