Looking for Leonard very much has the feel of a low budget, independent film, about the level of a filmmaker’s first effort or maybe a high-end student film. It is quirky, obscure in places, involves only a minimal number of actors, and lacks the sort of bells and whistles you’d expect from a conventional studio movie with a decent budget.
The quirkiness provides some of the best things in the film, but may well also be its downfall.
The film is set in Montreal. For a while, there are parallel stories. One is of an immigrant from the Czech Republic who finds that nothing is going as he expected in his new country. The other is of two bumbling small-time crook brothers and the above-it-all girlfriend of one of them who joins them in their crimes while being sure to let them, and the audience, know that she has disdain for it all. Then eventually the Czech guy and the girlfriend get together, and various misadventures ensue.
The film tries to be entertainingly offbeat, and occasionally it scores. I liked some of the dialogue with the two loser criminal brothers (e.g., the quitting smoking exchange), and I liked some of the dialogue with the Czech and a delinquent youth he befriends (e.g., the exchange over how lucky the Eastern Europeans are now that they can live like “us”), as well as some other oddball moments in the film. It was clever, and it earned some laughs.
But the film is so intent on making the characters funny and quirky that I had trouble believing them as real people in dramatic and serious situations. The love story part I didn’t buy at all. It was one of those things where we’re supposed to appreciate the irony and unconventionality of a movie that depicts two people falling for each other in a situation where you’d least expect it, but to me, implausible is implausible.
Clearly we’re supposed to feel considerable sympathy for the female lead. Yeah, she’s committing crimes with lowlifes, but after all, she takes writing classes and dreams of a better life, blah, blah, blah. Multiple characters assure her what a good person she is, as if it’s just a matter of boosting her self-esteem to get her out of her rut. But really there’s little if any evidence that she’s better than the petty criminals she associates with, beyond the fact that she and some other people treat it as a foregone conclusion that she is.
So the characters say and do some kooky things here and there that I got a chuckle out of, but the storyline and the attempts at character development mostly didn’t work for me.
And I had no clue who the vaguely Dustin Hoffman-looking guy is in all the old black-and-white clips at the beginning and end of the film. Nor did I see where the title of the film was ever explained. I figured maybe those clips and the title are related. There is a passing reference to a somewhat prominent writer of some kind who lives in Montreal, so I inferred that maybe those clips are from him in his heyday in the ’60s or ’70s or whatever, and maybe his first name is Leonard.
Anyway, whatever the cultural reference or inside joke was, it was lost on me.
So I looked it up later, and yes, the footage is from a 1960s documentary on Leonard Cohen, who is from Montreal, and who is apparently enough of a big shot novelist, poet, and singer-songwriter that I should have heard of him. I don’t know what he has to do with this movie, but Wikipedia says, “His work often deals with the exploration of religion, isolation, sexuality and complex interpersonal relationships,” so I guess there’s supposed to be some symbolic or thematic connection between what he writes about, and the characters and their experiences in this movie. Whatever.
Looking for Leonard mostly didn’t do it for me, but it has the feel of a movie that could have cult appeal for those who get it. It could be that the very fact that stuff like the unexplained black and white footage and the title went way over my head indicates I’m outside the target audience.