Starring Zoe Kazan. Rated PG
When Blanche DuBois uttered her famous line about depending on the kindness of strangers, she was being carted off to the loony bin. Viewers of this namesake item, which could more properly be titled A Streetcar Named WTF?, will know just how she felt.
Honestly, it’s a challenge to review this doozy of a movie, which somehow marries forced whimsy to a grim version of reality that only distantly resembles the actual planet. The experience is doubly weird when you know it was directed by Danish stalwart Lone Scherfig, who hit British paydirt 10 years ago with An Education, and more recently with Their Finest. This, however, is her first solo script since she broke through with 2000’s charming Italian for Beginners. The absence of a Nick Hornby, who adapted that Educational effort, is notable, especially in the witty-use-of-language department.
The tale centres on Zoe Kazan as Clara, running away from an abusive partner, but the director retains Finest star Bill Nighy to supply comic relief as Timofey, who runs a shabby-genteel Manhattan restaurant called the Winter Palace. The owners encourage their staff to put on Russian accents, and right there you can see where the movie will go off the rails; who would be less impressed with such subterfuge than the joint’s mostly Russian clientele?
Scherfig was ill-advised to have so much dialogue about accents, since England’s Andrea Riseborough (Mandy, Oblivion) puts on Brooklyn airs as Alice, who works as an ER nurse while also running a soup kitchen and a self-help group—one that contains a lawyer (Jay Baruchel) who’ll come in handy, and a food-minded ex-con played by French-Algerian Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), who sometimes seems to be delivering his lines phonetically. Denmark’s Esben Smed is supposed to be Clara’s husband, a sadistic Buffalo policeman. And Swedish-born David Dencik is the cop’s New Yawk fatha, despite the fact that he’s only 10 years older than Smed.
Adding to these unreal feels is the fact that Toronto and Copenhagen are standing in for a Manhattan that only seems to be a few square blocks with the same two dozen people repeatedly bumping into each other. Alice is very tired, but is still able to aid Clara and her two young sons when they hit town. She also takes the slow-minded Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones) under her expansive wing, for no visible reason. Everyone keeps meeting at the Winter Palace, which is supposed to evoke not Tennessee Williams but Grand Hotel as a site for disparate, and desperate, characters to cross paths. The cast is stellar—Stella!—but everyone checks out long before it’s all over.