There are few things worse than seeing a talented performer squandered. That’s been the stateside fate of the great Swedish actress Lena Olin, whose biggest claim to fame on American shores is as Jennifer Garner’s treacherous mother on the spy series Alias. (Preferable, one supposes, to her role as Robert Pattinson’s progenitor in the hilariously offensive 9/11 tragi-romance Remember Me.) So the initial scenes of A Critically Endangered Species, from debuting feature writer-directors Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak, hold some measure of promise because, for the first time in a long time, Olin gets some prime red meat to chew on.
She plays Maya Dardel, an internationally respected poet and novelist who calls into an NPR talk show one morning and makes an eyebrow-raising proposition. Age is getting the best of her, creatively and otherwise. So she’s decided to kill herself, but not before holding a contest of sorts to determine the person who will manage her estate and posthumous reputation. The one catch: Only up-and-coming, poetically inclined males need apply.
You can probably see where this is going, and all salacious suspicions are proven after the first hipster-wardrobed applicant (Chris Voss) arrives. He’s bearing a CV that includes a goofily inept poem entitled “Holy Shit!,” but what Maya really wants is for him to prove how much of an, ahem, cunning linguist he is. (“You’re surprisingly not bad at that,” she says by way of critique as he lifts his face from between her legs.) It’s a lengthy interaction, and Olin plays this early scene with a thinly-veiled contempt and ferocity that is staggering. The control she exerts over her leonine features and that mesmerizing rasp of a voice is nothing less than masterful.
But those wishing for another Unbearable Lightness of Being or Enemies: A Love Story will have their hopes dashed once the film settles into its main plotline, a lethargic battle between two suitors—flighty, introverted, probably gay Ansel (Nathan Keyes) and N+1-reading testosterone factory Paul (Alexander Koch)—for Maya’s estate and affections. Despite the patently ridiculous material (true artists are a … wait for it … critically endangered species, and so those chosen few like Maya must rage, rage against the dying of the light, or something), Olin never wavers in her commitment. She’s often extraordinary in individual moments, as in a scene in which she denies Paul’s advances, then reacts with an astonishing range of emotions (murderous rage, passion, fear, flashes of love) as he rapes her.
But her male costars are nowhere near her league; the irritatingly fey and feeble Keyes, for one, is clearly better suited to his other 2017 acting credit — pop star Justin Timberlake in Lifetime’s Britney Ever After. So most scenes feel unbalanced, with Olin’s raw emoting adding up to little more than unfocused hysteria, while Cotler and Zyzak’s pretentiously hazy aesthetic, striving for Persona-era Ingmar Bergman (who was one of Olin’s early mentors), comes off more late Zalman King.
Thank heavens for Rosanna Arquette as Maya’s kooky, gun-toting neighbor Leonora. The few moody, off-kilter scenes between these two inimitable talents conjure some better movies that might have been, perhaps a West Coast redux of Robert Altman’s 3 Women or a Thelma and Louise in which the heroines quote Susan Sontag (and boast, as Maya does here, of sleeping with her) in-between their gun-toting feminist escapades. Better yet, just give these ladies an original vehicle worthy of their talents. They are now, as they always have been, too good to waste.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition, World Premiere)
Directors: Zachary Cotler, Magdalena Zyzak
Executive Producer: Craig R. Johnson
Producers: Mike S. Ryan, Morgan Jon Fox, Dariusz Jablonski, Violetta Kaminska, Izabela Wojcik
Screenwriters: Zachary Cotler, Magdalena Zyzak
Cinematographer: Patrick Scola
Editor: Osman Bayraktaroglu
Production Designer: Sarah Cole
Sound Designer: Tomasz Dukszta
Music: Zachary Cotler
Cast: Lena Olin, Rosanna Arquette, Jordan Gavaris, Nathan Keyes, Alexander Koch, Chris Voss