There are two big mysteries at the centre of terminally kooky noir Poolman. The first: how has Chris Pine’s directorial debut - which he also stars in, as well as co-writing and producing - ended up as such a spectacular folly? The second: how did he rope in such a great cast to drag down with him?
Debuting to a shocking reception at TIFF, it’s likely that Poolman will attain a cult must-see status among viewers wanting to rubberneck at the car-crash material or as fodder for a drinking game. But ultimately anyone who attempts such a thing will probably struggle to make it all the way through, the novelty factor only going so far.
Pine is a great actor who frequently makes smart choices (earlier this year, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves was a cut-above blockbuster) and is often the best thing in so-so material (elevating Don’t Worry Darling last year). So it’s baffling why he created this vehicle for himself, which reportedly came out of a giggly chat he had with Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, who’s credited as a producer. You can at least say for the film that it’s clearly targeting a surreal, stoner vibe. But even cutting it that slack, there’s barely anything here to recommend.
Not helping matters is the film’s debt to Chinatown, a towering classic that’s evoked by name several times over. Pine’s ‘poolman’ Darren Barrenman, or DB, is living a stripped-back existence. His main focus is the cleaning of the pool in the trailer park where he lives, a job he carries out with exacting precision each day. He also meditates underwater, writes daily letters to his idol Erin Brockovich, and receives regular Jungian therapy from neighbour Dianne (Annette Bening); the latter and her husband Jack (Danny DeVito) are basically DB’s substitute parents.
When DB gets a tip-off about a conspiracy that affects his beloved Los Angeles, he turns amateur sleuth (amateur being the key word) and sets off on a painfully unengaging mission, often with his friends in tow. Jack also occasionally films the antics for a documentary. While the aforementioned Chinatown is a touchstone, it seems likely that Pine was also trying to harness some of the energy of The Big Lebowski, too. DB is a long-haired, beardy slacker bumbling from one situation to the next in eccentric, mismatched outfits.
Comparing the Coens’ exemplary noir comedy would be unflattering to practically any other film playing in this register; to a film like Poolman, the comparison is downright ruinous. It makes you realise that Paul Thomas Anderson was only making the shaggy-dog PI story look easy with Inherent Vice.
By the end, you actually start to feel bad for Poolman, which just doesn’t work on any level. The tone is all over the place, jokes fall flat, and the central mystery is barely coherent. It’s not nice to see any project that has required effort from multiple parties fail, and you’re left wishing you could put it out of its misery to save some face for all concerned. It’s also liable to put you off ever trying your own creative endeavour, lest the well-intentioned results land as abysmally.
So, if harsh reviews tempt you to masochistically seek out the subject for a laugh/endurance test/dose of schadenfreude, forget it: this is absolutely not Chinatown. The kindest thing would be to let Poolman sink without trace as quickly as possible, before it drags Pine too far down the Hollywood Chris league table.
Poolman's release date is currently TBC.