Some reviews of Julian Po

 

September 1997

Reviewed at the Deauville Film Festival

An engagingly off-kilter exploration of how a suicidal book-keeper becomes a make-shift messiah, "Julian Po" is a beautifully controlled fable whose profound underpinnings are buoyed by luminous comic timing.   Scripter- helmer Alan Wade's debut is a commercial zero but is certain to stick in the minds of those who see it; peculiar yet endearing pic marks the filmmaker as a talent to watch.

Wade adapted and expanded a 40 page novella by Yugoslavian author Branimir Scepanovic adding characters, compressing time and trading Montenegro for the Catskills, all to excellent effect.  Story has face value charm to spare, but also slyly comments on the cult of celebrity, the perils of inertia vs. the impetus to action and the ways in which the meaning and personal identity can crystallize where least expected.

Having recently purchased a cheap tape recorder that he uses for an audio diary (which serves as V.O. narration), 30-year old title character (Christian Slater) is a fairly anonymous, nondescript fellow who is on a journey to see the sea for the first time when his car breaks down.  Po ambles into a tiny, old fashioned town off the beaten track, checks into the only hotel and immediately becomes the focus of every citizenís rabid curiosity.  The wholesome but eerie locale has rarely, if ever hosted a stranger, and the residents are naturally suspicious.

Convinced that he is up to no good, the townspeople demand that the visitor reveal his intentions.  Under pressure, Po blurts put that he plans to kill himself.  This admission touches a collective nerve: Impressed by their guestís courage and starved for entertainment, the gawking locals follow his every move.  Po finds himself the recipient of constant kindness Ė and confessions.   Cornered into uttering inspiring platitudes, he becomes a catalyst for all sorts of personal momentum.

The sheriff, the barber, the haberdasher, a garage mechanic -- even an elderly woman who sells lottery tickets to folks who want to bet on which day Po will off himself -- find their lives transformed.  The town pastor undergoes a particularly amusing change of heart after interacting with Po.  But problems emerge when, having raised local expectations Po stays on yet takes no concrete steps toward doing himself in.

Slater put on weight -- and a mustache -- for the role, details that help impart a likable vulnerability to the frequently exasperated Po.

Pithy character roles abound, including Harve Presnell as the mayor and Alison Janney as his wife, Michael Parks as the innkeeper, Robin Tunney as an angelic woman who throws herself at Po and Cherry Jones as a deaf-mute chamber maid.

Costumes and setting have an appealingly timeless quality, although tale is contemporary.  Saturated colors in exteriors and a lovely score [by Patrick Williams] with GershwinĖlike overtones contribute to picís special atmosphere.

- L. N.


ĎJulian Poí a Mayberry Tale with a Serling Twist

The Denver Post
Friday, September 5, 1997

Julian Po" is as mysterious and unusual as its title characterís odd enigmatic name.  Itís pronounced "Poe" as in Edgar Allan.

Set in a meticulously detailed but imaginary American mountain town, the movie has the feel and pacing of a macabre and absurdist fable, perhaps a religious parable.  Yet in the way it is mistrustful of religion and wary of the human raceís capability to accept goodness, it is much like a French existentialist novel.

First time director Alan Wade has based his screenplay on a short story, Branimir Scepanovicís "La Mort de Monsieur Golouga."  But "Julian Po" has a traditional American look with a twist.  The small isolated mountain town populated with eccentric characters is like sleepy Mayberry.   In fact "Julian Po" could be an Andy Griffith episode written by Rod Serling.

The movie has darkly comic elements, but Wade keeps the tone relatively realistic.  While the story is far-fetched, you buy in to the director's quiet but persistent, dedication to plausibility.  It wins you over.

The acting is uniformly pitch perfect.  As Julian, Christian Slater is especially winning Ė and remarkably restrained.  His character is a timid and frightened man, at a loss for a meaning in his life.  But heís not passive or resigned to unhappiness.  Heís capable of showing humor and anger.   He has a determination to try to experience pleasure, even heís not sure what it entails.  He is a moving everyman.

Julian is a 30- year-old bookkeeper who is regretful and disdainful of his lifeís accomplishments to date.  "Itís not worth mentioning," he speaks into his omnipresent portable tape recorder.  He has never been to the sea, so heís taking a vacation there, wearing a suit and a drably conservative shirt.  When his car breaks down, he walks into a mountain town that has seen few outsiders since the Depression and seems to like it that way.

As created by production designer Steven McCabe, the townís look is one of "Julian Poís" best assets.  It has the weather beaten sorrowfulness of an Edward Hopper painting, only pushed farther and made grotesque.

Cinematographer Bernd Heinl is very careful about letting bright light and color into this town, as if it doesnít deserve too much of it.  Muted colors predominate, underlining the townís rickety, time capsule look.  It is kind of a place you might fall into if you stumbled in to a big hole while sleepwalking through real life.

Julian stays at a creepy decrepit place, a rooming house run by the viscously, leeringly evil Vern (Michael Parks, of the cult favorite "Then Came Bronson" TV series).  He decides to stay awhile, because itís a hard town to leave without transportation.  This makes the townsfolk extremely suspicious.   Is he a drug dealer?  A serial killer?  A terrorist?

They confront him in a cafť, and the scared Julian confesses that he has come to kill himself.  He may not even mean it; he may have just gotten tongue-tied out of fear.  But he immediately becomes a tourist attraction in a town where nothing interesting happens.  And cruel fate sets in.

For some, Julianís impending suicide is a source of bemusement or pleasure.  They want to help him get on with it.  Vern offers him the use of a gun; the town barber says heíll slit Julianís throat with his straight razor.  Kids in baseball caps follow him around on the streets, like stalking paparazzi.  A woman sells chances on the time and the date of his death.

But for others, Julian planís somehow set them free to be intimate with him.  Itís as if they believe Julian is sacrificing himself for them.  The town sheriff (Frankie R. Faison, a Tony award winner for his role in "Fences") confesses he once killed a man and kept it secret.  And, he says, he enjoyed it.  The nervous melancholy clothing- store owner (Zeljko Ivanick) reveals that heís a closeted gay man who loves the sheriff.  Another man tells him he wants to flee his wife and child to become an actor.

Julian, uncomfortable with such confidences, answers with heart-felt but not always deep platitudes about lifeís meaning.  And these are taken as the gospel truth by others, with disastrous results.  Only the deaf rooming house maid seems to accept him for what he is.

Among those who put faith in Julian is Sarah (Robin Tunney), a frail, freckle-faced young woman with spectacularly long brown hair and a consistent air of despondency about her.  She has had visions of Julianís arrival, and appears to see suicide as an act of bearing witness.  "She looks and smells like the beach," says Julian, who desperately wants to see the ocean.  They begin a love affair of tragic consequences.

Julian says one thing thatís hard to shake, and it is the intellectual center of this strange film.  When pastor Bean (Bruce Bohne) asks if he believes in God, Julian answers that there probably is one.  "Somebody has to apologize," he says.  It is the movieís world view, and it sneaks up on you in a seductive and devastatingly effective way.  "Julian Po" believes that love means saying your sorry.

"Julian Po" is a bit reminiscent of another strange American movie about the macabre underside of a small-town American life; 1968ís "Pretty Poison." In it a teen (Tuesday Weld) persuades a troubled, timid young man (Tony Perkins) to help her with a murder.

By S.R.

Denver Post Movie Critic

For more information, go to the Julian Po page on the Internet Movie Database or Fine Line Features' Julian Po Site (no longer exists).

 

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