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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Simple Men
Simple Men
Image // R // January 27, 2004
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 3, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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I'd only seen two of filmmaker Hal Hartley's works before Simple Men, both of which featured unlikely characters exploding in popularity: a mechanic's daughter becoming a fashion model in The Unbelievable Truth and a garbage man turned poet in Henry Fool. Simple Men is also about the pursuit of celebrity, though not quite in the same sense. William McCabe (John MacKay) was once a shortstop for the Dodgers, but his lasting fame stems from accusations surrounding an anarchist bombing decades ago that claimed the lives of several innocent bystanders. The elder McCabe has become an underground political icon throughout his years on the run, but the feds finally catch up with him. McCabe's two sons learn of his brief stay at a New York hospital shortly before he makes his escape from government clutches. Bill (Robert Burke), his younger namesake, is a professional criminal double-crossed by his lover-slash-partner in a $650,000 computer heist. The more straightlaced Dennis (William Sage) is a young college student. Both brothers fork over what little money they have to their reluctant, beleagured mother, leaving twenty dollars between them. Dennis is determined to track down his father, with nothing more than a battered photograph of an unknown woman, a first name, and a disconnected phone number as his only clues. Bill is wholly disinterested but desperate to get out of town, and having nowhere else in particular to go, he tags along in his brother's quest.

With some assistance from a punk-lite Catholic schoolgirl (Charmed's Holly Marie Combs), their search brings the brothers to Long Island, unfamiliar territory for the native New Yorkers. Bill, still stinging from betrayal, sets out to bed the next blonde he encounters, determined to make her fall in love with him while he ekes out what pleasure he can before disposing of her like a plastic fork. No matter how much Hal Hartley prefers to buck convention, cinematic law requires that any character insistent on not falling love eventually will, and sure enough, Bill soon encounters Kate (Karen Sillas). She flags down the brothers when her Romanian friend Elina (Elina Löwensohn) suffers an epileptic seizure, inviting them to stay in a small bungalow. Dennis suspects that Elina is somehow involved with his father, and as he tries to unearth whatever secrets she may be hiding, Bill sets out to romance Kate without quite the degree of success he was anticipating.

That's the greatly abridged version. For a movie in which very little seems to happen, there are an impressive number of subplots and briefly-glimpsed supporting characters. It's mentioned a couple of times that Long Island is a terminal moraine, the earth deposited by a receding glacier. That may describe the origins of Simple Men as well; at least, the pacing strikes me as glacial. I picked up Simple Men based entirely on how much I enjoyed Henry Fool, a movie with an unconventionally executed premise, a cast of compelling characters, and a skewed sense of humor. Simple Men is not driven by plot or even its characters, which are largely inconsequential. The focal points are its philosophies -- the intertwining of desire and trouble, and the necessity of women in the lives of men, no matter how strongly opposed they may be to the idea -- and its dialogue. Dialogue has been central to the other films of Hartley's that I've seen, and that's even more apparent here. At times, it's witty and thoughtful, but the delivery is intentionally subdued and often seems wooden and underrehearsed. That approach, coupled with the use of gaps of silence as a sort of dialogue itself, make for a slow-moving, unengaging film. Hartley's résumé is sufficient proof that it's possible for a film to be both smart and entertaining. Perhaps Simple Men succeeds at the former, but it flounders at the latter. Perhaps it's a taste I've yet to acquire -- Simple Men has been lavished with praise by numerous critics and was even nominated for the Palme d'Or. Despite its wit and the presence of some genuinely funny, if sparse, moments, I found Simple Men to be relentlessly dull. Not recommended to the casual viewer.

Video: The anamorphic widescreen presentation boasts a slightly wider aspect ratio than the Laserdisc release -- 1.85:1 for the DVD as opposed to the previous 1.66:1. Hartley's compositions don't suffer from the increased matting, which presumably is representative of the limited theatrical screenings it enjoyed stateside. The transfer is excellent -- crisp and colorful, free of any notable issues with authoring or the condition of the source material. It's heartening to see that an easily overlooked twelve-year-old film on a DVD with such a low list price looks as great as this.

Audio: The monaural Dolby Digital audio, encoded at a bitrate of 224Kbps, suits the material. Dialogue, the most significant aspect of the film, comes through reasonably well and is clearly intelligible throughout. Hartley's guitar score is nearly as subdued as the actors' performances, complementing the feel and flow of the film. The dance sequence, set to Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing", is the only time when the audio becomes particularly loud, even then making little use of the lower frequencies. It's a utilitarian soundtrack, accomplishing what's necessary and little else. Closed captions have also been provided.

Supplements: I believe both of the extras are carryovers from Image's Laserdisc release -- a two-minute full-frame theatrical trailer and a brief featurette. The latter, running a little over five minutes, is essentially an extended trailer, incorporating lengthy clips from the film with a dollop of on-set footage and scattered comments from Hartley and the primary cast. Also included are trailers for Sunset Grill and Bodies, Rest, & Motion.

The DVD includes a set of animated 16x9-enhanced menus. Strangely, the main menu doesn't appear to be flagged for widescreen displays, though it was clearly designed with that intention. An insert tucked into the keepcase lists the film's fifteen chapter stops on one side and brief notes from Hartley and producer Ted Hope on the other.

Conclusion: Fans of Hartley's offbeat films likely won't hesitate to add this DVD to their collections, given its first-rate presentation and palatable $14.95 list price. For budding enthusiasts with a greater familiarity with Hartley's more accessible works, I'd suggest sticking with a rental. Those who don't fall into either of the above categories should probably steer clear entirely.
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