The Wild, Wild Fest, Part 3

Forster plays Jake Nyman, a forensic psychiatrist whose ostensibly brilliant intellect has short-circuited and left him with a cynical amorality. In his eyes, each of us is abandoned in a meaningless universe governed by chance, and so he decides to base all of his actions on a flip of a coin, a game he goes so far as to employ to determine whether he will allow people to live.

Paul Chart obviously didn't toss a coin in considering elements of his plot: He never does make up his mind whether he wants to make cinema of the absurd, without a clear story line and understandable characters, or an avant-garde version of an old-fashioned thriller. Consequently, American Perfekt belongs to no genre.

Its most glaring weakness is the omission of a character whose fortunes we care about. In Psycho -- still the champion horror film of all time -- Hitchcock had Janet Leigh; to our utter disbelief, our heroine was murdered. Enter the sister, intent on finding out what really happened, and we transferred our sympathies to her. Young Mr. Chart seems to have studied Psycho and, like so many other novice filmmakers, he'd love to reproduce the shower scene. Thus there's a reliance on unexpected images and loud sounds -- especially the sudden appearance of out-of-control cars crashing to some of the most ear-splitting music you ever did not want to hear. There's just no focal point of interest.

Though Janet Leigh was an embezzler on the run, she was intelligent, civilized, and driven by a guilty conscience. We could make sense out of her problems. What do you do when your sociopath's first victim is Amanda Plummer, who always delivers an identical screen persona and always seems much weirder than anyone else? Chart may have cast her so we wouldn't know who was really crazy in this film. Nor is his cause helped by a third character, played by David Thewlis, who's stalking the first two. We can't bite our nails for them because we don't know who or what they are.

When we realize Amanda may not really be dead, another Psycho borrowing -- the sudden appearance of a sister (Gen X idolette Fairuza Balk) who wants to get to the bottom of the mystery -- misses its target. Chart obviously intends for her to be the heroine, but unfortunately half the film is over before her appearance. (And predictably, she is also plenty strange.)

This film should have been called Endless Ambiguity. Like the locale, which appears to be Arizona (or some similar place with miles of roads and few towns), Perfekt has too many possibilities and just keeps driving. Chart should have remembered the Bates Motel and that house behind it. Confined spaces make for tension. The open road makes for boredom.

The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival continues through November 16. For more information see the special "Calendar Listings" section beginning on page 37 or call 954-564-7373.

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