Film Review: Tied to a Chair

A potentially interesting premise is squandered by disappointing execution in this micro-budget indie comedy.
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Whether intentional or not (and my best guess is, probably not), the movie that the new independent comedy Tied to a Chair is most reminiscent of is Olivier Assayas’ 2007 thriller Boarding Gate. That underrated film starred Asia Argento as a woman caught up in a twisty espionage plot that takes her from a deluxe Paris apartment to the neon-colored streets of Hong Kong. One of the chief pleasures of the movie—and of Argento’s performance—is the way her character changes sides, goals and even identities on a regular basis throughout her adventure. Indeed, at a certain point, the movie becomes less of a straightforward thriller than a wry, self-aware commentary on the entire genre. One almost expects to see Assayas himself wander onscreen, camera in hand, just to drive home the artifice of the proceedings.

Tied to a Chair is a similarly self-reflexive tale, albeit one that unfolds in a lighter key from the beginning. Written and directed by veteran indie filmmaker Michael Bergmann, the movie introduces us to the unsinkable Naomi Holbroke (Bonnie Loren, a founding member of the New York-based Process Studio Theatre, which is distributing the movie), a failed actress who decides to kick-start her career by making the pilgrimage to that cinematic Mecca known as the Cannes Film Festival. There, she ingratiates herself with former-Next Big Thing Billy Rust (a suitably seedy Mario Van Peebles), a filmmaker still living off the reputation of a beloved cult movie made several decades ago. Rust is in town hawking a screenplay that he proudly boasts was written entirely by a computer program, which explains why, as one potential investor says, “it has no real feeling.” But Naomi—who sneaks a peek at the script while the director lies napping in the deck chair next to hers—instantly sparks to it, primarily for the scene in which the heroine is…well, tied to a chair. (According to her, that’s every woman’s fantasy.) In fact, she performs that very scene—while actually bound to a chair!—for Rust in his hotel room to demonstrate her commitment to the role. While she’s by no means the director’s first choice (for both personal and professional reasons, he’s in the market for a younger, hotter starlet), he agrees to give her the chance to audition in a more professional setting, provided she can pay her way to his home base in New York.

Stepping off the plane at LaGuardia, Naomi gets in the first of many madcap misadventures when she hijacks a Yellow Cab after the driver (Sayed Badreya) attempts to extort her fare and leave her stranded on the side of the road. One car chase through Lower Manhattan later, she arrives at Rust’s office and instead finds a crime scene with the director’s headless body lying on the floor. Her dreams of big-screen stardom temporarily dashed, Naomi gets the chance to put her acting skills to the test in real life when she learns that the driver of the cab she “borrowed” has links to a terrorist cell with plans to set off a major explosion somewhere in the city. Since the police don’t completely trust her, she takes it upon herself to go undercover and bring the evildoers to justice. As in Boarding Gate, the various twists, turns and improbabilities mount until Tied to a Chair seems to become the computer-programmed action-movie screenplay that Rust is peddling.

And that’s about where the similarities between the two movies end. Unlike Tied to a Chair, Boarding Gate has so much more going for it beyond its narrative gamesmanship and cheeky meta-ness, including Assayas’ typically sleek and assured direction and Argento’s powerhouse performance. Bergmann’s film, on the other hand, boasts an enjoyable, if at times irritating, star turn by Loren…and not much else. Aside from seasoned pros like Van Peebles and Robert Gossett (who plays an NYPD detective who doesn’t know whether to trust or arrest Naomi), much of the supporting cast is made up of performers who seem to have been cast based on their availability rather than their skill. Bergmann’s work behind the camera is also wildly uneven; some sequences cut together smoothly, while others are rife with obvious continuity errors and poor blocking. And while the use of so many actual New York City locations is welcome, the movie never captures the city’s distinct beauty and energy. Clever in conceit, Tied to a Chair is ultimately undermined by flat execution.