Small Apartments deserves credit for getting inside your head through force of strangeness alone, and it has enough going on to merit at least some kind of interpretation. You can argue with yourself to no end about whether or not director Jonas Åkerlund has made a subversive slam against trying to find human connection when our own baggage shuts us off from the world, or if he’s delivered a pat, mawkish ending that doesn’t fit with previous moments of derision towards sentiment. Rather than leave your head spinning, Small Apartments just leaves your head aching.
Franklin Franklin (Matt Lucas) lives alone in a crappy apartment in Los Angeles. He enjoys playing an alphorn, dreams of moving to Switzerland, consumes only soda, has no body hair, and spends the majority of his time wearing only tighty-whities. He’s also killed his landlord (Peter Stormare) and, like everything else in his life, it doesn’t seem to faze him. His only human relationship is with his institutionalized brother (James Marsden), who sends Franklin a daily package containing fingernails and a cassette tapes filled with insane ramblings. We also see glimpses of Franklin’s neighbors: stoner Tommy Balls (Johnny Knoxville), wannabe Vegas stripper Simone (Juno Temple), and the ornery Mr. Allspice (James Caan). After Franklin creates the world’s worst staged suicide in order to cover up the murder, the crime comes to the attention of fire investigator Burt Walnut (Billy Crystal).
Up until the final act of the movie, Small Apartments spends almost all of its time with Franklin and his madness. It’s difficult to tell where reality begins and ends with Frankin since he seems to understand that he’s committed a murder, but doesn’t react to it with any real human emotions. Åkerlund draws us into Franklin’s twisted world through color-saturated flashbacks, cartoonish moments like Franklin running super-speed to his mailbox, and the character’s tenuous relationship with normal social interactions. Even Franklin doesn’t seem to understand his reality since he believes that a dropped bowling ball on his foot caused him to lose all his hair. All of these quirks are compounded and made more abrasive by the character’s grotesque form, and we’re left to wonder if Franklin would have been completely naked if Åkerlund could have gotten away with it.
But when Walnut enters the picture and—in an unrelated development—Franklin learns more about his brother, the movie starts to settle down and the weirdness begins to fade away. The plot begins to be told more through Walnut and Tommy’s perspective. These are men with their own issues, but they’re not total weirdoes like Franklin. This sudden shift drains the movie of what was repellent but oddly fascinating. The film never celebrates Franklin’s interpretation of the world (although there’s a streak of dark comedy), so switching to Burt’s bland outlook doesn’t feel like a qualitative judgment. It’s different, but not better or worse.
I applaud Åkerlund for not wanting to spell out the subtext, but the confusion appears to stem more from slipshod direction rather than subterfuge. The first two acts of the movie are firmly in a strange, aggressively strange place where we’re constantly cringing at Franklin’s ugly body or pondering his off-kilter mind, but the introduction of Walnut and revelations about Franklin’s brother settles the tone but muddles the subtext. Åkerlund isn’t keeping us off-balance as much as he’s shoving us to the ground and asking us why he did that. We can ponder that question, but no matter our answer, we’ll still be annoyed about getting shoved to the ground.
Small Apartments is a movie of two minds both literally and figuratively. It drifts randomly between madness and sanity, multiple protagonists, and a subtext that could either be Hallmark-level treacle or a scathing dismissal of normalcy and love. Åkerlund’s attempts to confuse and mislead through grotesque characters, mood swings, and sloppy pacing keep us intrigued but rarely invested.
For all of our SXSW 2012 coverage, click here. Also, here are links to all of my SXSW reviews so far: