By Amanda Lewis
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By Michael Atkinson
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By Alan Scherstuhl
For a movie so enamored of its own peculiar charms (see also: Gump, Forrest), Alan Wade's Julian Po can exert quite a tug on the audience. It's self-consciously "literary" and shamelessly derivative, but the germ of mystery inside it pulls you along. It's full of ersatz gravity and precious philosophizing, but you can't avoid concluding that at least it's grappling with something more interesting than slime-dripping pterodactyls or runaway ocean liners. It's vaguely annoying. It's also worth watching.
Here we have the young matinee idol Christian Slater, shorn of his buffed-out action-hero persona, as the gloomy bookkeeper of the title who, wearing a dusty brown suit, comes to ground in a backwoods mountain village that hasn't seen a coat of paint or an outsider in, well, who knows. Writer/director Wade clearly wants to make the place timeless and universal--a place to mount a proper fable about the human condition and to give Slater a chance to prove he's a "real" actor who can handle "serious" material.
The nosy townfolk focus all their suspicions on the newcomer. Is the strange Mr. Po, who's come walking into town carrying a battered suitcase, a terrorist? A drug dealer? An outlaw? The town cop (Frankie R. Faison) spies on him with binoculars. Vern (Michael Parks), the proprietor of his shabby rooming house, asks prying questions. The local preacher (Bruce Bohne) wonders aloud if Po isn't descended from evil itself. Children gape.
For his part, Julian Po tells us that he's recording the sad tale of his life on a $29 tape recorder, then proceeds to speak into a $29 tape recorder. "This is the story of my trip to the sea," he says darkly. If the symbol police aren't asleep in their boots, they'll pop him right there for a misdemeanor.
Just about the time we've gotten our fill of Wade's rustic take on Franz Kafka, Julian Po (formerly titled The Tears of Julian Po) takes its inevitable turn. Under pressure, the stranger admits that he's really come to town to commit suicide.
Well, how about that. Quicker than you can say "visiting celebrity," our man is transformed from a social pariah into the world's most fascinating creature, which gives the filmmaker a chance to crank up his black-humor machine. Women shower Po with pies and preserves. His clothes turn up neatly cleaned and pressed. The formerly antagonistic Vern proudly offers him a .357 Magnum with which to complete his task, while the barber offers to do him in with a straight razor. "It will be a work of art," he announces.
Julian Po is intent on being a work of art, too. The no-name town, the dark comic tone, the hovering presence of death all fairly scream allegory. By the time the villagers get around to offering poor Julian a Last Supper and a funeral suit, he's transformed them with the supposed power of his purpose: Inspired by his declaration that "life is short," a housewife starts her overdue career as a baker; an auto mechanic runs off to Hollywood; a young outcast, Sarah (Robin Tunney), leaps into his bed, convinced she's his long-lost soulmate.
If that ain't Art, buster, I don't know what is.
The original art that moved Wade, a New York fictioneer making his first movie, is ostensibly a short story called "La Mort de Monsieur Golouga," written by someone named Branimir Scepanovic. But its roots run deeper than that. Aside from the we-are-all-trapped-here ethos of Kafka or Sartre, Wade seems to have absorbed every syllable of Shirley Jackson's famous 1949 story "The Lottery," a lit-class staple with one of the great punchlines in the American canon: Only in Jackson's vivid last paragraph do we learn that each winner of an industrious small town's annual lottery becomes the victim of ritual murder.
Hey, Wade's thrown in his own lottery. The townfolk in Julian Po buy tickets for a buck apiece trying to figure what day he'll do the deed.
Whatever all this purports to say about the dark heart of the American experience or the soul of humankind, it probably says it best to dewy-eyed college sophomores or to the throngs that found such deep meanings in Gump. Parable, be it ever so humble and abused a thing in the movie industry, has made the kind of comeback that the New York Yankees and widespread belief in angels have made--marginally interesting and not at all unexpected.
Let's not turn Alan Wade (or, God forbid, Christian Slater) into the next philosopher-king. For better or worse, Julian Po is an atmospheric little film that fools around with big issues like the power of the leader and the flexibility of the masses, the gap between intent and act, the sheer attraction of strong belief. "You have ideals. You have willpower," the tailor tells Po as he measures him up for his free new suit. "I want to be part of your adventure."
A little more adventure might have served this bleak fairy tale well. It carries us along, but it often feels so self-satisfied that you might feel like grabbing up that gun and razor, dispatching the indecisive Mr. Po and getting the hell out of town. Or back to Shirley Jackson, whence the spirit of this piece sprang.
Written and directed by Alan Wade. With Christian Slater, Robin Tunney, Michael Parks and Frankie R. Faison.
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