POOLMAN | USA | 2023 | 100m | English
Directed By: Chris Pine
Every morning, Darren (Pine) inspects and cleans the pool of his low-rise apartment block — a Zen ritual he performs with exacting precision, partly because it’s the one thing that he can actually nurture in his beloved city. He looks up to Erin Brockovich’s example of social justice, writing daily letters to her about his (failing) fight for a better bus schedule. But after an embarrassing scuffle at a city council meeting, he hits rock bottom — until a femme fatale named June Del Rey (DeWanda Wise) shows up at his pool step with an intriguing piece of information. Darren sees it as an opportunity to save Los Angeles. To get to the bottom of the case, he ropes in his idiosyncratic friends: his pilates instructor girlfriend Susan (Leigh), his therapist Dianne (Bening, also at the Festival in NYAD), and her husband, Jack (DeVito), a washed-up director who’s shooting a documentary on what might actually prove to be a dangerous conspiracy.
With this wry spin on Chinatown, Pine puts his superb comic instincts to use behind the lens, while delivering a charismatic performance as the sincere and shaggy ne’er-do-well who just wants to make his city a better place. With music by Andrew Bird and charming production design that seeds the iconography of noir classics in a modern-day setting, Poolman is a sunny remix of a dark genre that proves a kinetic joy.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 1 out of 5
Poolman has an intriguing premise as a love letter to Los Angeles, however the noir genre, and the star power of Chris Pine and some of the biggest talents in Hollywood is not enough to save this film. A disaster from start to finish, Poolman is destined to be remembered as one of the most catastrophic premieres of all time at any major film festival.
Many actors have turned directors, using their star power to attract a cast of Hollywood A-listers to star in their film. While some of these actors have done so to astounding success, like Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper and Anna Kendrick (who’s Woman of the Hour was one of this year’s highlights at the Toronto International Film Festival), Chris Pine completely misses the mark with his directorial debut Poolman. Despite being on the most anticipated titles going into this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, because many assumed that a Los Angeles set noir comedy featuring Pine, Annette Bening, Danny DeVito and Jennifer Jason Leigh would be a great time, it ended up not only being the biggest misfire of the festival, but one of the worst films of the entire year.
After stumbling upon a secret plot that involves government officials and powerful businessmen in the city of Los Angeles, poolman Darren Barrenman takes it upon himself to protect his city. With the help of his friends who live in the same apartment complex, and the mysterious June Del Rey that sets Darren on his mission, Darren is in a race against time to protect the city he calls home and its water supply.
One of the biggest culprits of Poolman is its story and confused screenplay. Trying to simultaneously be both a screwball comedy and noir film that pays homage to great films of the genre like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, the film misses the mark in both regards. The mystery itself is never fully developed enough to be captivating, or even slightly engaging, causing the film’s shorter run time to feel like a test of patience. The screwball comedic elements, and failed attempts at comedy distract from the story, making the film feel convoluted while adding very little value to the overall product. Even with a talented cast, including Pine and DeVito, who normally thrive in comedic roles, only a handful of the jokes stick the landing. Under a more experienced director, the screenplay may have been salvaged to deliver a passable watch, but Pine is not able to unify the film under a distinct tone to guide the story to its conclusion.
Despite the film’s stellar star casting, there is not much to rave about their performances, as the performances range from fine, to downright lazy. If there is one thing that Pine does right, it is his portrayal of Darren, the titular pool man. It’s an homage to The Dude from The Big Lebowski, and Pine finds a great energy to bring this character to life, even if his performance falls on deaf ears as there is nothing to support it or help this character leap off the screen. Bening has an uncontrollable nervous and controlling energy which makes Diane very irritable, while DeVito generates only a handful of laughs as Diane’s husband Jack. DeVito could have been the saving grace of the film, but the screenplay and direction fail to utilize his natural comedic talents. Leigh is severely misused as Darren’s girlfriend Susan, while DeWanda Wise failed to do anything of note with the role of June Del Rey. Even if the cast seems to be having fun on screen, it never for a second translates to the audience which is the biggest sin of the film, as the audience is never for a second in on the fun, instead wishing that the credits would roll already.
If there is anything to appreciate about Poolman, it's the film’s cinematography and the love it shows for both Los Angeles and the noir genre. Shot on 35mm film, the film looks beautiful, and captures the life, spirit, and darkness of the city of Los Angeles. It’s clear from the story that was written, that Pine, his producers and the film’s writers have an affinity for the noir genre, like so many movie goers do, and that love is evident in the style of the film. Whether it be the costumes, the visuals of the film calling back to classics of the genre, or the direction of the story. It’s a reminder that we need more films in the noir genre, just please let them be immensely better than this charade of a film.
Consistently testing the audience’s patience from start to finish with a muddled story, confused tone, and collection of performances largely below a cast of this calibre that fail to do anything remotely entertaining, Poolman should end Chris Pine’s directorial career before it even begins.