Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: THE FOXY MERKINS (2014 Atlanta Film Festival)

The 2014 Atlanta Film Festival begins on March 28th and goes to April 6th this year, so the lines at the Plaza Theater--its main hub of activity these days--haven't begun forming. But I've been getting screeners for many of its features the past few days, and I'm happy to report I've found a few real gems amongst them, chiefly Madeleine Olnek's fantastically entertaining comedy The Foxy Merkins. If you happen to know what a merkin is (and you can be forgiven if you don't), then I'm certain you're already intrigued.

When we first see Margaret (Lisa Haas) hooking on a New York City street corner, somehow shambling while standing still in her standard t-shirt/jeans combo, we can immediately feel her frustration and discomfort. She doesn't want to do this sort of demeaning work. A tightly-wound businesswoman (Jennifer Prediger) stops awkwardly in front of her, fiddles with her phone for too long a time, and barely even recognizes Margaret's humanity when asking how much her services will cost. "I'd like to pay more for it, 'cause it turns me on to pay more for it," she says. Margaret says she's going for $250; the trick's counteroffer is $5. Haas, a dumpling-shaped woman with moppy hair and a gentle voice, plays this moment with a taken-aback desperation, yet she also plays it funny, her eyes popping slightly behind her thin-rimmed glasses. It's pretty clear from the outset that she's going to be delightful to watch.

You can always see Haas thinking and listening, and that's a habit that distinguishes great actors from adequate or bad ones. Her eyes dart around, searching for the correct thing to say, unsure in her own damaged fashion. She really give a tremendous performance here, instantly winning our support with her intelligence and fumbling openness. The Foxy Merkins occasionally tips its hat to another NYC prostitution buddy movie, Midnight Cowboy, and Haas is our Joe Buck, but without the fringe jacket and soon-to-be-crushed bravado. Margaret doesn't revel in a lot of self-pity, but it's clear she was crushed a while ago, and this is the just the last rung lingering over rock bottom. Nevertheless, she seems game for just about anything, and though this often leads to very compromising situations, Haas never allows her character to be a mere punching bag. She retains her dignity, no matter what. 

Margaret's Ratso Rizzo counterpart is played with gusto by Jackie Monahan. Her character, Jo, isn't quite as sceevy as Hoffman's creation but, despite her thrown-together haute couture, she's still a double-dealer who both exploits Margaret and takes her under her tutelage. Jo's the kind of person who walks down the street and points to literally everyone she sees and proudly claims she slept with them ("This lady with the peach outfit and the boots...I slept with her, too"). When they first meet outside a sandwich shop, her faux-delicate way of asking Margaret if she's a lesbian is to instead ask if she's a woman studies major (a hilarious line). Twins in dejection, they quickly bond and begin "rooming" together in a Port Authority bathroom, their days spent trolling for usually older clients, up for some frottage or motorboating (two of the funnier kinky sexual practices). Director Olnek--who co-wrote the film with Haas and Monahan--deftly finds the humor in perversions, just like John Waters once did in his heyday (Waters is a big though subtle influence here). The Foxy Merkins, though, sports a prominent sweetness and humanity that Waters' earlier films often joyfully lacked and that's a facet that really distinguishes this very raucous comedy.

The episodic nature of the film's script always keeps things moving quickly, and the film is never repetitive or claustrophobic like so many indies can be. Olnek's camera, surely guided by cinematographer Anna Stypko, is rigidly controlled, with very few handheld shots (thankfully). The production team does a superb job of catching the things people love about New York City--the Cinema Village theater, Coney Island, Park Avenue, and Little Italy all make appearances here. Though the two lead performances are always front and center, the film also smartly includes lots of bits for other actors to run with.

Of course, there are the clients, mostly well-off elites searching for a little time with the dregs (the film makes delicate points about the 1% and their throwaway use of the 99%). There's a suburban lady with a love of Lemon Pledge (which sets off Margaret's asthma); a Republican woman with a premature ejaculation problem ("You can always tell if a person's a Republican if they premature ejaculate," Jo says); a muttering salesman in a raincoat trolling a cemetery, looking for buyers of his erotic accessories (he's played by Alex Karpovsky, who's given two of the film's funniest scenes); a team of reluctant lesbians billed as "Accounts Payable" and "Accounts Receivable;" a wealthy repeat client with a taste for dangerous situations (leading to more hilarious farce, including its one solitary nude scene that's guaranteed to shake theater rafters with the audience's howling laughter); and a terrific one-scene performance from Diane Ciesla as Jo's well-to-do mother, who shows up in the Port Authority bathroom to sternly urge her daughter to give up this business. Olnek even finds time to insert a documentary element to this narrative, talking with other lesbian prostitutes in a diner setting (it's excitingly impossible to tell if these are actresses or if they're real former sex workers).

Yet, with all its notable assets (I love the score, too, which manages to reference The Pixies, Burt Bacharach and Nino Rota in surprising ways), chief among them are the fearless lead performances from Haas and Monahan. Whenever they're on screen together, we're completely engaged by their rapport. I particularly loved those scenes where they flirt with becoming romantically involved, first with Jo drunkenly caressing Margaret's face in a toilet stall ("If you were a guy, or if I were a lesbian, or if we were both lesbians, or even if we were both gay guys, I would totally fuck the shit out of you," she confesses), and then, later, with Margaret nervously asking for a kiss from Jo as they roast weenies over a Sterno can (a funny but heartbreaking moment). The Foxy Merkins pulls us in with its raw whimsy but it manages to ensnare our affections as well. A hit at the Sundance fest (which led to Olnek being nominated for an Independent Spirit "Someone to Watch" award), it's absolutely one of the best films I've seen so far this year. 

The Foxy Merkins plays at the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival on Thursday, April 3rd, at 9 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium. Don't miss it! 

"THE FOXY MERKINS" comes to the Atlanta Film Festival! Thursday April 3, 9pm- Plaza Theater!
from Codependent Lesbian Space Alien on Vimeo.

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