[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
Alan Rudolph has long evinced a tolerance, even love, for fringies, oddballs, and occasionally the clinically deranged. Hence it’s no great surprise that he should have dreamed up so addlepated and pixilated a character as Trixie Zurbo, a low-rent rent-a-cop with aspirations of becoming a wisecracking private eye and sleuthing her way to “the truth, the hole in the truth, and nothing but the truth.” Nor should there be more than momentary amazement that he managed to snare Shakespearean-trained and twice-Oscar-nominated Emily Watson for the part. Despite having remained a proud fringie himself for his quarter-century writing-directing career, Rudolph has an unimpeachable record of sticking to his utterly singular, artistically adventurous guns, and he’s earned the love of actors for offering them richly idiosyncratic opportunities and then supporting them to the max.
Trixie—and Trixie—gets a great sendoff: the camera climbing from a pulpy Police Gazette mag, up a stiff, blue-clad cop torso, to settle on the title character’s puppy-dog frown as she gropes for a properly resolute face with which to walk the mean streets. Trouble is, the streets are too mean for her to be entrusted with a serious assignment, so she’s farmed out to a low-pressure gig at a lakeside casino in the hinterlands. What can happen there? Finger the occasional pickpocket, keep the local ladies’ man (that would be Dermot Mulroney) at arm’s length, and pick up life lessons from the world-weary crooner and impressionist (Nathan Lane) who supplies approximately 95 percent of the lounge entertainment. A girl could do worse. Or rather, with nothing going on, she can’t make anything worse.
There is, of course, somewhat more going on. An obnoxious local developer (Will Patton) is looking to make a killing, and either he has a pontificating state senator (Nick Nolte) in his pocket or the senator has him. It’s hard to be sure, or to know exactly how a faded chanteuse (Lesley Ann Warren, so luminous in Rudolph’s 1984 Choose Me) and a wishfully hotcha-cha teen starlet (Brittany Murphy) figure in the scam. Clarity of plotmaking has never been Rudolph’s long suit. Then again, it’s rarely been a cardinal point in film noir, and film noir is the arena this time out for a characteristic Rudolph essay in deconstructing a familiar movie genre to allow for the play and interplay of interestingly flawed, yearning characters.
Unfortunately, unlike Rudolph’s other noir variants—the haunting Trouble in Mind or the tenderly comic Love at Large—what Trixie has to offer is not so much deconstruction as slapdash. Watson is a wonderful actress, but even she’s hard put to illuminate or get much variation into a character whose shtick amounts to a dogged sincerity and a penchant for one logic-scuttling malaproprism after another. After a while, we realize that the malapropisms aren’t very imaginative. (Trixie’s “You’ve got to grab the bull by the tail and look it in the eye” sounds particularly feeble when juxtaposed against the metaphysical grandeur of W.C. Fields’s “There comes a time in the life of every man when he has to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.”)
Apart from the always adroit Nathan Lane, Nolte’s Senator Avery is the other notable manipulator of language in Rudolph’s wrecking derby. The press notes assure us that his fuddle-headed fulsomeness has all been derived from actual politicos’ quotes, but the fact is that, like most of the other performances, it plays like misfired improv. Moreover, Rudolph’s customary visual inventiveness is only sporadically in evidence; most of the jittery action looks like digital-era scrappiness, even if the movie was not shot on digital. This is one Rudolph opus that leaves no afterglow.