Friendship! -- Film Review

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TAORMINA, Italy -- This second film by German commercials director Markus Goller inevitably will remind most viewers of its more accomplished predecessor, "Goodbye, Lenin!," in the genre of "man, was life ever stupid in the former East Germany!" Luckily, "Friendship!" shifts focus to the other end of the spectrum, concentrating on the comic and apparently true-life travails of two young Ossies who decide to head toward San Francisco in 1990 in search of freedom and real junk food.

This shift helps a lot, but the film ends up being crippled by the cliches of the fish-out-of-water road-movie composite genre. But Goller is nothing if not energetic, and he has an ability to keep things moving in the best Hollywood fashion.

As such, the film might be more a calling card for studio work in America, where Goller has lived making commercials for the past eight years. Still, though success for this inventive comedy that doesn't take things too seriously is a virtual given in Germany, sales elsewhere, beyond television, seem remote.

Tom (Matthias Schweighofer) and Veit (Friedrich Mucke) have been close friends since meeting in grade school. To both, the communist system they have grown up under always seemed ridiculous, but having had nothing to compare it with, they never knew why. Then, when the Berlin Wall collapses in 1989, Veit announces that his goal is to travel to San Francisco to find the father who escaped from East Germany years earlier. Tom, his best friend, decides to tag along.

From that moment on, every European cliche about America (negative and positive) is trotted out in a nice, neat row. There are the tough bikers; the fat waitress with the heart of gold; vicious cops and seemingly vicious black ladycops who turn sweet; marijuana-induced laughing jags; Southern beauty queens who say things like, "I didn't even know there were two Germanys"; plus lots of contention about the boys' status as communists, whom all Americans are raised to hate. Unlike West Germans, of course, they know no English, and much of the film's humor relies on inevitable but tediously obvious linguistic misunderstandings.

Eventually, Tom and Veit run, rather improbably, into a beautiful German-speaking girl (Alicja Bachleda) on their long and financially challenged trek across America, and this allows for the welcome expansion of the road movie into more romantic territory before we have completely tired of the high jinks of the two young men.

In fact, the film's virtue is its vice. It always wants to be so intense and so headlong, that spirits must never flag (my God, let's not let this become a normal German movie, all serious and depressing), and the boys and the girl are wildly ecstatic about every experience they have no matter how awful. We are treated to a constant stream of montages where the kids shout out the window of their speeding (and often careening) car to show us how free they feel in the USA. Their naivete about what's permitted in America and what isn't is astonishing, but without that naivete the film wouldn't work at all.

Although it has a couple of serious moments where Goller attempts to go a bit deeper, the essence of America comes to seem like the freedom to revel in junk food that is so much tastier than they ever encountered in that horrible, silly place in which they grew up.

Nonetheless, there are some excellent comic sequences here and there that do work, which leads one to think that Goller is a director to watch and that his next film will be much improved.

Venue: Taormina Film Festival
Production: Wiedemann & Berg Filmproduktion, Mr. Brown Entertainment Produktion
Cast: Matthias Schweighofer, Friedrich Mucke, Alicja Bachleda
Director: Markus Goller
Screenwriter: Oliver Ziegenbalg
Producers: Quirin Berg, Tom Zickler, Max Wiedemann
Director of photography: Ueli Steiger
Music: Peter Horn, Andrej Melita, Martin Probst
Costume designer: Maria Schicker
Editor: Olivia Retzer, Markus Goller
Sales: Bavaria Film International
No rating, 108 minutes
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