Jason Flemyng plays Henry Creedlow, the peon poster child, in this unusual film from George Romero. Flemyng's wife constantly berates him. She's having affairs behind his back. His boss is a jerk. His "best friend" takes advantage of him. He gets no respect at work. Even his maid is ripping him off. He feels faceless, and so he becomes. Can Henry find his identity? What will he have to do to get one?
Unfortunately, a large part of what makes this film unusual for George Romero is that it's so bad. Nothing in it ever quite works, although I had hopes for the first five minutes, before Romero began his attempt to tell a story/allegory.
There are a couple things that aren't complete disasters. The cinematography is nice enough, the production design isn't bad (and there are a couple fabulous eye candy homes), the music is okay, and there are appearances by Tom Atkins, one of my favorite character actors, and The Misfits, who are at least interesting. That's it. Those are the sole reasons I gave this a 3 rather than a 1 or 2.
In a nutshell, the problem with Bruiser is this: there's not so much a story as a collection of "quirky touches". Romero, who both wrote and directed, doesn't bother to explain anything, but there are a number of things that are very weird. Now, I'm usually a big fan of weirdness, surrealism, etc. But beneath the quirky touches, there is an extremely pedestrian story with a revenge motif. At one point, there must have been a script (Romero admits they had many rewrites) that had Bruiser as more of a noirish thriller, although only the slightest hints of it remain. The combination makes the quirky touches more annoying than satisfying. They don't seem authentic. Romero has never seemed like a surrealist/absurdist and it doesn't ring true here either. So it's difficult to say why the quirky touches are there except that Romero was aiming for metaphor and allegory. But that aspect doesn't work, either, because he tends to bash you over the head with his metaphors. They're so obvious and advertised that they no longer function as metaphors, but just a very incoherent script.
Here are some examples of what I'm talking about above. Creedlow works for a magazine named Bruiser. Yet, it's a fashion magazine. Why is there a fashion magazine named Bruiser? Who would buy that? We're never told. I figured that maybe it was going to be the last name of the publisher, Milo (Peter Stormare). It wasn't, his last name is Styles (wouldn't that guy in that industry name his magazine "Styles" in that case?). If Bruiser had been Milo's last name, that would have made it nicely ironic, but still sellable in the context of the story. It's probably still supposed to be ironic, and a commentary on the fashion/beauty industries. But it's too in-your-face to work the way it's presented. Additionally, we spend a lot of time at the magazine--in the offices, with the publisher, with other employees in various social situations--so why don't we learn more about the magazine and the personalities involved in it? All we know is that there's a fashion magazine named Bruiser, and they pick out cover models by hanging a number of pictures on a lightboard and "voting". That's it.
Another example: Stormare is extremely annoying as Milo. He's supposed to be over-the-top and annoying, but it's too ridiculous to work, unless intended as comedy (it isn't, and it isn't particularly funny unintentionally, either) or absurdism, but remember that Romero isn't really an absurdist so it seems inauthentic as that. Obviously, we have to see Milo as one of the primary villains and that's why Romero has Stormare play the part this way. Instead, I saw Romero as one of the primary villains for his direction; he should have reeled Stormare in. It also made me hate Creedlow instead, because he should have killed Milo in the beginning, at the meeting (if the film would have more followed Creedlow's fantasizing, Romero might have had something).
There are also many examples in the details. For example, why does Creedlow walk to his train station in the middle of the street? Is he trying to get hit by a car? Or, why would anyone have a party where they make masks that are like those awful 1980s porcelain-white, featureless wall hangings, and then ask guests to paint them? It takes awhile to paint something, it takes supplies, etc. What kind of party would that be and why do we only see one person (Creedlow) working on it? Again, this is instead a heavy handed metaphor, but ridiculous for that. There must be better ways to show people putting on false public faces at social events.
For that matter, Henry's facelessness was just as heavy-handed. The production design, with the unfinished house, served the same purpose and was much more subtle and effective. Why not just stick with it, or come up with something less ridiculous? Probably Romero figured we wouldn't pick up on the metaphors if they weren't advertised in neon. We're not idiots, George.
Even Tom Atkins ended up annoying me, because he was mired in all of these garish metaphorical non-sequiturs (the "masquerade party" of the climax really irritated me). If I end up not liking Atkins, something is seriously wrong.
Although Bruiser turns into a thriller with a number of death scenes, these are poorly staged, with minimalist effects. Probably Romero was trying to distance himself from his past work. With the exception of the maid, most of the death scenes are lame and relatively bloodless. Yet the film still got an R. At least give us something more visceral to make up for the awful script. Horror fans, with their past support, enabled Romero to make Bruiser. Don't just tease us and walk away.
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