‘Life in a Fishbowl’: Toronto Review

Life in a Fishbowl Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Life in a Fishbowl Still - H 2014

A bland Icelandic ‘Magnolia’ whose strong performances can’t compensate for a lack of originality

Writer-director Baldvin Zophoniasson (“Jitters”) unveils his second feature at TIFF

A prostitute with a heart of gold. An alcoholic writer with a tortured past. An honest banker in a world of cheats. Such are the three characters whose interlocking storylines make up Life in a Fishbowl, an Icelandic network narrative that takes hints from Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson, but has neither the former’s passionate nonchalance nor the latter’s cinematic finesse. Instead, this sophomore feature from writer-director Baldvin Zophoniasson (Jitters) heads to mostly expected places in a mostly routine manner, even if the performances are good enough to maintain interest over a lengthy 130 minute running time. Already a hit at the local box office, the TIFF Discovery selection should paddle around festivals until it heads to calm waters on VOD.

An opening sequence features three forward-moving tracking shots, each of them creeping up on a parked car sitting alone in a deluge of rain (Magnolia, anyone?). We then cut inside to reveal the film’s trio of protagonists: Eik (Hera Himar, Da Vinci’s Demons) a single mother, preschool teacher and hardworking call girl; Mori (Thorsteinn Bachmann, The Deep), a brilliant novelist and poet who hits the bottle each night before he inevitably hits the pavement; and Solvi (Thor Kristjansson, Black’s Game) a former athlete who’s converted to the world of finance, seemingly to feed the expensive tastes of his stay-at-home trophy wife (Laufey Eliasdottir).

These characters are not entirely original, so what Zophoniasson (who also penned the script) does for much of the drama is hold back key pieces of information, structuring his story in such a way that we can’t know what’s lurking beneath the surface – literally, in a visual metaphor involving broken ice – until the third act. In the meantime, the three leads cross paths in rather predictable ways, though this isn’t perhaps surprising given that the population of Iceland is roughly that of St. Louis, with much of it concentrated in and around Reykjavik (where the film was shot).

Of the different plots, that involving Eik plays out as the most convincing before it crash lands in the finale, even if the sprightly Himar maintains a credible screen presence throughout. The other stories simply lack inventiveness: Mori is a parody of the tormented genius, wracked by guilt and bottles of Johnnie Walker, spouting cliches (“Dreams are the stuff that nurture us all”) when he’s not recalling a personal tragedy told in sepia-toned flashbacks. Solvi, meanwhile, never becomes someone of substance, other than being perhaps the only nice guy in a world of corporate a-holes.

There’s not much else Life in a Fishbowl has going for it, and even the cinematography feels watered down, providing the kind of washed-out Alexa color scheme we’ve seen too many times. Thankfully, the performances add some texture to a film that never finds a true identity, while the grim Icelandic settings manage to provide a distinctively depressing background. But the rest could take place anywhere with anyone, and we’re not swimming in a fishbowl as much as we’re treading water in a sea of familiarity.

Production companies: The Icelandic Film Company, SolarFilms, Harmonica Films AB, Axmann Production
Cast: Hera Hilmar, Thorsteinn Bachmann, Thor Kristjansson, Laufey Eliasdottir
Director: Baldvin Zophoniasson
Screenwriters: Baldvin Zophoniasson, Birgir Steinarsson
Producers: Julius Kemp, Ingvar Thordarson
Director of photography: Johann Mani Johannson
Production designer: Gunnar Palsson
Costume designer: Margret Einarsdottir
Editor: Sigurbjorg Jonsdottir
Composer: Olafur Arnalds
Sales: Films Boutique

No rating, 129 minutes