Waydowntown (2000)

reviewed by
Shannon Patrick Sullivan

WAYDOWNTOWN (2000) / ***

Directed by Gary Burns. Screenplay by Burns and James Martin. Starring Fab Filippo, Marya Delver, Gordon Currie. Running time: 87 minutes. This film is not yet rated by the MFCB. Reviewed on March 7th, 2001.


I attend and work at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Virtually every structure on the campus -- academic, administration and residence -- is linked in some way, either via skywalk or by a sometimes labyrinthine network of underground tunnels. Fortunately, I don't actually live on campus, so at the end of every day, I escape that closed network for the real outdoors. Not everyone is so lucky; I've known people living in residence who have purposely planned their schedules so that they never actually need to go outdoors. For them, MUN is a sealed environment: they experience the world beyond only second-hand.

So I can relate to "Waydowntown", directed and co-written by Canadian helmer Gary Burns. "Waydowntown" is set in Calgary, Alberta, which sports a similarly enclosed downtown complex, complete with restaurants, corporate offices, shopping malls and living accommodations: it's a universe unto itself. Four employees working for a company headquartered somewhere in this amalgamation of edifices have made a bet to see how long they can last without actually going outdoors; the losers each give up a month's salary.

The movie begins four weeks into the wager, when it's beginning to take its toll on all the participants. Slick but manic Curt (Gordon Currie) is longs for the pleasures of the flesh, and has set his sights on vulnerable co-worker Vicki (Jennifer Clement), whose relationship with her fiance is on the rocks. Randy (Tobias Godson) passes time engaging in meaningless conversation with dorky security guard Phil (James McBurney). Sandra (Marya Delver), newly saddled with the responsibility of keeping an eye on her kleptomaniacal boss, finds herself suffocating in the recycled air of the downtown. And the competitive Tom (Fab Filippo) finds himself assailed on all sides -- by an attractive but flighty woman with a possibly suicidal boyfriend, by his oddball officemate Bradley (Don McKellar), and even by fleeting visions of a superhero in tights.

Burns and co-writer James Martin have devised a clever concept in "Waydowntown". The general set-up may seem like something out of a "Seinfeld" episode, but it's also a nice reflection of the way modern society has become so focussed, centralised and ultra-efficient that the simple beauty of life is sometimes forgotten. Being able to, say, go for a walk in the park might seem frivolous and superfluous -- especially when there are "more important" things to do -- but imagine actually being unable to indulge in that kind of activity. All of a sudden, it doesn't seem so frivolous and superfluous. It's the sort of thing that places the pursuit of money and power and achievement in context; what's the point in making millions of dollars if it becomes the sum total of your existence?

Burns directs the film at a manic pace, evoking the hectic state of everyday existence. He even slips occasionally into the mindstate of his characters. For instance, Tom feels like he's just floating through life, and Burns actually portrays him levitating down the corridors and walkways of the downtown. Burns also nicely captures the claustrophobia and sterility of the complex, a feeling enhanced by his decision to shoot the movie digitally and then transfer over to film afterward. "Waydowntown" is relentless from start to finish, sucking the viewer into its warped vision of reality right from the unusual opening credit sequence, and not letting go until the very end.

But as good as the premise of "Waydowntown" is, Burns is never quite able to elevate his script above the central idea. There are a lot of funny sequences -- I liked the way Sandra kept chasing after her elderly yet elusive boss only to become a shoplifter of sorts herself, stealing perfume inserts out of magazines to give her something to breathe in besides the stale downtown air. And a scene in which Brad attempts to replicate a local legend with a pop bottle full of marbles is downright hilarious.

But too often, Burns and Martin fall back on rather dodgy sitcom-style humour. An extended subplot involving Tom and an expensive crystal vase plays out, for the most part, like something that might have been on last night's rerun of "Three's Company". Other elements just feel like they could have been milked for more: Curt's bathroom-stall conquest of Vicki, for example, ends not with a bang (excuse the pun) but with a whimper. And in some areas, the script simply feels as though it needed tightening. Randy's entire existence is never really justified: he enjoys no interesting subplot like the other three participants in the bet, and is really only takes part in a couple of genuinely funny sequences (one involving Sandra and a cell phone is delightful, but Randy's presence isn't particularly germane).

Still, Burns does manage to encourage a number of good performances. Filippo -- despite the distracting affectation of wearing dark lipstick throughout -- hits all the right notes as Tom, whose natural state of climbing the corporate ladder is challenged by his awakening appreciation of a broader view of life. Initially appearing as little more than a corporate smooth-talker, Tom steadily develops a conscience as "Waydowntown" progresses, and Filippo does a good job of portraying this growth. Meanwhile, McKellar plays his oddball part well, making Bradley sufficiently weird and distant without losing a sense of reality (or humour). Currie is saddled with a rather stereotypical role as would-be jock Curt, but handles his material well all the same. Also noteworthy in a smaller role is McBurney, who steals practically every scene he's in. Phil's abortive efforts to stand up to the businessmen who are oblivious to his existence account for some of the movie's most sublime scenes.

Given all this, then, it is unfortunate that "Waydowntown" isn't as funny as it could and should have been. Burns is clearly on to something here, but isn't aggressive enough in complementing his high concept with an equally challenging execution. But despite its flaws, "Waydowntown" remains an effective, entertaining and incisive parable for our times.

Copyright 2001 Shannon Patrick Sullivan. Archived at The Popcorn Gallery, http://www.physics.mun.ca/~sps/movies/Waydowntown.html

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