I’ve greatly admired Sebastian Gutierrez’s distinctive style – his sense of humor, his ear for dialogue, his strong characters, his affinity for multiple storylines that connect in some form – and it’s once again utilized in his newest film, Girl Walks into a Bar, one of a handful of films made exclusively for internet distribution and can be seen for free on YouTube. Although he remains a talented director, the film suffers from a noticeable lack of focus and objective. The subplots don’t mesh as seamlessly. The characters are more enigmatic. There’s no real sense of what the point is; I’m not entirely sure that a point is being made. Rather than intertwined narratives, we have what can best be described as a chain reaction, character continually setting things into motion, none of which go anywhere in particular.
And yet, Gutierrez’s gift for dialogue shines through, and a number of individual scenes are funny and, in their own strange way, charming. He also once again relies on the talents of his girlfriend, Carla Gugino, and while this certainly constitutes as nepotism, there’s no denying her presence and style of delivery add greatly to his work. The film opens with Gugino as an undercover ex-cop named Francine Driver, who poses as an assassin and meets a dentist in a Los Angeles bar. His name is Nick (Zachary Quinto), and he wants his wife dead. He doesn’t have the upfront payment of $20,000, but he promises he can get it for her before the night is over. When he leaves, Francine meets a young man named Henry (Aaron Tveit), a photographer who charms her before stealing her wallet and running off into the night. Her wallet contains the device used to record her conversation with Nick, and the evidence is incriminating.
And so begins Francine’s frantic search through the bars and clubs of Los Angeles. As she journeys, a number of characters are introduced. There’s Henry’s sister, Teresa (Emmanuelle Chriqui), an exotic dancer. There’s Teresa and Henry’s father, Dodge (Robert Forster), an ex-con who gives his son the most baffling of advice and has a strange fixation on bones. There’s Nick’s patient, Aldo (Danny DeVito), a gangster who can get Nick his money ... but only by roping him into participating in a heist. There’s a bartender named Camilla (Amber Valetta), who’s having relationship problems with her divorced upstairs neighbor. There’s June (Rosario Dawson), a hatcheck girl for an exclusive nude ping pong club. There’s Francine’s superior, Sam Salazar (Josh Hartnett), who’s always addressed as Officer but is actually a detective. And then there’s Francine’s ex-husband, Emmit (Gil Bellows), who has something Francine wants.
My favorite scene is early in the film, where Teresa’s voiceover narration proves just how perceptive she is when it comes to her body, her professional responsibilities, and the men that frequent the club to watch her dance. As she performs her stage act, she escapes into her head, bringing time to a standstill. She imagines herself not as a common stripper, but as “the real her”: A sideshow dancer named Teresa the Astonishing. Her intuition – excuse me, I mean her cunning feats of mentalism and supernatural amusements – allows her to probe a man’s mind and determine exactly who he is and why he does what he does. She goes around the room and makes examples out of most of the frozen spectators, especially one who is, shall we say, unequipped. To drive home her point, she brings out a tape measure. If it were a ruler, I suspect it would be far less funny.
Francine’s quest is open to a number of exciting and potentially hilarious possibilities, and none of them are explored. Her case is resolved rather disappointingly, and it happens before her own subplot comes to a conclusion. By the time the movie ends, I felt as if nothing of significance had happened, and I never really got the chance to know who Francine was. The problem, I think, is that there isn’t much at stake; her character is little more than a woman on a mission to recover a stolen recording device. Compare this to another Gugino character, Elektra Luxx, an ex-porn star who was the focus of Gutierrez’s highly effective Women in Trouble and Elektra Luxx; after discovering she’s pregnant, she’s forced to consider the path her life is going in, and it culminates with a deal to write a self-help book for sexually frustrated women. This character is very well developed, but more to the point, there’s a clear sense of purpose.
This isn’t the case with Girl Walks into a Bar. The film isn’t a fragmented narrative so much as a series of vignettes, and while many of them work in and of themselves, they collectively don’t add up to much. Perhaps that was the intention, and I grant you that many great movies have gotten by without tying up loose ends. So then why do I still feel that this movie is aimless and incomplete? Perhaps Gutierrez’s style doesn’t allow for meandering plotlines. But I still have to give him credit for his dialogue. Like Aaron Sorkin and Woody Allen, he is an actor’s screenwriter. Those he casts should consider themselves lucky, for they have been given an opportunity so few directors give nowadays: To be in an intelligent, witty movie that relies less on physicality and more on the power of speech.