*/**** Image C Sound C Extras C-
starring Edward Burns, David Krumholtz, Max Baker, Connie Britton
written and directed by Edward Burns
by Alex Jackson This is Edward Burns's fifth feature. Wouldn't you think he'd have learned a little something about filmmaking by now? If Burns were a complete unknown outside the margins of the industry and this were his directorial debut, maybe we could pat him on the head, tell him good job, and stick Looking for Kitty on the refrigerator door, all the while assuming that now that he's proven he can make a movie and get it seen, he'll move on to something he actually cares about. But this is his fifth film. Looking for Kitty feels like the first attempt at narrative storytelling by a young, inexperienced screenwriter who's just glad to have finished something. It's the kind of thing you write before you've found your voice. This is where you start out, not where you end up.
Looking for Kitty is so simple it makes The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland look like Chinatown. For starters, it's entirely without subtext. The problem isn't that Burns spells out everything for the audience, it's that he rarely has anything that needs spelling out. There's never an ambiguous moment where we might be forced to rely on our own subjective interpretation. It challenges my idea that a film should not require any prior experience on the part of the viewer: to understand Looking for Kitty, it's not necessary to have seen a movie before, much less been out in the real world interacting with people. It's one of the least demanding films I've ever encountered, about as taxing as a mug of warm skim milk.
I had wondered how this could possibly represent an evolution for Burns as an artist, but evidently it doesn't. In the DVD's audio commentary, he says that if he were a novelist this would be a novella, if he were a musician this would be his B-side. Burns had wanted to make a different film for six million, but when he had trouble raising the funds, he decided he was going to say "fuck Hollywood" and wrote a little something he could do on the cheap. He shot Looking for Kitty on digital video for around $200,000 with industry friends willing to work for little if any compensation. Remarkable. Why would they sacrifice a few weeks of their time for this? Did they actually believe in the project so much that they were willing to act in it during a cold New York winter? I wonder sometimes whether I truly understand the artistic process. Don't you always want your best film to be your latest one? If it's not going to be, why bother?
Apparently, Burns encouraged the cast to improvise, though you'd never know it by looking at Looking for Kitty. It has none of the advantages or disadvantages of improvisation. At 87 minutes, pared down from a 95-minute version that premiered at Tribeca, the film is taut and fast-moving, lacking in fatty self-indulgence. At the same time, it feels very artificial and trite. I heard and saw nothing that couldn't have been scripted by a novice screenwriter. Burns's characterizations are very shallow: as SLANT MAGAZINE's Nick Schager observes, the two central characters have a couple of personality quirks to conquer as an index of their personal development. (One won't drink coffee or eat "international foods" while the other won't eat indoors.) And there is a bizarre abundance of baby boomerisms. For example, the villain is a rock star named Ron Stewart and all the characters ask why he doesn't change it to avoid confusion with Rod. A woman in a bar (Rachel Dratch) unsuccessfully attempts to seduce/befriend our hero, Abe (David Krumholtz), by singing "Just the Way You Are." Is Burns condescending to his characters, or is he simply a dinosaur?
Okay, let's talk about the plot. Abe's wife Kitty has abruptly left him without a trace. Somebody sends him a newspaper clipping that shows the aforementioned Ron Stewart with a woman who resembles Kitty. He figures that she's living with him in New York, as she couldn't possibly afford to be there by herself. Hoping to get an explanation and maybe even reunite with her, Abe hires Jack (Edward Burns), a former cop turned private investigator, to locate her. Jack works alone, but Abe insists on tagging along, as he's desperate to confront Kitty. From there, Looking for Kitty turns into a buddy picture, the antagonistic relationship blossoming into friendship and the Kitty mystery driving the narrative.
Before seeing the film, I had pegged Burns as a misogynist. This was mainly residual hatred for the Butler Brothers' unholy Alive and Lubricated--an entry into the "let's-me-and-my-friends-drink-beer-and-talk-about-women" genre so popular among filmmakers lacking in talent, money, intelligence, and insight--as well as a suspicious reaction to the title, which reads like an obvious double entendre. Turns out I was casting aspersions: Edward Burns does not hate women at all. He's as meek as a pussycat. I'm not sure this is exactly an improvement, however.
What Kitty does to Abe is pretty reprehensible. At first we are led to believe that Abe had it coming for spending too much time with his job as a high school baseball coach and ignoring the fact that his marriage was coming apart. Surely, he would learn over the course of the film to put her ahead of his career, or to show her better that he loves her. Yet he says he feels guilty about spending so much time at work, thus there was apparently no lesson to be learned there. The blame, then, boomerangs back on Kitty. Abe loved his job and was making a difference. Whenever one of the players was having trouble at home and couldn't deal, Abe let him spend the night in the garage, annoying Kitty to no end. Plus, she never came to any of Abe's games and never showed any interest in baseball. So now Kitty is a selfish bitch. But wait: when Jack finally locates Kitty, Burns's characterization of her is sympathetic. He doesn't hold her accountable for her selfishness and cowardice.
The idea would appear to be that people grow apart, it's nobody's fault, and if you lose somebody you just need to move on. Jack uses his encounter with Kitty to come to terms with his wife's death, suggesting that having a wife who dies and having a wife who leaves you to shack up with a rock star are essentially the same thing. Neither Kitty nor Abe have any accountability for the dissolution of the marriage, because the success or failure of a relationship is apparently attributable more to fate or "chemistry" than to the participants' inability to communicate with one another or identify their wants and needs.
Again I stress that Burns is not a misogynist and Looking for Kitty is not a misogynistic film. Still, I do think he harbours some fear of women and sees platonic male camaraderie, surrogate father relationships, and baseball (a breeding ground for both, obviously) as at least a temporary substitute for healthy romantic relationships. What's more, he's terrified of this sort of introspection. Afraid to come to terms with his fear of women and possibly be labelled as misogynistic, he censors himself and buries his insecurities to the point where they're no longer objectionable. Looking for Kitty is a very mild adherent of the "bros before hos" philosophy, but it is an adherent all the same; the film may have been improved by Burns mustering the courage to confront this and see the film to its logical end. Kitty can't leave Abe without being the bad guy, and if that means the film's central female character is a backstabbing bitch, well, so be it. Anybody who had completely resolved his issues with women in general would never write a film like Looking for Kitty in the first place.
TH!NKFilm's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD transfer of Looking for Kitty is simultaneously garish and dark, with heavy digital grain surfacing during low-lit scenes. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio is diffused and timid, mixed at a lower volume than the theme music that accompanies the main menu. To add injury to insult, there are no English subtitles, while the closed-captions are for an entirely different film! (Down in the Valley.) Another obvious candidate for THE ONION A.V. CLUB's "Commentary Tracks of the Damned," Edward Burns's film-length yakker is primarily geared towards teaching aspiring filmmakers how to make movies with no money at all. He constantly points out continuity errors that snuck in due to a shortage of manpower and justifies them by saying, "If you're involved in the story, you're not going to care." Burns adds that if you shoot everything in long shot, you can loop in virtually whatever dialogue you want, and claims that his next no-budget feature will take place in one location. He seems to be more interested in making movies than in making good movies.
The low point of the track is Burns's revelation that he made Ron Stewart a Star Wars geek because he's upset at how Star Wars has destroyed an interest in foreign and independent film. "When did R2-D2 replace The Bicycle Thief?" he asks rhetorically. I wanted to throw my shoe at the screen. An alternate opening runs 11 minutes and is pretty excruciating. It's all fat, stuff trimmed from the finished film that does little to flesh out the characters and is uninteresting on its own terms. A 'director's letter' keepcase insert compressing most of the information found in the commentary joins forced trailers for Little Athens, The King, and Down in the Valley and an optional one for Looking for Kitty in rounding out the depressing platter. Originally published: August 13, 2007.