Thursday, August 29, 2013

Culture Shock 08.29.13: Don't feel compelled to rent 'Compulsion'

With a title like "Compulsion," a film is bound to elicit unfair comparisons to Roman Polanski's "Repulsion."

Apart from their near-homonym titles, each centers on a mentally unstable woman trapped in her apartment, and both hint at traumatic childhood abuse. But there the similarities end.

Where Polanski's film is a disturbing thriller, "Compulsion," directed by Egidio Coccimiglio from a screenplay by Floyd Byars, strives to be a dark comedy. Unfortunately, it is only intermittently dark and in no way comedic. Or maybe it isn't supposed to be comedic, in which case it doesn't know what it's supposed to be. Perhaps a cooking show.

The other comparison is to the movie on which "Compulsion" is based, director Cheol-su Park's 1995 film "301/302," which is dark, but intentionally not comedic. At least I don't think so, unless something was lost in the translation from Korean.

Instead of "301/302," the American remake's producers opted for a generic and overused title, which is our first warning sign.

Heather Graham ("The Hangover") is Amy, an aspiring TV chef for whom food is love. Amy looks like she walked out of a 1950s advertisement for the home of the future. She wears sunny floral dresses, her hair is always perfectly shaped, and she always smiles.

She also has a well-off boyfriend, who pays to outfit her kitchen with all the latest culinary toys. But it's clear she isn't getting what she needs from him emotionally. So, she retreats to her cooking and her fantasy life, where she is a famous TV chef, telling a million housewives how to whip up a meal that will spice up not only the their dinner tables but their love lives, too.

Perhaps she did walk out of an advertisement.

Amy lives in Apt. 301, and across the hall in 302 lives Saffron, played by Carrie-Anne Moss ("The Matrix"). Saffron is a former child actress who has aged out of stardom and now finds it almost impossible to get work. Instead she writes a column about sex and relationships, secretly using Amy and her boyfriend for material. But that plot element goes nowhere, and it seems just a vestigial remainder from the South Korean original, where the woman in 302 is a writer, not an actress.

When Amy discovers who Saffron is, Saffron becomes another of her obsessions. Amy, coincidentally, has been a fan for a long time, and she tries to win Saffron's affection with food.

There is just one problem: While Amy seems merely delusional, Saffron has darker demons running around her head, and they manifest as an eating disorder. Saffron literally cannot eat anything without her body rejecting it.

The film misses the opportunity to say something meaningful, while keeping with its foodie theme, by not juxtaposing Saffron's anorexia to Hollywood's obsession with near-skeletal thinness. It's the one thing that could justify transforming the character from writer to actress.

The woman who substitutes food for love and the woman traumatized into starvation are locked in a battle of wills, in which Amy's lifelong obsession with the child star seems an unnecessary distraction. The two function better as equals, which Amy can't be when she reverts to a schoolgirl with a crush.

Graham delivers a performance that winks at the audience. In her kitchen fantasies, she talks to no one and to us at the same time, making us complicit in her delusion. But Moss plays her character straight, as written. She seems to be in a different movie, an actress out of place in a world populated by fakes. Too bad this film doesn't explore that either.

Perhaps the film Saffron is in is a better one.

"Compulsion" (R) is available on DVD (currently at Redbox) and video on demand.

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