'Ray Meets Helen': Film Review

Courtesy of Joyce Rudolph
A moody quasi-romance that stumbles badly in the final act.

Keith Carradine and Sondra Locke take a brief holiday from dreary lives in Alan Rudolph's latest.

Sudden windfalls enable two old-timers to flirt with rebooting their gone-stale lives in Ray Meets Helen, the first Alan Rudolph film since 2002's The Secret Lives of Dentists. Pairing longtime Rudolph collaborator Keith Carradine with Sondra Locke (who's been absent from the screen even longer than her director), the odd, elegiac pic has things in common with Rudolph's earlier films but feels like the awkward cousin at a reunion. A tiny, unpublicized art house release may be surprising for such an established auteur, but in this case, it's appropriate.

Carradine plays Ray, a onetime boxer who never made it, who now does the occasional odd job for insurance investigator Harvey (Keith David). On one such job — investigating an armored-car mishap that left millions of dollars blowing in the breeze — the ailing palooka spies a young kid sneaking around with a suspicious backpack. He later realizes the boy (who's clearly living alone as a squatter, something Ray doesn't catch) has a giant stash of neatly bundled bills among his playthings. Young Andre (Joshua Johnson-Lionel) is weirdly blasé about the money, passive in a way we'll have to explain for ourselves, allowing Ray to walk off with wads of dough and half-baked plans to reinvent himself.

Locke is Helen, a loner from farm country who stumbles across a woman who has just killed herself. Mary (Samantha Mathis) was kind enough to leave a note, an impromptu will leaving the contents of her purse (including keys to her Los Angeles apartment) to whatever kind soul should first encounter her corpse. Weirdly, Helen takes her up on the offer, leaving the body for someone else to worry about and trading her own mannish wardrobe for Mary's posh togs.

Both protagonists share their homes with ghosts of their younger selves, reminders of the possibilities life once seemed to hold; now, Helen starts seeing Mary as well. She materializes and disappears matter-of-factly, offering little more than a watchful eye and some apparent regret about an affair that ended badly.

Mary's ex-lover keeps video-calling the apartment and leaving desperate messages, a tiresome subplot that is sore-thumby amid all this melancholy. Fitting slightly better are encounters with Ray's own ex, Ginger (Jennifer Tilly), a washed-up boozer who left him for Harvey and is now being dumped in return.

Ray is jealously spying on Ginger when he crosses paths with Helen at a snooty French restaurant called Les Visiteurs. (The pinched-nose maitre d', played by Lenny von Dohlen, wears an anachronistic upswoop of hair just a bit less outre than the one Carradine sported in 1985's Trouble in Mind.) Feeling suave in his new-money dinner wear (shirt, bow tie and scarf all in contrasting polka-dots), Ray invites himself to Helen's table, buys a bottle of "the good stuff" and crudely tries to sweep her off her feet.

At least at first, the elliptical conversation between the two plays like an extension of the monologue Ray started back at Andre's house, where he talked to himself in a mirror, oblivious to the kid in the room. Here, Ray oozes fresh confidence ("Before I'm done" with life, he brags to Helen, "I'm gettin' to the sweet spot") and Helen mostly repeats his words back to him as if they were part of a city-folk ritual she's unfamiliar with.

Their short time at the restaurant turns into a proper walk-and-talk date, taking the pair into a shop full of old neon signs, to an unconvincing back-alley gathering of food trucks and to a piano bar where Ray and Helen plunk out a soggy rendition of "Beautiful Dreamer." Rudolph gives the couple fireworks and kaleidoscope effects in superimposed backgrounds, along with vintage stock footage that underscores how backward-looking these characters have been.

When dawn breaks on this reverie, the movie succumbs to one false note after the other — contrivances both fortunate and un- that increasingly test our willingness to accept what has come before as simply the strange vibes of a filmmaker accustomed to another age. "Ray meets Helen," all right, but moviegoers expecting a sprightly golden-years romance have come to the wrong place. So have those looking for a moody but credible reflection on decades of regrets.

Production company: Sneak Preview Entertainment
Distributor: Moonstone Entertainment
Cast: Keith Carradine, Sondra Locke, Keith David, Samantha Mathis, Jennifer Tilly, Joshua Johnson-Lionel
Director-screenwriter: Alan Rudolph
Producers: Ernst Etchie Stroh, Steven J. Wolfe
Executive producers: Keith Carradine, Sondra Locke, Lesley Ann Warren
Director of photography: Spencer Hutchins
Production designer: Michael Navarro
Costume designer: Gwendolyn Stukely
Editor: Jason Erickson
Composer: Shahar Stroh
Casting director: Pam Dixon

113 minutes