Asylum Seekers is a surreal indie comedy which marks the feature film debut for its director and co-screenwriter, Rania Ajami. While the film crafts a marvelous visual style with its meager ($1.5 million) budget, this promising and seemingly dream-induced storyline is squandered by unoriginality and lazy plotting.
The film opens with a brief scene at a casual dinner party in an affluent household, one which gradually unravels when an apparently Tourettes-afflicted guest (played by Daniel Iziarry) starts blurting out sexually explicit comments at random. We then move on to a fantastical insane asylum, where the gutter-minded party guest and six other quirky individuals enter and are gathered in an admitting room:
- Antoine (Iziarry), an athletic fellow whose over-excited and childish obsession with sex cancel out whatever attractiveness he has.
- Maud (Pepper Binkley), a dainty, abused wife who is under such pressure within her affluent social circle to conceive a child that she fakes her own pregnancy.
- Alan (Bill Dawes), a showboating rapper with a curious eye for feminine makeup and clothing.
- Alice (Stella Maeve), a high school student so consumed with online life that her real life is rendered unimportant.
- Paul (Lee Wilkof), a fanatical right-wing extremist who ties everything into wild conspiracy theories.
- Miranda (Camille O'Sullivan), a flamboyant femme fatale who ironically dislikes having anyone notice her.
After these would-be patients arrive, they're told by the formidable Nurse Milly (Judith Hawking) that just one slot is available -- and the seven must compete to have that sought-after bed within the asylum. The competitors are put through tasks of varying degrees of humiliation, psychoanalyzed, separated into groups, and placed in a wooded setting and outfitted in giant animal heads. Although Milly and her two henchmen are coordinating the activities (including an onstage audition with spontaneous jokes, acrobatics and puppetry), the ultimate choice of who stays at the asylum is decided by an unseen and omniscient observer known only as The Beard.
Asylum Seekers has a few genuinely positive things going for it. The idea of a group of reprehensible misfits having to prove which one is the least offensive has something of a Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory vibe, buzzing with all sorts of delicious possibilities. I also enjoyed the characters and the costuming, with each player dressed in a solid color (pink for Alan, green for Miranda) a la human game pieces. Some of the set designs and costuming are also notable, including the patient rooms done up in a René Magritte-like cloud pattern and the beautifully detailed animal costumes that are reminiscent of those John Tenniel Alice in Wonderland illustrations that freaked us all out as kids.
In case you didn't notice, Asylum Seekers is chockablock full of allusions to art, literature and other films. While Ajami is to be lauded for having such wide frames of reference, her use of them isn't especially subtle (there's a character named Alice, and another woman sports a singsong British accent similar to Disney's version of Guess Who). As the film progresses, the characters stay as cartoonish types rather than evolving into fully realized beings. At their very worst, they call to mind the more skillful work of filmmakers like Terry Gilliam. What ultimately makes this a skippable film is the lackadaisical script which finds the characters lurching from situation to situation with little to no progression. The acting is on the level of an Off Off Broadway play, although on the plus side it is enthusiastically performed. Even the supposedly revelatory "twist" is a letdown.
This reviewer saw Asylum Seekers on a pre-release screener disc from Breaking Glass Pictures; the experience on the actual retail copy of the DVD may differ.
The screener disc had a pleasantly mixed, not too overwhelming stereo soundtrack with no subtitle options.
The digitally shot image is of good quality, nicely balanced even during moments when the film's cinematography winds up being somewhat routine and stagy. Breaking Glass Pictures' DVD edition presents the film in slightly letterboxed anamorphic widescreen.
The screener disc included only the film's trailer.
Asylum Seekers benefits from the kind of wild concept and showy visual style that could only come from the noggin of one unique individual. Unfortunately, the final product is derivative, overlong and dull. The lack of character development or compelling story makes it difficult for this film to hold a viewer's interest over 90 minutes. This concept would have worked infinitely better as a short subject. Skip It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.