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God's Lonely Man
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Martin Scorsese must blush 24 hours a day. His early masterpieces are constantly referenced by other filmmakers but rarely has one of his films been so closely mimicked as with God's Lonely Man (1996), Francis Von Zerneck's nearly scene-for-scene copy of Taxi Driver. While the title may come from the writings of Thomas Wolfe there's no doubt that Von Zerneck took it from the mouth of Scorsese and Paul Schrader's Travis Bickle. God's Lonely Man charts the descent into madness of Earnest (Michael Wyle), a clerk at an adult bookstore who feels disconnected from the rest of mankind. He reaches out to some of the women in his life, first to Meredith (Justine Bateman...yes, THAT Justine Bateman), the daughter of the owner of the bookshop, and then to Christiane (Heather McComb), a troubled 15 year old caught up in prostitution and porn. Surrounded by drugs and degradation, Earnest's anger and frustration build until he explodes in graphic violence, killing those that he perceives to be the root of his problems, seeking to save Christiane in the process.
It's absurd that Von Zerneck thinks there's anything original in his film. Everything is a direct port from Scorsese's film: Bateman is playing Cybill Shepherd's role (although here he doesn't need to trick her into going to see porn, she's already there), McComb plays Jodie Foster's and Paul Dooley plays Harvey Keitel's. Often the dialog comes directly from the earlier film. Even Earnest's wardrobe is taken nearly thread-for-thread from Travis.
Why would someone do such a thing? The temptation to recreate Taxi Driver is a strong one. Many filmmakers have internalized that film's extraordinary structure, characters and sense of place. Other films have based themselves on the premise (heck, my high school garage band even wrote a five minute heavy metal rock opera on the film called, you guessed it, "God's Lonely Man.") But to steal the way Von Zerneck has done is not only offensive but boring.
Sure his Earnest takes harder drugs than Travis and instead of merely burning his hand to strengthen his resolve he actually mutilates it. But the soul of that classic is entirely absent here. Wyle must have been cast for his uncanny resemblance to young De Niro (with a healthy dose of Pacino mixed in) but his jerky movements cry out with calculated mimicry and his annoying voice, especially when reciting Von Zerneck's absurdly expository dialog, is much closer to Woody Allen's nasal whine than De Niro's droll grunts.
There have been a number of films that have received acclaim but that, upon reviewing, I've found totally useless. God's Lonely Man played the Sundance Film Festival and received some positive notices. What were these people thinking? Have they never seen Taxi Driver? I shudder to think that someone who hasn't will see this instead and think they're watching something.
The widescreen transfer is okay, if a little lacking in contrast. The film, shot in bland Los Angeles locations, doesn't have a particularly distinctive look and the transfer is a bit lacking in vibrancy. Some dark lighting set-ups, however, translate well.
The Dolby Digital soundtrack is fine. Voices are clear and James Fearnley's score sounds good.
A trailer is included. Also included are a behind-the-scenes "documentary" and a commentary track. The "documentary" is actually entirely uninteresting video footage from the set with no narration or structure. The footage looks terrible. The commentary features director Von Zerneck, editor Lawrence Maddox, and DP Dennis Smith. The technicians make some good observations but Von Zerneck talks most of the time. It's perplexing how clueless he seems. He talks endlessly about the influence that The Exorcist had on his film (what about Taxi Driver, fella?) and he quotes Wyle as having said that he based his character's twitchiness on the movements of pigeons. Then why does he imitate every little gesture that De Niro makes in the original?
I don't want to belabor the point but God's Lonely Man is not an homage to Taxi Driver. It is a rip-off. There is no other way to say it. Viewers would be wise to avoid this pale imitation and go for the breathtaking original.