Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Crazy From the Beard: "Asylum Seekers" (2011)

The initial set-up to "Asylum Seekers" is promising: half a dozen people with mental problems try to get into an insane asylum where only one spot is available. Only the craziest will make it in. The possibilities are endless: manic dark comedy, bloody horror film, social satire, etc. What I did not see coming is a film even more insane than its characters.

Six people enter the asylum, and are provided with onscreen introductions. Antoine (Daniel Irizarry) is a virgin nymphomaniac, Maud (Pepper Binkley) is a trophy mouse-wife, Paul (Lee Wilkof) is an evangelical nihilist, Miranda (Camille O'Sullivan) is an introverted exhibitionist, Alan (Bill Dawes) is a gender bender refugee, and Alice (Stella Maeve) is a cybernetic Lolita. All possible patients are put through various "contests" by the mean Nurse Milly (Judith Hawking) and her evil henchmen, under the watchful eye of the unseen The Beard. The asylum itself is full of fringe characters even more bizarre than our prospects. Maud and Antoine begin to grow closer (as close as a nymphomaniac and a mousy wife can), until The Beard makes up their mind.

"Asylum Seekers" is exhausting. Co-writer/director Rania Ajami ups the bizarre quotient right away, never giving the viewer a break. Each successive scene is a little more insane than the one before, and even quiet scenes turn into bizarre set-pieces that are not soon forgotten. I would compare her direction favorably to Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Her use of widescreen is excellent, and she gives us some creepy imagery that plays with the viewer's head as much as the characters'.

I could tell too easily, however, which characters were going to be the focus of our attention. Some are given small back stories- little scenes that show us why they are where they are, but some are not. Some characters don't live up to their own opening onscreen intros- Alan seems more torn between being black or white, not gay or straight. Same with Miranda, the most inhibited exhibitionist I have seen. Even Paul, who should have been a right-wing fanatic nutjob, seems toned down, becoming a mild paranoid instead.

The cast does a great job playing characters that are way way out there. I would love to see their reactions reading the screenplay, seeing what they must endure on film. There is nothing "Salo"-esque here, no exploitative feces eating or anything lowbrow like that. Instead, Ajami puts her cast through the paces of "American Idol"-like competitions and wearing giant animal heads. The problem is all the surrealism should have been toned down as much as some of the characters. A more mainstream approach to the material might have warmed me up to the film, where following through on some of the initial scenes are a problem. The lack of strong characterization also means not being able to sympathize much with any of these people, much less the equally disturbed asylum staff.

Technically, "Asylum Seekers" is a visual marvel and very well made. I would slightly recommend it, I guarantee you will be talking about it for days, love it or hate it. (* * *) out of five stars.