Easily one of his generation’s most gifted character actors, with a hangdog face unforgettable from such films as “Fargo” and “Boogie Nights,” William H. Macy made his feature directing debut some 30 years ago with a savvy TV-news parody called “Lip Service” for HBO. For some reason, it wasn’t until starring in (and eventually directing an episode of) Showtime’s “Shameless” that he picked up the habit again in earnest. The question, now that Macy appears to be stepping behind the camera with some regularity, is what it is about these curious projects that compels him.
Take “Krystal,” a uniquely bizarre, uncomfortably sexist “Pretty Woman”-meets-“Pretty in Pink” hybrid that comes across as if Tennessee Williams had been commissioned to write a John Hughes-style wish-fulfillment fantasy. Though Macy is an odd fit to direct (coming at the talky script like it was a madcap piece of theater), the wonky tone is all screenwriter Will Aldis’ invention, as genteel Southern teen Taylor Ogburn (“Love, Simon” star Nick Robinson) falls for out-of-his-league ex-hooker Krystal (Rosario Dawson) and proceeds to woo her with everything he’s got — which means crashing her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, befriending her wheelchair-bound son (Jacob Latimore, playing a kid just two years his junior), and standing up to her abusive stalker.
Technically, both Taylor and Krystal’s ex, Willie (a thuggish black stereotype played by Atlanta rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris), are guilty of stalker-like behavior, although the movie seems to find Taylor’s pathetic puppy-love obsession to be infinitely more adorable. It’s not. “Krystal” arrives at a cultural instant when many audiences, galvanized by a movement in which sexism is being called out on-screen and off, will find it distasteful to have an actress of Rosario Dawson’s caliber playing a former junkie/stripper/hooker whom the movie ogles wearing little more than a wet T-shirt on the beach.
Dawson does the best she can with such a character, trying to remind both Taylor and the audience that she’s more than just a hot bod to be objectified, and yet, every time she crosses the street or walks into a room, people stare, men’s jaws hang open, and Taylor’s pulse races. The latter is heightened by the fact Taylor suffers from paroxysmal atrial tachycardia, a life-threatening condition Aldis treats as one of those poetic disorders that supposedly mirror Taylor’s special outlook on the world — a cheap device, given the possibility that he could suffer a heart attack at any moment, and an insult to those with real-life heart problems (as this one is treated as a metaphor for his immaturity).
Taylor’s other defining characteristic is his old-school Southern charm, which Aldis exaggerates by stuffing reams of floridly worded dialogue into cheeks that scarcely look old enough to have seen a razor. Describing himself as “a walker of dawn beaches and a watcher of birds,” Taylor is also a chaser of implausible dreams and a drawler of unconvincing accents. In the real world, such ostentatious talkers are typically born on plantations or barrel-aged like whiskey over many, many years, à la Taylor’s salty art-gallery boss (played by Kathy Bates, who’s the only cast member capable of selling zingers like “Well, shoot a monkey!”).
Cut from the same generically handsome mold as your typical Cameron Crowe hero, Robinson is the opposite kind of actor from his director. Whereas Macy has a squirrelly look and a sad-sack soulfulness that suggest all kinds of intriguing personal history, Robinson comes across disconcertingly bland. However earnest his intentions, in the young actor’s hands, Taylor is the least interesting character on-screen at any moment — all of which makes his attempt to pass himself off first as an alcoholic, and later as a bad-boy biker, feel like some kind of tacky charade.
By this point, the movie has slipped from endearing curiosity to ill-conceived pipe dream, embracing its own sense of the ridiculous in a way that doesn’t necessarily serve to excuse it. As Taylor’s parents, Macy and real-life wife Felicity Huffman play it over-the-top, as does a welcome William Fichtner as an overworked town doctor, though everyone else is out of sync with the electric wheelchair chases and overcooked family meltdowns that ensue. (Give yourself a cookie if you can guess which character Krystal recognizes from her former line of work.)
These shenanigans might be amusing if they came with consequences, but big things happen, only to be forgiven or forgotten by the following scene. For example, how is it that Taylor’s parents never learn of their son’s emergency-room visit at the outset of the film? Why do we never learn whether Krystal believes Taylor’s pretend alcoholism? And why not deal with the consequences of a totally out-of-character mid-movie scene in which Taylor gets his wish, as Krystal inexplicably lunges at her barely legal suitor, kissing him passionately just before the screen fades to black (cue an exploding park fountain in lieu of a more mature encounter)? In every case, these are clear indicators that neither Taylor nor “Krystal” is nearly as courteous or refined as the film would have us believe.