In cinemas now
If you made a list of British comedians you’d expect to find leading an ensemble in an American comedy/drama, chances are Matt Lucas (of ‘he’s a baby’ and ‘yer-buh-no-buh’ fame) wouldn’t be at its peak. This is no indictment of his ability – far from it, he was the one member of his respective double-act who could manage to muster a character other than an over-camped version of his own, and his sparkling turn in Bridesmaids was a joy.
No, it’s more to do with his perceived Britishness; his Prime Time TV oddballity. Fortunately, after five minutes in his Yank-accented company in Small Apartments, he’s a film star. Plain and simple.
He plays Franklin Franklin, a loner eking out a dire existence in a squalid apartment block who dreams of moving to Switzerland and finding happiness. We also follow the plights of his neighbours, a haggard and perpetually stoned Johnny Knoxville, and an embittered widower played by James Caan, in a tale of Coen-esque nihilism and moral absence that never reaches the heights of the renowned brothers’ best work, but which packs an endearing level of humour, tragedy and salvation into its lean 92 minutes.
We meet baffled simpleton Franklin at his lowest ebb: the body of his landlord adorns his kitchen floor, his role model, only friend and brother sends daily envelopes containing cryptic recorded missives and trimmed toenails from the secure facility in which he’s been living for the past year.
Each of the three residents of the block are lost in their own ways, and while it is Lucas’ arc which is primarily explored, Caan and Knoxville’s journeys provide apposite parallels. In fact, it’s Knoxville who comes as the film’s biggest surprise, giving a performance that begins at adequate and swells into something rather special. Not Oscar special, but it’s great to see him escape the snare of low-brow comedies for which he’s best known.
The cast is completed by fire investigator Billy Crystal, in easily charming and gently tragic form, James Marsden as Franklin’s brother, the easygoing rudder without which Lucas lost, and Juno Temple as derelict and directionless teen Simone.
Actual plot isn’t the primary focus here: it’s a study about loneliness in the cramped confines of a city, our characters crossing paths and bouncing off their interactions with each other, and director Jonas Åkerlund injects colour, warmth and welcome running gags to lay at counterpoints to the generally sombre tone of the events themselves.
It’s not perfect – its scatological nature and desire to cram in so many characters means some arcs don’t receive the payoffs they deserve, and the script provides just as many misses as hits, most notably an overly-convenient tying up of loose ends. But, crucially, Small Apartments has a big enough heart to shake of these problems for the most part. It’s a bit daft and it’s all over the place, but you’ll probably find yourself liking it all the more for it.