Despite an all-star cast, “Trixie,” Alan Rudolph’s new comedy-mystery about larceny, love and language, is a minor, rather trivial film that reflects the director’s whimsical wish to revisit the popular genres of noir and screwball, but which lacks distinctive humor or a fresh contempo take. In her first comedic role, the talented Emily Watson is restricted by Rudolph’s misguided script and gives a one-note performance as a naive blue-collar gumshoe. A strong cast, which includes Nick Nolte, Nathan Lane and Lesley Ann Warren, elevates this baffling effort only to the level of a curiosity item. Sony Classics should expect small returns for a picture whose appeal will likely be limited to Rudolph’s hard-core fans. The film received a lukewarm response when it world-preemed at Sundance.Working in dead-end jobs all her life, security guard Trixie Zurbo (Watson) stumbles into what seems like an exciting and dangerous detective case: a murder mystery involving Sen. Drummond Avery (Nolte). She’s a naive woman who’s obsessed with disclosing the truth but who has trouble putting it into words. In the first reel, viewers may be amused at Trixie’s battle with the English language. Her malapropisms have a more truthful ring than when she tries to express herself in a grammatically correct manner.
Trixie’s dialogue is contrasted with the senator’s smooth talk, which is grammatically correct lies and double talk (many of his lines are from actual political speeches). This accent on language and miscommunication is best demonstrated in a prolonged, well-executed restaurant scene in which Trixie and the corrupt politician express themselves in completely divergent ways — that they manage to connect is part of the joke.
Two other men brighten the film’s dreary landscape of Crescent Cove, a small, remote resort town. Lane plays Trixie’s buddy, a nightclub impressionist and singer with a shady past who works in the local casino. More problematic is Dermot Mulroney’s role as Dex Lang, a handsome ladies’ man with a secret. The narrative is based on the discrepancy between appearance and essence — the idea that most people are not what they seem to be, a familiar notion that Rudolph adopts for his own purposes.
The supporting thesps are vastly underused: Brittany Murphy as a shrewd, glamorous barfly, and particularly Warren, as a strung-out, has-been lounge singer. As the brutal and corrupt resort developer, Will Patton is typecast in a part he could have played in his sleep.
Watching “Trixie” brings to mind another, far superior Robert Altman production, Robert Benton’s “The Late Show,” in which Art Carney played an aging private eye who tries to solve the murder of his former partner, with the “help” of a flaky and aimless young woman (Lily Tomlin). Unlike that movie, “Trixie” is coy when it needs to be sharp, simplistically cute when it needs to be barbed and perceptive. The film is devoid of vigorous and sustained humor, and its protagonist has no meaningful rapport with any of the men she encounters.
“The Late Show” contained slight echoes of Chandler and Hammett, but Rudolph’s movie, which overextends its welcome by at least 15 minutes, passively situates itself in a literary/cinematic tradition without having anything interesting or entertaining to say.