Another attempt to nail the fashion industry via an improvised ensemble piece, “Perfume” is more coherent and serious-minded than Robert Altman’s 1994 mess “Ready to Wear,” but remains a less alluring creation than its makers no doubt had in mind. Vivid and credible at times, Aussie helmer Michael Rymer’s attempt to weave numerous story strands into a resonant tapestry reveals the limitations of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach through its general lack of focus, depth and discipline. Lions Gate release looks like a less-than-stellar commercial performer.
Rymer, who scored six years ago with his first feature, “Angel Baby,” made a previous improvised picture, the 1997 comedy “Allie & Me,” which grew out of exercises based on the Sanford Meisner system practiced by acting coach Joanne Baron, a producer and actress on the current picture.
After preparing a detailed 60-page outline with writer L.M. Kit Carson that included full arcs for the main stories and characters, Rymer left it to the actors to work out their own dialogue.
Result is better than some efforts that have used this approach, worse than others. Fuzzy on plot points and character establishment, matters audiences generally like to have some help with, the film approaches the realism it seeks in a handful of group scenes.
But too often, and especially in one-on-one encounters, the actors fumble around searching for words in a way that reflects real life much less than it does the dilemma of performers stuck with thinly conceived characters whom they don’t know inside out.
Given pic’s lack of interest in exposition, basic information about the relationships of many of the characters — whom they work for and why they’re behaving the way they are — remains vague for a considerable time.
But eventually, five principal storylines come to the fore.
Trendy English photographer Anthony (Jared Harris), the pioneer of the “heroin-chic” look, deals with possible crises in his professional life and his marriage to Francene (Michelle Forbes).
Another storyline concerns elegant gay fashion titan Lorenzo Mancini (Paul Sorvino). Learning he has terminal cancer, he draws close to his lover (Peter Gallagher), ex-wife (Sonia Braga) and son (Michael Sorvino) while coping with the latter’s effort to ally the tradition-heavy family label with the youth-oriented hip-hop styles of entrepreneur J.B. (Omar Epps).
Then there is independent designer Roberta (Rita Wilson) who can’t imagine why her collaborators are leaving her within days of a major show.
Roberta’s flaky partner Camille (Leslie Mann) hooks up romantically with Jamie (Jeff Goldblum), a rep of a dominant rival fashion house run by Phillip (Harris Yulin), who lures Camille away from Roberta professionally.
And finally, driven magazine editor Janice (Baron) hasn’t a clue how to react when her 19-year-old daughter Halley (Michelle Williams), whom she hasn’t seen in 12 years, turns up at her office wanting some answers.
The intimate, man-woman scenes leave much to be desired, specifically the services of a writer skilled in incisive dialogue depicting emotional schisms; a domestic argument between Anthony and Francene about whether or not they should attend a party is embarrassingly awkward, and Camille and Jamie so decisively fail to connect verbally in their numerous tete-a-tetes that their entire relationship is inscrutable.
It’s also hard to believe that even such a hard-headed workaholic as Janice wouldn’t make a little more time for her long-lost daughter than just squeezing her in between appointments.
Repping the upside, however, are virtually all the sequences involving Lorenzo, whom Sorvino, sporting a pronounced Italian accent and impeccable personal style, makes into greatly dignified figure determined to round out an Old World life at peace with his loved ones. His encounters with the flamboyant, streetwise J.B., initially wary, also evolve in interesting fashion after the latter dares suggest their common “gangster” ties.
Potent, as well, is an interlude in which Anthony, facing a crucial shoot with a big film star (Mariel Hemingway), angrily banishes all the self-important hangers-on and proceeds to establish a fine rapport with the actress that yields unexpectedly fresh artistic results.
Although the wafer-thin nature of the characters’ sense of personal loyalty and commitment reps a persistent motif, Rymer isn’t interested in the easy job of trashing the fashion world. Intent rather seems to be the creation of “real” moments, without undue indulgence. Certain scenes come close to the goal but, unfortunately, real insight and emotional engagement largely elude the filmmakers, resulting in a generally flat, ho-hum experience.
For a film shot in 21 days, pic covers a lot of territory and looks attractive. Fair amount of unclear or unintelligible dialogue doesn’t make sorting out the characters and their games any easier.