There’s likely a more rewarding behind-the-scenes docu to be made about a filmmaker’s real estate dealings than the fictive tale the “The Californians” tells. This quasi-satire of privileged Northern California culture — in which nouveau riche developers gulp land for garish homes over the protests of established residents starts with the potential to be a Marin lifestyle-skewering “Serial.” But the film’s edge gets softer as it goes — in ways that might baffle all but the granola-scarfing well-heeled hippies it seemed to be parodying. Pic opens exclusive in the Bay Area on Oct. 21. Wider exposure looks better fit for the small screen.
The irony is that writer-director Jonathan Parker really is an artist-cum-developer who’s hugely profited from exactly the Northern California residential buildup reflected in screen alter-ego Gavin Ransom’s (Noah Wyle) unconscionable deal-making. (Moniker similarity to San Francisco’s yuppie-entrepreneur mayor Gavin Newsom can only be deliberate.)
Gavin is accustomed to rubber-stamp approvals from city supervisors who can afford ignoring irate constituents like elderly activist Eileen Boatwright (Cloris Leachman), pro-bono lawyer Sybil (Jane Lynch), and his own furiously pro-environment sibling Olive (Illeana Douglas).
But the tide turns, driven by the protest anthems of Ani DiFranco-like Zoe (Kate Mara).
Zoe’s idealism, perhaps inherited from folk-singing dad (Keith Carradine), intoxicates repressed Olive — at least so far as she’ll admit — while Gavin’s reaction to Zoe’s earnest music is more carnal.
It’s highly unconvincing pretty Zoe’s pop protests would influence a significant public. But then, it’s not at all clear whether Mara’s insipid milkmaid vocals, her blandly hooky tunes (penned by Neils Bye Nielsen) or their seemingly self-parodying lyrics (including the refrain “I Hear Mother Nature Cry”) are meant to be funny or not.
By the end, when she suffers stage-fright before a benefit audience whose responses are manipulated to the point of idiocy, then runs off with Gavin, who’s been impressing her with wealth, “Californians” has grown awkwardly and unconvincingly sincere. That’s too bad, because some of the earlier sequences are hilarious, if in-jokey — like a heath-food grocery store interlude that ends with Olive passively accepting $129 charge for her sparse bagful of organic eats.
Parker, who cleverly updated Melville’s “Bartleby” with Crispin Glover two years back, hits on a similar bright idea here — “The Californians” is drawn from Henry James’ classic novel “The Bostonians” — but shrinks from taking things far enough. Olive’s attraction to Zoe is downplayed to the point of invisibility. Vanessa Redgrave in Merchant-Ivory’s 1984’s “Bostonians” milked her character’s emotional torment to far greater effect than a game but muffled Douglas is allowed here.
Some others in the capable cast, notably Joanne Whalley as a crass divorcee and Valerie Perrine as Zoe’s even spacier mom, are amusing enough to have deserved more screentime.
Most striking moments in a polished design package are when Wyle’s character views a pristine Northern California hillside — and graphically visualizes a bounty of “monster home” sub-divisions on its virgin hillsides.