Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. I enjoyed Michael Keaton but when he essentially disappeared from films for six years from 1998 to 2004, I was damn glad to see the guy resurface. And hey, “Jack Frost” is enough to drive anyone underground. While he didn’t have a blazing comeback with films like “First Daughter” or “White Noise”, just having him back in the picture was satisfying enough. He recently made his directorial debut with “The Merry Gentleman” and while it’s not a perfect film by any means, it’s a promising first effort and Keaton delivers the best performance since his return to cinema.
“The Merry Gentleman” revolves around two lost souls: Kate (Kelly Macdonald), a woman recovering from spousal abuse and Frank (Keaton), a hitman who’s on the verge of killing himself. So…it’s less than merry. There’s absolutely no dialogue for the first ten minutes of the film and when you pull a Leone, you’ve got me for the rest of your movie. Frank doesn’t even speak until he meets Kate as she’s pinned underneath a Christmas tree. The two develop a bond but the movie is really Kate’s story and only on those terms does it work.
If you’re looking for the quirky hitman story (a la “Gross Pointe Blank” or “You Kill Me”), you won’t find it here. Frank is a completely dour soul with a haunted look always in his eyes. Other than Kate, no other character truly has an emotional arc and we don’t really see much of their personal lives. But if you look at the film with Frank, Kate’s abusive ex-husband (Bobby Cannavale taking one big scene and just knocking it out of the park), and a detective (Tom Bastounes) looking for Frank but pussy-footing his way around getting a date with Kate, as three competing aspects of Kate’s damaged psyche then the film works pretty well. Frank is the strength Kate needs to survive and move on, her ex is the past she’s trying to confront, and the detective is the outside world that won’t let Kate deal with her trauma on her own terms. The whole film is grounded in reality and there are no attempts to mindfuck the audience, but in this whole characters-as-symbols structure, “The Merry Gentleman” works best. There’s also a large dose of religious symbolism but I don’t think Keaton fleshed out that idea well enough so it feels more like a vague distraction than a strong thematic boost.
Despite some glaring short-comings in the direction (bland cinematography and over-reliance on score to convey emotion), there’s a lot of confidence and I liked that, for the most part, Keaton keeps the proceedings low-key and quiet. There’s a joke here and there but mostly it’s an actor’s film and none his co-stars let him down. Hopefully, the next time he chooses to direct, he’ll trust his crew as much as he trusts his actors.
Rating —– B minus