2016 AFI FILM FEST: Movies that question reality wrestle with some of the most interesting, complex questions out there. What does it mean to be happy? Is there a better life out there for us? It all boils down to the central question: “What am I missing in the grand scheme of life?” “Buster’s Mal Heart,” the sophomore feature by writer/director Sarah Adina Smith, wrestles with these questions. It just doesn’t seem to find a cohesive answer for any of them.
In a nutshell, the film follows two threads centered around newly minted Emmy-winning actor Rami Malek. Malek is Jonas, a sleep-deprived concierge at the dingiest of off-brand hotels. He trudges through the day supporting his born again wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and young daughter. All this, while his sleep deprivation and lack of advancement slowly eats at him. This is until a mysterious, talkative stranger (DJ Qualls) frequents the hotel, telling Jonas of an inversion in the universe that will open up once Y2K comes.
This story is intercut with a bearded mountain man, unaffectionately deemed Buster (also played by Malek). He spends his days calling in conspiracy theories from the comfort of the vacation homes he breaks into and commandeers. Dreams of being lost at sea haunt Buster’s days. He wonders if it is real or a figment of his imagination. He too barks about the strange inversion theory the mysterious man in the hotel so persistently exposes. While clear that they are related, the different pieces do not readily reveal how they work together.
Director Sarah Adina Smith has a strong grasp on visual and aural storytelling. The film appropriately conveys a strong sense of mood in even the more mundane, repetitive sequences. The hotel perfectly encapsulates a place one would only visit if trapped in an unfamiliar town after a cancelled flight. The pristine mountain vacation homes are a fun juxtaposition to the ragged Buster ranting on the phone. Credit should also be given to cinematographer Shaheen Seth. He orchestrates an interesting look for the film that is always slightly off-kilter. Everything resembles reality, but nothing quite passes that test.
Perhaps the biggest problem of the film is its inability to be defined by genre. Genre-bending has been a staple of the modernist and post modern periods of filmmaking. However, in order for it to be successful, one has to be clear of the film they are making. The tone should be consistent and the genres should complement each other. “Buster’s Mal Heart” veers from scene to scene as if wondering what genre it wants to be.
Many of the different genres are done well enough. However, the sly sense of humor only pops up occasionally throughout this more somber science fiction mind bender. One particular sequence, involving two elderly people held hostage by Buster, is absolutely hilarious, as the woman refrains to let down her polite demeanor. Yet, in the grand scheme of the film, it feels out of place. Many times, it tries to evoke a “Fight Club”-esque sense of rebellion or “Matrix” level conspiracy, but fails to bring those ideas home to the finish line. The boat scenes especially feel shaggy and out of place. It’s a film that never becomes the sum of its best parts.
Still, there are many great parts to mention. Malek is the real deal of an actor. It is easy to see how he won an Emmy for USA’s “Mr. Robot” or landed the Freddy Mercury role in his biopic. He manages to interweave these two distinct personas, making subtle similarities and differences clear. While the journey his character goes on is more opaque in terms of narrative format, one can easily chart the character’s journey through Malek’s weary eyes. Malek’s name may be the reason people might see the film. However, he will also be the main element people walk away taking about.
With so many ideas swirling about, the end tries to leave us with a definitive moment to take away. Still, the overarching questions about what the inversion means or how it applies to our daily life are never answered. It’s a film brimming with ideas and possibilities. Yet, it isn’t reigned in by any of them. Keep an eye on Sarah Adina Smith. She’ll be tapped for a big project at some point and marry her off-kilter voice to a fantastic story. For right now, we have this ambitious, flawed project to serve as her calling card.