Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Once Upon a Time in Venice

My notes on the Bruce Willis private eye comedy, released in US cinemas and VOD June 16.

… that’s Venice Beach, California – not Italy, of course.  A once down-at-heel surfie neighbourhood – the sort of place Roger Corman had his office in, and seen in the likes of The Wild Angels – it’s undergoing forced gentrification, a dotcom bubble and the sort of mix of gang crime and real estate boom that makes a proper backdrop for a rambling private eye comedy in the vein of The Nice Guys, The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice.


Our narrator is John (Thomas Middleditch), naïve protégé of ex-LAPD PI Steve Ford (Bruce Willis) – a struggling, grumpy slacker who keeps getting into awkard situations.  Like having to skateboard naked through the streets with a gun clenched between his buttocks (‘hey, no guns in the bar,’ someone claims as she streakwheels through a drinkerie) to get away from clients who aren’t happy that he’s sleeping with the sex addict sister (Jessica Gomes) they paid him to locate.  It’s an understated gag that the hardbitten, ageing leading man didn’t actually find the girl – the underappreciated John did.  The writer-director team of Mark and Robb Cullen – who scripted the Kevin Smith/Bruce Willis effort Cop Out – plainly admire the kind of acid haze Raymond Chandler vibe of like films, but don’t have the patience to give the hero one big, intricate mystery to solve … so the film just throws more and more issues at Steve (and John) involving flamboyant cameo characters.


If there’s a thread, it’s Steve’s attempt to get back his childhood home (and present-day dog) and do right by his struggling sister (Famke Janssen), but the cases on his docket involve druglord Spyder (Jason Momoa), whose girlfriend is missing with a case of cocaine and Steve’s dog, and a property owner (Adam Goldberg) whose buildings are being targeted by a graffiti artist who paints insulting murals (the landlord gobbling Skeletor’s dick is his finest work, admired for its ‘scrotal shading’.  In a perhaps unwise move liable to remind audiences even more of The Big Lebowski, John Goodman is again an investigator’s loose cannon tagalong buddy – a surf shop proprietor going through a messy divorce (from Elisabeth Rohm) and willing to take suicidal risks.


Willis can do exasperated (and now geriatric) insouciance in his sleep, and sometimes seems to be doing just that as the amiable foulup hero.  It might have been more distinctive if John, a much more engaging character, were the lead and Steve the distant mentor, and the fond indulgence of amusing cameo performers (Kai Penn, Wood Harris, Ken Davitian, Thom Rivera) runs out when it comes to the stock female characters, who are either eye candy or patient but disapproving grown-ups.  It’s lazy, but not entirely unlikeable.


NB: the script makes a fuss about Spyder killing a barista who mispelled his street name on a coffee cup … but then mispells it in the end credits.


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