The condescension that too often marks the Dogma style in minor hands suffuses “Break Even,” a lackluster comedy whose failed wit derives from an unrelentingly mocking portrait of Russian provincials. Multi-hyphenate John O. Olsson attempts a kind of Swedish “8½,” in which a tired director uncertain of his latest project is beset by a nagging producer. All other similarities end there. Unattractive visuals make pic’s reception beyond the tundra likely to be Arctic.
World-famous Swedish arthouse director Gustav Osterman (Thomas Hellberg) arrives in the northern Russian city of Murmansk to scout locations for his new project, “Break Even.” The international co-production, set in a post-apocalyptic Alaska, requires the kind of wrecked industrial background epitomized by post-Soviet industrial hubs, but Gustav and his assistant, Robert (Ivan Matthias Petersson), are keen to keep the Russians in the dark regarding such details.
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With interpreter Nadja (Natalia Usmanova) at their side, the team tours crumbling concrete factories and gets roped in to watch auditions for side characters, ranging from the local men’s choir to a hotel call-girl. Robert videos their progress — which means Olsson incorporates lots of that footage — and reports back to American producer Max (heard only as an impatient voice on the phone). Predictably both men fall for the bubbly Nadja, who obliges first the self-consciously aging Osterman and then swaggering ladies’ man Robert. But as nothing goes according to plan, Osterman becomes less and less convinced the project is worth doing.
Helmer-scripter-producer Olsson clearly had no such second thoughts, although a look at the supercilious screenplay, with its predictable, overlong episodes and stereotyped characters, should have set off some warning bells. Shot according to Dogma principles, with no background music and natural lighting that often gives images an unattractive yellowish tinge, film has a cheap feel on the tech side. Handheld camerawork is overused.