Friday, May 14, 2010

Bagdad Cafe

The death of any film is when you have to ask if it's supposed to be funny. It's not a problem with comedies exclusively, if you find yourself confused about whether the director or writer, or writer/director in the case of Bagdad Cafe, intended for a scene to be comedic or not, it signifies that the film has failed. This is not to say that something has to telegraph it's intentions, or that even the same reaction has to be felt by every viewer, but that when you start questioning what you're supposed to get out of the picture, it takes you out of the action and makes it increasingly difficult to keep caring about what is happening in the film.

There are many moments in Bagdad Cafe where you wonder whether or not something is supposed to be funny. It starts from the first scene, where magical German lady Jasmine (Marianne S├Ągebrecht) breaks up with her remarkably sweaty husband (Hans Stadlbauer). The scene is edited in a frantic, slapstick way, suggesting I should be amused by it, but I was just annoyed by how poorly edited the whole thing was, and the camera angles which were completely bizarre. I wondered if I was supposed to be laughing, but the scene was more annoying than hilarious.

The film itself, about what happens when Jasmine finds her way into a remote gas station and warms the heart of shout-y angry owner Brenda (CCH Pounder) and her family, and causes Rudi Cox (Jack Palance, classing up the joint) to fall in love. At first everyone's angry and sad all the time, and then they suddenly warm to her and things become happier. It's fun, or it's supposed to be I'm assuming.

It's odd, because there are a few scenes in the film where it sort of works as a nice, unassuming slice of life film, following a few well meaning people as they begin to warm to each other. For the rest of it, I can see it trying to be funny, or at least amusing, but the entire thing falls flat and doesn't work properly. There are these odd sort-of running jokes that don't go anywhere (Germans like their coffee strong!) and some of the interactions seem like they're trying to be wacky but aren't somehow.

The only really remarkable thing it does is reverse the tired "magical black man" cliche by making it a magical white woman, teaching a bunch of black people to love each other and put on a magic show in a remote diner. That hurts it too, since it causes the character of Brenda to be introduced as abrasive for no good reason before she's best friends with the German lady. The pre- and post-Jasmine character transformations are fairly abrupt and unnatural, and Brenda has no reason to be a suspicious dick for the majority of the picture. Hell, the only reason given is that Germans are weird, they wear lederhosen! Better watch out for the Germans! (This is also used for some really limp drama and a real groaner of a line later on).

I didn't completely hate the film, some sequences were nice and there's a song which plays throughout which is sort of appealing in an '80s ballad kind of way. The problem is that it takes more than being nice, you've got to get people to care and be absorbed by the picture. I knew from the moment I asked whether or not it was supposed to be funny, I wouldn't be.

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