Saturday, June 4, 2011

FI: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
United States, 2005
Directed by Shane Black

Self-aware movies have to walk a very thin line. Tip too far into irony, and the whole thing becomes a glib, condescending smirkfest at the audience's expense. Tip too far into seriousness, and the self-conscious stuff becomes a jarring distraction. To stay in the middle, these films need to have a plot as good as the things they are parodying, and deploy their audience-winking moments with precision. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang mostly succeeds on both fronts because it never pretends to be anything other than what it is: a clever piece of entertainment, but an entertainment nonetheless.

Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a thief who, while running from the police, stumbles into an audition. The producers mistake his odd behavior for method acting, and send him to L.A. to screen test and meet with Private Eye "Gay" Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) for research. When Harry discovers that his high school dream girl Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) is in town and in trouble, the three wind up getting pulled into a twisty, noir-inflected scheme right out of the pulp novels Harmony loved as a child.

The film plays fast and loose with the conventions of hard-boiled detective fiction. Everything, from Harry's arch narration to the film's non-linear chronology, its use of old slang, and even its L.A. setting, is pulled straight out of the noir tradition. These conventions are then subverted and used as a vehicle for humor, wordplay, and misadventure. A more cynical viewer might interpret the film's loopy self-reflexivity as an attempt at patting the audience on the back for their own cleverness, or be inclined to read the film's sexual/gender politics as offensive rather than part of the pastiche. I'm not sold one way or the other, on either count, but I was certainly entertained and engrossed enough—especially by Downey's and Kilmer's performances and charisma—not to worry about it too much. There's plenty to laugh about in pulp fiction, as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang demonstrates with gleeful irreverence.

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