Despite its shortcomings as a plausible, compelling story, "The Merry Gentleman," exhibits genuine promise behind the camera.

Despite its shortcomings as a plausible, compelling story, “The Merry Gentleman,” Michael Keaton’s directorial debut, exhibits genuine promise behind the camera. Latest addition to the resurgent hitman genre sees Keaton, in a very enigmatic role, gentlemanly yielding acting honors and the lion’s share of screen time to the ever-impressive Kelly Macdonald. Lack of significant dramatic charge makes for minor theatrical prospects, leaving pic to serve mostly as a fine calling card for the vet actor’s new career aspirations.

Ron Lazzaretti’s screenplay pivots on the intersection of two individuals who, at least on the surface, could scarcely be more different or have less likelihood of experiencing a meaningful encounter: Frank Logan (Keaton), a loner assassin with an evidently thriving business, and Kate Frazier (Macdonald), an exceptionally nice young lady newly settled in Chicago after having left her abusive cop husband (Bobby Cannavale).

The two don’t meet but first see one another when Frank peers through the scope of his rifle into a nearby office building searching his target and momentarily spies Kate, who’s just taken work as a receptionist, and she fleetingly sees him as, after firing his shot, he appears about to jump to his death from the opposite building’s ledge but instead falls backward when she screams. Because it’s staged so drolly, the moment becomes oddly disarming and prompts curiosity about where things can go from here.

Most of the early-going focuses upon Kate, and no matter how ordinary her activities — building a friendship with an office mate (Darlene Hunt), attending an embarrassing office party or politely fending off the opportunistic advances of one of the cops (the effective Tom Bastounes, also one of the producers) who has questioned her about what she saw the night of the shooting — they remain at least tolerably engaging thanks to Macdonald. Retaining her Scottish accent to delightful effect, she’s one of those rare, quicksilver actresses whose natural qualities invest everything she does with warmth, integrity, innate goodness and automatic interest, in addition to being able to look a bit dumpy one moment and radiantly beautiful the next.

Macdonald alone provides the film with a raison d’etre, but another one is the way the picture is composed visually. Keaton and cinematographer Chris Seager, who has numerous high profile British TV films to his credit in addition to some scattered features, worked out a way to shoot the action that can best be described as discreet. Scenes are observed quietly, with thoughtfulness and tact embedded into the luminous, highly textured imagery. The subtly dynamic camera style represents a rarified pleasure, perhaps, but emerges as the film’s most distinctive achievement.

Coughing constantly, Frank is what, in olden times, would have been called a consumptive, an ailing man whose days would appear numbered. In a bit of a stretch, Frank helps Kate carry her Christmas tree to her apartment, only to later reappear at her doorstep and pass out and require hospitalization.

As he slowly recovers, the two loners forge a bond that is simply too under-detailed. Granted that Frank is a man of few words, but the script doesn’t provide a concrete link between the characters to give the relationship real credence. Just one strong conversation between them would have been enough; we can see that their loneliness and unspoken secrets unite them but, as it is, it’s hard to imagine what they talk about when alone.

This sizeable dramatic hole is compounded by the imbalance created by Frank’s sketchiness as a character and Kate’s fullness, so the latter’s struggle to rebuild her life thus becomes pic’s central focus. Her husband finally tracks her down, giving Cannavale one big impressive scene as he tries to win her back. Climax doesn’t quite unspool the way one’s been led to expect.

In addition to the film’s superb widescreen visuals, other production values are strong.

The Merry Gentleman

Production

A Southwater Pictures presentation. Produced by Tom Bastounes, Ron Lazzeretti, Steven A. Jones. Executive producer, Paul J. Duggan. Co-producer, Christina Varotsis. Directed by Michael Keaton. Screenplay, Ron Lazzeretti.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Chris Seager; editors, Howard E. Smith, Grant Myers; music, Jonathan Sadoff, Sean Douglas; music supervisor, Tracy McKnight; production designer, Jennifer Dehghan; set decorator, Bryan M. Rapey; costume designer, Susan Kaufmann; sound, F. Alexander Riordan; associate producer, Dennis Nardoni; assistant director, David Allen Cluck; casting, Rachel Tenner, Mickie Paskal, Jennifer S. Rudnicke. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 18, 2008. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Frank Logan - Michael Keaton Kate Frazier - Kelly Macdonald Dave Murcheson - Tom Bastounes Diane - Darlene Hunt Billy Goldman - Guy Van Swearingen Mr. Weiss - William Dick Michael - Bobby Cannavale

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