Aladdin had his magic lamp. An American couple settles for a special kettle in “The Brass Teapot,” a fresh riff on “be careful what you wish for” fables, in which things quickly get out of hand after two young lovers inherit a vessel that rewards them with cash every time they injure themselves. No pain, no gain, as they say, though they’d better look out, as the enchanted teapot corrupted Genghis Khan and Hitler before them. Snapped up by Magnolia out of Toronto, this VOD-led indie should score some extra coin in limited release, but plays just fine on smallscreens.
Though the brass teapot’s elaborate backstory is only barely referenced in the movie, director Ramaa Mosley first developed the idea as a comicbook, which benefits her feature debut by giving the impression that the small-scale episode belongs to a far grander mythology (reinforced by opening credits that place the teapot in famous artworks over the centuries). Inspired by an original short story she stumbled across online, a darkly comic cautionary tale in the tradition of W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” Mosley contacted its author, Tim Macy, and enlisted him to expand the idea together.
Endearingly played by Michael Angarano and Juno Temple, twentysomething lovebirds John and Alice can barely make rent when the teapot falls into their laps. In theory, the two actors make a curious match — he of the perpetual babyface and she voluptuous beyond her years — and yet, the early scenes quickly establish that nothing in the world matters more to them than one another, which is the ideal dynamic for a supernatural litmus test: This teapot has a way of bringing out the worst in its owners.
During a country drive, Alice enters a rundown antique store and steals the ancient device from a knowing old Jewish woman. The episode isn’t quite so straightforward in that Alice does her shoplifting after surviving a near-death car accident (evidently rigged to satisfy the teapot’s thirst for carnage), but the pic’s tone is tongue-in-cheek enough that plausibility questions don’t slow things down.
Once they get the thing home, it doesn’t take Alice long to discover the teapot’s powers, and soon she and John are earning stacks of cash simply by banging, burning and bruising themselves. Where another writer/director team might have taken the same concept in a darker direction, Macy and Mosley seem to think there’s no reason they can’t have fun with it, having John consult “Antiques Roadshow” for an estimate of the priceless teapot’s value and devising a montage in which the characters find the most delightful possible ways to cause themselves pain, from a visit to the tattoo parlor to some light BDSM in the bedroom.
The payouts decrease as they go, however, and a fair amount of the plot concerns the couple’s increasingly extreme trial-and-error tests as they try to keep the money flowing. (When the teapot is pleased, it gushes forth with CG cash; when it’s unsatisfied, we hear only the tinkle of small change.) The vessel itself comes with a shady occult history, along with a fair number of tacky stereotypes seeking to possess it, ranging from a pair of cartoonish Hassidic money-grabbers (Thomas Middleditch, Robert Michael McClure) to a mysterious Asian figure (Stephen Park). Even the couple’s white-trash landlord (Billy Magnussen) wants in on the loot.
But all this isn’t nearly as interesting as how the nouveau-riche pair deal with the temptation before them, and the film is a little too easily distracted from its central test of character. Continuing a run of tarty-yet-complicated parts, Temple has the trickier job of the two leads, remaining likable even as her appetite runs amok, though things stop far short of the genocidal owners who’ve come before (a measure of restraint that would have served Richard Kelly well on his similarly themed “The Box”).
Despite the inherent perversity of the concept, Mosley succeeds in maintaining a certain sweetness throughout. Even more impressively, she makes her low-budget enterprise look as slick as most midrange studio comedies, demonstrating herself a director with both imagination and technical ingenuity. If she wishes to work again, “The Brass Teapot” is likely to make it so.
The Brass Teapot
Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, March 24, 2013. (In 2012 Toronto Film Festival — Discovery.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.
A Magnolia Pictures release presented with Northern Lights Films, in association with Queen Nefertari Prods., TFI Intl., of an Atlantic Pictures, Laundry Films production, in association with Union Entertainment Group. Produced by Kirk Roos, Darren Goldberg, James Graves, Ramaa Mosley. Executive producers, Diane Nabatoff, P. Jennifer Dana, Mandy Gray, Erik Rommesmo, Jeff Schlossman, Anthony Gudas, Michael Corso, Lanre Idewu, Cynthia Stafford.
Directed by Ramaa Mosley. Screenplay, Tim Macy; story, Macy, Mosley. Camera (color, widescreen), Peter Simonite; editor, Ryan Fosley; music, Matthew Hewitt; music supervisor, Linda Cohen; production designer, Elizabeth Jones; art director, Brian Goodwin; set decorator, Heather Thomas; costume designer, Malgosia Turzanska; sound (Dolby Digital), Mike Guarino; sound designer, Jeffrey Alan Pitts; supervising sound editor, Mark Mangino; re-recording mixer, Stanley Kastner; visual effects supervisor, Elad Offer; visual effects, Resolution LA; stunt coordinator, Manny Siverio; line producer, Louise Lovegrove; associate producers, Noah Haeussner, Michael Raimondi, Taylor Ferguson, Erin Tauscher; assistant director, Don Julien; second unit camera, Danny Moder; casting, Laura Rosenthal, Maribeth Fox, Jodi Angstreich.
Cast: Juno Temple, Michael Angarano, Alexis Bledel, Stephen Park, Billy Magnussen, Alia Shawkat, Bobby Moynihan, Debra Monk, Matt Walsh, Ben Rappaport, Lucy Walters, Jack McBrayer, Michael Delaney, Tara Copeland, Thomas Middleditch, Robert Michael McClure.