I’m calling it here and now: Michael Keaton is the Debra Winger of male actors in Hollywood. Any film appearance by Keaton, whose roles have become more and more sporadic over the past decade, is anticipated almost as hotly as Winger’s. An onscreen sighting is like the passing of a rare comet—an event to witness because the opportunity might never arise again. But then again, maybe not: Winger would have never appeared in something like Herbie: Fully Loaded.
But The Merry Gentleman, Keaton’s directorial debut, is still a welcome break from his obscurity. The film is an ironically-titled tale of two lonely hearts who rescue each other from their demons and connect in the dead of winter. In addition to directing, Keaton returns to acting in fine form as the lonely, suicidal Frank Logan, a quiet tailor by day who moonlights as a hit man for his suit clients by night. His haggard and scowling face obviates the need for a lot of dialogue, conveying his despair with hopeless stares and few words. Keaton’s subdued performance walks a fine line between a frighteningly cold, hardened killer and a vulnerable man who is in just as much in need of saving as the poor souls he kills.
Kelly Macdonald plays the innocent girl-next-door Kate Frazier, whose lamb-like demeanor belies her darker more damaged self. One evening after leaving work, Kate looks up to admire the snow and sees a man about to jump from a building across the street. She startles him with her scream, and he falls backward away from the ledge and disappears into the night. What she doesn’t know is this man is Logan. This ironic encounter shadows the relationship that unfolds through the rest of the film. Frazier becomes an angel in Logan’s eyes, saving him yet again after he seeks her out at her apartment one evening for mysterious, unknown reasons but falls ill on the stoop.
As a woman who has run away to Chicago from an abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale) to start anew, Kate finds plenty of admirers thanks to her exotic heritage (Macdonald has kept her Scottish accent here) and charming personality. However, building trust with others has become a challenge, specifically with a Chicago police detective (Tom Bastounes, also the film’s producer), who pursues her doggedly throughout the course of the film. The fact that she is so quick to trust Frank and build a friendship with him is somewhat surprising given her hesitancy towards other relationships, but their understandable connection through loneliness gives the friendship some believability. Kate gravitates towards the silent nature of Frank because she’s not interested in talking about herself and he doesn’t probe and ask questions—and neither does she.
Keaton’s directing shows promise. Screenwriter Ron Lazzaretti was set to direct but fell ill three weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin, allowing Keaton to take over in order to save the project. Many of his directorial decisions lend an unexpected energy to the work, including the idea that Macdonald maintain her accent, which keeps her further removed and isolated from those around her. His location scouting around Chicago turned up obscure streets, parks, and restaurants that suggest an “anywhere” feeling; Keaton rejects Chicago iconography and focuses instead on the grainy grey palette of a Chicago winter, which suits this tragic story well. Additionally, his direction of the film’s first five minutes is inspired, especially with the first murder we see Frank Logan commit. His decision to leave the ending of the film so open-ended also adds a great deal of energy to the film as well.
The Merry Gentleman is a respectable, smart, and unconventional film that does not rely on Hollywood gloss despite its big-name cast and crew. Yet it’s too unconventional and low-key for its own good and, as a result, comes off as amateurish at times. It also has a hard time finding a good rhythm, and the film tends to drag in some places. There are a handful of awkward scenes that feel out of sync with the film as a whole, particularly one where Keaton and Macdonald burn a Christmas tree. Such religious symbolism becomes too heavy-handed after a while, especially when Bobby Cannavale gives the weakest performance of the film with his hammy “I found Jesus” acting.
Yet on the whole, the film is a nice alternative to the big superhero opening of Wolverine. It suggests that semi-retired superheroes like Batman can still make movies that mean something outside of Hollywood’s cheap emotions and thrills.