Two businessmen meet in the gargantuan dining hall of an old-fashioned Liverpool hotel, where the rooms are not arranged in a particularly logical order. The first man is Benny Reyes (Miguel Sandoval), a loud-mouthed American who frequently puts on an ill-advised British accent and is prone to panic attacks. The second man is Frank King (Alex Cox), a local who tears articles out of newspapers one by one and is very polite, even when Benny is not. The two strike up a conversation before suddenly noticing the kitchen is deserted, prompting them to head out into the streets of the city, guidebook in hand, looking for food. Along the way, they talk politics, profession, and philosophy, all while becoming progressively lost -- more lost than could reasonably be expected.
Alex Cox's 3 Businessmen is a challenging film to review. The movie is all about the mood that naturally springs out of such an unlikely pairing hanging out. Not that Sandoval is fat, but they're a classic comedy duo in every sense of the word: one round, one thin; one short, one tall; one loud, one quiet. At any moment, it seems as if these two ought to suddenly start throwing punches at one another (at one point, Benny starts screaming at Frank about his friendly dog, upset that every one of Frank's stories has a downbeat ending, practically climbing up into Frank's relatively calm face), but then some new development allows for a return to emotional equilibrium. When they disagree, it's friendly. When they agree, it feels strangely triumphant.
The rest of the mood is provided by Cox's surreal direction. The entire film is composed of master shots, distancing the viewer from the characters. The scene in which Benny and Frank first properly meet, in that spacious restaurant, starts from far away and only zooms in a little. Later, the duo walk into a tiny closet sushi bar, and Cox frames the shot so the entirety of the closet-like space is in the frame. The distance gives the movie a detatched, observational feeling, preventing the viewer from connecting too much to one businessman over the other. A few jittery edits add to the film's otherworldly feel, as do the dingy back-alley sights and sounds that make up the duo's journey. Modern films tend to appear sterilized, free of personality and history; 3 Businessmen feels authentic in a way that adds to the experience.
Sandoval and Cox are both excellent, and make for a great team. Benny is often obnoxious and aggressive, but Sandoval manages to make these traits endearing and funny. Even when his American traits and habits appear to set Frank's teeth on edge, Sandoval's simple emotions make it easy to forgive him. Cox, comparatively, is supernaturally relaxed, remaining subdued and calm even when Benny is screaming at Frank. Another actor might've been inclined to play Frank more stiffly, less friendly, but this adds to the desire to see these two opposites attract. Robert Wisdom eventually arrives as Leroy, the third businessman, and he fits right into the ensemble, even though his screen time is remarkably brief.
3 Businessmen ultimately arrives at sort of a joke, casually sauntering up to a comic development that will likely dawn on the viewer a moment before it happens. This will disappoint some people who are looking for the film to tie all of its ideas together into some sort of overall point or message, but 3 Businessmen just isn't that kind of movie. It's not a thesis, it's a string of ideas, expressed by two characters that might equate to the two sides of a person's brain. As mentioned previously, this is a mood piece, shifting from awkwardness to warmth to humor to drama and then back to humor, and the audience is just meant to enjoy the experience of getting from one place to another. That's not a journey everyone will want to take, but I would've been happy to see more.
Microcinema offers 3 Businessmen on a DVD-R with stylish cover art of Cox standing on an elevated train platform, looking out at the Tokyo skyline. A bit odd, though, considering Sandoval is technically the lead, that he only shows up on the back cover, and behind Cox to boot. In any case, this clean and efficient art design uses the colors of the photographs in question quite well to create a nice, uniform appearance -- other studios should take note of how easy it is to make a DVD package look fairly classy.
The Video and AUdio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, 3 Businessmen looks every bit the low-budget movie that it is. This is an extremely grainy, extremely soft image, with the hint of green that signifies a fading negative. Blacks are solid, crushing any additional detail in the shadow. Worse, massive and consistent artifacting can be seen inside of those pitch-black shadows. Considering the content -- a surrealist fantasy about two guys talking -- this "aging videotape" look sort of adds to the strangeness of the experience of watching the film, so in some ways it's fitting. Still, there is no measure by which this could be called an impressive DVD transfer. Oddly enough, there is no information on the packaging about the sound, which comes up as simply "MPEG 2.0" when the disc is inserted into my computer. Regardless, the audio's not any crisper than the picture; it too can sound soft and rough around the edges. When the characters trail off into the distance or talk over one another, it would be nice to more clearly discern what they're saying, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn some of that ambiguity is part of the aesthetic point. No subtitles or captions are encoded on the disc.
Only one extra is included, but it's a good one. "3 Businessmen: How to Watch This Film - A User's Guide" (9:33) is a fun little short film reuniting Sandoval, Cox, and Wisdom for a brief little discussion about the artistic ideas behind Cox's work. Despite nearly 10 years between the making of the movie and the making of the short, the trio's comic timing and chemistry is just as potent. However, it's worth warning people (even though it's probably obvious) that this extra isn't going to "explain" the film for people who didn't "get it" (Sandoval plays one of those people in the short).
The presentation on microcincema's 3 Businessmen technically leaves something to be desired, but it's very likely that the source material can't get much better than this. An audio commentary by Cox and Sandoval would've really boosted the value of this package, and the film is for those with obscure, offbeat tastes (i.e. an Alex Cox fan), but those who fit that description should consider this recommended.