28 April 2008

Stuff and Dough

Directed by: Cristi Puiu
Written by: Cristi Puiu & Razvan Radulescu
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

Rarely have I ever taken so few notes during a movie as I did during Stuff and Dough (Marfa si Banii), a maddening exercise in anticlimax that does for the Romanian New Wave what Cars did for Pixar: interrupt the winning streak. After near masterpieces like 12:08 East of Bucharest and 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, the film movement manages to disappoint with this (previously unreleased-in-this-country) debut feature, from the director of the heralded The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, that serves as a clear demonstration of how using the ordinary trials of ordinary people as a cinematic device can go so wrong. The film could approach the extraordinary, if it wanted to, as a tense road movie along the lines of Duel or The Wages of Fear, but instead settles as an ambling road trip full of minor conflicts that never quite develop and therefore never quite compel the audience’s attention. It is shot almost entirely from the backseat of a van, focused on the bull sessions, the false boasting and funny stories, between two pals and their female accessory.

Alexandru Papadopol has dreams of moving out of his parents’ house and getting his own food stand, bigger and better than the meager one his folks struggle to operate; so when a nose-picking local man offers him two years’ wages to deliver six packs of “medical supplies” from Contanta to Bucharest, a mere four hour drive, he jumps at the chance. His buddy Dragos Bucur tags along with his latest catch in tow, the nose-picking, Juliette-Lewis-type, Ioana Flora.

Deliver the stuff, get the dough—it sounds so simple and…basically it is. Stuff and Dough feels like it’s about to pick up after a few reels, at least for a moment, but the knuckles quickly unwhiten. The trio runs into trouble when a red jeep asks them to pull over and then attacks without provocation, bashing in the driver’s side window with a bat and smashing Papadopol’s legs in the passenger side door like they were Frank Vincent’s head, but Puiu doesn’t seem interested in sustaining tension; at most, Stuff and Dough is quick bits of foreplay interlaced with downtime. Though the red jeep continues to pop up menacingly from time to time, most elegantly in glimpses from the rear view mirror, the two groups do not confront one another again, and our band of heroes’ apprehension wanes easily. And if they’re not worried, why should we be?

I suppose we’re not supposed to, but if this isn’t a chase movie—as some critics are making it out to be—then what is it? A neorealist slice of life in post-Ceausescu Romania? Behold the Romanian countryside, its highway system, its wholesale markets, and its callow youth? At least the filmmakers use the running time to comment on the state of their motherland, on how the pressures of moving into modernity can tear comrades apart and about how one cruel and corrupt system has simply been replaced by another. Stuff and Dough is reflective and cautionary: young men just clear of their mother’s apron strings, like young nations recently freed from dictatorship, ought to proceed cautiously into their freedom-filled futures, lest they wind up in over their heads—that is, under the control of criminals, gangsters, killers and drug dealers. But to make the point, the filmmakers simply stick a dizzy camera in a car and let the cast shoot the shit. The actors all do an admirable job of achieving effortless authenticity, and the camerawork is at times graceful if shaky, but Stuff and Dough is hardly more compelling than actually driving for four hours through Romania with your friends to deliver a duffel bag of drugs. That is, despite its potential for action and adventure, thrills and chills, it’s pretty mundane. If that’s a rejection of Hollywood cliché, don’t let’s forget that some things become standards because they work so well and that repudiating convention is not a virtue in and of itself.

Watch the red van confrontation scene without subtitles:

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