Auteurs beware: there is such a thing as too much quirk. Oh sure, sometimes, you might mesh the weird with the wistful to create a sly bit of magic realism. But for the most part, experiments in eccentricity end up looking like Wilder Napalm.
Alexandre Rockwell has yet to learn this lesson. After starting his career as a Sundance darling, he has only helmed three other films (including an ill-fated fourth of Quentin Tarantino’s terrible anthology, Four Rooms). Since 1992’s In the Soup, Rockwell has failed to live up to his hype. 13 Moons (2002) marks his first effort behind the camera in four years (six, if you count the time it took to arrive on DVD). And after viewing this self-indulgent claptrap, some film fans will wish he waited even longer.
In 13 Moons, Bananas the Clown (a bored Steve Buscemi) and his sidekick Binky (Peter Dinklage) have just been fired from their cable kids’ show: our hapless harlequin no longer knows what’s funny. When Mrs. Bananas (Jennifer Beals in a “don’t blink” cameo) discovers his stripper mistress (Karyn Parsons), a “domestic disturbance” ensues and the jealous spouse goes to jail. Bail bondsman Moe Potter (David Proval) is distracted by the fact that his son needs a kidney transplant. And local rap mogul Lenny (Daryl “Chill” Mitchell) is screaming to have his woman, Sanandra (Rose Rollins), sprung from the hoosegow. When all the parties meet up at the hospital, the drug-addled organ donor Slovo (Peter Stormare) disappears, and it’s up to this motley crew, with the help of some peculiar priests, to find him before the little boy dies.
In an interview featurette on the DVD, Rockwell describes how he set out to create several hyper-real characters, people with out of the ordinary occupations (bail bondsman, clown, stripper) and bring them together in a gritty setting for a single purpose, in this case, to save the life of a child. Taking the device one step further, all the characters would share some six-degrees-style associations—hidden connections of which they are only subconsciously aware (shown in flashbacks throughout the film). In this world of unbelievable coincidences, Karma battles fate for the destiny of all involved. Add abortion, a defrocked priest who may be schizophrenic (which explains that “voice of God” he’s hearing), and Binky’s obsession with people’s sexuality (which explains their curt attitude towards his small stature, in his mind), and 13 Moons has enough pieces in play for several movies.
Since a hackneyed image of a corpse-like kid doesn’t keep our attention, the film turns instead to delineating the corruption and callousness of those who will be redeemed if they help him. Only problem is, these characters are shallow, selfish jerks. It’s only personal preoccupation that keeps Bananas from being funny, the priest from understanding his calling and the music mogul’s from seeing how musically untalented his girlfriend is. If they could just focus on someone else for a change, their troubles would melt away and the entire world will blossom like a big yellow balloon right in front of them. Oh brother…
If it didn’t concern L.A.‘s lowlifes, 13 Moons might be misconstrued as a numbing New Age fairytale, a chance for even the most outlandish characters to value their fellows. On the surface, they are all oddballs (Binky thinks everyone must be gay, Fr. Owen is like the Son of Sam in vestments). Rockwell and co-writer Brandon Cole never flesh them out beyond these designations. Bananas curses kids in his audience and then is surprised when he’s fired. He’s devoted to his lover, but beyond that, we don’t learn any details about their relationship. We don’t even understand why he and Mrs. Bananas are separated. His sullen face smeared with clown makeup doesn’t symbolize anything.
As if to add insult to incompleteness, Rockwell relies almost exclusively on his cast to fill in the rest of the blanks. But just like a rudderless ship, his pell-mell performers end up traveling all over the map. Stormare’s Slovo is so repugnant that you wish someone would perform an emergency lobotomy on him. His anarchic acting slowly starts to chip away at anything remotely decent the film has built up and when he’s finished with the foundation, he digs 13 Moons into an even deeper hole. The rest of the cast mostly sleepwalks through the film’s ambient malaise (Rockwell is in love with his digital camcorder’s foggy look).
At least Rockwell paints pretty cinematic pictures. His nighttime L.A. is an oasis of neon and natural elements. Characters exist within visions of comic symbolism, such as a dwarf wrestling with a clown or a junkie parading around in a fright wig like Herman Munster in La Cage Aux Folles. But the result is confusing, not funny or compelling. So here’s a heads up to aspiring filmmakers. Leave the weirdness to someone who can handle it, like David Lynch. Had 13 Moons incorporated just a little realism into its mix of mirth and misery, it may have been nearly lucid. But it’s all about the quirk, baby.