The Foxy Merkins Sundance

Madeleine Olnek and Lisa Haas' latest absurdist exercise gets off to a good start before the bright ideas begin to thin out.

The droll comic inspiration that made 2011’s “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same” a delight flags somewhat with “The Foxy Merkins,” which reunites director Madeleine Olnek and star/co-scribe Lisa Haas. This equally absurdist exercise gets off to a good start portraying an unlikely Manhattan prostitution trade in homeless but well-educated females serving closeted lesbian socialites. Then the bright ideas begin to thin out, and the pic never quite recovers its footing. “Foxy” should get at least as much exposure as “Space Alien,” but is unlikely expand beyond similar fest travel and minimal theatrical release before going to niche home-format markets.

Haas plays another endearingly gauche plus-sized schlub, Margaret, a hapless new arrival in the big city who in no way seems a natural candidate for sex work. Nor does she have much success at it until she encounters the more experienced Jo (Jackie Monahan, credited for the screenplay with Haas and Olnek), who, within moments of their meeting, asks her point-blank: “Are you homeless?” She follows that with: “Are you a women’s studies major?” Apparently the two do go together, as Margaret answers a guilty-as-charged “yes” to both.

While not entirely trustworthy, the allegedly heterosexual Jo takes the newbie under wing, sharing her professional wisdoms, her sleeping quarters (a Port Authority public restroom), and some tandem “dates.” But Jo’s inscrutable shifts in mood and loyalty suggest this friendship won’t last too long.

Early encounters with customers — all very bizarre, played by New York standup/performance art/legit thesps, like the leads — are quite funny, as is a chance encounter with a purveyor (Alex Karpovsky) of the titular “toupees for your vagina.” But the situations start falling flat even before the pic makes a halfhearted stab at pathos, including an unfunny series of hotel dates raided by police, and potential intrigue involving sex-tape blackmail that leads nowhere. Olnek and collaborators share a genuinely offbeat sensibility, and “The Foxy Merkins” would have made a hilarious short. Yet it simply doesn’t come up with enough inventive scenes, let alone overall narrative spine, to sustain itself at feature length.

The black-and-white lensing that heightened “Space Alien’s” distinctiveness is missed here, though packaging is adequate on its own terms. Nearly all thesps sport the desired off-kilter panache, though given the lack of character development here, they generally fare better the shorter their roles are.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Foxy Merkins'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 17, 2014. Running time: 81 MIN.

Production

A Wisconsin production. Produced by Laura Terruso, Madeleine Olnek.

Crew

Directed by Madeleine Olnek. Screenplay, Lisa Haas, Jackie Monahan, Olnek. Camera (color, HD), Anna Stypko; editor, Curtis Grout; music, Dan Bartfield; costume designer, Linda Gui; sound, Greg Mailloux, Laura Terruso, Wojtek Stypko; sound designers, Bumi Hidaka, Drew Guido, Kimberly Powell; re-recording mixer, Hidaka.

With

Lisa Haas, Jackie Monahan, Alex Karpovsky, Sally Sockwell, Susan Ziegler, Deb Margolin, Dennis Davis, Diane Ciesla, Babs Davy, Betsy Farrell, Gian Maria Annovi, Charles Rogers, Jennifer Prediger, Rae C. Wright, Elizabeth Whitney, Frances Bodomo, Lee Eaton, Nancy Giles, Claudia Cogan, Laurie Weeks.

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