Old and new Hollywood meet in writer-director Michael Schroeder’s “Man in the Chair,” a touching if by-the-numbers tale of an aspiring young filmmaker’s encounter with a grumpy fount of movie lore. As a showcase for rising young star Michael Angarano and Christopher Plummer, pic offers the pleasures of connecting Hollywood traditions and generations in the spirit of Peter Bogdanovich’s films about and inspired by the movies. Top indie prize at Santa Barbara fest nicely sets up pic for its Berlinale unveiling, with North American and Euro distrib looking assured for this age-crossing drama.
Dialogue snippets from Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” instantly establish good will during opening credits. When it’s revealed that crusty retired gaffer Flash Madden (Plummer) is watching the classic in Los Angeles’ only retrospective cinema, the New Beverly, a certain charm descends over the film that never dissipates.High schooler Cameron (Angarano) appears to be as much of a loner as Flash, who’s pestered at school by rich kid Brett (Taber Schroeder) and reminded by his only buddy, Murphy (Joshua Boyd), that they both “don’t matter.”
In a plot device right out of an after-school special, the Los Angeles Film School’s short film contest has been launched, and while movie-crazy Cameron has a bunch of ideas, Brett has access to his rich showbiz daddy’s stash of money and high-end equipment.
At a New Beverly screening of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” Cameron witnesses Flash screaming back at the screen as if he knew Welles personally — which, it turns out, he did. (Welles, in a rather silly B&W flashback, supplied him with his nickname on the set of “Citizen Kane.”) Through a standard process of hard-earned friendship, where one side of the relationship (Flash) plays impossibly hard-to-get until he suddenly gives in, Cameron convinces Flash to help him with his movie.
Flash insists that Cameron needs a writer, and brings him to the hopelessly rundown old folks’ home where once-lauded screenwriter Mickey Hopkins (M. Emmet Walsh) lives. A picture of horribly faded fame, the (fictional) scribe of “Gone With The Wind,” “Foreign Correspondent,” “The Outlaw” and “Roman Holiday” hasn’t had a job offer in 35 years.
Cameron is shocked at the horrific condition of old folks like Mickey, and determines that this is what his movie will address. Schroeder notably makes a point that while Mickey lives in a shabby place typical of a nation that disposes of its poor, Flash himself belonged to a union that allows him to live at the first-class Motion Picture Home.
Schroeder’s script sometimes complicates a story that doesn’t need complications: Cameron’s chilly home life involves his sourpuss father-in-law Floyd (Mitch Pileggi), while Flash has terrible drinking binges and at one point decides to liberate some dogs from a shelter.
These have the effect of taking screen time away from Cameron’s Quixotic efforts, which are then breathlessly summarized in an upbeat but fairly standard montage (which, ironically, includes Flash teaching montage to Cameron during a screening of Eisenstein’s “Potemkin”). By the sad ending which also points to the future, Flash has taught Cameron some important lessons about what it means to be the director, or the man in the chair.
Despite the corniness, Plummer and Angarano are exceptionally well-matched, both drawing upon deep reservoirs of emotion and authentic feeling. With “Snow Angels,” “Black Irish” and this one with Plummer, Angarano is on a roll, building yet another memorable portrait of a young American lad in search of himself. Pic marks Plummer’s biggest perf since “The Insider,” with a portrayal that is never a mere honorific tribute to Hollywood’s below-the-line craftsmen, but also a study in loneliness.
Walsh allows his retired scribe to gradually come back to life in a rewarding example of frozen creative juices thawed. A surprise late-act appearance by Robert Wagner as a once-powerful producer ushers in some of the film’s most fascinating backstage moments. Boyd, Pileggi and Mimi Kennedy as Cameron’s put-upon mom create excellent miniature character studies.
Widescreen lensing by Dana Gonzales contains bold splashes of color and Los Angeles nighttime dread that amp up the film’s seriousness. Jittery post-production optical effects, however, are needlessly overused, while pic’s L.A. strains geographic credibilit.
Unfortunately, considering the subject, the film contains two major errors that briefly appear on screen during the “Kane” flashback: Both Welles’ and Gregg Toland’s names are misspelled in a shot of the “Kane” production clapper board.