18½ movie review & film summary (2022)

They end up pretending to be newlyweds and accepting a dinner invitation from an alarmingly forward married couple, Samuel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and Lena (Catherine Curtin), who are staying in another room at the motel and, as luck would have it, own a reel-to-reel player upon which they’ve been replaying the same bossa nova album for years. 

Samuel and Lena capture the film’s oddball energy in microcosm. The instant they appear onscreen, they set off all sorts of alarms, but it’s hard to know why, other that they’re exuberant and eccentric. Curtis-Hall and Curtin, both veteran character actors, get to show sides of their talent that we’ve never seen. Samuel is a World War II veteran and sophisticated world traveler who wears a knotted plaid ascot and will start dancing sinuously by himself with no provocation, arms and hips swiveling, while Lena is Frenchwoman who talks and talks, and whose riffs are sometimes so nonsensical that they verge on beat poetry.

They met in occupied France. “What did you do during the war?” Connie asks Samuel over dinner. “We won,” he replies. The sentence lands with sinister weight because Samuel says it so matter-of-factly, as if it requires no elaboration, even though it’s not actually an answer. When Lena lets Connie and Paul into their suite, she doesn’t just open the door, she throws it open in a weird way that’s as seemingly unmotivated as everything else she does. (When she launches into a long riff during dinner, the movie jump-cuts between different takes of the actress performing the scene. There’s one brief shot where Curtin is speaking into a baguette as if it’s a microphone.)

Another ace supporting player, Richard Kind, has a subtler yet somehow equally unsettling role as the motel owner, who ‘s a fountain of too-much-information. Delivering a message to Connie and Paul’s front door, he apologizes for his handwriting: “I have a slight tremble in my hand. I’ve had it since I was a kid. It’s mercury poisoning. I used to suck on the thermometer.” 

What’s his deal? What’s Samuel and Lena’s deal? What about Connie and Paul? Do they have a deal? Why do all of these characters seem so untrustworthy? They’re just a bunch of eccentrics, right? Is the film a joke of some kind? Sometimes it seems to be—especially when we’re listening the tape of the Watergate tape, and the conspirators are yammering nonsense lines like, “Damn Howard Hughes. Damn him and his sandwiches!” But then it’ll turn sinister and upsetting, while still not entirely committing to making a serious or deep statement on anything, and expect us to reconcile what it was and what it turned into—and that’s the point where it’ll go back to being silly again. 

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