Film Review: Ray Meets Helen

Sadly, the magic doesn’t happen this time for Alan Rudolph, a very special filmmaker whose specialty has always been romance among the lost.
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In Ray Meets Helen, auteur Alan Rudolph, who throughout his almost 50-year career has steadfastly remained an indie spirit, posits his favored muse Keith Carradine as Ray, a washed-up boxer who, one teeming L.A. night, meets Helen (Sondra Locke), an impoverished farmer who desperately needs money. Coincidentally, both of these congenital losers suddenly find themselves in the chips, by virtue of Ray’s score from a highly profitable fluke of an armored truck accident and her suddenly inheriting the property of a rich barfly (Samantha Mathis, unrecognizable from the dewy ingenue she was for so long) who has committed suicide. Can they overcome their tortured pasts and understandable emotional reticence to truly fall in love?

From his earliest films, back in the 1970s, Rudolph’s specialty has been the exploration of the lost souls of this world, too sensitive and/or damaged to really deal with it. When he gets it right, the Altman-esque quicksilver shifts of mood and eccentric ensemble casts, the idiosyncratic (sometimes revealing, sometimes not) dialogue and the noir-ish atmosphere come together for something memorable and haunting, as with Remember My Name, Choose Me, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle andSongwriter. When he doesn’t, as here, the result seems aimless, way too random, protracted and enervating. The singular and always enclosed universe Rudolph creates this time—filled with dive bars, exclusive (but highly unconvincing) restaurants, depressingly dingy Deco apartment buildings peopled by insurance brokers, blowzy good-time gals, seen-it-all black ladies and a cute little unattended neighbor boy with a knack for hiding caches of cash—feels particularly inorganic and unmagical, a bleak, unappetizing setting for this would-be dream romance. As if to force the magic to happen, the director employs old-school tropes like a superimposed fireworks display enveloping the couple’s passionate  embrace (done way better in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief), and literal ghosts even get onboard, to offer a lot of unwanted two cents about what is transpiring. Failed Rudolph recurring comic touches include Lenny von Dohlen as a Eurotrash maitre-d’, oozing unctuousness and outrage over stingy tips.

One imagines Rudolph and Carradine saw this as their ultimate collaboration, and the often-fine Carradine brings his ravaged handsomeness, dedication and poise to the part. But, as with Helen, Ray is too elliptically conceived to provide the actor with much to work with (that broken-down boxer character idea is very tired, to say the least). He might have been able to overcome this had he been given a leading lady with sufficient charisma and piquant mystery to produce an exciting chemistry. Sadly, Locke, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1968 (for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), became better known for her stormy relationship with Clint Eastwood and has been off the screen for 18 years, is far too wan, hesitant and weird to be a credible love object. I almost wish she and the always vivacious Jennifer Tilly (as Harry’s flighty ex-wife) had exchanged roles. The mere sight of Tilly always promises a bodaciously fun, sexy time onscreen, and that would be something much more akin to a woman worth dying for.

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