A passionately committed, let-it-all-hang-out performance by Colin Friels holds together the fragmented “Tom White,” an otherwise disappointing meller about the desire to drop out of society. With its premise about a seemingly well-adjusted architectural draftsman who descends into homelessness, pic can’t help recalling Laurent Cantet’s superb, similar-themed “Time Out,” minus most of that film’s unique, unsettling power. Set for an August release in Oz, second teaming of director Alkinos Tsilimidos and scribe Daniel Keene (following 2001 talkfest “Silent Partner”) looks unlikely to generate much theatrical biz at home or away but will make a perfectly acceptable tube and vid item.
On a single night in Melbourne, a series of unrelated characters — a gay hustler, a junkie and his girlfriend, a lonely old man and a glue-sniffing teen — are seen in a musical montage that recalls a similar sequence from “Magnolia.” Pic then transitions to an average morning in the life of its title character (Friels) as he gets ready for work and his wife (Rachael Blake) gets their two young children ready for school. Soon enough, though, it becomes apparent all is not well in the life of Tom White. His hands have begun to tremor, and he finds himself working on drafts for a project he can’t remember having been fired from three weeks earlier. Mightn’t it be time, Tom’s boss suggests, for a few days’ vacation?
Perhaps following that advice a bit too closely, White sets off on an odyssey of despair, having lost the ability to function within the parameters of his former existence. After a violent outburst in a bar, he fails to return home or to notify his family of his whereabouts, instead drifting aimlessly about the city’s less desirable neighborhoods, eventually crossing paths with each of the characters seen in the pic’s opening montage. In a gay bar that’s all techno music and strobe lighting, he meets the hustler, Matt (Dan Spielman), and proceeds to live with him (platonically) for a while. Then, he moves on to entertain a brief infatuation with Christine (Loene Carmen), the proprietor of a carnival shooting gallery (who also happens to be the junkie’s girlfriend). And so forth.
The idea here appears to be that White, while unable to continue living his former life, takes vicarious pleasure in trying on these other people’s lives as though they were his own. But Tsilimidos and Keene resolutely refuse to provide even the most basic sense of why White has dropped out in the first place.
At the same time, pic strives for a kind of gooey, redemptive vibe, with White helping to show these other wayward souls the error of their ways and set them on more fruitful paths. Yet, in terms of what we see onscreen, White does at least as much harm as good, further muddying whatever point the pic is trying to make.
Friels hurls himself into the role — letting his hair grow straggly and allowing his emotions to come unhinged, so that by pic’s end he convincingly resembles a beggar. The great Bill Hunter brings some much-needed character-actor panache to the role of Malcolm, White’s bum mentor, while newcomer Jarryd Jinks acquits himself well as Jet, the glue-sniffer. The talented Blake, who so richly impressed in both “Lantana” and “Perfect Strangers,” has barely a handful of scenes on which to build her character, despite prominent billing.
Pic’s biggest setback is Tsilimidos’ uncertain mise en scene, in which shots are routinely held for too long and clumsily cut together. Tech credits are similarly underwhelming, though original score by Paul Kelly and the Boon Companions is a moody plus.