Vijay and I: Locarno Review

Vijay Film Still - H 2013

Vijay Film Still - H 2013

An indie, European-flavored romantic comedy that’s old-fashioned in ways good and bad.

German-born director Sam Garbarski casts Moritz Bleibtreu opposite Patricia Arquette in a disguise-driven, Big Apple-set romantic comedy.

LOCARNO -- A down-on-his-luck German actor in New York gets to play the role of his life as a much-improved -- albeit turban-wearing -- version of himself in Vijay and I, from German-born director Sam Garbarski (Irina Palm). Indie darling Patricia Arquette stars as a widowed therapist who falls for an exotic Sikh who, in reality, is her dead husband in disguise, with Garbarski gently mixing elements from classic romantic comedies and comedies of errors, to generally sweet if never quite surprising or uproarious effect.

With German idol Moritz Bleibtreu cast as the husband who undergoes a physical transformation (read: adds a beard, tan and turban) so he can find out what people really think of him at his own funeral and beyond, the film’s poised to attract at least some attention in co-producing Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, where the film’ll open in September. Elsewhere, this alternately stuffy and endearingly quaint title will be a harder sell for theatrical distribution, though festivals looking for crowd-pleasers could follow in the footsteps of Locarno, where it premiered on the 8,000-seat Piazza Grande.

The surname of New York-based German immigrant Wilhelm Wilder (Bleibtreu) suggests one of the inspirations of Garbarski, who doesn’t necessarily borrow specific plot points of classic comedies in which disguises play a big role, such as Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, but who emulates those films’ preferences for situational and character comedy at an unhurried pace and for treating sexual innuendo in the most tasteful way possible.

Wilder plays the character of Bad-Luck Bunny on a popular children’s TV show. It requires a ridiculous green rabbit suit that’s a source for easy laughs, though it also suggests the protagonist’s straightjacketed in his professional life, just like he is at home in his long-gone-stale marriage to Julia (Arquette). When neither Julia nor their precocious teen daughter, Lily (Catherine Missal), seem to notice it’s his 40th birthday and Will’s car gets stolen on the same day, something snaps in him.

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After a wild night with his Indian restaurant-owner buddy, Rad (Danny Pudi), Will wakes up to the news he -- or rather the thief driving his car -- died in a car crash, allowing him to attend his own funeral disguised as a Sikh called Vijay. The author of the cover-up is Rad, whose magical make-up box is normally used to transform his Spanish-speaking waiters into full-blooded Indians (one of the film’s least successful stabs at cross-cultural jokes).

Of course, Julia turns out to be more than interested in this charming foreigner and the film’s set-up is a pretty neat conceit that dovetails ideas of performance, acting and even reincarnation before death. However, the screenplay, by the director, regular collaborator Philippe Blasband and U.S. co-writer Matthew Robbins, seems often content to simply skim the surface of the material, especially in the supporting roles (Lily’s desire for a TV in her room, for example, is a lazy running gag that leaves little space to develop her predicament as a grieving-turned-suspicious daughter).

But both Bleibtreu and Arquette, the latter also an executive producer, are appealing and play their roles straight, which is essential in an old-fashioned comedy like this where characters are unable to see through a person’s obvious disguise until the plot demands it. Garbarski also manages to inject some of his trademark Jewish humor, especially in a scene with Julia’s Jewish parents (Jeannie Berlin, Moni Moshonov). German legend Hanna Schygulla makes an appearance as Wilder’s hippie mother at the memorial service.

Technically, the film’s also in tune with the classics, with traditional film grammar such as shots/reverse shots dominant. Steve Houben’s pleasantly jazzy score further adds a sense of déjà vu. Production designer Veronique Sacrez does a good job of matching New York exteriors with Europe-shot interiors.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Production companies: Entre Chien et Loup, Samsa Film, Pandora Filmproduktion, Senator Film Produktion, RTBF
Cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Patricia Arquette, Danny Pudi, Michael Imperioli, Catherine Missal, Jeannie Berlin, Moni Moshonov, Hanna Schygulla, Michael Gwisdek, Tania Garbarski
Director: Sam Garbarski
Screenwriters: Philippe Blasband, Matthew Robbins, Sam Garbarski, screenplay based on an idea by Garbarski
Producers: Sebastien Delloye, Jani Thiltges, Reinhard Brundig
Executive producers: Diane Elbaum, Patricia Arquette
Director of photography: Alain Duplantier
Production designer: Veronique Sacrez
Music: Steve Houben
Costume designer: Catherine Marchand
Editor: Sandrine Deegen
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 96 minutes.