By J. Kelly Nestruck
October 17, 2003
Labour of lost love

It's a familiar movie climax: Realizing she has made a terrible mistake, the bride rushes from the church, hops in a taxi and heads off for a new independent life, leaving her fiancé standing at the altar.

Where other stories end, Moving Malcolm, written and directed by Vancouver's Benjamin Ratner, begins, dealing with the aftermath of love lost. Billed as "a comedy that will move you," the film is touching, tender and, yes, moving. But as a comedy, it never fully unpacks.

One year after being jilted by his actress fiancée Elizabeth, aspiring novelist Gene Maxwell (played by Ratner, aspiring to be Canada's young Woody Allen) is still terribly depressed by the breakup. But at least he has something to show for it: a manuscript of his first book, Fear Knot, a thinly veiled condemnation of Liz's inability to take the plunge. Ah, but Gene is guilty of the same thing; he's too scared to send Fear Knot off to any publishers.

Re-enter Elizabeth (Showgirls' Elizabeth Berkley), who shows up at Gene's door to ask him a difficult question: Will he help her elderly father Malcolm (the venerable John Neville) move? She has to take off to Prague to star in a sci-fi B-movie and fears for her divorcée dad's health in his current, dank basement apartment.

This situation, upon which the entire movie hinges, is terribly implausible. First, you have to believe that Liz is such a callous bitch that the first time she deigns to contact Gene since dumping him unceremoniously is to ask for a favour. Then, you have to believe that Gene is such a sucker, such a spineless nebbish, that he agrees to help, hoping that it might lead to reconciliation with his ex.

Once over that hump, however, Moving Malcolm is a quite good, if uneven, film. The best scenes are those featuring the eccentric Maxwell family. Gene's mother and father, played by Babz Chula and Jay Brazeu (who was also Ratner's father in 2001's Last Wedding), try to dissuade him from helping Malcolm or getting back together with Liz. Meanwhile, his autistic sister, Jolea (Rebecca Harker), causes havoc in the background.

Ratner's real-life sister is autistic, which may explain why Jolea's autism is depicted in such a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner. Unlike most mentally impaired movie characters, Jolea is neither a constant scene-stealing presence played by an actor desperately seeking Oscar, nor the clichéd idiot savant who shows her family and friends how to love. She's a fully developed character, instead of a symbol.

The aged don't get off as well. Neville's Malcolm starts off interesting and mysterious, but then Ratner falls into the "old people smoking pot and having sex are funny" trap.

Another character in need of fleshing out is Gene's best friend, Herbert, played by the X-Files' Nicholas Lea. A ballroom dancing instructor who plays paintball and likes to sneak up on his friends while they're watching homemade porn, Herbert's sole purpose is to provide comic relief, but his hijinks are more jarring than anything and seem spliced in from some other movie.

Moving Malcolm is a labour of love -- Ratner has been trying to make this semi-autobiographical tale for years. Stumbles aside, it's an auspicious directorial debut for Ratner, who wears his influences (Allen 'n' Altman) on his sleeve. Rating two 1/2