SIFF Film Review – Middle Man
For all its quirks and bizarre story line Middle Man fails to really land on what it wants to be about. Lenny (Jim O’Heir), a middle-age average man who has lost his mother, decides to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a comedian and drives out to Las Vegas in his mother’s old fifties car while listening to old sketches of classic comedians like George Burns and Jackie Gleason. As a man who seems trapped in a different age, he runs into strange characters like a mouthy waitress who takes offense that he doesn’t think she is funny to a former preacher who uses a ventriloquist’s dummy of Jesus on a cross to preach. The main person he meets is a hitchhiker named Hitch (Andrew J. West) who is obviously a psychopath and decides he is going to “help” Lenny improve his act through murder.
This is a film that feels like the director had a lot of ideas but never really had a cohesive way to place them together. The world is at once a place of hyper reality with extreme moments of violence and yet it never feels like it leads anywhere or says anything. For one thing it is a good twenty minutes of just Lenny driving before he and Hitch run into each other and, while that includes some of those random moments of his listening to old skits and his run-in with the waitress, he never becomes a clearer character. When the murders start happening it isn’t so much a shock but a slight veer of the story but even this violence really does not change much of what is happening to the characters. Lenny just talks about the killings and people think it’s a joke, and it shows him supposedly embracing the more extreme current humor that he couldn’t do before, but he never really changes or even seems to like when he is performing and even worse he never grows or changes as a person as a result.
The side characters are equally uninteresting because they come on too strong trying to bring attention to their oddness, even if it makes no sense. For example, there is a gun-blazing soldier/cop who sees one of the crimes and appears to be there as a random shooter guy before disappearing. Hitch as a psycho really isn’t that interesting of a villain. Why he does this is never explained, which is fine, but as a violent character he isn’t really shocking or intriguing. He’s predictable in whom he will kill and it never takes us on a path of wonder as to what will happen next but more of a “Oh, that’s it, okay, fine.”
From there we follow the same beats of Lenny being scared of Hitch, another murder, etc. till we get to the ending, which actually bothered me. Lenny has been a victim in all this and while he is sort of an accomplice it is more out of his being scared than anything else. So the closure to all this ends up being very dark yet feels out of sync with what we have previously seen of Lenny. To say that he has been seduced by Hitch and fame and needs the death to help his act is very underdeveloped. He says he wants fame and yet he appears more like a guy who wants to make people laugh and be a nice guy. He feels more trapped by Hitch than really challenged or changed by what is happening. The most he does is date a local waitress Grail (Anne Dudek) who is an average nice person like him and they have a nice chemistry, but their relationship is never given time to develop enough to make it seem that they are really that close and fully invested. Plus there is nothing to say he wouldn’t have been able to date her before all this craziness started beyond standing up to her abusive boyfriend T-Bird (Josh McDermitt). But is such a minor moment I almost forgot it happened.
What stands out the most is I have no idea what director/writer Ned Crowley is trying to show me. Are we supposed to sympathize with Lenny? See it as him getting something he somehow, if not deserves, then learns from? I honestly do not know and more importantly do not care. Crowley has good actors here that I at least am convinced are who they present themselves as, but they are given nothing more than that. Beyond that the camera work is fine but the pacing and character development is so far off that there is nothing else that can really be praised.
This movie baffled me from the get-go and never really got me to connect. It is easy enough to follow but that becomes a problem as well as it becomes, if not predictable, then at least does little to surprise or challenge your viewing and that is clearly what it thinks it is doing. It is oddness for oddness’s sake and it never does enough to make it an interesting world to inhabit, just one that is easy enough to pass through and forget all about it.