|Michael Keaton in ''The Merry Gentleman.'' (Samuel Goldwyn Films)|
The Merry Gentleman
'Merry Gentleman' never really goes out on limb
'Careful" is not a word you'd associate with Michael Keaton - not based on the antic energy that made him a star in the 1980s (and which was on display as recently as 2005's "Game Six"). Keaton's directorial debut, "The Merry Gentleman," though, is an overly muted and cautious piece of work. Watching it is like seeing a man ease out onto the limb of a tree, constantly testing its strength.
The character he plays finds himself high up at one point, too. Frank Logan is a suicidal Chicago hit man - yes, it's one of those movies - who has prospered by the very fact of his invisibility. A men's tailor in his day job, Frank doesn't talk much and he leaves no leftover threads to pick at. Yet he's a fallen man, and one night after completing a sniping job, he prepares to jump off a roof. The scream of a woman startles him back from the ledge.
She is Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald), and fallen men are her specialty. A fragile Scottish immigrant working as a receptionist, she's fleeing an abusive cop husband (Bobby Cannavale) and has attracted Murcheson (Tom Bastounes), a police detective who knows he's no prize either. "I'm a divorced alcoholic chain-smoker," he tells his partner, who says of Kate, "She don't know that."
In this context, Frank is Mr. Right, a spooky yet tender presence who respects Kate's silence and personal space. Curious whether she can ID him, he helps carry her Christmas tree into her apartment, and wariness turns to protectiveness and doomed love. "What's the difference between a ghost and an angel?" Kate asks as she trims the tree. "A ghost is haunted while an angel is blessed," Frank responds. It's one of those movies, too.
"The Merry Gentleman" takes its title from the Christmas carol and dourly waits for Frank to find either God or rest. Ron Lazzeretti's script is chock-a-block with religious symbolism that feels both forced and unfocused, and as director, Keaton slows the pace down to a funereal crawl, waiting for magic to happen. Much of the time it doesn't. But every so often it does, as in a couple of spiky dinner dates/procedural interviews between Kate and Murcheson, or the hushed later sequences between the hit man and his new love.
It helps that Macdonald has a face made for close-ups and that Keaton understands as much. It's good, too, to see a director willing to let his actors stew at a low simmer until the flavors come. Next time, though, Keaton should think about jumping off that ledge.