Writer-director-actor Michael Goorjian takes a story that fairly reeks of potential nostalgic schmaltz -- venerable film director Donald Baines (Kirk Douglas), on his deathbed, is shown "reels" from the life of his never-acknowledged son -- and molds it into a weirdly entertaining film, thanks in no small part to Douglas' bravura perf.
Blithely skipping over a minefield of wince-producing possibilities, writer-director-actor Michael Goorjian takes a story that fairly reeks of potential nostalgic schmaltz — venerable film director Donald Baines (Kirk Douglas), on his deathbed, is shown “reels” from the life of his never-acknowledged son — and molds it into a weirdly entertaining film, thanks in no small part to Douglas’ bravura perf. As a co-thesp, Goorjian more than holds his own, with inserted reaction-shots from “dad” Douglas adding odd notes of post-modern bathos. Though not exactly aimed at the modern movie industry’s ruling demographic, pic — which won the screenwriting award at Hamptons — could prove prime family fare.
Loosely based on Corneille’s “Comic Illusion,” with help from Frank Capra’s and Albert Brooks’ respective “wonderful” and “defensive” “Lives,” Goorjian’s conceit relies on the tangibility of the old-time movie-going experience — a wood-paneled theater palace, worn plush seats, single 35mm reels in labeled metal cases, and overhead projector lights — to sell his otherworldly premise.
Story begins as helmer Baines is magically transported to an old-time movie theater, presumably in the sky, where his old cutter, Stan (co-scripter Ron Marasco), who has been dead for 40 years, gently introduces Baines to the concept of a celluloid afterlife. Baines is shown the reels featuring his son and then transported back to his bedroom at a time several hours previous to the time he left.
Stan screens three separate film-within-the-film segments for Baines. The segments star Baines’ unacknowledged son Christopher (Goorjian) and comprise three different generic spins on “Romeo and Juliet”-type romances (which, as it turns out, were the veteran helmer’s cinematic specialty).
First up is a puberty comedy featuring Christopher as a poor callow youth enamored of Isabelle (Karen Tucker), a rich private-school girl. Braving supercilious bullies, jealous boyfriends and Isabelle’s own apprehensions, Christopher rides off triumphantly, if temporarily, with the girl of his dreams.
Reel two, a melodramatic goth tale replete with capes and villains, finds Christopher, dressed in black and sporting a single earring, doing PR for self-indulgent performance artist Mortimer Malalatete (Richmond Arquette) amid staged bacchanalian revelries, real-life thunderstorms, a lethal stabbing (for which Christopher is falsely arrested) and a graveyard rendezvous with a rediscovered Isabelle.
The third section is set against the serene beauty of the Napa Valley, behind whose upscale villages and quaintly friendly folk lurks unexpected plebian menace. This final piece brings Baines up to date and details Christopher’s release from prison and subsequent search for Isabelle.
When he is returned to his bedroom, Douglas is redemptively granted a final moment of interactivity which he uses to restore Christopher’s life and love, in the process denouncing his lifelong belief in the expendability of the Happy Ending.
Ultimately, the saving grace of “Illusion” is that it is about acting: The similarities and contrasts between Goorjian’s and Douglas’ different thesping styles give a particular resonance to the hokey moral underpinnings of the plot. At crucial sections in the action, a voice that Christopher imagines as belonging to Baines verbalizes his own doubt and self-hatred, while Douglas, watching and reacting in the audience, yearns desperately to rewrite the voiceover.
Pic is awash in impromptu romantic bits of business staged with flair and wit, as when Christopher’s early flower-presenting efforts to win the favors of the young Isabelle are endearingly flubbed. In general, Christopher’s low self-esteem allows Goorjian to create a cuter, more diffident version of the brash hero, and provide a downplayed foil to Douglas’ late, brilliant reprise of the flamboyant filmmaker roles he perfected in Vincente Minnelli’s and Charles Schnee’s Hollywood-on-Hollywood classics “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Two Weeks in Another Town.”
Robert Humphrey’s HD lensing successfully navigates the very different genre palettes, while Christopher Ferreira’s score rides several old-timey histrionic swells and dips without undue corn.
Camera (color, 35mm, widescreen), Robert Humphreys; editor, Laurent Wassmer; music, Christopher Ferreira; production designers, Lisa Clark, Yuda Acco; art directors, Joe Schlick, Peter Mayer; costume designer, Mellisa Glass; sound (Dolby Digital), Brian Copenhagen; casting, Trina Oliver. Reviewed at Hamptons Film Festival (competing), Oct. 23, 2004. Running time: 106 MIN.