The protagonist of every classic thriller is, in some way or another, a Holy Fool. From the Scarlet Pimpernel’s foppish banter to Pete Decker’s Orthodox faith, from Miss Marple’s clicking needles to the mourning nights spent by Seven‘s William Somerset, fictional detectives share a clairvoyant morality that opens a hotline to wisdom denied the mere mortal. Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald’s heroes ooze a terminal anomie. Charles McHarry and P. D. James burden their ‘tecs with a talent for verse. Alan Rudolph’s Trixie, the eponymous heroine of his new movie, is the latest cinematic aspirant to this pantheon.
Born blue-collar in Chicago, Trixie Zurbo (Emily Watson) works as a uniformed store guard for Attack Security. But she is only marking time, dreaming constantly of solving a real “case of her own,” and feeling downtrodden and disconsolate when her boss repeatedly denies her the chance of glory. Her personal life is equally gloomy: her mother and brother are already dead, and her father so long gone she can barely remember him. Abandoned to an arrested adolescence, she sips her drinks through candy-colored straws and chews gum with all the automatic precision of a bored high-schooler.
Lest these signs of Holy Innocence be too oblique, Rudolph also burdens her with an habitual malapropism, through which she twists cliches into offbeat philosophy. Like Chauncy Gardner in Being There and Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, Trixie “unconsciously” voices a satirical commentary on capitalism and contemporary politics. From the very beginning of the movie, Rudolph thus outfits his protagonist as directorial surrogate, a walking, talking wake-up call to what Rudolph appears to view as the complacent conscience of the audience. It might have worked. As a long-term chronicler of inchoate aspiration and aimless rebellion in films as diverse as Welcome to LA and his two-movie meditation on America’s Lost Generation of the ‘20s (The Moderns and Mrs. Parker and the Round Table), Rudolph has demonstrated the directorial restraint that allows both stories and characters to evolve unshadowed by hasty closure. But this film quickly plummets into sub- (very sub-) Fargo-esque farce, trading subtlety for the quick fix of sophomoric comedy as soon as Trixie strikes out on her own.
Offered a breakout plainclothes gig identifying pickpockets at a low-rent casino, Trixie soon attracts the attention of Dex Lang (Dermot Mulroney), the muscled and sideburned twentysomething dogsbody of loud-mouthed but barely solvent real-estate tycoon, Red Rafferty (Will Patton). An aborted (and somewhat reluctant) romantic encounter with Dex leaves Trixie an inadvertent and naked stowaway on Red’s floating gin palace, where she meets Red’s lush of a lover, Dawn Sloane (Lesley Ann Warren), in the process of seducing State Senator (Nick Nolte). Throughout the film, the Senator mouths a collage of what Rudolph and producer Robert Altman claim to be real lines from real politicians. (He’s obviously the Unholy Innocent of the piece).
When a clearly expendable character dies, Trixie latches onto the crime as a case she can solve. She stumbles from mistaken premise to misplaced trust en route to a denouement that exposes the Senator’s sexual and other corruptions: this might have seemed radical in the 1950s, but is merely banal four decades on. But the movie’s problems lie deeper than a ho-hum plot. Here an accomplished director trivializes his actors and patronizes his protagonist. He also manages to outstrip the Republican Right in pathologizing lower-class life and then making fun of it.
Emily Watson demonstrates virtuoso technique, slugging elegantly through thick Chicago vowels, and alternately crinkling her fine forehead in puzzlement and clearing it in revelation. But her emotions rarely surface, and only in the interstices of that clumsy plot. While she’s on Red’s boat, for instance, Watson imbues Trixie’s demand for her sodden clothes with real power. But in the major set-pieces of her quest, however, all she manages is a chilly detachment.
Watson receives precious little help: as Trixie’s confidant Kirk Stans, a casino entertainer with a past, Nathan Lane tries to play the wry, sexless songbird as if it were not a gay cliche, but only intermittently succeeds. As Dex, the versatile and subtle Mulroney spends most of the picture imitating the dumbstruck stare of the pretty boy lost perfected by Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona and Moonstruck, while Nolte rants in various swaying states of manic intoxication, apparently typecast as himself in a string of films that stretch from the Scorcese segment of New York Stories to Rudolph’s own Afterglow. Much of this seemingly absent-minded acting is allied to a plot of loopy digressions (this viewer could only cheer when the unnamed character who twice mutters cryptic warnings to Trixie, and eventually pursues her down a blind alley, is locked firmly in a car trunk and never seen again) and egregious slapstick (such as Dex’s clumsy, and clumsily phallic, near-upending of the motor launch he uses to ferry Trixie back to dry land). Such dissipation of high-octane acting talent is much more poignant than the truisms about political corruption that conclude the plot.
Of all the actors, Watson works hardest, appearing in almost every scene. Initially, her luminous intensity is well-matched to Trixie’s possibilities. Words are the character’s only connection to the outside world, but her intellectual horizons are so narrow she can order her experience by pieces of ideas. It’s as if she recycles half-understood, half-heard fragments of conversation into gestures of faith, using words not as a means of communication but as the comforting lubricants of social contact.
But even there, her imagination is locked down to the parameters of mass-produced culture. The symbols of market-driven capitalism turn the statue of Adonis into the statue of “Adidas,” and the constant popular reworking of Victorian classics turns Jack into the “Jekyll of all trades.” Yet Rudolph fails to develop this pathos. All too often, Watson is left looking meaningfully into space instead of acting, while in the ruthlessly proliferating malapropisms he sacrifices Trixie’s potentially tragic struggles to survive to the transient satisfaction of the superficial one-line joke. When Trixie finally delivers the line that should justify every mangled cliche, “That’s the whole truth, the hole in the truth, and nothing but the truth,” it becomes just one more exercise in condescension, both to the character and to the audience.
Rudolph seems to be jumping on a bandwagon from which highly paid, highly privileged (at least in relation to their characters) filmmakers patronize not only their creations but also the largely invisible swathes of viewers who, through lack of education, opportunity, and aspiration, seek transcendence through the quick fix motel sex, tabloid culture, and incompetent crime. In this age of talk shows and Judge Judy, the working-class dreamer, whose aspirations far outstrip his or her abilities to achieve them, is the last crass stereotype at which it is safe to laugh. Rudolph has grafted onto the initial echo of Being There, this lurid strain of exploitation, most recently seen in films like Drowning Mona, Clay Pigeons, and Me, Myself & Irene.
As Trixie gazes off-screen and tells her “truth” to a pair of detectives, the camera canonizes her with a framing drawn straight from Catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary. But this semblance of respect for Trixie comes about ninety minutes too late. A thirty-second shot of blank-faced purity cannot dispel the crudeness of the caricatures whose antics have preceded it.