"Foolproof", the second Canadian feature film from William ("Treed Murray") Phillips, is an unpretentious, old fashioned caper/heist movie. But it's also something more. As anyone familiar with the Canadian film industry is aware, Canadian films aren't exactly known for their mass appeal popularity. "Success" in the Canadian film biz is largely defined by how many awards you've won...not by whether anyone outside the Art House crowd has seen your film.
Recently, the movers and shakers at Telefilm Canada -- one of the main government funding agencies -- have decided that has got to change. Art Films are still the golden boy of Canadian film, but, grudgingly, room at the table is being made for movies that are hoping to win an audience. Telefilm is actually putting its money where its mouth is by putting up more money for things like advertising. Last year, "Men With Brooms" was the hoped for breakaway hit.
This year, if the hype is to be believed, "Foolproof" is the one everyone in the business is watching.
So, first, let's consider the movie itself.
"Foolproof" stars Ryan Reynolds, Kristin Booth, and Joris Jarsky as three friends who like to meticulously plan, but not execute, daring robberies -- it's kind of their version of "Dungeonns & Dragons". Things go awry when a master criminal (David Suchet) blackmails them into putting their expertise into effect by actually committing a robbery. Needless to say, like all good heist and caper films, there are a few twists and turns and double crosses.
So what's the verdict on "Foolproof"?
"Foolproof" is not a great movie, but neither is it a bad one. And there's the rub. As a motion picture, "Foolproof" makes a nice video rental. First and foremost, "Foolproof" boasts something a lot of Canadian movies lack: a concept. Canadian movies have reached a point where a lot of their plots are so nebulous or, alternatively, so generic, that some listings are reduced to describing them by their themes rather than their stories. Here, by coming up with the "concept" of people playing at being thieves forced into the real thing, if nothing else, writer/director Phillips has come up with an idea, something to distinguish it -- however slightly -- from other caper films.
The story is reasonably well paced, and there are moments of actual cleverness. There's humour, and the movie generally holds together. What do I mean by cleverness? I dunno. How about the early scenes (and this isn't giving much away) where Booth is forced to come up with an alias on the spur of the moment and, panicking, uses the name Helen Hayes. Later, a suspicious police officer asks Reynolds if he knows a "Helen Hayes" and Reynolds, without thinking, quickly says no...which of course arouses the cop's suspicions further. The correct answer by a truly innocent person would be: "You mean the actress?" It's a cute idea for a scene, with the hero almost giving himself away by trying so hard not to give himself away.
There were some nice ideas to the heist -- kind of a prerequisite of a caper film -- and I liked the origami boat in the fish tank. The scenes in the elevator shaft were visually impressive and even suspenseful. Reynolds is quite good as the lead and writer/director Phillips avoids the main pitfall of "caper" films. Namely: such movies involve a certain amorality because the "heroes" are, after all, thieves and crooks. Here, the heroes aren't crooks...until, of course, they are forced into it by the real crook.
But, at the end of the day, "Foolproof" emerges as more O.K. than great. Let's try and consider why.
For one thing, as a suspense film...there's little nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat suspense. Interestingly enough, that was also a problem with Phillips' earlier suspense film, "Treed Murray". As well, Phillips directs capably, but without much visual flare.
A lot of the weaknesses are, I admit, kind of nebulous. The movie isn't
slow or stilted...but it still suffers from that peculiar characteristic
of a lot of Canadian movies of seeming a touch lethargic. No, that's too
strong a word. But there's an energy level that just isn't reached with
consistency...funky pop soundtrack notwithstanding. Speaking of the soundtrack that's chock full of generic tunes all ready and waiting for the CD release tie-in, maybe Phillips should've settled on some sort of signature tune that could play every time the characters are going into action -- you know, creating a kind of resonant response in the audience. But that's just a thought.
Because the movie is about smart, sassy heroes, you know they aren't just going to take being used by the real crook lying down -- they'll come up with a counter plan. But it takes a long time for them to do it. Now of course they can't turn the tables too early...there wouldn't be a movie if they did. But they could at least seem like they're thinking about it. Instead, there's a big gap in the middle when the characters seem like they aren't even trying to figure a way out of their bind.
The movie is about three long-time friends who, then, threaten to fall apart when put in this situation (particularly when one thinks becoming real crooks isn't such a bad idea). But the cracks in the friendship don't entirely work because the friendship itself never quite convinces. You can blame the writing, you can blame the directing, you can blame the actors, you can blame that ethereal thing called "chemistry" -- wherever the fault lies, it's there. Again, though, it's a subtle thing. It's not that the characters (or the actors) seem to hate each other. They just don't entirely convince as people who have been friends -- the only friends they seem to have -- for many years.
The movie also seems a little too...focused. Who would've thought focus would be a criticism, eh? But the problem is, it's a caper movie that is almost entirely about the caper. There's very little sense of who these characters are when they aren't planning capers, or of an outside world. In interviews, Booth has described her character as being a personal trainer...but I'm not sure that's ever mentioned in the movie itself! There's little in the way of extraneous threads. Maybe more should have been made of Reynolds' office life, or perhaps he should've been given the tried-and-true ailing parent. Obviously, that's a treacherous path to walk down. Plenty of potentially good movies have been ruined by plots that wander off on too many boring tangents. But a few tangents aren't such a bad idea. Which brings us to the big "R" -- romance. Everybody likes a little romance in their entertainment. But "Foolproof" is noticeably lacking in that department. Or rather, it tosses it in almost dismissively, with Reynolds and Booth briefly brushing hands in one scene, then kissing in the end.
Sorry kids, but a romance is something that actually has to be developed through the story. For instance, if a romance blossoms between Reynolds and Booth, it begs the question: why now? They've known each other for years! Was one of them involved with someone else? Has one pined quietly away for years, their unspoken passion seeming unrequited? Maybe they were involved with each other once, but it didn't work out, but now they're ready to give it a second chance? You need some elaboration to the relationship.
A romance injects something extra into a story: heart. Or an emotional grounding. It helps us to care about these people and what happens to them.
It also helps flesh out the characters. A problem, in a movie like this, is that there's some double dealing and things aren't always what they seem, so that even when there are "character" moments...they can turn out to be false. The result is a movie where, to be fair, you don't dislike the heroes...but you don't really care about them either.
The casting is O.K., but not altogether remarkable. Reynolds is good and personable as the lead, having an aspect of a Chevy Chase or a young Bill Murray, able to nicely deadpan some quips but, unlike those other actors, he can stay rooted in the scene, not succumbing to the temptation to coast through it.
British import Suchet is certainly capable, but despite his deep voice and black brows, fails to evoke the undercurrent of genuine menace his character requires. Booth, Jorsky, and James Allodi as the cop are competent but unexceptional. David Hewlett, on the other hand, one of the better Canadian actors around, is wasted in a thankless bit part.
And this is why I say "Foolproof" is good but not great. It's a competent flick that doesn't insult your intelligence (anymore than similar genre films do); it has a few clever ideas and, above all, doesn't leave a bad taste in your mouth with unpleasant characters, or mean spirited scenes the way, frankly, a lot of Canadian movies can. But it never quite catches fire, either.
To be fair, I think "Foolproof" is actually a better movie than "The Score" -- an American movie that was actually set in Canada (and probably made more overtly Canadian references than does "Foolproof"). "The Score" had a heavyweight Hollywood cast...but largely undeveloped characters, a weak romance, and a generic script that seemed like it was knocked out over a weekend. And yet, even then, I wonder if "The Score" had aspects that will stick with me more than does "Foolproof" (Canadian actor Paul Soles' turn as an elderly janitor lingers in my mind, for instance).
Now let's move past the movie itself and consider what it represents. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, "Foolproof" is part of a new mandate at Telefilm to try and gain a toe hold at the box office. For some, that policy will evoke memories of the so-called "Hollywood North" era from decades back. That was when, through funding and tax incentives, Canadian filmmakers were encouraged to make Hollywood-style, commercial films. Most recall that period as a disaster, commercially and culturally. Not only did the movies bomb, but most emulated Hollywood too religiously...the movies were set in the U.S. and starred imported Hollywood actors. Those type of movies still get made -- this site is full of reviews of them -- but they're usually straight-to-video affairs these days. The common wisdom is that the Canadian film business was right to get away from the "commercial" mentality. At least, that's the common wisdom among Art filmmakers who are more interested in securing grant money than securing an audience. But those naysayers are wrong.
Canada needs a populist film industry. Badly.
But how do you create a popular film industry? "Foolproof" is a step in the right direction -- an audience friendly flick that doesn't embarrass. But true box office success requires a little more than that. It needs a really good film, if not a great one. As well, it needs good marketing. Part of this new push at Telefilm includes more money for marketing -- TV commercials and other promotions. Telefilm reportedly spent a record two million dollars on selling "Foolproof". The TV commercial, for instance, was pretty slick-looking. So that's good. The half-hour behind-the-scenes "making of..." documentary was more problematic. But much of the newspaper coverage of the movie (aside from reviews) is about Telefilm, the new funding policy, who is the new head of the agency, and how, well, Canadian "Foolproof" is. No profiles of the filmmaker. No interviews with the stars. Nothing like you would expect for a real Hollywood movie. Just dry little articles that belong in the business section. You can't expect to build an industry on patriotism; you don't want people going to see "Foolproof" out of national pride...you want them going because they want to go.
And what about "Foolproof" as the bearer of the national banner? Well, at least it was set in Canada -- nominally. Though it was still a vaguely generic sort of Canada (not unlike a lot of critically revered Art Films by the likes of Atom Egoyan and others).
At the end of the day, the people involved in "Foolproof" can take satisfaction from knowing they did a decent job. They have nothing to apologize for. At the same time, "Foolproof" wasn't a great movie. And they have to acknowledge that to themselves, before they start doing what everyone does in the Canadian business...blame someone else: the audience, the distributors, the reviewers (like me). In order to make great movies, they have to recognize what are the shortcomings in the merely good ones. And then do better next time.
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
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