Wednesday, Dec. 7 — “The Key” — screening Thursday at Celebration Cinema — is a movie that has all the elements of a neo-noir, but none of the form and substance that gives entries in that genre their unique edge. Directed and written by Okemos native and Williamston resident Jack Schaberg, the movie follows Earth, a girl whose father, Kenny, left on the day she was born in order to engage in a blackmail operation against her mother’s employer, a pornography producer with more than a few secrets to hide.
Earth grew up thinking her father was dead, moving from town to town on a regular basis with her controlling mother, Sally Jean. After 18 years, Earth is understandably upset and resents her mother after living a life on the run from the producer’s potential retribution.
One day, Earth discovers a lockbox key in the basement of her mother’s house and vows to use the key to discover the box’s contents. Her quest begins after receiving a phone call from Kenny, who calls his family’s house and mistakenly believes his ex-wife and partner in crime answered the phone rather than his estranged daughter. Earth boldly goes to meet her father, who rather clumsily explains that he left her years ago in order to wait out a blackmail scheme that inexplicably took most of two decades to come to fruition.
Occasionally, the incredibly bad logic of Kenny and Sally Jean’s long-term, family-rending scheme is addressed, but only for the purpose of shining a somewhat brighter light on the comparatively intelligent and innocent Earth. Earth is obnoxious, though, whining and complaining her way through the film’s first two acts. But Earth is somewhat justified; she’s just an angsty 18-year-old upset at the father who abandoned her. Now, she’s stuck on the run with the idiot in order to find the contents of the lockbox: several rolls of film, containing photographs that could destroy a rising senator’s career.
This latter plot element is perhaps the only part of the film that makes sense, though very little attention is paid to the senator’s motivations, except that he has sent a henchman, Cuban, to retrieve the film and bribe the scheming family. Cuban is supposed to be the bad guy of the movie, but quickly becomes the most intelligent, driven and halfway-likeable character. He is professionally invested in finding the film in order to keep the senator’s private life a secret, but he has a personal motivation as well, having grown up believing that Kenny was responsible for his father’s death in a boat explosion that coincided with Earth’s day of birth and the setting off of the blackmail scheme 18 years ago.
If this description already seems confusing, the characters don’t make the plot any clearer. The story is made unnecessarily more confusing by constantly non-linear exposition from the characters and several nonsensical twists and turns, one being that the porn producer had an illegitimate son, who decides to help Earth and Kenny despite having absolutely no reason to. His motivation arrives much later than the character, when it is revealed that Sally Jean and Kenny are his actual parents (the producer was infertile, and Sally Jean had covered up her first pregnancy two years before having Earth).
The bizarre familial revelations all occur while the five lead characters haphazardly trade tiny pieces of information about each other, giving almost no thought to whether they should be disclosing to potential enemies and rivals. Sally Jean and Kenny alternate between hating each other and attempting some sort of rekindled romantic attachment. Earth hates both parents, but inexplicably wishes for her father to accomplish his goal of trading the film away for a payoff from Cuban, even though she holds her mother in contempt for having the same idea. Meanwhile, the son of the porn producer, Cal (Joseph Lushi), develops feelings for Earth, rendering many lines of dialogue retroactively cringe-worthy once it is revealed that they are full-blooded siblings.
Kaitlyn Marie Giguere does a decent job as Earth, expressing rage at her ruinous upbringing and peppering her dialogue with snarky comments. Still, it’s hard to find sympathy for Earth’s angst after more than an hour of near-constant complaining, and we’re only relieved of the tedium towards the end of the film, when Earth thankfully decides to take action instead of letting her parents’ half-baked machinations do her thinking for her.
Sherzad Sinjari provides the best performance as the senator’s crass hit man, giving us the movie’s only zingers, but unable to achieve the status of true villain by never quite maintaining the suspense that was established in the film’s first moments. Cuban lacks the professional sense of a criminal when dealing with the protagonist family, and this deals a swift deathblow to the notion that the characters are in mortal danger. Christine Marie is quite good as the manipulative and selfish Sally Jean, but her erstwhile husband, played by Don Cochran, cannot seem to do more than bumble through what should have been the most nuanced role of the film.
Cochran saves up his pathos for the end of the film, but it’s too little too late to see Kenny finally express love for his daughter, as he spent the latter hour-and-a-half being indifferent and lackadaisical. Although there are a few gunshots here and there, they are the filmmakers’ last-ditch attempt to convince viewers that the characters are in danger, and the end fizzles as Cuban gives up on the entire enterprise and is replaced by a scumbag gunslinger (Mike Lepera), who really should have been introduced much earlier on and is regrettably dispatched too quickly.
“The Key” is arguably more of a family drama than a noir-esque crime story, but it never can find the right balance between the two genres. If it’s noir, Earth’s parents could have been convincing villains, or at least better drawn with moral ambiguity, and Earth could have shown herself to be more of an anti-heroine. The family saga element overwhelms the film in the second half, where before the family melodrama had provided an intriguing backdrop to the mysterious overtones.
The film’s set-up never prepares us for this melodramatic, soap-operatic finale, and in their climactic confrontational scenes, the actors seem drained by the effort to reconcile the tone of the two competing genres. This second half tone change practically screams its undeserved importance at the audience in the third act, and what we’re left with is something sappy, bewildering and far less tear-jerking than the director intended.
5:15, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8
Celebration Cinema, 200 E. Edgewood Blvd., Lansing