"Although I don't know quite what's going on, I'm having a great time."
Cinema of the absurd is a delicate balancing act. When describing films that belong in that category (or want to be labelled as such) but fail to live up to expectations critics can throw out descriptions such as “hollow”, “surface level” or “trying too hard” which can all sound like vague and somewhat hard to define constructs. The reason for use of those terms is simply because so much of absurdist cinema is rooted in the bare emotional response is evokes from the reviewer. It’s difficult to condense that kind of subjectivity into a cohesive train of thought.
When a hired gun (Jermain Clement) is sent to retrieve the money a donut shop owner stole from a convenience store, the assassin and the thief’s wife Lulu (Aubrey Plaza) run away together. They find themselves at a posh hotel where a mysterious musician by the name of Beverly Luff Lin (Craig Robinson) is performing.
Another issue with judging absurdist cinema is to know what criteria from which to judge the movie in question from. There’s no semblance of realism, dramatic tension, purpose or palpable consequences to grasp so it immediately makes any critique of such seem pointless. Yes I could say that ‘An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn’ is an almost incoherent movie with no connective tissue or prevalent theme to engage the viewer in any dramatic sense and it could well be true. But one could just as easily make the argument that the film never desired to be any of those things.
It is obvious from the start that Jim Hosking’s world is one that is divorced from any specific time or location. The deliberately stilted performances from Aubrey Plaza, Emile Hirsch and Jermain Clement are often to focal point of each scene as the camera almost seems to revel in their own lack of naturalism. There’s an offbeat and deadpan undercurrent to almost everything the actors and visual style of the film present, which for a brief time managed to create a humorous setting that had me engaged in which direction the film would take this tone. The answer was nowhere.
The tone that ‘An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn” establishes immediately is the exact tone that the rest of the movie is played. There is no escalation, no development to the narrative and no broader goal that the movie can aim for. Instead it ploughs forward with this one note execution for a painfully long amount of time to a point where it started to actively detract from my enjoyment of the movie. As the narrative refused to develop in any meaningful way I found myself becoming all the more frustrated at what was unfolding in front of me.
The comedic moments of the film fail to land for the same reason the absurdity also feels shallow. There is no sense of perspective to ground the viewer in what lens we should be viewing this world through. It becomes impossible to distinguish between what story beat and what is a meaningless exercise in ridiculousness, just as it becomes impossible to distinguish between comedic moments and stylistic awkwardness. Though this phrase gets all too frequently and with not enough virtue behind it, the film really is style over substance.
If I’m going to indulge in a cliché of film criticism I may as well elaborate. The style of Hoskings is very clearly to have his film untethered from any sense of reality, but even in this madcap world there has to be a piece of recognizable truth for the audience to latch onto. Whether it’s a character, story beat or emotional thread, the audience has to be able to latch onto some facet of understanding to get a grasp of the world and allow the ensuing absurdity to be effective. Both the dramatic and comedic sides of David Lynch are excellent examples of this, relying on emotional weight or familiar characteristics to further whatever twisted oddity the filmmaker is delivering.
If I could continue the comparisons to Lynch, what that director also favours are scenes that feel purposeful in their strangeness. Whether or not there is a decisive “meaning” to what he puts in his films you can at least be assured that it furthers the films theme, story or atmosphere in one way or another. Meanwhile in a movie like ‘An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn’, so many of the punchlines just seem to be characters randomly flailing their limbs. Even then there’s no reason or consistency to sad flailing. It’s randomness caused by a need for randomness that doesn’t serve to complement any other kind of randomness, lacking in any visual flair, compelling components or interesting aspects.
Weird with no purpose and flat with no meaning, ‘An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn’ is an absurd comedic fable gone horribly wrong.