When Louise Lavender (Iseult Champion) falls in with conman B.J. Benjamin (David Hines), it annoys her rich father, and owner of Lavender Laundries, Mr. Lavender (Vincent O’Neill), prompting him to cut his daughter off from all bank accounts and allowances. At the same time, Lavender Laundries employee Chuck Charmers (Emannuelle Nicolau) has just won the annual award at work, a prize of $1,000, and after getting a bit too mouthy with Mr. Lavender when accepting the award, is fired. With money in hand, however, Chuck heads out to get himself some nice clothes, to give him an air or respectability.
After having her car stolen, while attempting to sell it, Louise begins the long walk with her few belongings to the Spruce Ark Hotel, where B.J. is waiting for her. Along the way, she is rescued by Chuck, who just so happens to be the passenger in her stolen car (driven by his friend who stole it, posing as a chauffeur). Louise lies about her name, and doesn’t quite make the car beyond just the resemblance, so the three head to the hotel together.
Once there, she meets up with B.J. and tells him all about the rich Chuck (who isn’t really rich). At the same time, Chuck tries to find out more about Louise. Add in the arrival of a father-daughter grifter team (Alan Mundy and Maria Micallef, respectively) and you have the recipe for a tale of mixed-up identity as everyone tries to figure out who has the money, and how to take advantage of them. Everyone winds up playing everyone else, only half the time they don’t know exactly who it is they’re playing, as even names no longer match up. And that’s before Mr. Lavender and a detective (Bill Ayers) arrive at the hotel…
All Spruced Up tackles a classic madcap comedy tone with the theme of mistaken identity amid a crew of grifters, idiots and too-trusting innocents. Not surprisingly, the ones who seem to want to make their money the quickest also seem to be the ones who are spending it constantly in an effort to get a leg up; only the bellhop (Jim Farrow) seems to be making money in this film.
At times funny, other times confusing, the film most consistently feels like a play where film tricks, such as matte paintings and animation, are utilized to help with the edit or set the scene, but not necessarily in there to make the best film. Composition is a bit too wide, and the edit paced to work more with a witticism than what will flow the best way visually. It’s okay for a play, but it’s not very good as a film.
This is the second film I’ve seen by filmmaker Bill Ayers (Fortune Hunter being the first), and while his themes haven’t seemed to progress too much (get rich quick vs. hard work), his skill has somewhat. While Fortune Hunter was based on a play, and had that better-for-stage-than-for-film feel, All Spruced Up embraces its similar stage-friendliness by having the film book-ended with opening and closing curtains. It may seem like a silly thing to find as an improvement, since the film still feels more play than movie and that is my main issue with it, but it at least lets the audience know that the filmmaker is well-aware of what they’ve got, and is presenting it within that context knowingly.
And really, this endeavor is not that far off from being successful. The technical problems that most trip up this film are the quality of the audio, but the story is quite easy to follow, even when it gets a little complicated. Of course, it’d be easier to grasp if the audio wasn’t so hollow or hard to understand at times, or if the story would tone down the number of characters to give more development with the few it has.
Still, I enjoyed All Spruced Up, despite its shortcomings. Ayers creates a world all his own, one that seems to exist 50-60 years ago, and handles it with his own style. The animation, while sometimes crude, also has a very Monty Python Flying Circus vibe to it from time to time. The re-touched images as matte paintings works for what it is (though at least one should’ve been checked for spelling). Basically, there’s a style and vibe here that, if you get into it and enjoy for the nostalgic trip that it is, isn’t really that bad.
Overall, while I think Bill Ayers has shown improvement in his filmmaking skills between 2010’s Fortune Hunter and now All Spruced Up, I still get the feeling that he’s a for-stage director utilizing film tools and context to show us plays. When he makes the jump, if he makes the jump, to filmmaker who embraces all of the benefits of the medium, and shoots for what will work best for cinema, I think he’ll truly have something.
Right now, just as his films have that “out of time” feel, so too does his material feel like its out of place in its medium. To put it more simply, if he wants to keep working with plays and play-like material, he needs to make a film that truly adapts the play for cinema, and not just a film that predominantly just shows us a play. Unless that’s not his thing, which is fine, but I think he’s found a fertile crop for storytelling, they’re just not coming across cinematically yet.
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