Review: ‘Cold Weather’

Every generation gets the Sherlock Holmes it deserves. IFC Films
Every generation gets the Sherlock Holmes it deserves. IFC Films

1. It's never fun writing about film "movements," because such discussions inevitably revolve around what movie writers are saying rather than what audiences are actually experiencing. Humans can only watch one movie at a time, you know? "Dogme" and "mumblecore" might be words that mean something to people who write and think about movies for a living, but the average moviegoer could care less. They're spending 10 bucks for a movie, just one movie, not a segment of a movement. Maybe mumblecore is trying to reinvent independent film, and I'm sure that makes a big difference at film festivals and IFC conference calls and in the part of Kevin Smith's brain that still works. I'm not convinced it matters to anyone else.

2. I say all this as an introduction to "Cold Weather," because writer/director Aaron Katz is one of the founding members of the mumblecore movement, as much as such a nebulous, fake term can have "members." He's different than some of the others (the Duplass brothers, Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton, responsible for my personal favorite, "Humpday") in that he has a keen visual eye and a clear talent for composition, but he's the same in that his movies are not afraid to be mundane in search of the "real." In recent years, mumblecore movies are starting to become more mainstream -- the Duplass brothers are working with Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill now, and Greta Gerwig was in an Ashton Kutcher romantic comedy, for crying out loud -- which means they're now inevitably commenting on themselves. These were movies that were obsessed, for better or worse, with being as close to a chronicle of the way a certain class of young (white) people interacted with each other at a specific time in their lives. Now, if "Cold Weather" is any indication, they're obsessed with other movies.

3. This is to say that "Cold Weather" is about another shambling, directionless late-twentysomething who is older than he realizes or is ready for. Doug (Cris Lankeneau) lives in Portland, because of course he does, and he just sort of flits around, living with his sister, working at an ice-packing company, playing poker with his ex-girlfriend, because what else is there to do? ("What else is there to do?" is a question characters in mumblecore movies are constantly asking themselves. it seems.) He quit school some years before, a few credits short of a degree in criminal science, mostly because, man, that would have been hard. (Real life is scary.) But he has still always dreamed of being like his hero, Sherlock Holmes, the guy from the books, not the Basil Rathbone (or, god forbid, Robert Downey Jr.) of the movies. He's not willing or able to put in the time, work or effort to become a real detective, but he gets himself lost in the stories and just waits. Because this is a movie, he doesn't have to wait long.

4. Eventually, Doug gets his mystery. His ex-girlfriend, in town for business that he doesn't quite understand, disappears -- or at least "doesn't show up for a Star Trek convention," which in this film is as dramatic a disappearance as you're going to get -- and he must get together with his Watson (his co-worker Carlos, played charmingly by Raul Castillo) to find out what has happened to her. Doug and the movie shuffle (or "lope," maybe) through all the noir paces, from a missing briefcase, to a stakeout for a man in a cowboy hat, to even a code-crack case, agreeably resolved using baseball statistics. All of this is extremely low stakes -- I'm honestly not sure I still understand the mystery, or the code, or why the ex went missing in the first place -- but that's of course most of the point. When the stove is turned down as much as it is in "Cold Weather," even the slightest twinge of excitement is enough to make your pulse race. Well, maybe not "race." Let's go with "move."

5. Doug, like everyone else in the movie, is an affable, likable presence, even if it's hard not to want to play his parent and shake him until he realizes that he has to go out and be a working stiff like the rest of us, that he doesn't get to be the special snowflake. (I'll try not to be too caught up in this point; it is, after all, Portland.) And Katz is surprisingly adept at writing tension out of a supposed situation in which there is no tension; tension would require effort and ambition, and no one in this movie can quite work themselves up to the level of energy that would allow for "tension." (Sorry, there I go again.) But this is not a movie about the mystery at its core, or even its characters. It is a mumblecore "take" on a noir film, a "what if we did a mystery but just placed it in the middle of regular people's lives?" This is not a terrible idea, or an original one: Dopes, incompetents and inerts have been at the middle of revisionist noirs for years, most famously with "The Big Lebowski." The movie is charming in spite of itself, even if you don't really care about the characters, the mystery or the resolution. It's shaggy and crusty and a little granola, and I liked it for that, and even liked that it nodded at the ambition of a noir mystery without every mustering up the oomph to truly go for it. That feels like damning with faint praise, and it surely is. But praise is a result of effort, so, yeah, "faint" sounds about right for everyone in this movie, and for everyone who made it.

Grade: B-