Upon its release, a tagline for Three Businessmen advertised the picture as “A Comedy About Serious Things”, and it’s true that the main characters (played by director Alex Cox, Miguel Sandoval, and eventually Robert Wisdom) indulge in the sorts of philosophical discussions that, for their unexpected mood swings and incorporation of disparate subjects ranging from science fiction to Labor Party politics, wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hal Hartley film. Yet the genre that Three Businessmen most reflects, if any, is the city symphony, which can be traced all the way back to that film-school rite of passage Man With a Movie Camera up to the voiceover stylings of historian Thom Andersen in his 2003 essay film, Los Angeles Plays Itself.
If Cox’s film resembles a symphony, though, it’s a rather experimental one. Art dealers Bennie (a brash, convivial American) and Frank (a mild-mannered Brit) meet in the restaurant of a vast Liverpudlian hotel, the subject of some delightfully surreal vignettes before the screenplay by producer Tod Davies settles into the story(?) proper. In the first, Bennie drags his unwieldy luggage about an upper floor of the hotel, in search of the jacuzzi suite the concierge has convinced him to take. Later, upon meeting Frank, the two strike up a tenuous friendship, despite their obvious differences in upbringing and mannerism, to investigate why there appears to be no smell of food despite a long wait in the dining room. Their expedition into the kitchen produces the film’s first truly mysterious image, a suggestion that something is not at all right with the world these men inhabit.
Bennie and Frank then take up the quest for a hearty vegetarian meal—hearty, for Bennie’s demanding appetite, and vegetarian, for Frank’s disciplined stomach. It’s here that the camerawork begins to perform a major balancing act, shifting from tight medium shots of the two men, deep in conversation, to wide-angle handheld footage that follows them on long walks through the streets and tunnels of Liverpool, Hong Kong, and eventually a nameless desert. Not that they’d notice. The theme of Cox’s symphony is abstraction, a point made with warm, if winking gestures at the good-natured but oblivious men who wander through a constantly shifting geography with nothing on their mind but the present dialogue, and a twinge in their bellies.
Perhaps as the progenitor of a somewhat recent crop of minimalist genre experiments (including Cold Weather and Le monde vivant) that feel, as a result of their boundary-probing tactics, mammoth in scope on an almost cosmic level, Three Businessmen ends up as a film much greater than the sum of its penny-ante parts. Like those films, it hints at genre but never cares much about fitting into one, obsessing more with the core of genre, the foundational elements of story, than with the necessary structural and semiotic signposts. Its fantastical touches includes Bennie’s explanation of his Plutonium Card (“You’ve heard of the gold card?”), which provides him with a mystical get-out-of-jail free pass once every year. Eventually, the offices of the Plutonium Card are glimpsed in a cutaway that, like the earlier shot of the kitchen, suggest that something at the core of this reality has been upset, and the tumultuous city- and landscapes explored by Bennie and Frank are a result of a new order establishing itself.
If the primary mode of viewing Three Businessmen is a somewhat relaxed, pleasant state of overhearing a conversation on a bus, bar, or city sidewalk, its secondary mode is one of anticipation, as the vast, expansive photography seems to slowly peel away layers of a universe reshaping itself, and a glimpse of the larger truth behind the mystery always lingers just out of reach. Before a single image appears onscreen, the title card gives the film’s structure of suspense its first hook. Here’s one, there’s two—where’s the third? Once Wisdom’s character arrives, and the cityscapes have fallen away, the men are ushered into a small chamber where the truth of their quest becomes clear.
Cox draws on not-dissimilar influences ranging from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, though despite their superficial resemblances to the plot and structure of Three Businessmen, neither work animates its themes with the same staunch, vibrant humanism. The film’s ending could be considered a cheap punchline, its story’s similarity to a widely-known legend obvious in hindsight.
What’s more, the final lines indicate that none of the characters have learned a thing, or changed, from their experience. It’s a moment that echoes the absurdity of Beckett’s play, and in context with the social and political grounding of Cox’s characters, fits well with Bunuel’s surrealist satire. Yet Three Businessmen, in its freewheeling enthusiasm for stripping away the financial limitations of cinema, aims at something purer and perhaps nobler; it makes something more familiar out of the mythical, and eases its viewers slowly, comfortably toward an encounter with the divine, pulling the heavens closer to the earth with nothing more than a camera, city sidewalks, and a few cheap suits. It’s a hell of a trick.
For the extras-inclined, this DVD includes only a tongue-in-cheek featurette called “How to Watch this Film” that’s more its own short film than the title promises, mimicking David Lynch’s teasing decoder guide on the home release of Mulholland Drive. This edition sadly lacks the DVD commentary by Cox that is now available only to owners of the out-of-print Anchor Bay release.