Like its home-incarcerated heroine, Finn Taylor’s “Cherish” both chafes against and cleverly subverts an inherently claustrophobic, gimmick-bound premise. Good performances and quirky humor make this slick if less than fully satisfying mix of romantic comedy and mystery an easy sit, though last reel’s switch to against-the-clock suspense leaves more script implausibilities dangling than tied up. Driven by a conspicuous soundtrack of Top 40 hits from the ’60s to ’80s, “Cherish” reps the kind of respectable midway-to-the-mainstream sophomore effort that will both attract distributors and complicate marketing: It’s a breezy entertainment that’s not quite starry or brash enough for the multiplex, yet a tad conventional for arthouse auds.
Delightful setup promises much, as it introduces 28-year-old San Franciscan Zoe (Robin Tunney) as an attractive but hopelessly geeky dot-commer. At work, she’s put in her place again and again by acidic boss Brynn (alt-rocker Liz Phair), who’s exactly the confident bombshell/party girl she’d like to be.
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Nervous-babble-prone Zoe is a flop on the singles scene, too. “I don’t think I’d go out with so many (men) if any one would call me back,” she tells her shrink (Lindsay Crouse).
Zoe is unaware that she does have one faithful admirer: a mysterious stalker. His romantic fantasies and her own are presented as giddy inserts, hilariously appropriating visual motifs from the Flower Power and Me Decade eras to suit each character’s mental mixed-tape soundtrack of pop love anthems.
Then, at a party, the resident dot-com office stud (Jason Priestley) unexpectedly chooses Zoe for a dance to the Terry Jacks oldie “Seasons in the Sun.” Things are looking very good indeed when she tipsily steps outside.
But Zoe is abruptly accosted by that stalker. He forces her to drive off, then guns the gas pedal when they attract a bicycle cop’s attention. The aftermath finds car crashed, policeman dead and would-be kidnapper long gone.
No one believes Zoe’s tale. Her blood-alcohol level and a prior DUI citation, combined with lack of any evidence re: the alleged hijacker, make it look like an open-and-shut, drunken-yuppie-kills-cop case.
After a first night’s battering by fellow inmates in county jail, her attorney (a briskly modulated perf by Nora Dunn) manages to get Zoe released to home incarceration until her trial date. Custodian of her electronic ankle-bracelet “cuffs” is police department specialist Daly (Tim Blake Nelson), a no-nonsense type who seems pretty weak on social skills himself. Their rapport builds by tiny degrees over pic’s long central section, which mostly focuses on Zoe’s finding ways to enliven her tedious isolation — and cheat the bracelet’s strictures in any way possible.
As in all wallflower sagas, Zoe grows more resourceful and adventurous — not to mention better-looking — when cruel fate forces a prolonged self-examination. Taylor uses a variety of diverting visual, editorial and situational means to keep this lengthy midsection entertaining. Still, the film settles into a medium-interest groove only moderately goosed by the slow heat between Zoe and Officer Daly.
Daly finally buys Zoe’s story and gives her just nine bracelet-free hours to track down the missing stalker-culprit before her trial starts. That she does, in a hectic race around S.F. that abruptly turns “Cherish” into a middling thriller. Revelation of the villain’s identity is contrived and unsatisfying, adding no real emotional weight, while brief coda doesn’t lend pic the character-odyssey-completing punch it needs.
Like many past screen stabs at spacially constrained narrative conceits, from “The Slender Thread” to “Faithless,” “Cherish” impresses with its ingenuity — yet it can’t quite beat the sense that it’s an essentially un-cinematic stunt, one of limited viewer-involvement interest.
Tunney’s game star turn provides a likable center, while Nelson’s amusingly sour portrait offers solid support. The deliciously vain figures essayed by Phair and Priestley are sorely missed after the first reel, making only the briefest appearances later. Brad Hunt, exceptional in Taylor’s first feature “Dream With the Fishes,” has little to do until his role abruptly assumes a jerry-rigged importance at the climax.
Deliberately less edgy in mood and story arc than “Fishes,” “Cherish” lacks that film’s deeper emotional pull, and the characters here seem less organic, more two-dimensional despite brightly polished writing and perfs. In the end, feature leaves little lasting imprint — though it’s certainly an agreeable diversion, one whose assured craft suggests Taylor is more than ready for his major-studio-project closeup.
Lenser Barry Stone, editor Rick LeCompte and production designer Don Day all make lively contributions to pic’s toying with a stir-crazy concept. Major selling point is the soundtrack assembled by music supervisor Charles Raggio: Like a cheerful party tape, it often dominates things with almost nonstop lineup of retro-radio faves from ’60s sugar-pop (the Association, the Turtles) to New Wave synth-pop (Human League, Soft Cell).