The Land of the Astronauts -- Film Review

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MONTREAL -- Visually assured but chock full of cliches, Belgian-born filmmaker Carl Colpaert's "The Land of the Astronauts" is a waste of a promising premise and a game lead actor, David Arquette. Centered on a struggling Los Angeles film composer who takes a job as a limousine driver, the movie establishes an alluringly moody atmosphere only to come crashing down to earth with an off-tune script and shaky storytelling.

Though "The Land of the Astronauts" showcases an uncommonly meaty dramatic role for Arquette, it is hard to imagine a film this erratic getting much attention on the festival circuit. A slow pace and what are likely to be mostly negative reviews will seriously limit box office potential, despite an intriguing storyline and evocative look.

The movie has a familiar starting point: Jack (Arquette), a formerly successful composer emerging from a period of hard drinking and personal turmoil, takes a job driving celebrities. We've seen it before, but early scenes peak our interest. As Jack drives around the city, usually in between pick-ups rather than on the job, Colpaert creates a potent sense of the character's solitude in a vast urban landscape; as filmed from the dimly lit interior of a limo, Sunset Boulevard, with all the neon-tinged billboards and gliding cars, looks like a sumptuous, lonely dream world.

Original music by Carlos Durango -- a mix of '80s-style synthesizer and Pink Floyd-esque electric guitar -- effectively adds to a feeling of bleary-eyed melancholy. Arquette, meanwhile, tempers his character's desperation with a scruffy charm, and for a little while at least, it looks like we're in for a modest character portrait of an essentially well-intentioned and talented man facing some dire circumstances.

Unfortunately, the idea of the lead spending most of the movie by himself seems to have been too radical for the filmmakers. A half hour in, hopelessly conventional secondary characters and some very creaky plot mechanics start cluttering up the picture, and never leave. The first red flag is an unnecessary back story, which carries a strong whiff of recycled material and proves symptomatic of an all-too-common compulsion among filmmakers: explaining the main character's behavior through the introduction of past trauma.

Lo and behold, Jack has an ex-wife and daughter, and the film starts dropping very conspicuous hints that he is suffering from guilt over the death of another child. Jack's tense relationship with his wary family doesn't get much screen time -- though what is shown never rises above soap opera level.

Most of Jack's interactions are with two totally two-dimensional characters: Erika, a feisty, down-on-her-luck singer (Bijou Phillips) who strikes Jack's fancy at an AA meeting, and Thomas, a vain movie star (Nicholas Bishop) to whom Jack plays chauffeur. It's hard to tell how much of the flirtatious friendship between Jack and perky depressive Erika is real and how much is imagined -- especially when he runs into her dressed as a princess on a movie set spaceship, in one of the film's most strenuously surreal sequences.

Our uncertainty about whether Jack is going off the proverbial deep end is indicative of the filmmakers' lack of control over their tone: We're never entirely sure if it's the protagonist or the film itself that is offbeat and trippy. Furthermore, scenes that are clearly meant to be Jack's fantasies are arbitrary and inane, with discernibly little to do with anything else in the movie. Two song-and-dance routines, one involving Erika and the other Jack's daughter, seem especially out-of-place.

"The Land of the Astronauts" ends up lurching into a final act so overwrought it becomes unintentionally comical. The movie loses track of the delicacy of its initial concept, giving in to histrionic plot developments that seem to have less to do with Jack than with Colpaert and co-writer Domenic Siclari's desire to make stuff happen. Aside from being unconvincing, these turns force the laid-back Arquette to do some uncomfortable-looking emoting. It's a pity the filmmakers failed to tailor their film to the strengths of their star, instead overreaching in an attempt at lyricism, melodrama and vaguely Lynchian eccentricity.

Production companies: Cineville
Cast: David Arquette, Bijou Phillips, Nicholas Bishop, Vivica Fox, Lin Shaye, Tom Bower
Director: Carl Colpaert
Screenwriters: Carl Colpaert, Domenic Siclari
Producers: Donald Ranvaud, Jordan Levine
Executive producers: Jorge Berlanga, Rodrigo Berlanga, Maxim Esterkin, Rene Leda, Jason Weinberg
Director of photography: Seo Mutarevic
Production designer: Monica Sotto
Music: Carlos Durango
Costume designer: Sarah Wachel
Editor: D.W. Thomas
No rating, 100 minutes
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