THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Four years ago, director Kurt Kuenne released a documentary called Dear Zachary that tore me up. While it didn't get much theatrical play, the film found a similarly devastated audience when it hit DVD and Netflix Instant. I've yet to talk to a person who wasn't profoundly moved by it. For his newest film, Shuffle (on DVD now), Kuenne moves into the realm of fiction, creating a Memento-esque thriller. While clearly lacking the emotional pull of Dear Zachary, it does further suggest that Kuenne is an ambitious filmmaker, willing to take some risks.
“Bones” co-star TJ Thyne plays Lovell Milo, a guy whose life has become an indecipherable mess ever since the death of his wife Grace (Paula Rhodes). Every day is out of order; one day he's in his early 20s, the next in his 80s, the next somewhere in between. He doesn't know why or how this is happening, only that he seems to be lost in a jumble of time and space. During his experience, he receives a message, suggesting that it all has some greater purpose or that it is somehow a puzzle for him to solve. Lovell is determined to uncover the meaning, and when he does, it changes his life forever.
A deck of playing cards provides a recurring visual motif in Shuffle, with the film suggesting that Lovell's journey is continually being reconfigured, much like cards would be shuffled in a game of poker. Kuenne effectively keeps us disoriented, much like his main character. I really like the idea of the movie giving the audience the same malady as its protagonist. Even though other directors have done similar things, it's still a technique that requires skill to pull off. There is an appropriate sense of mystery to the story, as we wait to see what Lovell will learn next, what it will tell him, and what he'll do with the new information. Shuffle is also helped by strong performances from Thyne and Rhodes, who bring a sense of humanity that grounds the film's stylistic elements.
The movie's stumbling block is that, by design, Lovell's story is disjointed, and this occasionally makes it hard to become emotionally involved. I'm not sure a picture that actively tries to get the audience to feel the hero's malady can sustain an emotional core. The obvious comparison, as I said above, is Memento. Although that film's lead was looking for his wife's killer, the story was solely about him and his desperate desire to not forget. Shuffle, on the other hand, wants you to become heavily invested in the Lovell/Grace romance, which is tough to do when she's essentially a cipher, drifting in and out of his dreamlike state. You'll care about them thanks to the two leads, but the movie doesn't successfully generate the deep emotional response it's clearly aiming for. The plot's big last-minute revelation is also fairly easy to predict.
Personally, I'm willing to overlook a film's flaws a little bit if it's clearly aiming high in what it wants to do. Shuffle is indeed flawed, yet it is also intriguing and different. At the end of the day, the movie is worth a look for the things it gets right. Kurt Kuenne is a filmmaker to watch. Based on the two titles of his that I've seen, he's intent on experimenting, and in this day and age, that's a highly admirable quality.
( 1/2 out of four)
Shuffle contains several bonus features: the original theatrical trailer, a 30-minute making-of documentary, and four highly entertaining video diaries from the film's trip through the festival circuit. You also have the choice to watch the movie in color, or in the director's preferred black and white version, which is how I viewed it.
Shuffle is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and brief sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 23 minutes.
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