Johnny Twennies is a fast-talking reporter for a minor metropolitan newspaper who pounds out his columns on a manual typewriter by day and takes his best girl out to "hit the town and drag a sock" at night. In his snappy three-piece suit and fedora, with an omnipresent cigarette jutting out of his lantern jaw, Johnny is a classic fish out of water on the mean streets of present-day Manhattan. It’s as if he’s stepped straight of a 1940′s Warner Bros. movie about the Roaring Twenties – and maybe he has. No explanation is ever given for Johnny’s temporal dysfunction; Man of the Century is like a time travel movie without the time travel.
This may sound like a thin conceit for a full-length feature, but it’s the sort of premise Woody Allen used to spin into comic gold in such films as Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo. To their credit, director Adam Abraham and his co-screenwriter Gibson Frazier, who also plays Johnny, manage to keep what could have been a one-joke movie popping with genial performances, clever visuals, and outright wackiness.
The humor in the early scenes comes from the juxtaposition of Johnny – with his penchant for anachronistic phrases like "you’re the limit" and "banana oil" – against the milieu of a typical low-budget indie of the 1990′s. His girlfriend Samantha (Susan Egan) runs a modern art gallery with her by-now-obligatory gay best friend, who supplies the requisite bitchy bon mots when Johnny does such things as send a telegram rather than an e-mail. In this context, Johnny can be seen as a metaphor for Man of the Century itself. After all, what could be more out of place among the grim portraits of heroin addicts and child molesters that clutter today’s independent film scene than a cheerful screwball comedy that aims only to entertain?
The plot, such as it is, involves Johnny’s attempts to save his job at the newspaper by exposing a reclusive crime boss, thereby scoring a big scoop. The story is secondary, though, to various unexpected and delightful bits of business that keep cropping up, such as the secret passage Johnny uses to sneak back to his office, or the impromptu jam session that breaks out in his favorite record store. Even when nothing in particular is going on – scenes with Johnny covering the opening of a public library or climbing a perfectly ordinary set of stairs – Abraham wrings laughs simply by using dated montage techniques and musical stingers.
Frazier is pitch-perfect as Johnny, nailing the rat-tat-tat delivery like someone who has stayed up for a month straight watching nothing but AMC – or like Humphrey Bogart trapped in the body of Pee-Wee Herman. The rest of the cast, including Anthony Rapp (Dazed and Confused) and ex-Riddler Frank Gorshin, is excellent as well. Though it suffers from occasional narrative lapses and a busy climax that aims for screwball nuttiness but ends up settling for frantic confusion, Man of the Century eventually triumphs through sheer goofy charm. Just like Johnny Twennies himself.
– Scott Von Doviak .