Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald, "Trainspotting," "No Country for Old Men") is well liked at her new job as a receptionist at Maas and Associates. Her black eye raises comments which the very private girl fends off in different ways, but no one knows she is running away from a dark past. One night shortly before Christmas, it begins to snow as Kate is leaving the office, causing her to look up. She sees a man standing on the ledge of the building across the street and her shout startles him, causing him to slip backwards onto the roof. When she reports what she has seen, Detective Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes, "The Opera Lover") and his partner tell her that she has more than likely seen the man who shot someone in an office in her same building in "The Merry Gentleman."
Just when you think if you've seen one blackly humorous, somewhat romantic movie about a hit man you've seen 'em all, along comes Michael Keaton who hasn't been seen on the big screen since 2005, making a most auspicious directorial debut. This movie would seem to have several strikes against it - the loner hit man who falls for an intended victim, a script (by Ron Lazzeretti) full of angels and Jesus's arms and other religious symbolism, an out of season release date paired with an odd title - but instead turns out to be an understated, uniquely cunning and most pleasant surprise.
We know Kate has run away from abusive husband Michael (Bobby Cannavale, "The Station Agent," "Paul Blart: Mall Cop"), but she doesn't tell a soul. She tells coworker Diane (Darlene Hunt, "I Heart Huckabees," "Idiocracy") the shiner's from getting hit with a hockey puck, then tells Murcheson she had a drunken encounter with a telescope. Like many of her office mates, Murcheson's charmed by her Scottish accent and her funny story, so on the pretense of giving her an update on the case, he asks her out. When she discovers their dinner is a date, she promptly leaves. Her strong reaction is perhaps caused by more than Murcheson's false pretenses as in the interim she's met Frank Logan (Michael Keaton, "Beetle Juice," "White Noise"), the man who rescued her in her apartment foyer when she ended up felled by her oversize Christmas tree. Kate doesn't recognize Logan as the man from the ledge (he is a hit man, but is also a suicidal one), and his quiet way combined with a need for rescue (he passes out, a victim of pneumonia, and she gets him to the hospital) appeals to her. It seems they need each other and the two begin a companionship of the soul, but the arrival of yet another gentleman, Kate's repentant ex, strains the peace and threatens to expose Frank's identity.
Lazzeretti's script could have been a recipe for disaster, but Keaton has achieved a minor miracle, setting a tone that is at once melancholy and hopeful and a leisurely pace that allows us to live in these characters' world with moments big and small. In looking at the filmmakers' credits, one can see the connections which led to jobs and casting (Keaton starrer "White Noise" was shot by cinematographer Chris Seager who also shot Kelly MacDonald's "The Girl in the Cafe," screenwriter Lazzeretti's little known "The Opera Lover" was cowritten with and starred Tom Bastounes) and what a lucky confluence of talent. The acting here is marvelous. Keaton's Logan is not a conversationalist, but with few words we see that his personal agonies are calmed by Kate's presence. MacDonald's Kate practically cowers, yet she is able to convey that, with trusted friends, she blossoms. The two have terrific chemistry together and, with no physical interaction, create a strong romantic bond. Casting directors should take note of Tom Bastounes, whose Murcheson describes himself as a 'divorced, overweight alcoholic,' yet is nonetheless likable and attractive (if cursed by his inability to admit to his own description).
Truth, comfort and redemption are at the heart of "The Merry Gentleman," and Keaton avoids sugary sentimentality by loading the spiritual symbolism with both a double edge and respect for faith. Thematic elements, such as the literal giving of the shirt off one's back or thwarted suicides, circle neatly back upon themselves. Others, like the creases in a hospital pillow that gives Frank Logan angels' wings, are visualized. Production Design by Jennifer Dehghan ("The Squid and the Whale's" art director) is dark and old fashioned, befitting the subject and the season. Chicago's never seemed so lonely yet so magical. Original music by Jon Sadoff and Ed Shearmur ("Factory Girl") is almost generic, but subtly suitable.
While not exactly dependent upon the holiday for its telling, "The Merry Gentleman" is a Christmas movie of the best kind. It deserves an audience and if it fails to find one at the box office, it should be destined for holiday classic status. It certainly will be one in my home.
Robin did not see this film.
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