As I was leaving the Heartland Film Festival's screening of Crystal Heart award-winning film "Man in the Chair," I found myself wondering "How would I feel about this film had director Michael Schroeder not been present for a post-screening Q&A?"
This question is key for me as I contemplate how to review a film that both captivated and frustrated me at various points in its 107 minute running time.
"Man in the Chair" evolves around the unique friendship of high schooler Cameron (Michael Angarano) and Flash Madden (Christopher Plummer), a former gaffer currently drinking and smoking his days away as a resident of the Motion Picture Home who wanders the streets of Hollywood watching old flicks in a drunken stupor.
The film's title is derived, rather obviously, from Cameron's desire to direct and, as a result, his participation in a high school filmmaking competition for which he enlists the help of Flash and a host of other forgotten Hollywood legends living in anonymity at the Motion Picture Home.
Were the storyline to stop right here, "Man in the Chair" would feel like an Affleck/Damon Project Greenlight film. Fortunately, writer/director Michael Schroeder builds "Man in the Chair" into a multi-layered, deeply satisfying look at Hollywood, the elderly, nursing homes, society and so much more.
Plummer, a Hollywood legend who has never been nominated for an Oscar, offers one of his finer performances as the lonely and bitter Flash. Watching Flash evolve as he is once again asked to unwrap his gifts is truly beautiful to behold. In the post-screening Q&A, Schroeder noted that Plummer will be receiving a major push for an Oscar nomination for his work in "Man in the Chair," due to open in limited release on December 7th.
While it would be easy to call "Man in the Chair" a highlight reel for Plummer, the young Michael Angarano ("The Lords of Dogtown") holds his own and exhibits a wonderful chemistry with Plummer as the two both challenge each other and grow to care for one another.
The entire cast, which received an ensemble award from Method Fest, is stellar and, along with Plummer, marvelous character actor M. Emmet Walsh offers one of his finest performances as Mickey Hopkins, an Oscar-winning writer who didn't qualify for life in the Motion Picture Home and instead finds himself barely surviving in the sort of assisted living facility you hope to never find yourself living. In Walsh's first moment onscreen, I was in awe of Walsh's heartfelt, brave and vulnerable performance. Mimi Kennedy, Mitch Pileggi and Robert Wagner also offer strong supporting performances.
"Man in the Chair" opens with uniquely edited camera work that, according to Schroeder, is meant to symbolize both Flash's camera work of the past with Cameron's more contemporary technology. While the reasoning behind the camera work makes sense, there were times when, despite its stated intent, the jarring cuts and unique blends felt distracting and excessive. On at least a couple of occasions, a scene's intensity was abruptly interrupted by the experimental lensing. Some in the audience felt that this technique enhanced the film's emotional impact, while others (myself included) felt such techniques were unnecessary and distracting. Despite this, however, one can't help but be impressed that such techniques were actually camera tricks...NOT special effects.
The first film ever allowed to actually film onsite at the Motion Picture Retirement Home, "Man in the Chair" combines the best qualities of a buddy flick, a documentary, a teen flick and experimental filmmaking into a surprisingly touching, insightful, inspiring and life-affirming film. While Schroeder's script does contain a few "Mr. Obvious" moments, it is filled with a wonderful heart and characters who are simply brought vividly to life.
While "Man in the Chair" is not without flaws, it's a solid example of the spirit of independent cinema that is alive and well in America. While it's hard to predict if Schroeder can possibly be successful in getting Plummer an Oscar nomination, it's undeniable that Schroeder HAS offered Plummer the opportunity to shine once again.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic