"Trouble in Mind" is Alan Rudolph's eighth film, and it's a big bite for him. Combining farce and film noir (often to cross-purposes), more adept with mood than narrative, "Trouble in Mind" is something of a jumble, but never less than an intriguing one. It's an off-center romance, as unnerving as a half-remembered nightmare.
"Trouble in Mind" steals from farce for its own purposes: The fates of two couples collide in mythical Rain City (actually, Seattle); the time is uncertain, although martial law rules; and (as in the futuristic "Blade Runner") the city has become polyglot. Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), a cop with a mean/noble streak who killed a man because he was "pure evil," gets out of jail and heads straight for Wanda's Cafe. It's not the cafe he's interested in, it's Wanda (Genevieve Bujold), a tough-talking hash-slinger who gives him a free room, but nothing else.
Meanwhile, Coop (Keith Carradine), a down-on-his-luck drifter, decides to leave the backwoods and head for the city. He arrives at Wanda's in a camper with his girlfriend Georgia (Lori Singer) and a baby, and immediately gets into trouble with a fast-talking, cigar-smoking poet/hustler named Solo (Joe Morton). Almost as immediately, Hawk falls in love with Georgia, which is just another kind of trouble. Hawk's trouble is he likes to save people (he saved Wanda's life once), and that's the biggest kind of trouble there is.
Rudolph intertwines these lives with a choreographed grace; the camera movement (the cinematography is by Toyomichi Kurita) is as dreamy as a cradle rocking, and the mauves and blue-grays and salmons that dominate the picture (except for Wanda's apartment, which is beautifully golden) lull you. As an exercise in style, "Trouble in Mind" is unassailable, from Tracy Tynan's sharp costume design to Mark Isham's bluesy, sex-and-cigarettes score.
"Trouble in Mind" snaps with a kind of brittle, epigrammatic dialogue that's hardly written anymore -- "A little bit of everybody belongs in hell, lieutenant"; "Everyone wants to go to heaven, no one wants to die" -- and while Rudolph (who also wrote the screenplay) is no Clifford Odets, it's good to see someone taking a swing at it. The characters are thick with a sense of their own doom. The sense of "trouble" comes not so much from the dark as from the wet -- film noir becomes film humide.
Shifting dark to wet is typical of Rudolph's strategy, which is not to remake a '40s film (as Lawrence Kasdan did in "Body Heat"), but to try to find the essence of that genre in '80s culture. There are, in other words, no Venetian blinds or backlit cigarette smoke; instead, there's the polish and glissando of the camera style, the exaggerated self-consciousness of the dialogue, and a jokey eclecticism that you see in the infusions of slapstick, and that is most evident in the supporting cast. Hilly Blue, the king of the Rain City underworld, is played by Divine, the transgender star of "Pink Flamingos"; in a suit here (though wearing an earring), he's a pasty-faced, bloated menace with a honeyed growl of a voice, the craziest update of Sydney Greenstreet you could imagine.
Similarly, longtime comic and impressionist George Kirby gives the otherwise conventional role of a cop an odd resonance out of shtick-based '60s television; and Joe Morton ("The Brother From Another Planet"), spiffy with spit curls and a stream of patter that includes snatches of Japanese and quotes from Cervantes, comes at "Trouble in Mind" from a hip, downtown vector.
Still, "Trouble in Mind" remains oddly unsatisfying, and while the problem may be in the story (which sometimes seems to be nothing more than a series of moments), it may also be because of a sameness in the leading roles. While in "Choose Me," Rudolph balanced Bujold and Carradine with the oversized, romantic presences of Lesley Ann Warren and Patrick Bauchau, here, Kristofferson, Bujold, Singer and Carradine are all working out of the same distance, the same brand of flat, deadpan, kicked-back cool. As actors, they all need something florid to react to, and it makes "Trouble in Mind" like a dying star -- its greatest energy is at the periphery.
Or it may simply be that Rudolph's central notion was fundamentally misconceived. It's possible that there just isn't a truly modern film noir to be found, that the essence of the genre was irreducibly of its time. You don't see in "Trouble in Mind" a new genre in the making, a " 'Double Indemnity' for the '80s," or anything like that. What you do see is the work of a filmmaker whose work feels unlike anyone else's, who is marking out a territory that is neither fantasy nor reality, but wholly Rudolph's, somewhere in between.
Trouble in Mind, opening today at the Circle MacArthur, is rated R and contains nudity, sexual situations, violence and profanity.