AFI Film Review: ‘Gemini’ Looks Like a Film Noir But Doesn’t Act Like One

2017 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: For all its glitz and glamour, Hollywood remains the home of the noir. Whether it’s modern noir (“L.A. Confidential”), an old classic (“Chinatown”), a genre-bending head trip (“Mulholland Dr.”) or even a cartoon (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”), film loves to pull back the curtain of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly and expose the world of crime. “Gemini” blends murder, intrigue and horrible bosses into the noir structure hoping to ride off the successes of past noir. With its thumping music and chic shots of the city after dark, the film looks and feels the way a modern L.A. noir should. Yet in all the style, the film loses quite a bit of its substance. The central mystery ambles along until it lands with a thud in its closing moments.

The film begins interesting enough. Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke) begrudgingly performs the dirty work for her movie star boss, Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). Heather has broken up with her long-term boyfriend and asks Jill to cancel a high profile project with a director. As they drive home, Heather confides in Jill that she fears for her safety. Jill reluctantly lends Heather her gun and sleeps over. From there, the mystery begins, setting Jill on a course of playing detective.

Kirke and Kravitz have a particularly strong lived-in relationship from the initial scenes. Jill seems simultaneously maternal and frustrated with Heather’s antics. Heather may be flighty, but she takes the stakes of her situation and fears seriously. Both women rely on each other in different, specific ways. The scenes where they play off each other work best. Every gesture and piece of dialogue drips with subtext.

However, the movie requires Kirke to carry the audience through the entire mystery. Yet, her character has very few traits outside of her opinions on Heather. Jill never comes alive as a character as she’s written to be a cipher. Kirke kicked off her career in a big way as the audience surrogate lead in “Mistress America.” In that film, however, Kirke allowed us to understand her character’s fears, frustrations, and desires which led her to idolize a gregarious, tragic figure. Here, Jill just exists in a race against time that could not feel more leisurely. As Jill works both with and against a deadpan detective (John Cho), the film stalls. It’s a cat and mouse game with both the cat and the mouse severely mellowed out.

Rather than build upon clues, the movie passes time by shooting endless scenes of palm trees at night set to the beats of different techno songs. Writer/director Aaron Katz shows his immense appreciation for both old-school noir and the look and feel of Los Angeles. However, in combining the two, Katz comes off as a pale imitation. Everything feels studied, a pastiche of old noir tropes and current pop sensibilities. Katz proves that he’s an effective visual storyteller. However, in terms of structuring a narrative, the film feels both rushed and languid. It’s as if the story doesn’t get going until the film ends.

Writer/director Aaron Katz exhibits some strong film-making instincts throughout this modern noir. Unfortunately, the movies serve as a calling card for future promise rather than a strong work in and of itself. It expertly sets up the mood the director wants and it’s easy to see what the movie is going for. Yet, beneath all the self-referential film noir moments, one gets a sense Katz never thought about who these central women are as characters. Kirke and Kravitz are terrific talents who work hard to establish a realistic relationship between each other. However, their motives and personalities only work when paired together. Separate, we’re only left with a half-boiled detective mystery that clumsily wants to say something about the toxic celebrity culture we live in today. It’s a pat message that’s been told better elsewhere.

“Gemini” is distributed by Neon and will be released in Spring 2018.

GRADE: (★★)