If Harry Styles had actually hacked a gob of spit in Chris Pine’s lap, it may have been because he had recently watched the fellow actor’s feature directorial debut: the paranoid noir satire “Poolman.” It’s a film so abysmal in its writing and assembly that there were numerous walkouts during its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF 2023 has played host to more actor-turned-directors than usual — Michael Keaton, Anna Kendrick, Viggo Mortensen, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Finn Wolfhard, to name a few — and whether it’s a coincidence, or an attempt to get around the ongoing SAG strikes by having celebrity directors show face, programming “Poolman” in any capacity feels like a severe ethical breach.
There’s little point in singling out any one scene or idea. In isolation, nothing in “Poolman” is quite so offensive as to warrant outright derision on its own, and the actors all seem as sincerely committed. Then again, so did the cast of “Movie 43,” which was practically made at gunpoint. As a whole, “Poolman” is simply one of the worst movies to ever play at a major festival, putting Pine’s position as Hollywood’s best Chris in serious jeopardy.
Pine stars as Darren Barrenman, the eponymous, air-headed pool cleaner who speaks in eccentric half-thoughts and gifts people his origami projects — a “weird guy” as conceived by amateur improv performers. He leads an all-star cast of well-known actors who ought to fire their agents for not thinking to hire mafia goons to break their knees, if it meant preventing them from participating in Pine’s bizarre vanity project. That’s already a more interesting premise for a crime farce than “Poolman,” which sees Pine’s conspiracy-minded do-gooder get roped up in a “Chinatown”-esque conspiracy — which is to say, pretty much just “Chinatown” all over again — in a plot strung together with bumbling non-sequiturs about sushi and egg cream soda.
Each rapid-fire conversation is pointless white noise that goes nowhere, reveals little about its characters, and features nothing resembling actual jokes. Pine can make himself the center of his rigmarole all he wants, but does he have to rope Annette Bening and Danny DeVito into it as well? They play Barrenman’s bickering parent-figures, who also assist him in making an exposé documentary about some vague, nebulous government corruption that never fully comes to light, all while feeling like less polished versions of Sam Witwicky’s parents in the “Transformers” films.
When it comes to its mysteries, the movie’s recursive dead-ends are, on one hand, its point. In theory, it’s a noir satire in the vein of “Burn After Reading,” imbued with the slacker energy of “The Big Lebowski.” On the other hand, it’s the clear work of a filmmaker who ought to have been told “no” at least one or two hundred times during production. Its introductory scene isn’t altogether inept, with Pine’s bearded, raggedy-haired sanitation worker diligently cleaning out the pool at an apartment complex while listening to classical music, before misguidedly typing a personal letter to Erin Brockovich. He’s a man in way over his head and he dreams of changing the world, but this is about the only bit of remotely effective or amusing storytelling the film has to offer.
Immediately, it shifts gears and presents a painfully lengthy post-screw conversation between Barrenman and his girlfriend Susan (Jennifer Jason Leigh). After it gets to its point about Barrenman’s scattered attention span, and Susan’s close friendship with an unseen Muslim man named Samir — half the movie’s “jokes” are just white characters vaguely referencing people of color — it hammers home the same mildly chuckle-worthy ideas ad nauseam, like a four-year-old repeating the first knock-knock joke they ever heard. Yes, it’s cute, and the best you can do is humor them with a smile. They mean well, but gosh do they need supervision.
Every scene from there on out involves characters speaking over and past each other, in ways meant to be idiosyncratic — the references they make are largely LA-specific, though they really are just references rather than setups and payoffs — but the result is often a headache-inducing cacophony of first-draft scribblings. If there’s one specifically LA experience Pine re-creates, it’s listening to an actor ramble on about their passion project at a noisy party.
The plot revolves around Barrenman investigating a corrupt councilman played by Stephen Tobolowsky — who gets the film’s only semi-interesting moment, though it comes quite late into the running time — along with a whole host of other stock characters, from his duplicitous assistant (De Wanda Wise) to an industrialist he may be in cahoots with (Clancy Brown). “Poolman’s” farcical approach to the noir genre ensures that none of this ever amounts to much by way of either comedy or drama, but it never feels like it’s satirizing anything either. The casting of Ray Wise (who played Leland Palmer in “Twin Peaks”) leads to the brief possibility of some surrealist turns, but the film has absolutely zero control over its own material, framing what ought to be absurdist zig-zags with an utter lack of visual or narrative commitment.
At times, it even seems like specific camera movements (at least one zoom and one pan, though I stopped counting) have been left incomplete, or have been truncated by the edit before they’ve been allowed to emphasize or reveal anything on screen. Then again, since the film was cut by Stacey Schroeder, who edited the modern comedy masterclass “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” it’s more likely that truncating these shot choices was the preferable option, in lieu of even more dead air.
The idea of a self-effacing LA mystery laced with misguided paranoia is hardly unworkable; David Robert Mitchell made “Under The Silver Lake” just five years ago. But to do so requires the ability to express any kind of perspective on the city that isn’t simply naming streets and restaurants (it makes the cutaway gags in “Family Guy” seem like intricate Norm McDonald bits).
However, it’s hard to know if “Under The Silver Lake” is even an apt comparison; it seems genuinely impossible to track how silly or serious “Poolman” is trying to be at any given moment. Some scenes play like Friedberg and Seltzer parodies, à la “Epic Movie,” with their tryhard non-humor that aims for the lowest hanging fruit and frequently misses. Other scenes, right next to them, attempt to weave abstract visions and symbols into Barrenman’s purview, forcing a character-centric reading that simply does not exist (though the movie translates it into expository answers regardless).
Were it not for Pine’s on-screen presence and his name being attached to the film, “Poolman” would be easy to mistake for an alien’s approximation of a movie based on second-hand descriptions. To go for the easy “this feels A.I. generated” comparison would imply that it resembles existing art in some distant way, which just isn’t the case. It’s only 100 minutes long, but upward of 99 of those minutes are likely to be spent in silent boredom, if not irritated disbelief at being subjected to such guileless, artless nonsense.
“Poolman” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.