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Hipster Holy Grail: Break a Leg (2005)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Break a Leg is narratively kind of a mess, with some confusing structure and stakes that come and go.  But as far as the content goes, it's a recommendation.  It's one of the few movies where an actor plays an actor whose talent and frailty are both believable.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

Max Matteo (John Cassini) is a struggling actor in Hollywood.  He and his circle of friends regularly work crappy day jobs and do their best to support each other psychologically through the soul-crushing grind of repeated rejection.  And as the film opens, you see that the struggle has planted seeds of deep, unresolved anger and jealousy.

Break a Leg is not shy about showing Max's darker side.  He fantasizes about bludgeoning other people and/or their property for relatively minor offenses (like honking at him at a stop sign) and his preferred method of relieving stress is to beat the shit out of a punching bag at his agent's office.  But on the plus side: he's also talented.  His agent and a slew of producers and casting directors all reaffirm as much.

The problem is that he's unlucky.  He loses one gig because he's slightly too short, he loses another because the director's nephew is being cast in the role instead, and still another because two producers got into a literal pissing match about whether he or another guy should get the role, and the producer who backed Max ran out of pee.

Then one day, Max learns that his friend - who was recently cast in a high profile role after years of hard work - broke her leg and was fired from her big job.  This plants another little seed of anger, and Max has unwittingly come up with a plan.

He knows that he was the second choice for a role that will instead go to up-and-coming hot shot EJ Inglewood (Danny Nucci).  So one day, he follows Inglewood into a car park and smashes his leg with a baseball bat.  Inglewood, understandably, freaks out and fights back in self defense.  He pulls a gun and starts shooting at Max, who runs for cover into - then behind - a convertible parked nearby.  In his haste, Max accidentally loosens the parking brake, and the convertible rolls back out of the parking space - and overtop of Inglewood, who can't escape since his leg is broken.

This sequence is one of the best parts of the movie.  It's shot, staged, and performed well.  It also has the added effect of playing out with a bit of ambiguity at first.  You don't really know if Max is fantasizing about attacking Inglewood or if it's actually happening - and as soon as Inglewood is dead, you realize that Max also was a bit disconnected, as he seems to realize all at once the gravity of what he's done.

Silver lining: the plan works.  Max takes over Inglewood's role as a priest on Secret Scruples, a production that promises the exposure and money that Max so desperately needs.  He does a great job on set and soon he's off to buy a new car and enjoy his rise from the D list to the C- list.

Later on, he meets Kate (Molly Parker), another client of his agent's, at a party.  They hit it off right away and start dating.

Then the movie goes into its clunky second act, where the pacing starts to wear down.  You see bits of Max's continued struggle to land good roles intertwined with his relationship with Kate, which goes through some dramatic ups and downs.  While all that's going on, we also get introduced to Detective Sanchez (Rene Rivera), the officer in charge of investigating Inglewood's death.

Sanchez's arc is kind of just jammed into the movie - it doesn't feel organic.  He gets a hunch pretty early on that Inglewood was killed by another actor, and then fairly quickly suspects that Max was the culprit.  Later, he comes up with the idea to go undercover as another actor in order to get close to Max and gather more evidence to make an arrest.  (As it turns out, Sanchez is a pretty good actor without even knowing it, so he's easily able to get into the same casting calls as Max.)  I'll get into it more later, but the big problem with this is that Sanchez's story and Max's story seem to be happening in alternate universes until the very end - they just never feel like they're happening in the same world or on the same timeline.

Somewhere in the second act is also where we see Max commit his second assault.  A drugged-up, washed-out actor named Michael Lange (Eric Roberts) reads a part for a movie named Combustion that Max knows he's landed.  However, another aspiring actor sneers and tells Max as an aside that Lange is a ringer, so nobody else should even bother.   Max takes this as gospel and proceeds to shove Lange down some stairs.  Later, Max wins the Combustion part.

The Lange assault turns out to resolve about as well as it can.  Lange survives and doesn't actually remember being pushed - instead, he thinks it was the hand of God telling him to get his act in order.  So, Lange has sobered up and written a book about healing yourself that has been well-received by the public.  Since both Lange and Max are successes as a result, you might call this one a wash... except that Max feels pretty upset by it and starts to fight more with Kate as a result.

Max's guilt and acting struggles reach a peak when he gets the chance to audition for the lead in a mid-budget movie.  By all accounts, if he lands the role, it'll be his big break to stardom.  But as fate would have it, the casting director has narrowed the role down to two choices: Max and Sanchez.

On edge, Max admits the Lange assault to Kate to relieve his guilt, but she breaks up with him for obvious reasons.  Then he pushes himself into full on self-destruction mode and stalks Sanchez back to his apartment to hold him at gunpoint and demand that he do a reading so he can figure out why Sanchez is even up for consideration.

This leads to another scene I liked pretty well, in which Max and Sanchez perform their script and Max keeps giving Sanchez pointers while holding him hostage.  It's pretty clear that Sanchez is enjoying the craft despite the circumstances.  So it comes as no surprise to anybody that when Max is inevitably killed - he is surprised by / opens fire on another officer and is killed in response - Sanchez accepts the much-desired role and becomes a successful actor.

The credits roll over Sanchez's debut, and we fade to black without any further mention of Max.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Let's do this sandwich style so I can bury my complaints in the middle.  First up: the acting.

Break a Leg is the kind of movie that will live or die by its lead, since the central conceit requires that Max be talented.  This is actually kind of a larger issue with movies about art in general - when you're seeing characters struggle at their craft, you need to believe that they're actually capable or else any conflict about their success is going to seem unearned and, frankly, stupid.  Ever see a movie about Hollywood / filmmaking where the movie-in-a-movie is utter crap?  Doesn't that just take you right out of it?

Fortunately, John Cassini is a pretty great lead.  He shows a good range and he's believable throughout.  I see that he cowrote the screenplay and produced, and if he meant for this to be his reel, mission accomplished.  IMDb shows that he's had a decent career as a bit actor, so I'm glad (and not too surprised) to see he's getting regular work.

Unfortunately... a lot of that good will is hampered by the movie's editing and pacing.

Break a Leg has this terrible habit of making it hard to track how much time has passed.  It's really difficult to tell how long Max is working at each of his roles.  When he starts dating Kate, it seems like he stays at her apartment for one night, and then the next time they're together, it feels like they've been dating for a year.  Max starts working on Secret Scruples in one scene, but then like twenty minutes later he's vying for a role on Combustion.  Has it been months since his first gig?  Weeks?  Only days?

It's especially hard to keep track of it because you keep seeing cutaways to Sanchez and the other cops looking into the initial murder, and Sanchez seems pretty invested in taking down Max. So, obviously there has to be some recency to Inglewood's death, right?  I mean, I know that law enforcement doesn't work as quickly as you see on TV, but surely it wouldn't take them months to get to the point where they suspect Max?

By the time they've hatched their plan to have Sanchez go undercover, Max has already wrapped on Combustion, too.  So... what, is he knocking these things out in a couple of days each?  If so, how have Max and Kate managed to escalate their relationship to the point where they're having married-couple fights?  I'm just so lost.

Not having a good frame of reference makes it hard to pin down a good feel for Max's emotional state.  Right after Inglewood's death, Max is visibly disturbed, and much later you see him have terror flashbacks and nightmares about it.  But because the movie so awkwardly cuts to him working, you don't get a good grasp of the immediate aftermath.  I really needed a scene or two here of him being paranoid that he's being followed, or otherwise torn apart.

For that matter, I coulda used a montage here, too - as much as I hate to admit it.  Just something to show us that Max is working, that the producers like him, that things are looking up.  Something to anchor the movie and give us a clean break so we can go to the next scene thinking, "Okay, here's where we are, here's how long it's been, here's how he feels."  Montages are kinda lame, but they're very good giving you a soft reset.

The best I can figure is that some scenes were either cut out of the movie entirely for one reason or another, or they didn't have the budget to film some connective tissue.  There's just something about it that doesn't feel finished.

Back to the good news: I appreciate that the movie offers a realistic take on acting.  Or, at least, I assume it does without having any first-hand experience.  Everything that you see in Break a Leg correlates with virtually every behind-the-scenes documentary, personal interview, and memoir I've ever read about or by actors and filmmaking.  It's refreshing to see a movie-about-movies that portrays the industry as what it is - a glossless business that's 90% predictable, technical stuff.

Consider this: when Max lands the gig for Secret Scruples, the first time you get to see him act on set is him performing against a couple of duct-tape Xs on a green screen.  This is his big moment in the movie, the time when he gets to live out his life's dream - and it's a bunch of boring-ass reverse shots without any other actors.  That's real.  That's like if I was making a movie about my glamorous life as a writer, and the big moment when you know that I've made it is when I slowly click my way through Amazon KDP setup screens.  What else would you expect?

But it's not just that Max's career and work are subdued.  It's also that the people he works with are competent.  I kinda hate it when something like, say, State and Main or The Last Shot portrays filmmaking as a bunch of loosely organized whack-a-doo nonsense.  I'm well aware that big egos exist and that outrageous stuff can happen on set, but isn't that a disservice to the hundreds or even thousands of people who were giving 100% at their humdrum day job to make that movie happen?  Filmmaking is most interesting when it functions correctly, and seeing a well-oiled machine at work is infinitely more impressive than watching people stop to fix a loose wheel.

So, I really liked that aspect of the movie.  And for that reason, I'd probably still put Break a Leg toward the top of my list of recommendations for people who are looking for movies-about-movies, even though it's very much imperfect.

I would definitely not call it "funny" though.  It's described as a dark comedy on IMDb and Netflix, which is inaccurate.  Break a Leg is instead a character thriller where you see somebody slowly lose their grip on morality.  Movies like this can make people uncomfortable because you're not really watching a traditional thriller / drama, nor is it really a horror movie.  It's almost like literary fiction. Folks have a tendency to call stuff like this "dark comedy" just so they have a mental space for it - doubly so if there are any scenes of levity at all.

The same thing happened with Fargo.  That's one of the best ever dark character thrillers with some funny scenes in it, but you shouldn't trust anybody who refers to it as a "comedy."

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It gets 30 obscurity cred for having only about 200 IMDb ratings as of today.  I can't quite give it a "you've probably never heard of them" ensemble bonus for the cast, since it has bit parts from Sandra Oh, Eric Roberts, Jennifer Beals, Kevin Corrigan, and others.  However, in some ways, that kinda makes it work better for hipster cred; since it's a meta-movie where the principal cast is primarily unknown bit actors and the bit parts are better known, I'll give it a 15 point alternate bonus.  But that's only because it's a movie-about-movies.  Any other situation and it wouldn't work.

And I'll give it another 10 point pedigree bump since it was made by Catchlight Films, which produced previous Holy Grail entry Heart of the Beholder.

That adds up to 55 hipster cred out of a possible 100 on its own.  But I'll go one better.  If you happen to name drop this one specifically when you're talking to people about movies-about-movies, I think you can give yourself an additional 15 point bonus.  I'm positive nobody will see it coming, and it's almost certain to be a more accurate depiction than whatever they're talking about.

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