Phil on Film Index

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Review - Passenger Side

Fans of low-key, talkative indie road movies will find plenty to enjoy in Passenger Side, the third feature from Matthew Bissonnette, but others may feel they've seen this film too many times before. This is the story of two very different brothers who spend a single day together driving around LA, meeting a series of eccentric characters and heading towards an unknown destination. All of this is being orchestrated by younger brother Tobey (Joel Bissonnette), an ex-junkie with a history of reckless behaviour, who has persuaded Michael (Adam Scott) to accompany him on his 37th birthday, following Tobey's instructions without knowing where they might lead. Where they end up eventually feels rather anticlimactic and almost beside the point, as it's the journey rather than the destination that really matters here.

What's frustrating is how episodic and schematic much of that journey feels. At every step of the way, Bissonnette has Michael and Tobey encounter an eccentric character, and these hit-and-miss interludes disrupt the film's flow. While some of these scenes are amusing, such as Michael's bemused reaction when a transsexual prostitute steps into his care, others simply fall flat (the porn movie shoot), and while we're supposed to glean insights into the brothers' characters through the way they react to these wacky types, such revelations didn't occur for me. Scott and Bissonnette are both fine in the central roles, and both handle the smart-alecky conversations well (although the sarcastic dialogue often feels rather overwritten), but I struggled to get under the skin of these characters and understand their motivations.

As a result, Passenger Side feels underdeveloped and the final twists in the story are nowhere near as resonant or profound as Bissonnette seems to feel they should be. I found it to be a plodding disappointment but the picture does have two major saving graces. The cinematography by Jonathon Cliff is bright and atmospheric, and he brilliantly utilises the landscape and architecture of the city in his vivid compositions. The film's other redeeming quality is its fine, eclectic soundtrack, with the use of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne at a particular juncture in the film being a lovely, haunting highlight. Bissonnette certainly knows how to make a film that's a pleasure to watch and listen to, even if it ultimately leads nowhere.