The title isn’t the only thing that doesn’t quite translate in “Americanese,” Eric Byler’s screen version of Shawn Wong’s well-regarded 1995 novel. Showing the usual signs of being adapted from a work whose qualities (interior deliberation, doubts and philosophical musings) are inherently literary rather than cinematic, this diverting, occasionally wry seriocomedy ultimately doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole. Too low-key to make much of a theatrical impact, it’s more likely to find its audience — particularly underserved adult Asian-Americans who seldom see themselves at the center of a feature narrative — via small-screen formats.
Like scenarist-director Byler’s prior “Charlotte, Sometimes” (2002), “Americanese” is a thoughtful, rather too evenly-paced slice of life scrutinizing relationships among Los Angeleans of (mostly) Asian extraction, with an indecisive, passive hero both its focal point and its primary obstacle to sustaining aud interest.
Raymond Ding (Chris Tashima) is an attractive middle-aged college professor who’s emotionally withdrawn in the wake of his recently ended cohabitation with younger photojournalist Aurora (Allison Sie), and, before that, a marital breakup.
But one doubts Raymond was ever very present for his lovers, or even friends. Possible causes for this distanced personality are hinted at, but as with many key psychological factors here, they remain frustratingly obscure.
Having temporarily let Aurora live in his own house, Raymond stays first with his elderly father Wood (Sab Shimono), and then in an apartment. But, he continues to secretly visit his home when Aurora’s not there — a semi-creepy act in which he’s caught red-handed by her best friend Brenda (Kelly Hu).
Aurora is already involved with Steve (Ben Shenkman), while Raymond begins a romance with a university colleague, Vietnam emigre Betty (Joan Chen). But Betty’s behavior soon goes from quirky to irrational and alarming, suggesting deep mental health issues. These rather abruptly hijack film’s second half.
Despite Chen’s precise thesping, Betty is an under-explained histrionic phenomena too much at odds with “Americanese’s” overall tenor to mesh with the narrative whole. She seems like a refugee not just from Vietnam, but from another (perhaps more interesting) movie.
Raymond and Aurora, who was raised by a Japanese mother and white father, are attractive but fairly dull company. Raymond seems borderline-obsessed with “passing for white” and other ethnic-identity issues, but pic doesn’t amplify these effectively enough as a central theme.
The wounds afflicted by his bitter divorce, a key element in the book, are simply left out of Byler’s screenplay.
With leads somewhat hamstrung by scenario’s insight gaps and somber, occasionally soporific direction, one becomes more intrigued by support figures sharply etched by Shimono, Hu and Michael Paul Chan (as Raymond’s brash best friend). They provide pic’s most amusing and poignant moments, but are given limited screentime.
Presentation is polished but pedestrian, with visual design and soundtrack contribs both verging on the bland.