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Chris Pine, known for his charismatic performances in films like “Hell or High Water” and “Don’t Worry Darling,” takes an unexpected creative plunge with “Poolman,” a movie he not only stars in but also co-wrote and directed. Unfortunately, this artistic endeavor left many bewildered and disappointed, making it one of the least favorable films of the year.
“Poolman” appears to aspire to the quirky, rambling, Los Angeles-based detective noir comedies of yesteryears, like “The Long Goodbye” or “Under the Silver Lake.” Pine, sporting scraggly hippie hair, a graying beard, and salmon-colored swim trunks, portrays Darren Barrenman, a pool attendant residing in a Tiki shack near a run-down L.A. apartment complex. His eccentric character, who delivers wispy, pseudo-philosophical statements, seems like an attempt to channel the Dude from “The Big Lebowski.” However, unlike the charming Dude, Darren comes across as more of an annoyance than a compelling character.
The film begins with Darren writing civic-minded letters to Erin Brockovich, whom he admires like a shrine. It features endless, meandering conversations between Darren and his girlfriend, Susan (Jennifer Jason Leigh). These dialogues are characterized by half-finished thoughts, whimsical non-jokes, and a perpetual sense of incoherence. Yet, the film inexplicably expects audiences to endure this peculiar form of communication for a full 100-minute runtime.
Darren’s surreal life includes creating origami sculptures and attending city council meetings. At one such meeting, dominated by a corrupt Orthodox rabbi (Stephen Tobolowsky), Darren behaves erratically, embodying the misguided belief that his eccentricities will captivate the audience. This is a classic example of an actor-director’s self-indulgence, where the performer-turned-filmmaker assumes everything they do will enthrall the viewers. However, good directors typically rein in such tendencies, which becomes problematic when the actor is also the director, as in this case.
A femme fatale character, played by DeWanda Wise, eventually leads Darren into a convoluted conspiracy plot reminiscent of “Chinatown.” Yet, this storyline is more like a vague fragment than a coherent narrative. “Poolman” features talented actors like Annette Bening and Danny DeVito, but even their broad performances can’t salvage the film. Bening plays Darren’s “Jungian therapist,” and DeVito is a documentary filmmaker enlisted to help expose government misconduct. These bizarre concepts appear to exist solely in Pine’s imagination, never fully materializing on screen.
In the end, “Poolman” is a perplexing and disjointed cinematic experiment that, despite its ambitions, fails to engage or entertain its audience. Chris Pine’s foray into writing and directing may have been well-intentioned, but it ultimately leaves viewers baffled and unsatisfied.