Fine, Totally Fine

Bottom line: An affable, oddball comedy in praise of folly, failure and femmes fragile.

Yosuke Fujita's "Fine, Totally Fine," a comedy about lovable losers scoring petite triumphs, has invited comparisons with the deadpan, Jarmusch-like ironic comedies of Nobuhiro Yamashita. That is true in so far as both directors like to make slackers central characters, and both refrain from noisy, exaggerated farce. Of the two, Fujita is less conscious about setting down an auteur's stamp. Like a craftsman, he patiently develops comic scenarios that utilize to ingenious effect props, sets and characters that make perfect sense only in the film's off-kilter world.

Sporting juvenile but impish humor in the spirit of "Mr. Bean" with little psychological baggage, "Fine, Totally Fine" easily transcends language and cultural barriers. This is a sleeper well on its way to becoming a cult fave in the specialty Asian theater and DVD circuit.

Though Fujita won the Japan Film Angel Prize for new scriptwriters, there's not much of a plot to talk about. The frisson really comes from the characters, each carrying a rich and esoteric universe inside. Park gardener Teruo thinks life is one continuous Halloween. He gets his kicks from scaring people, and dreams of opening a haunted house of Disney proportions. Played by comedian Yoshiyoshi Arakawa (the milky-skinned masochist in Miike's "Like a Dragon"), he gets laughs just by facing the camera. His buddy, hospital clerk Hisanobu (Yoshinori Okada), is such a compulsive Mr. Nice Guy that he hires Akari as a manual worker, even when she arrives at her interview right after diving into a puddle.

Akari (Yoshino Kimura) is aptly described as "a beauty with a really minus aura." Literally all thumbs, she breaks anything she touches, even her own finger when pressing the elevator button. But she is also a gifted artist who feels more at home in the company of the homeless. When she stumbles into the lives of Teruo and Hisanobu, she provokes a childish rivalry. But love moves in mysterious ways. Though she's a bull in a China shop, she finds her ideal partner in a pottery restoration expert. Yoshino Kimura is a revelation. It's hard to imagine the irresistible siren of "Sukiyaki Western Django" and "Sakuran" metamorphosing into a bumbling and diffident klutz, but her acting is so convincing that she becomes more charming with each new blunder.

The film carries it off by superb comic timing, delivering running gags that become more amusing by cumulative effect. For example, Teruo's numerous tricks to scare people, or Akari's goofs, like failing to wrap a kinky bondage magazine in front of an increasingly nervous customer are not that funny taken out of context, but combined with the characters' unique traits, they are side-splitting. Kudos also go to the creative set and props design, as each interior is distinctively decorated, arrayed with paraphernalia that reflects every character's personality and predicament. Most inventive is the horror figures or head models of Teruo that jump out of every other frame like his freaky clones.