“Poolman,” Chris Pine’s directorial debut that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a pastiche of Los Angeles past and present. It’s a film noirlike “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential,” but its characters are the New Age-y, socially conscious, showbiz-adjacent type. The film was supposedly the first to be screened on 35mm at TIFF in years, only to be projected in DCP due to an unspecified technical issue.
Somewhat recalling “True Romance”-era Brad Pitt, Darren (Pine) is the titular eccentric dude who ritually checks the water levels in the Tahitian Tiki apartments’ pool and meditates while immersed therein. He regularly composes letters using a typewriter to Erin Brockovich about his activist aspirations. He also religiously shows up at city council meetings to complain about the substandard public transit system.
For Darren, city council president Steve Toronkowski (Stephen Tobolowsky) stands in the way of much needed progress for not taking seriously any of the issues he raises. Toronkowski’s assistant June (DeWanda Wise) soon tips off the pool man about the politician’s dirty dealings and urges him to take down her boss. As Darren investigates, Jack (Danny DeVito), a failed director from Darren’s apartment complex, trails him with a camera in an attempt to turn it all into a documentary.
Pine and Ian Gotler, who share writing credits, have a somewhat promising
premise but fall short in the execution. It’s clear they have a neo-noir along the lines of “Under the Silver Lake” in mind, but both are too inexperienced to properly bring it to fruition. They are sufficiently familiar with genre tropes to designate June a femme fatale, but not savvy enough to know that she also needs to be a damsel in distress in order to seduce and compel Darren.
It’s really hard to tell what, if anything, is at stake aside from the public projects Darren advocates for. The screenplay desperately needs a few rounds of rewrites and workshopping.
The writers are most invested in creating colorful and memorable Angeleno archetypes who are brought to life by an esteemed cast. Aside from DeVito, Annette Bening plays Jack’s wife, Diane (har har), an actress-turned-therapist; and Jennifer Jason Leigh appears as Susan, Darren’s girlfriend who teaches Pilates and hopes to open her own studio. In due course, Darren will uncover Toronkowski’s double life, and it’s not at all what he expected. It’s one of the funnier and more inspired bits of the movie.
But the characters are not given anything interesting to do. The film would be more engaging if they were to make some egregious rookie mistakes during the investigation, or at least get roughed up by some goons. Perhaps because so much attention is paid to the characters, the story feels threadbare.
The film never fully commits itself to neo-noir beyond the plot. Though much is made of the fact that “Poolman” was shot on film, the visuals don’t stand out either. Matthew Jensen’s cinematography doesn’t channel noir aesthetics or even toy with it as “Chinatown” did. Erin Magill’s production design isn’t entirely cohesive, with Darren and his pals inhabiting modern-day L.A. while the baddies seemingly live in a different era. The juxtaposition is odd in a “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” sort of way.
“Poolman” is not awful, but it ain’t great either. The film’s best chances would be on streaming platforms where viewers might check it out on the basis of all the recognizable names involved.
This is a sales title at TIFF.
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