“Hey white boy, what you doing uptown?
Hey white boy, you chasing our women around?”
On Boris Wexler’s Roundabout American
By Pablo D’Stair
Being something equal parts cinema-lover and fatuous film-theorist, the experience of viewing Boris Wexler’s Roundabout American was a very particularized pleasure for me. As perhaps some people have come to know through my writing, I have a bit of a soft spot for both dry, low-key comedy and for the “outsider looking in” expression of specialized aspects of America and its culture. Wexler’s film delivers on both counts but does, in my view, something quite a step more interesting on top.
Our lead Alex (Edouard Giard) is a French divorcee who comes to America to be with a young woman he chatted with a few times on the internet, only to discover rather than the full-on-zesty-abandon sort of very French passion he had been expecting, he is unceremoniously told he ought not to have bothered, as the young woman needs to stay with her current lover due to the fellow having “drinking and anger issues” which necessitate her loyalty and help. So our French-transplant finds a crumby flophouse motel, spends a night drinking at an equally dismal hole of a nowhere bar, expounding his desire to understand and be truly American—to be unrefined, without class, to be joyfully-joyless by freeing himself of the burden of the incessantly ennui-laden romantic ideas inherent in the European. And when he wakes the next morning after having gotten blotto drunk, he discovers he has made a friend who seems capable of providing him with the opportunity to do just that—Ron (Patrick Zielinski) obese, guileless, open-armed and easy-hearted, offers a walking tour of the city of Chicago.
Now, here is where my intrigue with the film began—already immersed in the atmosphere of the foreigner as fish-out-of-water, I half expected the theme to continue, this to be a “Well isn’t America funny when looked at from X Y or Z perspective” deal, but rather than go this (often delightful but certainly well-and-often-trod) route, the view of America’s Culture Wexler explores is far more ethereal, closer to an exploration of America’s Culturelessness. Closer, though not quite the thing—it seemed Alex was being traveled through an America as expressed only by a series of progressing tropes pulled from US film-comedies, each segueing quite seamlessly into the other to give a narrative of neither external nor internal logic, a logic that drifts through itself, a kind of commentary on the celluloid dream-life of the typical American-nobody, a person more aware of their world through its expression via lowest common denominator cinematic silliness than even a vague sense of the reality this silliness purports to skewer.
But let me be less ethereal in description, myself. As the film progresses, we see Alex guided through such time honored tropes as “Foreigner-getting-to-know-indigenous-American,” this via Alex befriending Ron—they walk the streets and have non-sequitur, witty back-and-forths, the exaggerated buffoonery Alex expected and (only perhaps sarcastically) spoke of the night before while drunken (something which seems should be personified spot-on by Ron) revealing itself to be less a grotesque and more a kind of “loser-zen.” Then, we have the “Meet the American-cum-foreign family” sequence, the script (which, by the way, boarders on being Bottle Rocket repeatable and nuanced in delivery…or if not quite Bottle Rocket perhaps what Gentleman Broncos should have been but just didn’t quite hit) done in a style of classically stage-mannered comedy—overly awkward introductions, precisely honed stereotypes that don’t quite fit stereotypes, the oddball secondary character who enters the room just to energetically deliver a humorous punch amidst deadpan-worlds-collide confusion only to bolt out, only to bolt back in twice as awkwardly at the next Flight of the Conchords-esque scriptural lull.
During all of this, we also get our first hint of “oddball fringe plot” that will extend our odd-couple’s adventure—in this case Ron taking far too seriously Alex’s offhand idea about a pizza delivery service that also delivers prostitutes. Yes, just so very American a comedy trope, the “No, this is not a very good or necessarily comedically sound idea…but it is a reason enough for hijinks” through which Wexler seems to delight in pointing out the distance between refinement-in-absurd-comedy and American-boneheadedness-in-comedy, coyly twisting the two around a controlled finger into an actual cohesive unit of genuine commentary. The foreigner finds the idea absurd as something to actualize, decides to spend his last day in the country spending money indulgently and, as long as the idea of prostitutes has come up, by getting himself one of those (and, of course, one of the classy kind).
And here we have our next trope—for it just must be so in American comedies that Love is just a bought-and-paid-for fuck away, especially when the prostitute (Helena, a marvelous performance by Marielle de Rocca-Serra) is a golden hearted foreigner pretending to be an American, herself, and so capable of falling into the kind of unthought-through love Americans tend to over-romanticize foreigners into the high priests of. And love it is–instantaneous and full. Love it is.
Cue the “Let’s go ahead and run with that pizza/prostitute business solution to all woes of all our characters” trope—though Wexler is wise enough to take this forced-no-matter-how-you-slice-it decision and treat it as an enthusiastic romp, as the delivery system for commenting on the obviously blundersome heart of any such comedy. That is, unlike, say, Kevin Smith with his wholly dreadful Zack and Miri Make A Porno, wherein Smith tries to eke out some genuine pathos, to sublimate a boorish idea meant for eventual frat-house slapstick into something it simply is not, Wexler just tick-tock-tick-tock moves through the permutations of “running with a zany idea being harder than it seems” (some very nice scenes of interviewing potential whores) and seems to consciously do so only insofar as it serves to get Alex back together with his hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold (who, in case you hadn’t guessed, is quite business savvy, to boot).
Ah, but I am remiss in not mentioning that delicately throughout this all some of the most important Wild Card tropes of Comedy-Movie-American-Style have been sprinkled in: we have the “friend with connections” who, overzealous and undereducated, has the entrepreneurial zap to get things going, if not smoothly then just enough to bring in the “running afoul of organized crime” element for some sense of that danger a comedy-trope-tour of America would not be complete without—and just for good measure, this criminal element allows for the high stakes “dirty politician” (in many senses of the term) angle to come into play.
And well…mix em up, mix em up the film plays on—but all for the purpose of our central wanderer Alex being able to explore himself in the funhouse mirror of how “the romantic male” is portrayed within the framework of the American laugh-along zeitgeist. Some ups, some downs, some of those hijinks I mentioned earlier and another slate of rom-buddy-caper-comedy tropes eventually leaving Alex spat out just right back where he started, deus ex machina, all’s well that ends…well…maybe not quite.
Let me reset a moment to explain that my aforementioned delight of this film was a measured thing on first viewing and that just around this seemingly “happy-in-a-way” ending being delivered I thought it had taken a wrong turn, lost the plot and actually just flatly become what I for a moment thought I’d been too generously considering it merely utilizing as a platform for delivering some original slant. Because, of course, to row through the choppy waters of some ten or a dozen American comedy tropes can lead to a kind of seasickness, a little bit on the viewer’s part of “Well…I might be interested in this despite this” by the point of a sudden injection of “all of that was just for chuckles.”
Thankfully though, the film ends up even more where it started than it seemed it was going to—in fact it arrives Alex back to his baseline Europeaness, his malaise-ridden, hopeless-romantic self. For in the fallout of the rumble-tumble of zaniness, Helena is deported back to Russia, receiving not so much as a “Je t’aime” from Alex when he briefly speaks to her through partitioning glass at Immigration.
Alex, dutiful to his pulsating romantic overreach, months later takes a trip to Russia, arriving as he did in America, only to be met by Helena, properly put in his place by having it quite soberly explained that life does not work like a European romance, either, and then left outside a rather intimidating Russian nowhere hotel—no prospects, no love, just a heart full of never-going-to-be-filled.
Roundabout American is an understated, distinct, an uniquely affected journey through-and-out-of an America I can only imagine is exactly how the one I live in must seem to those who dwell outside of it—baffling, inane, meaningless, best appreciated in either just arriving to or being ejected from.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing late in 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.