7/30/2008

Meet Bill


Alternate Title: Bill (2007)
Directors: Bernie Goldman & Melisa Wallack

Replacing the storm clouds and rain that established the dour tone of Gore Verbinski’s mirthless windy city set “dramedy” The Weather Man for sunnier skies and a lighter, brighter change of scenery, the similarly themed Aaron Eckhart vehicle Meet Bill not only benefits from the false sense of inviting warmth in its location change but also adds a subtle ironic counterpoint to the unraveling of our neurotic main character.

Whether he’s playing the cocky tobacco spokesman in Thank You For Smoking, the sleazy, racist, used car salesman adulterer in Nurse Betty, or the handsome, grown up boy scout in the final season of TV’s Frasier, like a lot of attractive men, Eckhart seems to have the most fun playing against his appearance and this latest performance is no exception.

Like Nicolas Cage’s Weather Man character, Bill (Eckhart) is filled with self-loathing and dysfunction but whereas Cage portrayed an aggressively ambitious, narcissistic louse, Bill is the type of guy whose name you’d probably immediately forget as soon as you shook his hand at a cocktail party, which makes the film’s poster all the more fitting. In fact, his own wife Jess (Elizabeth Banks) and smug, contemptuous and condescending in-laws including his boss and father-in-law, Mr. Jacoby (Holmes Osborne) and Jacoby’s sycophantic son John Jr. (Todd Louiso) hardly seem aware of him at all, except when the time comes to send him on meaningless errands, of course with the perpetual warning that he better not screw anything up.

Unhappily saddled with a trivial position at the Jacoby’s ironically named Family Freedom Bank, Bill’s rank as a useless V.P. is repeatedly in lieu of his true, unnamed position as the family’s whipping boy from running off copies like a glorified secretary to fetching the fresh kill of the Jacoby men from their latest hunt. Prone to second guessing every move Bill makes, it’s hardly a wonder that in that sort of environment, Bill seldom has the courage to make one on his own and although outwardly, Bill seems to have grown accustomed to constantly being patronized, internally, he’s a volcano ready to explode.

Nevertheless, as harsh as the Jacoby family is on Bill, like most insecure and sensitive individuals, he’s his own worst enemy. Sure enough, all the proof we need for Bill’s self-loathing prophecies can be found in the film’s opening minutes as we encounter the overweight, poorly groomed man sizing himself up in a bathroom mirror and in an unmerciful voice-over critiquing every aspect of not only his professional and personal life but his physical appearance as well.

It’s an image that one doesn’t often associate with conventional masculinity, even in our contemporary era of metrosexuals. And while granted, the screenplay for Meet Bill was in fact penned by a woman (Melisa Wallack who co-directed the film with Bernie Goldmann), the concerns that Bill expresses to himself don’t seem that far out of left field and any woman who’s been privy to the inner workings of the heterosexual middle aged male mind know that-- despite what the media would like us to believe-- both genders have similar preoccupations when it comes to their appearance.

Needless to say, what Bill needs most in life is change, and his unlikely agent to do so comes in the form of an unnamed precocious teenage boy (actor Logan Lerman in a role credited simply as The Kid) who bursts into Bill’s restroom of frustration to escape a school official. Possibly impressed by the fact that Bill doesn’t squeal on the youngster or perhaps drawn with pathos driven curiosity to the adult’s obvious midlife crisis , The Kid latches onto Bill like a magnet, and despite the elder man’s protests, surreptitiously maneuvering to become the student Bill is fast-talked into mentoring as part of a company-wide volunteer program.

However, we quickly realize that in Bill’s case, The Kid is the one doing most of the mentoring, helping Eckhart develop a stronger backbone in saying “no” for the first time in his life, supporting the man’s odd desire to open up a doughnut franchise to free himself from the Jacoby stranglehold and more importantly, coming to the rescue with a bizarre plan for revenge after Bill discovers that his wife has been having an affair.

If it sounds like a spoiler, rest assured it isn’t, since indication that Jess has been fooling around is introduced nearly from the get-go as we, along with Bill, sense an uncomfortably worrisome level of intimacy between Jess and Chip, (Timothy Olyphant), the local, cheesy “On the Scene” news guy. One of those local pretentious celebrities not unlike the one Cage played in The Weather Man, Chip is the type of guy we dislike immediately, possibly because—as his name implies—we know he’s going to chip away at Bill from the moment the two share a scene. Although, perhaps if we would have known how much fun it would be to watch Bill crumble, we would’ve thanked Chip instead of hating him from the start.

Innocuous, predictable, yet refreshingly affable thanks to the lead actors, Meet Bill thankfully avoids the trappings of raunchy, toilet driven humor for its genre and sadly after debuting at The Toronto Film Festival, failed to garner a wide theatrical release before being unceremoniously dropped on DVD shelves. And although her beautiful face appears prominently on the DVD box as a selling point, Jessica Alba turns in a nice if tragically underwritten performance in a very minor role as a kind lingerie salesgirl on whom The Kid nurses a hopeless crush. However, much like the surprising friendship between Bill and The Kid does feel a bit conveniently cinematic (and owes a great deal to Rushmore and Harold and Maude), admirably Alba’s role never feels clich├ęd, even when The Kid enlists her help in trying to make Jess jealous by pretending she’s the new woman in Bill’s life.

Despite an over-the-top third act which makes the unfortunate decision to abandon the film’s more subtle and clever style of humor in favor of going for bigger and broader gags to garner larger chuckles, the uneven but surprisingly enjoyable film is far more viewer friendly than your local gloomy Weather Man. And while it’s hardly on par with more sophisticated midlife crisis fare such as Sideways or Little Miss Sunshine, it’s a small gem of a sleeper. It’s also one that, for those who take the time to seek it out, offers additional evidence that Eckhart-- the same man who first made a terrifying impression on moviegoers in his dark roles in Neil LaBute’s first two films and most recently took on the role of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight-- is quite a versatile performer with equal gifts in drama and comedy, or more accurately, to cite Bill’s genre-- in dramedy.