What starts out as an enigmatic and unusually despairing study of the pressure of repeating past success (a worthy subject for an independent film) abruptly turns into a soft-pedaled, Capraesque fantasy in “The Photographer,” the debut feature from writer-director Jeremy Stein. Pic is technically accomplished and graced by the presence of a strong ensemble cast, but is likely too low-key and undistinguished to secure even a limited theatrical run. Festival berths and a long life as a pay cable mainstay seem more secure.
Film begins promisingly with Ben (Reg Rogers), the cause celebre of the New York photography scene, a year after his acclaimed debut show and suddenly incapable of taking a good picture to save his life. He has convinced his agent (Anthony Michael Hall) that a new series of shots is ready to go, and a list of celebrity collectors waits eagerly to buy. But as Ben stumbles into a seedy downtown watering hole less than 24 hours before his deadline, he has nothing to show for himself. Enter a mysterious stranger (Tom Noonan) who chats with Ben, borrows money for a beer and then disappears, leaving behind an envelope containing 10 highly expressionistic, chiaroscuro photographs.
Driving home after a meeting with his mentor (John Heard), Ben is wracked with guilt by the idea of submitting the photos as his own work, even though he appears to have run out of options. Then, in the twist of ironical fate that sets up the rest of the film’s story, Ben pulls over to help a young man (Rob Campbell) he spots being mugged. But the muggers turn on Ben, knocking him out, demolishing his car and stealing all but one of the photos. The attackers’ original victim turns out to be a shy, aspiring writer named Romeo, and, grateful for Ben’s intervention, he offers to help in tracking down the remaining nine pictures.
The film shifts gears from the searching, inward quality of the opening moments to something more obvious and calculating. Romeo is a writer who hasn’t written anything — he’s as insecure as Ben is about his photography — and as he and Ben begin their midnight pilgrimage through the trash bins and back alleys of Lower Manhattan, they hook up with an amateur clairvoyant (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a nebbish bachelor (Chris Bauer), both of whom also doubt themselves on some fundamental, inhibiting level. Somehow, you just know that by the time it’s all over, everyone will get his or her big, self-confidence-boosting moment. It’s the “Wizard of Oz” of the Bowery.
The opening moments of “The Photographer” project a wintry desolation, which is enhanced by the muted earth tones of Vanja Cernjul’s evocative Gotham lensing. Ben’s photographs themselves resonate with a windswept cheerlessness, and Stein seems to see the vast Manhattan cityscape as a willing participant in Ben’s stifling fear of failure. But helmer forsakes all that rapturously bleak atmosphere once his ambition switches from telling an American success story to patting viewers warmly on the back and making them feel all gooey inside.
“The Photographer” is well shot and well cast — in particular, Rogers has a schlumpiness about him that’s honest and infectious (he of the Elliott Gould school). But while the film devotes a welcome amount of time to developing its gallery of supporting characters, it also overindulges them — they’re too kooky — and they take away from the urgency of the quest for Ben’s photos. Of course, the film isn’t really about finding the photos — it’s about how it really is a wonderful life, and the very concept of the quest ends up seeming little more than a gimmick.