Roman is about a creepy, practically mute shut-in harboring a fatal obsession with Kristen Bell; finally, a movie that speaks to me.
No, Roman (Lucky McKee) isn't bring-in-the-kids-and-double-check-the-deadbolt creepy. He's just a lanky, quiet, awkward guy, so far removed from his foul-mouthed, poverty wage co-workers that he doesn't even own a TV. Roman's idea of a good time is cracking open a beer and staring through a window in his apartment. When he spots a stunning young blonde (Kristen Bell) trot into his field of vision one day after work, Roman's instantly infatuated. Without ever even speaking to her, he makes a voyeuristic standing date with his neighbor, waiting for the clock to tick past 5:30 so he can leer at her as she walks by. A chance encounter on the roof goes well, though. Roman awkwardly peppers his dream girl with mostly-monosyllabic gems like "you're beautiful"; she responds with a few compliments of her own and an explanation why the globs of meat in cans of pork and beans are so misshapen.
Squeezing out more charm than he thought he had in him, Roman gets his impossibly gorgeous neighbor into his apartment, even landing a first kiss and the promise of a date. Friday's too far off on the horizon, though, and the endearingly awkward compliments take a dark turn and start to come off as disturbing. When his dream girl heads for the door, Roman won't let her leave. He never even found out her name, but a few minutes later, the girl that Roman had fallen for is dead and lifeless on the floor of his barren apartment.
Haunted by imagined voices and his memories of this nameless girl he's convinced he loves, Roman can't bring himself to let go, scarfing down cases of pork-'n-beans and returning to his apartment day after day with fresh bags of ice to dump over what's left of her in the bathtub. It's not too terribly long until another infectiously cute neighbor claws her way into his life, though, with Roman on the receiving end this time. Eva (Nectar Rose) is an arty oddball who makes her own clothes and twirls twigs into her hair, and although Roman's understandably reluctant to have much of anything to do with her after what happened last time, she eventually wins him over. Eva is hiding somewhat of a dark side as well, and, of course, Roman's still saddled with his first love, both literally and figuratively...
Roman is sort of a funhouse mirror version of May, this time with Angela Bettis and Lucky McKee swapping places in front of the camera. As much as the two movies have in common -- several of the same names in the credits, chili dog dates, outcasts who knock off and, um, dismember their obsessions -- they're about fundamentally different things. May was a depraved search for love; Roman is really about grieving...about coming to terms with death. Roman's devastated by what he's done, and when Eva slinks into his life, he gets over his first love piece by piece. I mean that literally, with Roman sawing off chunks of her, lovingly placing them into paper sacks, and taking them on romantic lakeside picnics.
Both Bettis and McKee pull it all off remarkably well. McKee portrays Roman as a disturbed but likeable enough guy rather than an eye-twitching psychopath. Even though he inadvertently murdered a sweet, completely innocent young woman and keeps her corpse buried in ice in his bathtub, Roman remains sympathetic throughout. The extras on this DVD include footage of a couple of other actors in the lead role with more obvious, less subtle takes on the character that fail miserably by comparison. First-time director Bettis also has enough restraint to avoid reveling in guts and gore. I'd call May a horror movie but wouldn't want to use that label here; even as Roman is sawing off small chunks of a decomposing body in his bathtub, Bettis prefers to let the character be more appalled by what he's doing than the audience, blocking it as tastefully as dismemberment can be. Roman doesn't revel in playing up any shock value, but there is some cacklingly dark comedy, particularly Roman's affectionate post-mortem picnics and the greasy, mouthbreathing chronic masturbator next door.
Kristen Bell's role is small but crucial, and for the most part, Roman just asks that she be perfect. It's not the meatiest or most substantial role she's tackled, but the young actress (her parts in the movie were shot before landing Veronica Mars) excels when the movie takes its darkest turn. Her unnamed character's struggle as Roman smothers her is chilling and deeply unsettling, getting more of a reaction from a few muffled screams than barrel drums of blood or prosthetic grue could ever hope for. I'm used to seeing Nectar Rose playing cleavage-y arm candy, but she puts in a strong performance as well. It's easy to lean too hammy and over-the-top when playing a character like this, but Rose is convincingly quirky, instantly loveable, and buoyantly dark.
Roman isn't nearly as polished as May, with quick-'n-dirty digital photography from a director who's learning as she goes instead of a meticulously lit 35mm production. In a way, the lower budget visuals work to its benefit; there's something more intimate and personal about video than the glossy sheen of film. The shakier supporting cast can be mildly distracting at times, but the bulk of the movie is anchored around the three leads, all of whom turn in solid performances. May is the more accessible and instantly engaging of the two films, but Roman is a compelling companion piece. Very highly recommended as a rental; recommended as a purchase, particularly to those who aren't turned off by the rough edges of truly independent movies.
Video: Roman was shot in fits over the course of several years on a couple of different DV cameras. They didn't wade through the red tape of getting permits or lining up a studio for a couple of months; shots were set up and stripped down in the space of ten minutes, and because of the types of cameras used and the rough-and-tumble photography, this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD isn't exactly home theater showcase material. Roman looks its best when Bettis and company lug their gear outside, with Roman's post-mortem picnics standing out as the most eye-popping. Some of the soft, noisy interiors, particularly early on, almost look like home movies by comparison. Bettis' use of light and color to reflect the progression of Roman's state of mind does shine through, regardless of any budgetary hurdles. Considering the way Roman was shot, it's hard to imagine it looking much better than this on DVD.
Audio: The packaging doesn't make any mention of it, but Roman sports a DTS track alongside its 448Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The six-channel audio sounds pretty good for such a low-budget effort so heavily driven by its visuals and dialogue. The surround channels aren't swirling with sounds pinging from one speaker to another but stay pretty active throughout, and there's a decent amount of activity in the lower frequencies. Nothing thunderous or dynamic but certainly decent enough, considering its limitations. There were a couple of lines of dialogue I couldn't quite make out, but that's not a persistent problem.
The DVD also includes English closed captions and a Dolby Digital stereo track.
Extras: The best of Roman's extras is an exceptional audio commentary with director Angela Bettis, DP/editor Kevin Ford, and moderator C. Robert Cargill. It's one of those rare tracks that strikes the perfect balance between relaxed-'n-chatty and really informative. I usually keep a notepad next to me when I review an audio commentary and scribble down some of the highlights, and I filled up a couple of pages before I was even twenty minutes in. From an explanation how Kristen Bell came on-board to Nectar Rose's heavily expanded role in the movie...from banging out their own porn rag to setting up a fairly elaborate rig to plunk a smoldering cigarette into a beer bottle...from basketball players yanking stray objects out of dolphins' stomachs having some basis in reality to trying to nail how rotting flesh would look when soaked in ice for months...from shooting chunks of the movie years apart to costing Lucky McKee his safety deposit...this is a near-perfect commentary and an essential listen for those who buy or rent this DVD. As much as I like the audio commentary, the recording's not that great; the movie audio is really loud in the mix, kinda drowning out the commentary at times.
More of the cast and crew are featured in a 24 minute set of anamorphic widescreen interviews, although it tries way too hard to be wacky, instead seeming agonizingly long and a borderline-complete waste of time. They faux-interview themselves Stop Making Sense-style, each fielding the same set of questions: y'know, your role in the movie, what interested you in this project, who or what was your inspiration, what's it like working with _________, shooting a movie independently instead of under a studio's watchful eye, and what you think of the finished product. It has the kind of jokiness that probably seems hysterical if you were there or just punchdrunk at 3 AM -- Groucho Marx glasses, sock puppets, preguntas en Español -- but it's just tedious otherwise. There's a little bit of substance in there if you're willing to wade through the rest of it: McKee writing the movie in college in three days, some background on the Burro Boy animation, and a surprisingly insightful response by Nectar Rose about low-budget filmmaking. A couple of nasty audio hiccups creep in but are easily ignored.
A letterboxed highlight reel runs fourteen minutes, compiling a bit of behind the scenes footage setting up the cigarette-crumbling-in-the-bottle gag, recording wild lines and voiceovers in less-than-controlled conditions, some additional improvised dialogue in the welding factory lunch room, laughter-tinged outtakes, a Goth-hissing first date with Roman and Eva, and some alternate dreams-slash-fantasies.
It's mentioned in the audio commentary that there were several earlier attempts to make this movie, dating back as far as 1994. Thirteen minutes of footage from some of these stillborn stabs are piled onto this DVD. There's different talent both in front of and behind the camera, with a different Roman and, at least at one point, Lucky McKee directing. The first half is a set of full-frame footage with a giggly, clunky cast, and the rest is a letterboxed edit of the first reel from an attempt circa 2002.
Also of note: the full Burro Boy video follows the movie after the end credits (and in color!), and to save Veronica Mars fans renting this DVD just because of Kristen Bell's third-billing a few minutes, the only additional footage of her is recording some wild lines in the highlight reel. Roman has been divided into fifteen chapter stops, and the disc sports a set of 16x9 animated menus. Oh, and the cover's nice and sparkly.
Conclusion: It's easy to shrug Roman off as May with a lower budget and a Y chromosome, but there's much more to it than that. As a fan of stylish, quirky genre flicks, May is by far the more polished of the two and the DVD I'd reach for purely for a good time, but Roman is a smartly written, distinctively unique movie with an emotional resonance that really drew me in. This isn't some easily accessible, popcorn-munching crowd pleaser -- it takes a certain state of mind to really appreciate -- but I really enjoyed Roman and some of the extras on this DVD, and it's worth the time and effort to seek out. Recommended.