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MOVIE REVIEW
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)

GM8
Variance Films

"Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" does not know whether it wants to be French New Wave, a musical, a documentary or film noir. It may be that writer-director Damien Chazelle wanted to see if he could incorporate all of these disparate ideas and tones in a cohesive way. The answer is, sadly, no. Shot entirely in black and white, we see the story — to put it crudely — of boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back. It is very simple and simply done.

The opening credits play over a very jaunty piece of music, as we see most of the how Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) meet and part of how they break up played in a montage. This piece of music starts the film off with entirely the wrong tone, as the rest of the film — apart from the musical numbers were people spontaneously break out into song and tap dancing — is very somber. Most of the actors and actresses are making their feature debuts, and it is apparent. That is not meant as a knock on them. It seems to be what the director was going for normal people acting normally and spontaneously breaking into song.

This is for all intents and purposes a mood piece. The dialogue is sparse, giving us long stretches of time to enjoy the scenery the few times we are allowed to see the scenery. The camera often stays extremely close on the characters' faces, often swinging wildly to try to capture other characters in the frame. This prevents us from feeling or understanding any sort of spatial sense for where they are at, what's around them, where are they in relation to each other. It also means that settings are nearly nonexistent, which could have been a money-saver. The process of shooting this film, though, is almost as if the cinematographer wanted to be framing still photos rather than filming. The movie, as a result, feels like a series of home videos strung together with quick and random cuts. Plus the things we do see — catching subways, walking down the street, washing dishes, buying hot dogs — are fairly mundane occurrences in our heroes' lives.

Due to the lack of dialogue throughout this film, the musical numbers are a very enjoyable breeze of emotion and movement that is otherwise absent when people aren't singing and dancing. The first musical number seems almost spontaneous as a group of friends are gathered in a recording studio. Guy, a very accomplished jazz trumpeter, is there in the studio adding his soulful tunes as the singer wrangles an unsuspecting lady for a tap dance off. The final song is in a diner where Madeline works. One night, as they are preparing to close, Madeline has longing thoughts about Guy and decides a song is the best way to express herself. Her co-workers, thankfully, enjoy the song enough to join in on the tap dancing. They dance on the counters and on the tables while the patrons sway to the beat. Then for some reason, Madeline here breaks the fourth wall, looking straight into the camera and singing to us though neither she nor anyone else has ever done this before. It's not as if the song or lyric warrants it. It's just something they feel like throwing in. It's small things like that that take us from "this director was trying to be creative," to "he was trying to be artsy," and finally leave us wondering if he had any idea where he wanted to go with this story or what he wanted to make.

The music is the only thing one could hold in high regard and would have loved more of. One would have loved to see this as a full-blown musical with jazz numbers and people singing their feelings to each other. Whenever the music kicks in, it is good. When there's no music, the film was stale and flat. Plus, the musicians and dancers gathered for this movie are excellent. All the songs could have been in any of the old Hollywood MGM musicals. Justin Hurwitz wrote them at an excellent quality specifically for this film. Both the songs and the rest of the score are the highlight of this film.

In this end this movie feels half-baked, as if there wasn't enough preproduction time to really figure out what was going on and so they cobbled together the practice footage instead. It doesn't have commercial viability, so you will probably have to go out of your way or to your Netflix queue to find this. You'd be better off looking for more music from both Messrs. Palmer and Hurwitz and listening to that rather than watching this.

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH

Opens on Nov. 5 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle; edited by Mr. Chazelle and W. A. W. Parker; music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Mr. Chazelle; choreography by Kelly Kaleta; produced by Jasmine McGlade and Mihai Dinulescu; released by Variance Films. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Jason Palmer (Guy), Desiree Garcia (Madeline), Sandha Khin (Elena), Frank Garvin (Frank), Andrew Hayward (Andre) and Alma Prelec (Alma).

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