There are a couple of literary character comparisons which are proven to sell me on a movie. One of them is the protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Unfortunately, these references almost always set up standards that are impossible to meet. When the synopsis of “Small Apartments” compared its central character to the scholarly but socially incompetent butterball, Ignatius J. Reilly, I should have known it would be a stretch.
But I just couldn’t help myself. And now I will never be able to bleach the image of Matt Lucas’ scantily clad Pillsbury Doughboy body out of my mind. You don’t have to make the same mistake. Trust me when I tell you that Franklin Franklin is no Ignatius J. Reilly. He’s much, much worse. This makes him 100% unsympathetic and not the least bit fun to watch.
Franklin Franklin’s eye-rolling moniker is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of irksome traits. He is fat, pale and as hairless as the bowling ball that is allegedly responsible for evacuating his follicles. He’s self-conscious enough about being bald that he keeps a selection of wigs by his front door, but he has no qualms about roaming the streets in nothing but knee socks and baggy whities. He fantasizes about living in Switzerland while he bellows into his enormous Alp horn, much to the annoyance of his neighbors. He consumes nothing but pickles and a specific brand of soda. He neglects his talking dog. Every day, he receives an envelope in the mail from his hereditarily superior, but clinically insane, brother Bernard (James Marsden). This envelope always contains a homemade self-help recording and some toenail clippings. Are you tired of quirks yet? Writer Chris Millis was clearly trying to create a memorably eccentric character. But he neglected to give Franklin any qualities that would make him empathetic.
A lame character begets lame plot points. Millis designed every gag to be either shocking or wacky. In between jokes, he tried to pack in some notes of sincerity. Some of it even works, but the actors deserve most of the credit for that success. You know you’re in bad shape when it feels like Johnny Knoxville and Billy Crystal are being underutilized. Crystal’s jaded alcoholic fire investigator and James Caan as a widower gothic painter have a solid scene together.
Juno Temple is magnetic as an overcompensating teenage girl. At this point, I would watch her in anything. I only hope she achieves enough success to become more selective of her roles. A dramatic scene between her and Johnny Knoxville as a goal-oriented stoner would have made a great short film.
Were “Small Apartments” more the ensemble that the title suggests, it might have been something worthwhile. Unfortunately, the bulk of the film concerns Franklin’s bumbling attempt to cover up the manslaughter of his scumbag landlord. For a film that clearly prides itself on its idiosyncrasies, it sure is predictable.
There are also several elements, which make watching the film borderline insulting for even a remotely astute audience. Take note, screenwriters: Nudity in and of itself is not funny. There has to be a reason for it.
The film ends on a lengthy voiceover summing up the feelings you should have had and the lessons you should have learned throughout. Among the bumper sticker tropes: “Life is what you make it” and “Happiness is a state of mind” (yes, really). Furthermore, why can’t characters learn lessons (especially ones this simplistic) without becoming conveniently, unexpectedly wealthy? “Small Apartments” is standard Hollywood tripe, disguised as something unique. Some people might fall for it, but you’re better than that.