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In Urbania, first-time director Jon Shear uses a neo-noir
style that aptly frames his story (based on a play by Daniel Reitz) about love found
and love lost in the sex-charged, violence-prone, always vaguely threatening big city.
Shear fills the screen with incidental passages based on "urban folklore" (such
as the female sexual predator who steals men's kidneys) and the kind of street people that
seasoned urban dwellers usually do their best to make invisible--the beggars, the crazies,
the bizarre. You're emphatically not in Kansas any more.
The central character, Charlie (Dan Futterman), is heartsick for a
lover who has moved on; he's unable to sleep and given to leaving desparate messages on
his ex's answering machine. That Charlie is gay is important to the film and the context
of his experience, but the film doesn't develop the kind of enclosed gay-ghetto
sensibility that makes the straight characters intruders; the gays and the non-gays are
enveloped together in the stressful world of unpredictable strangers and strangeness.
"Just when you though you had it all under control..." Charlie says. Control and
lack of control is an issue here. Risk and loss is an issue--particularly in matters of
emotional contact and sexuality. And likable Charlie turns out to be working the
edges of danger himself, as if he needs the element of danger to get him past the numbed
emotions left by love lost.
Shear skillfully captures this steamy
atmosphere and takes his time to develop Charlie into a rounded character, intelligently
played by Dan Futterman who shows the gentle surface, the emotional distress, and
surprising underlying anger and violence. Charlie is the only genuinely three
dimensional character; the others are little more than cameos, there as foils to elucidate
the story and reflect back on Charlie. The best of these is Alan Cumming as Charlie's
friend Brett, bruised and brittle and all too ready to retaliate perceived slights with
biting words. (He's dying of AIDS after "the cure" has been found and complains,
"I so hate being behind the curve.") Dean (Samuel Ball), the tatooed
sleazeball who Charlie tails through much of the film is appropriately thuggish, but no
Too often Shear has the dialogue (or the voiceover) spell out his
themes, unnecessary redundancy when the events onscreen are clearly making the points. And
his imagination-charged multipicity of incidents (many based on documented "urban
legends"), while thematically related and cleverly interwoven, are tangential and
threaten to overwhelm the central plotline and dissipate the forward thrust of the story.
Less might have been more in this case.
Still, on a limited budget, and pioneering new techniques in
digital post-production processing, Shear has created a thoughful and multilayered film
permeated with a powerful atmosphere of menace that carries the drama despite its flaws.
So much is out of our control, he suggests (did he really need to name a bar
"Karma"?), but even when we regain an illusion of control, that may turn out not
to be the answer after all. "There are some times," quotes Brett doing Glenda
Jackson, "when nothing has to be better than anything."
- Arthur Lazere