Anyone seeking the cinematic equivalent of a migraine should check out Waydowntown, a harsh satire of office culture from Canadian director Gary Burns. Filmmakers have lampooned corporate sterility and cubicle woes to the point of cliche, and Burns's treatment of the subject is unoriginal despite his sardonic wit. The atmosphere of stifling claustrophobia and suffocation is reminiscent of Todd Haynes's Safe, but here it's played for laughs. Safe is understated, austere, precise; Burns takes the opposite approach by pumping his stylistic pyrotechnics up to maximum, ear-piercing volume. The results are dissonant, twitchy, and difficult to watch--the movie made me dizzy. Still, as an aesthetic approximation of pent-up frustration and cabin fever, the movie is remarkably sharp.
The wisp of a plot concerns four Calgary office drones competing to stay indoors as long as possible. They've stuck it out for 24 days in a complex of apartments, offices, and shopping malls connected by sky tunnels. But the deadening sterility is taking its toll: neurotic tics, drug-induced hallucinations, and paranoid delusions abound. Burns' hyper-real style is met by a succession of absurdly exaggerated scenarios. Workaholic Sandra (Marya Delver) follows her boss, a senile kleptomaniac, to keep him out of trouble; suddenly terrified of central air, she uses stolen perfume samples as a gas mask. Cynical, doped-out Tom (Fabrizio Filippo) thinks he's being followed by man-eating fish and has visions of a superhero. His neighbor, a sad-sack burnout not in on the game, staples motivational decals to his chest and attempts, numerous times, to hurl himself out a window.
The cast is excellent, and all four competitors are appealing and charismatic despite their frazzled nerves. But Waydowntown often smacks of the derisive, belittling contempt so prevalent in these types of movies. Rather than offer a critique, Burns cops an attitude. His winking amusement at these poor, pathetic souls wavers between the condescending and the empathic; it's only in the latter gear that the movie has something interesting to say. The equivalence of office banality with dislocation from nature finds a nice resonance in the characters' sex lives: Tom is so desensitized he barely registers a come-on from a big-breasted vamp, and Curt (Don McKellar), the office slut, seems to regard sex as a sneering joke. The systematic obliteration of natural and humane impulses is the crux of their existence: Tom would rather stay indoors than help someone who could be dying. He undergoes a vague ethical crisis and revolts against his world of faceless pod-people and numbed emotions. Visions of superheroes seem the last desperate vestiges of his childhood fantasies; compared to the good-vs.-evil moral order through which he would like to perceive the world, his existence is empty and essentially meaningless. Within this realization lies his (half-hearted) redemption.
It all sounds serious enough, but Burns has difficulty maintaining a sincere tone, and Waydowntown ultimately feels nihilistic. It is clever and funny in a small, trifling way; in its miniaturization and smug self-sufficiency, it seems born for the festival circuit, where it did very well. Burns maintains a steady clip via crisp editing and recurring imagery. The near-rhythmic pattern of the interweaving sketches held my interest, and the humor is observant and occasionally very funny. Sharpness of presentation and wit does not, however, guarantee something original or even effective. George Romero's comparatively meditative Dawn of the Dead features a more resonant depiction of the sterilized commercial landscape. In light of this, Burns's strenuous overdirection seems tortured and showy. His use of jump cuts, toxic glare, fast-forward, and split-screen doesn't have the visceral impact he clearly intended. The result is rather irritating and a bit too precious for my tastes.