The first film from cult director Alex Cox and screenwriter-producer Tod Davies’ Exterminating Angel Prods., “Three Businessmen” is a dramatically turgid concept piece that tries desparately to impress with its dialogue but never really does. Still, the story of two businessmen whose search for a latenight dinner in Liverpool turns otherworldly is made somewhat engrossing by strong tech work, an impressive central performance by Cox and an oddly satisfying ending. Lack of any discernible plot or purpose will cripple film’s chances theatrically, but it should find a happy home on campuses, where patient liberal arts majors are sure to appreciate its sly references to dadaism, communism and Christianity.
Two art dealers arrive by train in rainy Liverpool. While Bennie (Miguel Sandoval), an oafish American who specializes in Southwestern topaz, struggles mightily to get his oversize bags to his darkened hotel room, Frank (Cox), a prim Brit specializing in African art, negotiates the port town’s streets and the hotel’s Gothic hallways without fuss.
The two vastly different men meet in the hotel’s empty, cavernous restaurant, where they are promptly abandoned by their waiter and decide to venture into the mysterious city in a quest for grub.
Not surprisingly, their search is impeded, first by Frank’s vegetarianism, then by a series of closed kitchens, then by a panic attack Bennie suffers at a Greek restaurant. In a Chinese restaurant, the men are served plastic noodles, while in a Japanese district, they are offered some sort of potion instead of food. The two famished and disoriented men finally fall into a cab.
Intentionally or not, the film greatly resembles Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” in its first two-thirds, both in its depiction of a pencil-pusher trapped in a nightmare of an evening, and in its use of synthesizer music and a ticking clock to compound the sense of claustrophobia.
Pic is a talkfest covering all matters philosophical, and the constant yammering proves to be the film’s Achilles’ heel.
As Bennie and Frank careen from bus to subway, ferry to taxi, their conversation ranges from canine acupuncture to Jung to the lack of “agreed-upon truths” in modern society — but all this talk goes nowhere. The two men never say anything profound, nor do they discover anything new about themselves.
Things take a turn for the better as conclusion nears. Frank and Bennie find themselves in an empty, windswept desert, where they meet the third businessman of the title, Leroy Jasper (Robert Wisdom), who is as lost and hungry as they are. Ultimately, the films reveals itself as a modern update of the Christmas fable.
Film is severely hampered by the central character of Bennie, who is nothing more or less than a European caricature of the obnoxious American tourist. Veteran character actor and Cox regular Sandoval becomes less convincing as the film goes on, his character inexplicably becoming louder and more annoying — humming, tapping and singing like some Broadway-bound Homer Simpson.
Cox gives a much more relaxed and understated perf; as an actor, the filmmaker has a natural curiosity that fuels the seemingly pointless meandering of the two men. He also adds a comic element: His bug eyes and wide mouth give him a striking resemblance to Nick Park’s claymation creation Wallace.
Despite what was undoubtedly a limited budget, tech credits are remarkable, prompting one to believe that Davies’ talents are more as a producer then as a screenwriter. (She co-wrote “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”)
Lenser Rob Tregenza’s combination of roving pans and precisely constructed set shots displays a freshness and cleverness that the script only hints at. Richard Beggs’ sound design is equally impressive.
While editor Bob Robertson could have trimmed down pic’s middle part considerably, he does an excellent job of combining the disparate locations — ranging from Rotterdam to Hong Kong to what looks like the American Southwest — into a relatively cohesive whole.
While “Three Businessmen” may not breath new life into Cox’s increasingly stagnant helming career, indie producers would be wise to utilize his considerable talent for deadpan comedy and hire the man behind “Repo Man” for character work.