“This is my kind of hotel room,” deadpans Jemaine Clement’s virginal gun-for-hire as he settles into the Morehouse Hotel. The line is outrageously funny, because everything about the room is hideous, from the ‘Charge Of The Light Brigade’ picture embedded in the faux wood wall to the bedding that looks like carpet. This world is horrible on a level that’s hard to look at for the length of a film without shrieking or laughing or both. And that’s exactly the point.
Writer-director Jim Hosking made an unforgettable debut with The Greasy Strangler. This follow-up carries over the insistent, precise, aggressive performance style, albeit with better-known lead actors doing their best to match the terrifying commitment of Hosking’s favoured bit-part freaks. Indeed, it might take place in a Greasy Cinematic Universe: an American Nowhere of nearly-empty parking lots, idle eccentrics, quirky food/sex obsessions and bold ’80s music played too loud.
But while The Greasy Strangler was a gross-out serial killer horror film, this is a mutant film noir powered by obsessive desire. In the perfectly matched team of pouting, shoulder-heaving Aubrey Plaza and self-critical, crying-in-the-bathroom Jemaine Clement, Hosking presents a yearning small-town siren and smitten gun-toting thug who might come from a James M. Cain novel or a Robert Mitchum film — but with the heat turned down, so these soft-boiled creatures aren’t rushing to doom, but dawdling to disappointment.
The film is full of people deliberately doing the wrong thing, then tripping up over the consequences. Ordered to let one of his employees go, coffee shop manager Shane Danger (Emile Hirsch) fires his competent wife Lulu (Plaza) rather than either of the useless minions (one Greasy Strangler star Sky Elobar) who feed his big-shot fantasies. A casual mention that Lulu’s vegan snack-selling brother (Sam Dissanayake) has a bigger cash-box than Shane leads to a botched heist and protracted demands for payback. The path to Lulu’s reunion with her lost love is blocked by deadly rival Rodney Von Donkensteiger (Matt Berry), an enabler/masseur/manager who seethes with malice, desire and devotion.
Throughout, we’re promised that the long-delayed ‘evening with Beverly Luff Linn’ will be “a magical experience”, but the exact nature of his act remains unclear until he takes to the stage — and it turns out to be nothing anyone could expect.
The film has its dead spots — a running joke about grunting Beverly’s trapped wind palls quickly — but most of the slow-burn strangeness is a hoot.