The old barker’s pitch “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” is literally true about “Blind Date,” a sometimes hilarious, often wrenching pas de deux between actors Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, and as much of an experimental film as anything else showing at the Sundance Film Festival. The experiment involves emotions and equilibrium — keeping an audience off balance while zoning in precisely on the feelings of two very complicated characters. Popularity of the two stars could make the film an arthouse hit; they’re a joy to watch. However, helmer Tucci’s ambitious, sophisticated experiment could dampen reactions — such is the fate of art.
The second in three remakes of films by the murdered Dutch director Theo van Gogh (the first was Steve Buscemi’s “Interview”), “Blind Date” is about a married couple, Don (Tucci) and Janna (Clarkson) who, as we learn via voiceover, “play games with each other.”
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The games involve responding to each others’ personal ads in a designated role — after “Serious Reporter Seeks Aggressive Woman” appears in the paper, Janna walks into their customary meeting place, punches Don in the stomach and throws a drink in his face.
Not all the role-playing is so overt, but the struggle for the couple to connect through alternative realities is always poignant, and sometimes purely comic: When Don appears as a blind man, his antics with the white stick have Clarkson in stitches, and they seem to be real.
The comedy of pain — not of the “Jackass” species, but the silent-film, and even vaudeville variety — haunts “Blind Date.” Part of Don’s magic act — in the nightclub/bar where he and Janna meet, he performs as a “conjurer” — involves him pulling things out of his fly, the way Harpo Marx used to pull things out of his overcoat. From the moment Janna, a bruised flower, talks about the inherent humor in other people’s misfortune, the stock elements of baggy-pants comedy are made highly modern, even Beckettian. Don and Janna are trying to conjure love, and it isn’t working.
That the opening credits unroll atop a slow survey of Don’s bar — the wood, the liquor, by implication the artifice of nightlife — may be a ref to Tucci’s “Big Night,” but it also recalls his utter confidence in the power of camera movement and its ability to transfix an audience regardless of what story it’s telling.
Tucci initially appears as a magician, but also a mime: No talk is necessary for him to get our attention (even if the explanatory voiceover is giving up some facts). Only later, when Janna enters the picture, and the two engage in the tortured performances each brings to the bar, do we see what Chaplin told us at the end of “City Lights” — that the true feelings of damaged people’s hearts are imprisoned by language, and persona.
Humor, like a prism, concentrates the heat of melancholy in “Blind Date” until it burns. The film may not be everyone’s cup of love potion, but it certainly has vision.