A textbook noir premise gets an overamped and undercompelling treatment in “The Girl Is in Trouble,” the story of a struggling Lower East Side DJ (Columbus Short) who becomes embroiled in the fallout from a murder, courtesy of the title’s damsel in distress (Alicja Bachleda). Sporting plenty of twists but few surprises, this stylish yet derivative eOne day-and-date release seems most likely to be watched by viewers who — like its hero — stumble in by accident.
Said DJ, the Nigerian-born August (Short), is contacted at 2:30 a.m. by Signe (Bachleda), a stunning Swede with whom he almost hooked up on a prior occasion. It must be fate: A funny montage illustrates that he’s quite far down her call list. Wearing only a trenchcoat and flip-flops and desperate for a place to stay, she sleeps with him that night, in what August, the next morning, comes to regard as a femme fatale’s ploy to steal his cash. At that time, August also discovers she’s carrying a camera-phone video that implicates smarm king Nicholas (Jesse Spencer) in a murder.
Nicholas, the son of a financial-sector bigwig modeled on Bernie Madoff, has the power and wealth to cover up the killing. But August and Signe decide to confront him with the evidence. In one of the plot’s many coincidences, Nicholas bears responsibility for getting August fired from a bartending gig.
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First-time feature director Julius Onah and his co-screenwriter, Mayuran Tiruchelvam, somewhat clumsily paint in shades of gray. Moody, daddy-hating Nicholas haplessly saws Beethoven’s 7th on his prized violin. Signe’s motives are in constant doubt. This is the sort of film in which, even in the midst of a blackmail scheme, the two sort-of lovers can go clubbing to celebrate a moment when “everything felt possible again.”
Meanwhile, on a Lower East Side whose residents seem to know one another better than the neighbors in your average Gotham walk-up, Angel (Wilmer Valderrama) searches for the deceased, his brother, Jesus (Kareem Savinon), who had gone to Nicholas’ home to sell drugs. August is one of the first people he interrogates. Paz de la Huerta appears briefly as a woman who leads Angel to the site of the crime.
At the outset, August, in an uncharismatic voiceover, says he wishes he could tell this coke-fueled story from beginning to end; unfortunately, he doesn’t “remember it that way,” and Onah tries to liven up the straightforward scenario with a scrambled chronology and sudden digressions. One montage introduces us to a long list of Facebook friends, even though August admits there’s no need for viewers to remember most of them. Another sequence runs through the history of immigrant groups on the Lower East Side — the sort of topical tangent one associates with executive producer Spike Lee. The film shoehorns in an awkward flashback to show us what really happened the night of the crime. (Structurally, the flashback also counters a moment of blunt misogyny from August.)
The movie was filmed in several formats, but Super 35 contributes to a sleek, saturated look. Onah pays apparent homage to Lee in a few shots that evoke the “Do the Right Thing” director’s trademark double-dolly.