Writer Paul Auster’s first solo directorial effort, the quiet, moody and ponderous “Lulu on the Bridge,” centers on a mysterious romantic affair — a kind of American amour fou — between a middle-aged musician (played by Harvey Keitel) and a young aspiring actress (Mira Sorvino in one of her stronger performances). The film is original and intermittently touching, but ultimately frustrating due to the meandering nature of the riddle-like script and Auster’s lethargic direction. Pic has distribution deals in France and other European countries but, despite the name cast, will have a hard time securing theatrical release in the U.S.
“Lulu” continues to explore some of the issues that prevailed in the far superior “Smoke” — specifically the isolated, alienating nature of modern urban life, and the simultaneous opportunities for new and meaningful bonds based on random but fateful encounters.
In the first scene, jazz saxophonist Izzy Maurer (Keitel) is in a nightclub restroom, staring at photos of Hollywood’s glamour queens, including Louise Brooks, hung on the wall. Rushed to the stage, he begins performing with his band, but is hit by a stray bullet when a hysterical young man invades the place and starts shooting.
Prevented from playing due to his wounds, Izzy sinks into severe depression based on his belief that “I have no life without music.” His ex-wife, Hannah (Gina Gershon), unexpectedly arrives, determined to take care of him. He soon meets Hannah’s new beau, producer Philip Kleinman (Mandy Patinkin), and an actress-turned-director (Vanessa Redgrave) who’s preparing a new version of Pabst’s landmark “Pandora’s Box.”
One evening in Lower Manhattan, Izzy stumbles across a body. He searches for clues to the man’s identity, but finds only a napkin with a phone number and a box containing a stone that looks ordinary but projects a magical blue light that has healing powers.
The phone number belongs to Celia (Sorvino), who, in a typical Auster touch, is listening to Izzy’s music when he calls. After a rough beginning that arouses anger and fascination in both, they fall for each other. Ultra-romantic midsection centers on the duo, who are so madly in love that they can’t separate for a second. Celia arranges a job for Izzy as a busboy in the restaurant where she works. He constantly watches her, and when he attacks a customer who comes on to her too strong, both are fired.
Oddball yarn begins to ramble as soon as Celia leaves for Ireland to shoot a movie. Last reel boasts a Kafkaesque ambience when menacing anthropologist Dr. Van Hom (Willem Dafoe) shows up in search of the precious stone and revives painful memories for Izzy, thanks to a series of intense interrogations.
“Lulu’s” narrative structure is audacious and innovative, and second act has many touching moments in depicting the transformative and redemptive power of love. Simple-yet-complex tale celebrates the relationship between two lonely individuals who, despite a desperate need to connect, have suppressed their yearnings and immersed themselves almost blindly in their careers.
Nonetheless, pic falls apart in the last reel, and the downbeat ending, while original, is bound to frustrate viewers.
One can only speculate on how German helmer Wim Wenders, whom Auster originally suggested for this project, would have approached the material. Auster lacks the technical skills to translate his episodic story into an intriguing movie the way Wayne Wang did in “Smoke” and the companion piece, “Blue in the Face” (on which Auster was credited as co-filmmaker).
“Lulu” contains many powerful moments, but Auster doesn’t succeed in turning what is basically a riddle into a coherent and resonant film, faltering particularly with the sluggish pacing.
Illustrious cast tries valiantly to bring life to their enigmatic roles. Keitel and Sorvino have several good scenes, and Redgrave, Patinkin and Gershon add necessary color to the proceedings. But helmer inexplicably drops most the secondary characters as the story proceeds.
Tech credits are proficient, particularly Russian lenser Alik Sakharov’s crisp imagery and Graeme Revell’s evocative score.