On one of his audio commentary tracks, Steven Soderbergh talks about his reluctance to use nudity in his films--particularly with well-known actors--because "the minute they take their clothes off, it becomes a documentary." I thought of that quote often while watching Powder Blue, which is essentially a documentary about Jessica Biel finally getting naked in a movie. Oh sure, there are other things happening in it, and her role has enough big "acting" moments to justify that old saw about only doing nudity "if the role requires it," but the film itself isn't terribly interesting and her performance is passable at best. Let's face facts: people are going to rent or buy Powder Blue because they've heard Jessica Biel takes her clothes off in it, and she does; it's one of those carefully prepared reveals, teased but not delivered until well into the second half of the picture, much like in Striptease (a documentary about Demi Moore getting naked).
The film that surrounds her au naturel performance is one of those several-unconnected-people-in-the-big-city-that-unexpectedly-intersect affairs that was already trite and overdone when Crash won that inexplicable Oscar in 2006; since then, we've had a rash of forgettable loops around that same track. I'm not sure if Forest Whitaker, who produces and co-stars here, turned down a role in Crash and now regrets it, but he seems to have a dangerous attraction to its knock-offs; he has also appeared in The Air I Breathe, American Gun, and Even Money, each one worse than the last. Memo to independent filmmakers; there's nothing you can do with this sub-genre that Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson didn't do better, so let's try something else.
Biel plays Rose-Johnny, an exotic dancer and single mom whose boy is in the hospital with a coma that he's probably not coming out of. Ray Liotta (in a subtle, nuanced character turn) is Jack, an ex-con just out of the joint after a 25-year stretch (I guess his relationship to Biel is supposed to be some kind of a gradually-revealed secret, but anyone who can't piece it together from their first scene needs to see more movies). Eddie Redmayne's Qwerty Doolittle (yep, that's the character's name) is a lonely and sickly young mortician with no social skills. And Whitaker plays Charlie, a suicidal widower so wracked with guilt, he tools around town trying to get someone to kill him.
Writer/director Timothy Lihn Bui's script is wildly uneven--there are some fine scenes (particularly those involving Liotta), and others so awkward and obvious you want to remove them yourself. Chief among them is the awful scene where Rose-Johnny and Qwerty "connect" with each other; the actors do their best, but it's horribly written, and the maudlin score makes it unintentionally comic. Their subsequent relationship is equally hard to swallow, and the (mercifully brief) "happy in love" section is unfortunate, to say the least. The script's other major issue is that Whitaker's story never connects with the others in any meaningful way (even when his cutaways are shoehorned into the overwrought climax that fumbles into the TV movie ending); without that final, crucial step of the "unexpectedly connected in the big city" story template, it just looks like Bui threw together separate stories that were too short to play on their own.
His direction is frequently flashy--often to the detriment of the film's reality. Biel works in one of those hyper-stylized strip clubs that really only exist in movies, where the elaborately choreographed routines are beautifully lit (sometimes with the help of the customers, even!) and the dollar bills rain down in a perfectly-composed shower. He doesn't provide much help to his actors, either. Whitaker is a good actor (he's got an Oscar to prove that), but he has often proven that he needs a director strong enough to keep him from going over the top; his mugging here (as in the scene when he discovers his car has been stolen) is pretty bad. Liotta brings some real depth and soul to his deliberate performance, but Redmayne's character is a complete cipher.
Biel's performance sometimes works in the individual moments (especially when she's working with Liotta, whose skill seems to pull her up to his level), but there's no sense of an overarching character. She doesn't have much of one to play anyway--it's basically a series of emotional high points strung together, an acting reel with a plot around it. She cries about her father and screams about her son, then screams about her father and cries about her son, and the tears and snot flow, and she's trying very hard (which is part of the problem), but she's just not very good overall.
The supporting work is equally all over the place. Patrick Swayze's strip club manager is a thin character with bad lines, poorly performed. Kris Kristofferson has a nice presence (as he usually does), though he's saddled with some pretty tin-eared dialogue. But the always-welcome Lisa Kudrow provides a low-key, lived-in performance; hers are among the best scenes in the film.
Powder Blue's anamorphic 2.40:1 image is tolerable if not exceptional; the trouble appears to be with the original materials and not the transfer. The stylized photography is highly saturated with heavy grain--often too heavy, as in the scenes in Qwerty's apartment or a daytime diner scene with Liotta and Biel (which just looks ugly). This was clearly a choice (a fantasy sequence late in the film is clean, colorful, and grain-free), but it's not always successful. That said, the blown-out whites and hot red neons of the strip club look good, and the image is free of DNR, compression artifacts, or other issues.
No complaints here; the 5.1 mix is mostly quiet and concentrated in the center channel, though the bass-heavy music of the club scenes gives the track some lift, and a sequence where Whittaker goes looking for his car thief in a loud, underground club has some fine immersion in loud music and vivid effects.
English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Writer/director Bui and producer Tracee Stanley offer up a dull Audio Commentary, which is neither insightful nor particularly entertaining. It's mostly comprised of vague compliments--"Jessica was just incredible," notes Stanley during her first scene. "Yeah, she's amazing," Bui agrees. "She gave so much, we were just blessed to have her..." and so on. During a big emotional scene later in the film, Bui astutely notes, "Her vulnerability and such is just like... uh." Deep, man.
The featurette "Shooting Blue: The Making of Powder Blue" (17:05) is an improvement; it's nicely assembled (I particularly liked the cool graphics that mixed and compared the storyboards with their matching frames from the film) if fairly standard, though Biel's fans will enjoy the footage of her dance rehearsals.
A forgettable Trailer (1:55), matted to 1.85:1 and predictably emphasizing Biel's on-stage moves, is also included, as is a Photo Gallery (1:20) of striking images by Bui's photographer friend Amy Barnard.
One can't help but feel for Jessica Biel; Powder Blue was supposed to be a bid for consideration as a serious actress, and here it's gone the straight-to-DVD route. But that's about right for the quality of the film; while it has some sharp scenes and worthwhile performances (particularly Liotta's and Kudrow's), the weak script can't prop up the picture's tired construct.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.