Everyone remembers the best among the scrappy 1980s films that started American “indie film” in earnest — particularly those deadpan, idiosyncratic comedies by Jim Jarmusch, Susan Seidelman, Alexandre Rockwell, and so on that were among the movement’s most influential early successes. Similarly, few could forget how much fun “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” were, revitalizing the crime-caper genre with wit and outsized directorial personality.
What we’d prefer to forget is just how many labored comedy quirkfests and effortfully wiseass capers the above films “inspired” for years afterward — wannabe movies straining for the same qualities without any original inspiration, failing to find their own voice while deliberately or unconsciously mimicking somebody else’s. The majority of these pale imitations wound up a blip on the Sundance Festival radar — if they were lucky — then were forgotten ever after.
Unfortunately, those happily buried cinematic memories come rolling back with the arrival of “Blue Iguana,” a comedic quirk-a-thon that is writer-director Hadi Hajaig’s admitted tribute to movies of that earlier era. He’s specifically cited Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” and other, more mainstream titles that absorbed the then-new “indie” sensibility, and is playfully self-conscious enough to start his film out with a character pitching an imagined project with a “fun indie vibe.”
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But hard as it keeps reaching for that ambiance, “Blue Iguana” immediately tumbles into the familiar category of tediously arch imitation. Who wouldn’t want a “Desperately Seeking Susan” meets “Reservoir Dogs”? Alas, this ends up more “The Linguini Incident” meets “The Boondock Saints,” an imitation of wan imitations. Neither the London setting, a game cast, nor decent packaging can redeem the kind of misfired enterprise that keeps insisting how clever it is, even as its characters keep making fart jokes.
For murky reasons, English lawyer Katherine (Phoebe Fox) hires Eddie (Sam Rockwell) and Paul (Ben Schwartz), two ex-con Yanks currently working in an NYC diner, for a “simple” job that involves intercepting a package of unknown contents across the pond. It turns out she’s in hock to crime boss Arkady (Peter Polycarpou), and can pay him off by hijacking this mystery item on his behalf. Unbeknownst to either, Arkady’s crazy, pompadour’d strongman Deacon (Peter Ferdinando) deploys his own goon squad in an attempt to wrestle possession of the package. This immediately results in two highly public melees and two flunky deaths, precisely the opposite of the stealthy theft Katherine had hoped for.
She and the Yanks hole up to plot their next move in that eccentric-indie staple, a colorful artist’s loft, which happens to overlook the pub Deacon runs for his horny harridan of a mother (Amanda Donohoe). The latter eventually hooks up with Paul, while bookish Katherine and rough-hewn Eddie weigh their attraction against their mutual dislike. A few shootouts and miscellaneous scrapes later, the path leads to an actual princess (Frances Barber) who’s the rightful owner of the titular diamond everyone’s been after all along, whether they knew it or not.
This is Hajaig’s fourth feature; the priors (including “Cleanskin” and “Puritan”) were variable but interesting. None were comedies, a form that does not appear to be his métier. “Blue Iguana” strains to be antic in every joint, from gimmicky editorial and camera choices to a soundtrack cluttered with early ’80s New Wave tracks by the B-52’s, Violent Femmes, Only Ones — great stuff, but they can’t get a party started that’s already flatlined.
Everything comes wrapped in a kind of kriminal kapers cuteness that only makes the pervasive violence distasteful, not funny. Major action sequences are handled in mannered ways (including lots of slo-mo) that are neither novel or exciting. And the constant patter meant to be devilishly sharp generally thuds — some apparently improvised, it barely locates a salvageable quip amidst de rigeur piles of profanity and pop-culture references. You can feel the love for ’80s/early-’90s indie cinema that fueled this project. But admiration for other movies is seldom a great reason to make one, and “Blue Iguana” never rises above the aspirationally ersatz.
Rockwell, one of our best American screen actors (whose best roles are seldom in the movies he chooses to produce), aims for a droll version of laconic action hero-dom that does nothing to enliven a busy yet airless enterprise. Schwartz adds some goofy energy, but appears to be the primary demonstrator here of how allowing an actor to improv doesn’t necessarily improve weak material. Fox can’t figure out anything interesting to do with the kind of female lead whose evolution from awkward to attractive is exactly as complicated as taking off her glasses.
The best performances are by Ferdinando, who brings real intensity to his tantrum-prone nutcase, and Donohoe, who makes an impressive leap from her usual elegant swan to spectacularly crass Diana Dors-type slag. But they’re largely wasted on a movie that can’t think of anything better to give her than a line like, “You stink of ketchup and farts.” The support cast includes a lot of stock caricatures by thesps who could no doubt do better, including Simon Callow as a ham-actor pensioner.