Pseudo-documentary contrivance and a long buildup to no real payoff limit impact in “Univers’l,” an earnest indie feature about tensions at a South Central mini-mall the day Rodney King’s assailants were acquitted. Lacking the kind of sharp writing or bold directorial style that made a similar multi-character fiction strike sparks in “Do the Right Thing,” pic looks best suited to limited tube play.
Though everyone has been glued to TV broadcasts of the infamous Simi Valley trial, April 29, 1992, looks like another ordinary working day at the strip mall where a multinational cast of characters operate their small businesses. Or at least it would, if security guard/custodian Rodriego (Robert Villalobos) hadn’t chained off access to the shared parking lot. He tells angry tenants that this is due to planned “construction,” but we know his real orders resulted from absent, much-disliked Korean landlord Mr. Kong’s fear of post-trial violence.
Among tenants are the mutually suspicious families who run a video store (Israeli) and dry cleaner’s (Iranian). African-American liquor store proprietor and single dad Marcus (Tony Todd) has a crush on Ai Lein (Jackie Huynh), the daughter of Vietnamese owners of a nail-care shop. Homeless Caucasian Bob (Brad Fisher) dumpster-dives out front; in the silliest of vid-shot B&W “interview” recollections that dot narrative throughout, we learn that he subsequently became a “famous” conceptual artist.
Adding to the mix are a hoity Beverly Hills matron (Anna Nicholas) interested in renting the mall’s empty storefront for her battered women’s shelter; and three lost, paranoid Swedish visitors. Former’s Mercedes is promptly stolen by local gang members who are simultaneously pressuring Rodriego to open up said storefront so they can torch the mall.
Dawn Hoggatt’s brisk editing juggles all these strands ably enough, but despite some humor, writing seldom rises above well-intentioned cliche. A worse problem is that we learn early on one figure is killed in later violence; yet pic simply ends just shy of that incident, providing no cathartic release for what’s become a rather dully prolonged buildup.
Among other dead-end threads are discovery of the landlord’s body, which is left an unsolved mystery. Ultimately, the superficial human dramatics here (which relegate both gang members and police to background) feels more like a disaster movie without the disaster than the intended X-ray of simmering, microcosmic racial misunderstandings.
Perfs by large cast are OK, though constrained byover-compacting of character insights. Modest tech package is also adequate, though like everything else here it falls rather awkwardly between conventional narrative polish and faux-docu verite. In this context, the few snatches of background scoring seem inappropriate. Subtitles are employed for stretches of dialogue in Spanish, Farsi, Hebrew, Swedish, Vietnamese and Korean; sound in “interview” segs is sometimes murky.