Ex-Batman Michael Keaton has done something quite remarkable for his directorial debut. Ignoring the market that remembers his quirky ‘80s glory days, as well as those who know him for his myriad comedy roles, The Merry Gentleman sees Keaton muscling into previously unexplored territory – the emotional drama. Not only that, but he’s made the ambitious decision to take on the dual responsibility of director and leading man. A recipe for disaster?
It very well could be, and The Merry Gentleman is not without its faults. But playing Frank Logan, a man of dubious morals and even more dubious motives, Keaton has gifted himself his most rewarding character in years; and therein lies one of Gentleman’s quiet strengths.
Christmas is in the air, and Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald) is hoping to make a fresh go of it in Chicago. Having fled an abusive marriage, she’s got a new job, a new pad, and a fading black eye that she employs all manner of cover-up fantasies to explain away. When she spots a man standing on the roof-edge of the building across the street from her office, she yells out, and believes she has scared off a potential suicide attempt.
Unbeknownst to her, the man on the roof is Frank Logan, and he’s just shot one of Kate’s co-workers. An assassin by profession, Frank is suffering from pneumonia and a serious case of the festive blues. Drawn to Kate, he orchestrates a happenchance meeting, and a tentative friendship develops between the two. But can either of their pasts ever be forgotten, or forgiven?
Merry, this ain’t. Juxtaposing Kate’s constant victim with Frank’s constant killer is an interesting ruse, and Macdonald and Keaton gel admirably, each closed off to the world in their own ways yet hopeful of absolution and new futures. “You strike me as quite a private person,” notes Kate, “I’m quite a private person, too.” And she is, but she’s also – annoyingly – the sort of thankless character who exhibits scream-at-the-screen behaviour. A person to whom things happen, Kate is portrayed as the slightly gormless eye of an increasingly exasperating storm, despite Macdonald’s best efforts.
On the plus side, Keaton the director wisely draws a leaf from Clint Eastwood’s book. Keeping the framing neat, his style is the kind of unobtrusive classical filmmaking that is a dying breed in contemporary Hollywood. Unafraid of stillness, Keaton allows Gentleman’s leisurely plot to unravel a fraction too slowly, but proves a dab hand when it comes to character. Unsurprisingly, he’s an actor’s director, drawing a fantastic performance from Bobby Cannavale, and pitching an effective portrayal of assassin Frank as a disillusioned loner who’s lost all value in life.
Anticipation: Keaton in the director’s chair? Unusual. Will he be the new Sean Penn or the new Nicolas Cage? 3
Enjoyment: Keaton keeps it lean, never smothering his characters. It’s kind of slow, though. 3
In Retrospect: Surprisingly restrained and unflashy, Keaton’s directorial debut is classy if not overwhelming. 3