There's a precarious tightrope "I'm Reed Fish" walks on, straining to preserve balance as it toys with the conventions of indie heartbreak cinema and proper emotional expression. It's a quirky, self-aware diatribe on the fallibility of love, but it has this constant state of fatigue that I found enchanting.
Reed Fish (Jay Baruchel, "Undeclared") is a small-town celebrity, squeezing out a living working the same radio beat his deceased father enjoyed success with. When ex-girlfriend Jill (Schuyler Fisk, "Orange County") comes home from college for the summer, Fish finds old romantic feelings bubbling to the surface. Caught between his need to please his stable fiancée Kate (Alexis Bledel, "Gilmore Girls") and the liberty from his confined world that Jill provides, Fish begins to lose his patience when his beloved hometown starts to turn up the pressure on his future.
The way "I'm Reed Fish" commences, potential viewers might think they've stumbled upon "Northern Exposure" leftovers; the picture works a familiar variety of eccentricity to paint a cartoon portrait of rural community claustrophobia and merciless observation. The opening is a crude summary of Fish's everyday life, and thankfully director Zackary Adler seems in a hurry to skip past the fluffiness of the material and find more fertile emotional ground to explore.
Written by Reed Fish, there's nothing in the film that clues the viewer in on what we're actually seeing. Is this an autobiographical sacrificial offering to his past mistakes, or is the film a fantasy? "I'm Reed Fish" actually comes across as both, and that mixture of strange confidence and overwhelming doubt is where the picture finds major success. Adler is marvelous arranging Fish's woozy romantic troubles and his character arc is something I'm positive many will relate to. Evoking a smothering sense of poisonous romantic yearning and horrifying personal inventory results, "I'm Reed Fish" hits those sharp notes of characterization often, in the middle of a plot that dances around convention perhaps one too many times.
Though billed as a comedy, "I'm Reed Fish" doesn't offer many jokes. It's something of a shock, considering Baruchel's gift for laughs, yet it's a picture hoping to tell a more personal story, not step over itself for giggles. The whole cast (including Katey Sagal, Blake Clark, Chris Parnell, and DJ Qualls) puts in lovely work trying to help this story rise above mediocrity and sell Fish's anxiety, but I was especially taken with Fisk, who not only delivers a performance of previously unseen grace (it's career-best work here), but she also performs some folksy ballads that expose just as much warmth behind the microphone and she holds in front of a camera.
I was less enamored with a critical plot twist, revealed at the 20-minute mark, just when the film is starting to gel. Of course, I won't reveal the details of the curveball, but it leaves the picture in a state of confusion and isolation. Essentially, Adler and screenwriter Fish strip their film of reality, giving the material a slight Charlie Kaufman quality that ruins the heartfelt thump of the piece. The intent is obvious; without it, the film would run dangerously close to painful navel-gazing and usher in serious questions of logic. With this perplexing second layer of reality, the film is permitted a chance to extend the experience through sheer oddity. Truthfully, I would've preferred the picture lead with its heart instead of ridiculous self-awareness.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1 aspect ratio), "I'm Reed Fish" is a gorgeously photographed motion picture (by Doug Chamberlain) that doesn't seem to be given the proper care on DVD. It's an outdoorsy movie (think Terrence Malick with one eye poked out of his head) and uses significant amounts of sunlight to fill the frame. The DVD registers the brightness in quietly contrasty ways, diluting the impact of the picture.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track doesn't hold much weight, but it does give the mournful songs by Fisk and the bouncy score by Roddy Bottum (a Faith No More refugee) sizable life. Dialogue and music are nicely separated.
Extra is more like it, with a measly "Behind the Scenes" look at the making of the film. Running a pointless six minutes in length, the featurette presents some friendly access to the movie, trying to explain Reed Fish's origins and capture the production's brisk pace and snappy spirit. However, six minutes gets us nowhere, leaving the supplement with more questions than answers. Still, it does reveal who Reed Fish actually is (I'll take the screen version, athankyou) and it pays ample tribute to the stunning California locations.
Even with a gratuitously miscalculated narrative speed bump, I appreciated "I'm Reed Fish" for its modest charms and respectful performances. Its emo-lite undertones might urge some viewers to break the DVD in half 10 minutes into the film, but for those more in tune with formula of the conflicted heart, this picture takes great care to keep you satisfied.