Taking Up Closet Space
Editor’s note: Bob’s New Suit is screening at Frameline35: San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival on 22 June, followed by a Q&A with director Alan Howard.
In Bob’s New Suit, multiple interlocking stories conflict with a strong narrator. The large cast evokes other movies with horizontal narratives, like Short Cuts or Magnolia. But where these other movies feature moments that stand alone even as they support the overarching narrative, individual scenes in Alan Howard’s first film don’t function on either level. Add a thuddingly dull pace and generally very bad acting, and you’ve got a real turkey on your hands.
Bob’s New Suit begins as Bob (Hunter Bodine) proposes marriage to his girlfriend Jenny (Hayley DuMond). The scene is oddly scripted, suggesting the couple has been together for a long time but has never broached the subject of marriage before. Later, when Bob tells his family about his impending nuptials, no one seems able to register an emotional response. His mother, Polly (Suzi Bodine), doesn’t even smile. It’s not that she disapproves of the marriage. Rather, as Polly puts it, “You should have proposed to that girl years before now.”
This kind of dialogue is a problem throughout the movie, conversation that retells the audience what they’ve just seen on screen. Many of these explanations are offered by the movie’s narrator, an Italian suit who reduces all characters to the clothes they happen to be wearing, and how their fashion sense reveals their inward personality aspects. This device isn’t a bad idea, and the touch about the suit being preoccupied by everyone’s clothes is actually fairly inspired. But the voiceover is also performed in an awful, fake-Italian accent. (Get it? Because the suit is Italian!) This is the way Bob’s New Suit goes: one step forward, 10 steps back. As the suit notes minute details of Bob and his family’s lives, one can’t help but wonder how something that spends its life hanging in a closet would know so much about these people.
The characters in Bob’s New Suit are all “quirky,” as if formulated by the equation: Stereotype + Quirk = Rounded Character. Bob, for instance, is a lunk-headed carpenter who likes to read. At one point he says he’s halfway through War and Peace, the go-to title to signify “literature” for people who don’t actually know anything about literature. As for Jenny, her mother was an alcoholic who beat her, a past suggesting she’s not only beautiful, but also burdened. Bob’s father, Buster (John Bennett Perry), is a burnt-out hippie with heart disease. And the only purpose in the life of Bob’s mother, Polly, seems to be wringing her hands over his sister’s homosexuality.
This brings us to Stephanie/Steve (Shay Astar), a newly avowed female-to-male transgendered person and the film’s only fully realized character. Astar lends a wryness to Steve that is instantly appealing. Unfortunately for him (and us), Steve is surrounded by straight people defined by their cluelessness, stranded in a sea of non-story. When he describes what it’s like to inhabit a new body, one that begins to fit his gender, he’s interrupted by a bookworm caricature who has read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and, thus, claims to know something about the topic. It’s a moment that abbreviates Steve’s own description, reducing a real life concept to faux-artistic ruminations. Steve’s meaningful contribution to the discussion is talked over by a cartoon.
This moment, as striking as it may be, is soon overwhelmed by the many subplots that fill up the film, one leading to a final twist that is just incomprehensible. But by the time it happens, most members of the audience will likely have given up trying to make sense of Bob’s New Suit.