PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Alex Cox's Divine Comedy

The genre that Three Businessmen most reflects is the city symphony, which can be traced all the way back to that film-school rite of passage, Man With a Movie Camera.

Three Businessmen

Director: Alex Cox
Cast: Miguel Sandoval, Alex Cox, Robert Wisdom
Distributor: Microcinema
Rated: NR
Release date: 2013-07-30

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.