Admittedly inspired by John Cassavetes’ “Gloria” and its gritty central perf by Gena Rowlands as a tough-talking dame on the run with a little kid, the miscalculated and overlong “Julia” proves a startling misfire for “The Dreamlife of Angels” writer-helmer Erick Zonca and dependably fearless actress Tilda Swinton. Stateside chances are negligible for this English-language, Los Angeles-set pic (set to open in France on March 12) that uncomfortably welds an arthouse sensibility to genre tropes.
A swaggering floozy with a monumental drinking problem, 40-ish Julia Harris (Swinton) staggers from one booze-fueled hookup to the next. When she’s fired from her job, her ex-b.f. Mitch (Saul Rubinek) pleads with her to slow down and attend AA meetings.
When a ditzy fellow attendee, Elena (Kate del Castillo), begs Julia to help kidnap her son Tom (Aidan Gould), whom Elena is not allowed to see, it’s a measure of Julia’s sheer desperation that she goes along with the plan — or what passes for a plan. Julia ends up with Elena’s boy stuffed in her trunk, engineering inept ransom negotiations with the boy’s never-seen industrialist grandfather and eluding some Mexican lowlifes when she literally crashes her car across the border to Tijuana.
Everything feels emotionally skewed in Zonca’s English-language debut. Pic’s first half-hour yields precious little flavor of the Los Angeles milieu (shifted from Cassavetes’ beloved New York); scenes awkwardly improvised at an emotional fever pitch go on far too long; and sequences in which the boy is held at gunpoint or hogtied to motel-room water pipes are uncomfortably exploitative.
Helmer made his rep as an eloquent portrayer of marginalized French young people caught up in the tumult of day-to-day existence, and vestiges of that remain here. Yet pic is defeated by a tin ear for the kind of slangy, musical English dialogue that made Cassavetes’ films what they are. Last reels devolve into a series of screaming matches between Julia and the absurdly exaggerated Mexican toughs.
As she seems to do with each successive role, Swinton becomes the character with a fierce alchemy. Unfortunately, by the time Julia is actually meant to care for the boy, the redemption feels more convenient than emotionally earned. Pic’s most authentic perf is turned in by German-born Canadian mainstay Rubinek, whose monologue about striking his child while drunk during a long-ago marriage marks a rare moment when pic is firing on all cylinders.
Tech credits are pro, led by Yorick Le Saux’s crisp widescreen lensing.