Mr. Right (Paco Cabezas, 2015)

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Sam Rockwell dancing, Anna Kendrick snarking and twinkling—what’s not to like? Mr. Right leans hard on the considerable charm of its leads and the skill of its supporting cast (most notably the excellent Tim Roth and the very funny newcomer Katie Nehra), and while it too often feels formulaic and forced, it’s still good fun.

We first meet Martha McKay (Kendrick) as she is done wrong by her cheating boyfriend. Out on a bender with friends to try to heal her wounds, she meets Francis (Rockwell), who asks her out on a date. The movie strains plausibility almost immediately as we’re asked to believe that Kendrick (age 30) feels an irresistible attraction to the somewhat goofy-looking, aloha-shirt-wearing Rockwell (age 47). This set-up is transparently and all-too-familiar wish-fulfillment on the part of the studio types responsible for this storyline and the innumerable others of its kind. But the movie saves itself from its May-September casting and its too-often lazy and awkward dialogue when it lets its leads improvise. When Kendrick and Rockwell take over, suddenly the movie crackles, and their characters’ chemistry becomes almost believable.

The film’s plausibility, unfortunately, is strained again and again beyond just the age gap between its leads. (And yes, the comedy is supposed to be winky and absurdist—but even absurdist comedies need to be believable enough to justify our interest.) Francis, it turns out, is a whistling hitman who wears a clown nose and dances during jobs. The dancing, of course, is what we know and love Rockwell for best, and I for one feel cheated whenever he acts without dancing. But the dancing-while-doing-harm here is a distraction—this was done earlier and much better by Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs—and is narratively justified only by Francis’ belief that he can feel the Force flowing through him, or something to that effect, and that he uses ripples in the fabric of the physical world around him to guide his hand (and feet) during hits. We learn that Francis has opted out of whacking the people he’s been contracted to kill in favor of whacking the people who hired him to kill them—a kind of “moral code” that the film uses to try to convince us that Francis is a more sympathetic character than he really is. After he meets Martha, we follow Francis as he tries to renounce killing altogether because he believes that Martha wouldn’t like what he does. Complications ensue, Martha figures things out, and after some pretty wooden dialogue among the supporting players, something like resolution arrives for Francis and, especially, Martha.

Kendrick’s comic gifts—she is the queen of the perfect reaction shot—ultimately rescue the film, and when her character comes into her own late in the film, I was ready to forgive most of the film’s lapses. There’s a certain pleasure in discovering that Francis’ role in the film is ultimately just to help Martha self-actualize. This is a welcome change from the more standard Hollywood plot in which the heroine exists principally to catalyze something in the hero. (The same can be said, and has been said often, about the parallel role of characters of color in most American films: existing principally to help white people self-actualize, rather than as fully formed characters in their own right.) It would be a spoiler to say exactly how this self-actualization comes about, but it leaves me hoping for a sequel—Ms. Right—that focuses on Martha and her new self, at work in the world.

I wish this film was better than it is. The plot is in many ways a retread of earlier, stronger films. Gross Pointe Blank did the story of the funny hitman seeking redemption much better—with more actual wit and feeling and fewer crass knife-in-the-ass sight gags. And everyone from Chow Yun-fat to John Travolta has played the cool hitman with an ethical streak more convincingly—with almost as much dancing! But Mr. Right is not an entirely unworthy successor. The film is genuinely funny in its throwaway moments, thanks especially to Kendrick’s impeccable delivery. And, man, can Sam Rockwell dance.

Mr. Right opens nationwide on Friday.

 

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