Many of western cinema’s directors first had a hand in commercials or music videos before moving on to feature films: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Alan Parker and David Fincher to name a few. But for those who go on to make memorable films, there are always a few McG’s out there, employing visual gimmicks with little attention to narrative.
When I saw that Small Apartments was a first feature helmed by Jonas Akerlund, director of Telephone for Lady Gaga and Beyonce to name drop a few of his previous works, I prepared myself for the worst. I’m happy to say, I was wrong to do so.
Adapted by Chris Mills from his 3-day-novel prizewinner of the same name, Small Apartments is a cheeky but darkly comic story of a European sensibility.
Franklin Franklin (Matt Lucas) is a simple, naive man living a hermetic existence in a run-down LA apartment block. Wearing only his huge, white underpants and a series of wigs on trips to the store for bottles of soda, he dreams about escaping to live in Switzerland, where he can wear lederhosen and blow his giant Alp-horn surrounded by frauen, instead of his irate neighbours who don’t appreciate the noise.
In the meantime he pins postcards of the Alps to the wall and tries to make sense of cryptic messages and toenail clippings sent by his brother, his only friend, who is in a mental hospital. He also has the small problem of disposing of his landlord’s body, which is lying on the floor.
Franklin is the subject of a farcical series of events that see him awkwardly dispose of his landlord’s body, while bewildered by the random ills and fortunes of life, among these the cruelty of others toward him. He’s the simpleton, there to reflect how bad and uncaring society can be to the innocent.
It’s not just Franklin who has problems. Mr Allspice (James Caan) is a grumpy artist who moved in temporarily and got stuck for good. Tommy Balls (Johnny Knoxville) is a convenience store clerk and happy pot smoker who draws up productive “to do” lists each day, but has to deal with his alcoholic to evangelical mother trying to convert him. Fire investigator Burt Walnut (Billy Crystal) drinks to forget the wife who shagged his cousin. Everybody has their own form of escape from life, be it fantasy, drink, drugs, religion or suicide.
Small Apartments is a quirky film; quirky in the odd characters that live next to Franklin; quirky in the wide-angle lenses and bright colour grading; and quirky in that short film, oddball quirkiness with a few scenes of brutalism to balance it out. The resolution is itself a self-help platitude, but Lucas gives a vulnerable and moving performance as a child-like man who just wants to things to go right for him. Bar the Benny Hill cartoon sauciness at the end – Akerlund has made a story of great pathos.