10/10/2008

Waltzing Anna


Sadly, not a movie you can dance to.



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Sitting down to write this review, I feel like an elementary school teacher whose most sensitive and well-meaning pupil has just given me a drawing that I don’t quite understand. I admire the intent and can feel the amount of love that went into the picture but the difference is that unfortunately while one can proudly hang such a project on their refrigerator and rave about it to others, when it comes to filmmaking (since we’re supposed to approach the medium at the professional level), the sweetest of intent can’t save a film that’s so woefully clich├ęd and poorly executed that it's nearly unwatchable.

Such is the case of Waltzing Anna, which wears its heart on its DVD cover, proudly and nobly proclaiming the truism that “love is the best medicine.” However, you know the film is in trouble early on (in the credit sequence that in fact doubles as a prologue) when the film’s themes are announced by a supporting character loudly to both the lead actor in case he’s forgotten the script he helped write, as well as the audience just in case we can’t be bothered to pay attention to the simplistic plot.

Best suited to a sitcom-styled public service announcement or short film rather than a feature length film which hits DVD shelves on October 14, directors Doug Bollinger and Bx Giongrete’s earnest yet painfully awkward work begins strongly with a premise that seems to have borrowed heavily from the first season of television’s Northern Exposure, the Michael J. Fox comedy Doc Hollywood, and vintage Frank Capra.

Except this time around, we aren’t following the affable Mr. Deeds nor Mr. Smith but co-writer/producer and star Robert Capelli Jr.’s Dr. Charlie Keegan, a Harvard-educated, unethical and shady doctor who is quickly busted for getting rich off running unnecessary tests on his elderly patients and padding his pockets with proceeds from our corporate insurance systems. Although he assumes he’ll be in the clear since it’s his word against his dementia-ridden patients’, the medical board has a decidedly different idea, banishing Keegan for six months to work at a nursing home in upstate New York or else his license will be revoked for good.

Given the current tragic state of our health care system and a majority of Americans who are uninsured or extremely under-insured, held ransom when they’re ill with co-pays and red tape which was chronicled in Michael Moore’s brilliant documentary, Sicko, initially it seemed there was a lot to like about Waltzing Anna just for the premise alone. And while it will definitely strike a chord on that level, unfortunately, the film wanders into ridiculous and predictable territory as the excruciatingly miscast Capelli (whose hair resembles Chris Farley’s after a freak-out in Tommy Boy) rudely scoffs at the idea of changing diapers or working with the overly eccentric and never believable residents of Shady Pines.

Of course, it turns out Shady Pines is just as shady as its name implies when Capelli finds himself striking an amoral alliance with its administrator—a former used-car salesman who plies the same sleazy techniques to his new trade in trying to rake in as much dough as possible. However, staying true to his friend’s announcement over the credits that he needed to heal himself, our selfish doc is surprised to find himself growing a conscience when he becomes emotionally invested in the lives of two patients (wonderfully played by Betsy Palmer and Pat Hingle) and develops an increasing attraction to Shady’s saintly and sole saving grace in the form of the beautiful young Nurse Jill (You Don’t Mess With the Zohan’s Emmanuelle Chriqui).

About as surprising as a Hallmark card and as subtle as a brick through a window, Waltzing Anna begs you to love it and I kept hoping something in the film would sweep me up in its worthwhile tale which is extremely timely given the state of our nation. Yet, much to my dismay aside from a great supporting cast who are included in interviews on the DVD and the charms of Chriqui (whose chemistry with Capelli is even worse than the one she’d shared with Sandler’s Zohan), mostly you wish that the filmmakers had turned this into a much shorter cinematic call to action they could send to senators in place of petitions and letters. Instead—and while far more high quality than a refrigerator drawing-- ultimately Anna simply preaches to the choir of those who not only agree and are completely on their side (like this reviewer) but wholeheartedly wish they would’ve put their talents to better use.

Whether it would’ve been staying with the admittedly SNL-movie-styled beginning to make it a great Sandler-esque or Will Ferrell underdog comedy about a jerk who must reform or simply excelling at making it a beautiful work of nostalgic sentiment, by moving uneasily between low-level comedy (and we’re talking really low) and discovering one’s inner hero, it’s never quite sure the type of film it wants to be. In fact this is even evidenced in the film’s trailer which is the only other special feature included on the disc, which can also be viewed here.

In the end, all we know is-- we’ve not only seen bits and pieces of Waltzing Anna done better before, but like the referenced drawing, we’re not quite sure exactly what it wanted to be. Still, we admire its existence all the same-- even if unlike the drawing, we can’t recommend the film in the least. Note: for a much better film that involves similar themes, be sure to look for the delightful Irish sleeper How About You (from author Maeve Binchy) which-- following its success in the film festival circuit-- will be appearing in theatres in limited release beginning next month.