The Search for John Gissing has a lot going against it. It’s a straight-to-video release of a film that never got distribution back when it was first completed in 2001. Which means it is six years old, and it has a pre-9/11 sensibility.
But the film boasts as its writer, director, and co-star, Mike Binder, who earlier this year released Reign Over Me with Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler. Before that, Binder earned critical acclaim as writer and director of The Upside of Anger. Neither film earned our top recommendation, but both showed genuine empathy and a strong sense of drama, making Binder a writer/director to watch.
The promise of an interview with Binder — along with a plea from the producer about supporting independently produced movies and a bit of flattery for a small-time critic — made The Search for John Gissing a straight-to-video DVD worth reviewing.
Whether it’s worth a trip to the video store or the Netflix queue is an open question.
Twenty, Twenty, etc.
“The Search for John Gissing” describes the film’s first twenty minutes. Matthew and Linda Barnes (Binder and Janeane Garofalo) arrive in London from Chicago and everything that could go wrong in a foreign country, does. Jet lag, time zone shifts, transportation mix-ups, and currency problems plague our protagonist couple. On top of that, Matthew is supposed to give a business presentation on the most important deal of his career.
The setup is a classic screwball comedy with lively banter between two quick-witted actors (some of their dialogue was improvised). The missing Mr. Gissing, who was supposed to meet them at the airport, may mischievously be behind all of their travel problems. Or maybe Matthew is just the kind of guy who has to blame someone else for his bad luck.
In the next twenty minutes we find Mr. Gissing (Alan Rickman), and we learn that he did indeed orchestrate some of the chaos that swept the first twenty minutes. In this second twenty, Gissing and Matthew try to undercut each other to get ahead in the firm.
Judging from these opening segments, a whole film about travel problems could be lot of fun. Ditto for a whole film about the clever backstabbings of two dedicated businessmen. But when the late-middle act kicks in, the movie resorts to a predictable story about landing The Big Deal. There are still screwball moments, and some are fun, but weight of the plot deadens some of the comedy that seemed so bright earlier on.
Binder assembled a terrific cast of British and American actors. Binder, Rickman and Garofalo are wonderful in the leads. You may not immediately recognize the names of Alan Corduner and Juliet Stevenson, and Owen Teale, but when you see them, you’ll recognize them, and you’ll appreciate their talent and comedic presence.
They are part of what make The Search for John Gissing a serviceable comedy. On the whole, the movie is a little uneven, and it sometimes lacks sparkle. But it offers laughs throughout and it doesn’t make any serious mistakes.
That’s not exactly a glowing recommendation, and The Search for John Gissing may not deserve one. But consider adding it to your queue if you’re a fan of Rickman, Binder, Garofalo, or modern-day screwball comedies.