Overview: An increasingly harried landlord desperately tries to collect the rent from his possibly villainous, possibly insane tenants. Dedalus Films; 2017; Not Rated; 91 minutes.
Eisenstein Wept: Oh, how the old Soviet masters must be spinning in their graves. For with Michael Clayton’s The Dunning Man we have a film where a landlord isn’t just the protagonist but the valorous hero in a story that’s essentially just him trying to collect late rent payments from his tenants. What’s worse: we cheer for him the whole time. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. The landlord, Connor Ryan (James Carpinello), isn’t some Wall Street real estate tycoon; he’s just a hapless guy who made the disastrous mistake of investing in Atlantic City low-rise condos following a nasty breakup. We all deal with loss differently. Of course, it also helps us sympathize with his plight when we learn that many of his tenants are Chechen gangsters who use a Siegfried & Roy tiger act as a front for a money laundering scheme. Who also host furry orgies. In the middle of the day. And who aren’t afraid to randomly assault Connor and demand that he strip down naked. As I said: perspective is everything.
Mean Streets of Atlantic City: It’s difficult to talk about The Dunning Man, not because it’s weird or disturbing, but because it’s a film never really figures out what kind of movie it wants to be. At first, the film is written and shot like a gangster/crime thriller. Much is aped from Martin Scorsese (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing): stock footage of Atlantic City from the early 20th Century plays while ironically detached folk and rock music blares in the background; long shots full of negative space help emphasize the isolation of its protagonist within his urban milieu; there is much intense discussion of organized crime juxtaposed against characters doing mundane, everyday tasks around their houses. And whenever an important character shows up, the film freezes and inter-titles pop up giving brief dossiers. Take Alice (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), Conner’s love interest and the only one of his tenants who isn’t a constant nightmare. When we meet her, this is what pops up:
“Alice – The Tenant
—still searching for a man as good as her dad
—12 credits away from earning a master’s in Public Health
—mayonnaise makes her gag”
But for a film that ostensibly prides itself on being a kind of crazed anti-caper, it constantly interrupts its narrative with extended music video sequences of Connor walking the economically desiccated streets and beaches of Atlantic City, pausing here and there to stare meaningfully at the ocean. What’s more, it interrupts its stylistic enthusiasm and chaotic joie de vivre with scenes of emotional introspection—something I would normally applaud yet nevertheless feels oddly out-of-place in a film that frequently seems to aspire to the breathless madness of Scorcese’s Mean Streets (1973 ). What’s more, these are usually the best scenes in the film.
Consider one scene where Connor has a midnight heart-to-heart with his tenant Stryker Jones (Nicoye Banks), a one-time multi-platinum selling rapper who’s retreated from private life. When we first meet him, he’s every rapper stereotype imaginable. He even has a naked woman who does his housework for him in-between bouts of raucous lovemaking. But as the film goes on, we gradually learn that it’s all a front and he’s a deeply introspective, deeply thoughtful man disillusioned with the music industry and life in general. And when the two finally meet one night to talk about life, love, and loss, we realize that we care more for these characters than we do any number of interchangeable action movie heroes.
Overall: But for all its flaws and unevenness, The Dunning Man isn’t without its charms. Its various bits and pieces never completely add up into a coherent whole, but enough of those same bits and pieces are pleasing enough on their own to make the film recommendable.
Featured Image: Dedalus Films