The last time a director known for dystopian sci-fi dreamscapes decided to bring his quirky sensibility to a more "real world" project, the outcome was Amélie, a movie so internationally acclaimed that it brought the name of auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet out of the cult convention circuit and into art houses the world over. Jeunet's directorial collaborations with Marc Caro, 1991's Delicatessen and 1995's The City of Lost Children, are often spoken of by adoring cultists in the same breath as such dark-toned faves as The Crow and Dark City, so it's only natural that their director, Alex Proyas, would try to make a similar leap.
Like Amélie, Garage Days brings its auteur mostly into the real world while maintaining surreal touches to keep us believing in magic. But Amélie still might not have worked had it not been for the presence of Audrey Tautou, and Proyas, unfortunately, has no one so radiant. We believed in Jeunet's flights of fantasy because it was so easy to believe that Amélie herself did -- all we really believe about Garage Days' cast is that they're kind of bratty.
The Australian-born Proyas, who made a name for himself as a music video director before landing The Crow, started out as a musician in the '80s, then began directing short clips for friends before moving up to the likes of INXS and Crowded House. There's a strong element of autobiography here -- at times we have to wonder if the setting is supposed to actually be the '80s, but the presence of tribal tattoos and instant-messaging cell phones suggests otherwise. As he did in Dark City, Proyas has incorporated various elements of disparate time periods to create his own hybrid world, in this case one where big hair and neon coexist alongside Jane's Addiction look-alikes, pretentious goths, burnout KISS acolytes and AC/DC cover bands.
The band at the center of the film, whose name is never mentioned, encompasses many familiar types. Lead singer Freddy (Kick Gurry) wouldn't look out of place in Weezer, or any contemporary emo band. Bassist Tanya (Pia Miranda), while not quite MTV-ready, has an indie-rock grrrl look. Lead guitarist Joe (Brett Stiller) plays like a parody of a Joy Division sort, while the tattooed and blond-Mohawked drummer Lucius (Chris Sadrinna) harks back to the likes of Sigue Sigue Sputnik or Doctor and the Medics. As to the music they play, well Proyas cleverly ensures that we don't actually get to hear it until journey's end, though it's easy enough to come away thinking that it's been heard earlier. The film's soundtrack is almost wall-to-wall tunes, but every time the main band gets a turn to play, something comes up storywise that prevents us from actually hearing them.
Ostensibly, the plot deals with the band's struggle to get signed, but that's a lightweight conflict at best. This isn't one of those tales where the lead singer will be kicked out onto the street if his one last gig fails, or where a working-class stiff gets to escape his trailer park and steel mill job if he dazzles at a talent showcase. No, the story here is an inconsequential device upon which to paint a vivid visual portrait, full of hallucinations, fast-motion, bullet-time, drug-induced visions and more. Proyas even cleverly spoofs his own oeuvre: A loft apartment complete with circular window comes straight out of The Crow, and Joe's bathroom looks like the one Rufus Sewell finds himself in early on in Dark City. Throughout the film, Joe is tempted by an ethereal goth chick who likes to bathe in blood and fantasize about her own demise; it's hard to shake the feeling that this is Proyas's jab at the sort of groupie his earlier work attracted.
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Garage Days, like the previous Proyas features, undoubtedly will earn a cult following, but it doesn't soar as high as it should, and it's hard to pinpoint why. It could be the lack of narrative stakes -- in addition to a copious absence of danger, the love triangle between Freddy, Joe and a beauty named Kate (Maya Stange, last seen in the inferior XX/XY) never really engages, maybe because both men have other romantic alternatives. The visual trickery can be cool, and in fact the second major hallucination sequence features more visual imagination than the entirety of The Hulk, but Jonas åkerlund's Spun already pulled off similar tricks to much greater effect. The film is decent fun and the characters feel like people you know, but when the musical number over the movie's end credits -- a choreographed Tom Jones lip-synch featuring all the primary cast and shot in a single take -- impresses more than any of the excessive digital trickery that came before it, a reality check for the director may be in order.