The recent short films of River Oaks native Alex Georges have been a mixed bag. A Bit of Chartreuse was a small, very stylish black comedy, while Laura's Death was a failed attempt at psycho-killer thrills. Taken together, however, they suggested that Georges is a filmmaker of considerable potential.
Cultivating Charlie, his first feature-length film, takes several steps toward fulfilling that potential. Despite a couple of showy camera tricks, Cultivating Charlie indicates that Georges is a visual stylist who doesn't have to hit you over the head with his film school diploma. The story is shaky from time to time, as is some of the acting, but we can attribute that first problem, at least, to Georges' ambition. Rather than make a tried and true genre film, he attempted to adapt Voltaire's Candide.
Georges' innocent is Charlie (Jake Weber), the vegetarian son of a burger magnate (David Huddleston). Even though his son can't eat meat, Ed Thundertrunk sends him on a tour of his burger chain in a quest for the perfect hamburger. According to Georges' conceit, the media is terribly interested in Charlie's search, and every time he barfs up a wad of beef, the paparazzi capture every humiliating detail.
The quest business is a bit awkward. It's only after Charlie says goodbye to burgers and strikes out on his own, and then meets a former guru of his, Glosser (Richard Libertini), that the film really finds itself. When Charlie and the cryptically reassuring Glosser are on the road together in their self-steering car, Georges relaxes his rhythm and storytelling and finds his best visuals. A favorite moment comes when Glosser describes his near-death experience to his young disciple. Libertini has a wonderfully loose air; the ease of his body language as he describes being carved open by a coroner's knife makes the movie look lived in.
Not that Georges has all his problems worked out. A conflict between the Zen-ish Glosser and his uptight Christian enemy, Martin (Vincent Schiavelli), isn't fully worked out, or rather, Charlie's role in their conflict isn't crystal-clear. But Georges has enough strong scenes, generally laced with black humor, to carry the viewer along. Cultivating Charlie is a hell of a lot stronger than this week's other philosophical road movie, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
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-- David Theis