Imagine Woody from Cheers as a serial killer.
Owen Wilson plays a free-spirited drifter—as polite, friendly, and guileless in an aw shucks kind of way as you can imagine, but with a penchant for occasionally poisoning someone to death. (I was going to ask a flippant question about whether Wilson and Woody Harrelson have ever been seen at the same place at the same time, since the resemblance is so uncanny you think it’s the same guy, but the Internet reveals they’ve actually been photographed semi-naked together, which is a little more of an answer to that question than I wanted.)
The Minus Man is a hard movie to get a handle on. It doesn’t play out all that much like you’d expect a serial killer movie to. The murders are infrequent and strangely understated. There’s not much of a mystery or investigation element to the story until fairly late.
Indeed, you can forget for long stretches that that’s even what the movie’s about. It has more the feel of a Garden State or Lonesome Jim, an indie about the odd or troubled characters in a small town that intersect with the life of the young male protagonist.
There’s the couple he rents a room from—who have a mysterious missing daughter who may be away at college, dead by suicide, dead by murder, or just having broken with them and run away to parts unknown—the husband of which is an emotionally needy drunk with some kind of mental illness that results in his physically injuring himself. There’s the co-worker who blatantly throws herself at him despite having no confidence and being scared to death of rejection. And there are a host of other, more minor, characters with their own foibles that we’re introduced to by way of his encountering them.
The co-worker, by the way, is played by Janeane Garofalo. I know she’s not traditional sex symbol, conventionally gorgeous, knockout material, but she’s always been really attractive and interesting looking to me. For someone who’s not in the traditional sex symbol, conventionally gorgeous, knockout material category, she’s damn sexy. Mercedes Ruehl plays the wife where the main character is renting a room, and she too always struck me as fascinating and exotic-looking, though I wasn’t quite as drawn to her as to Garofalo. She’s about 50 in this movie, so I’m thinking more of when she was younger, but both of these women have a kind of offbeat, fascinating attractiveness.
Like I say, you can get kind of caught up in the other goings-on in this sleepy little town, and the relationships this nice boy is establishing with the odd characters that abound there, and lose track of the fact that it’s a crime movie.
In part that’s because the murders are so detached from the rest of his life. It’s not like all these interactions he’s having are so he can work his way into people’s lives to make it easier to kill them, or that the murders result when he has a negative encounter with someone and seeks to “punish” them for crossing him. There’s never an ominous feeling to these interactions.
It’s almost like there are two movies here. The problem is neither is all that good. They’re both interesting to a modest degree, but nothing really comes of the “quirky folks in a small town” movie—the relationships don’t develop, nothing is really resolved.
The movie picks up a bit when the focus is more on the serial killer drama, but that’s ultimately not very satisfying either. There’s no real insight into why he’s killing people. (The film uses a surreal device of periodically having him imagine he’s being interrogated by a couple of stereotypical movie cops, but that falls flat.) Emotionally, he’s not a scary or fascinating murderer. You’d think maybe there’d be something extra creepy in an ironic way about Woody from Cheers being a serial killer, but instead it’s so incongruous that I had to keep reminding myself that he’s a bad guy.
And there’s no strong resolution to this aspect of the film either. Instead, there’s kind of a convoluted thing about a coincidental murder that someone else commits that shifts everyone’s attention elsewhere and enables him to slip away. (Maybe the implication is he committed that murder too, and made it look like someone else did, or maybe at least that’s left open, but I didn’t get that feeling.)
So I don’t think The Minus Man quite pulls off whatever it is it’s trying to do. Still, on the whole I enjoyed watching this part-success/part-failure unconventional movie more than a conventional movie like, say, Criminal Law. The Minus Man’s failures are still kind of interesting in a way, whereas Criminal Law’s failures are just failures.