As the great Frank Loesser asked and answered in the title song to Guys and Dolls: "What's playing at the Roxie? / I'll tell you what's playing at the Roxie / A picture 'bout a Minnesota man so in love with a Mississippi girl that he sacrifices everything and moves all the way to Biloxi/ That's what's playing at the Roxie." And that's not just what's playing at the Roxie, but at any theater specializing in independent features these days. The difference between Loesser's lyrics and indies like Normal Life is that a post-Tarantino, post-Coen brothers romance depends on true crime and psychopathology rather than true love and selflessness. And it tends to be an absurdist, arted-up docudrama, without rhyme, rhythm -- or reason.
In Normal Life, the guy is an idealistic suburban-Illinois cop named Chris (Luke Perry); the doll is Pam (Ashley Judd), a juicy-looking but frigid high-tech worker who's also a biker chick and Rollerblader. From the start, we know that she and Chris are doomed: The film kicks off with the FBI ambushing them in a parking lot right after they've loaded up their firearms. The plot proper begins two years earlier, when Chris was trying vainly to make it as a rookie while wooing the volatile Pam. Unfortunately, in the ensuing 100 minutes, we don't know what Chris sees in her except for her pretty face and curvy, cushiony body. She's freaking nuts from the git-go; my guess is for Chris she crystallizes the lunacy of a universe in which he can lose his police job because he's too by-the-book. Early on, Pam says she wants to die in an astronomical black hole. Black holes function here like nuclear bombs did in the '50s: They can make you feel like nothing -- or like you can do whatever you want.
The lovers' one clear point of convergence is that Chris likes looking down gun sights and Pam likes looking up telescope sights. Otherwise, they clash even when they share on-the-job problems. Pam can't work without drugs and alcohol; Chris refuses to back the story of a fellow cop who beats up a perp in custody. Pam slashes at her own torso with a knife and plays Russian roulette, but she's not conventionally suicidal; she's more manic-manic than manic-depressive -- before long, it's obvious that she wants to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. Normality has no hold on her; she pursues extreme feeling the way others pursue extreme sports. And though she yowls about her feminist integrity, she relies on her man to pick up the pieces -- to bandage her self-inflicted wounds and to pay off her maxed-out credit cards.
The movie makes marginal sense as a deadpan parody of traditional gender roles. With no other family or friends (save a lesbian co-worker who hopes she'll try the gay life), Pam expects Chris to provide everything, except orgasms. Being an old-fashioned husband, Chris is glad to play protector for this nouveau-psycho woman, no matter that her debts compel him to break the law. Once he's fired from the force, he secretly becomes a notorious "bearded bank robber" and manages to set his marriage up in tract-home splendor. Only after Pam stumbles onto Chris' alter ego and joins him on a heist does she get happy and enjoy her first big O. Chris stashes away enough money to start a small business -- it's a nice touch that this by-the-book officer decides to open a used-book store. Still, Pam and Chris aren't destined for conjugal bliss; she insists they rob till they drop.
Normal Life (like the forthcoming indie romance Farmer & Chase) would probably play better if it were done as an outright lampoon of Bonnie and Clyde. In the orgasm scene, and in the fusillade that climaxes Pam's getaway, it approaches spoofing anyhow. But the screenwriters, Peg Haller and Bob Schneider, based their script on fact. They intend it as a neutral study of folie a deux, and the director, John McNaughton, applies a relentlessly objective style, similar to the one he used on his career-making Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The problem with a style as uninflected as McNaughton's is that unless it's suffused with poetry or compassion, it cedes the film's point of view to the dominating character. The filmmakers give up their movie to Pam just as Chris gives up his marriage to her. Of course, Pam alienates us when she wears in-line skates and a scant outfit to her father-in-law's funeral, but by then the film has adopted her perspective on the supposed sterility of Middle America. (It was filmed in denatured suburbs near Chicago's O'Hare Airport.)
Each citizen of the straight world is a pitiful specimen, whether sickly like Chris' father or officious like Pam's boss or conformist like the other cops; a relatively sympathetic character like Chris' brother expresses concern over an expensive gun only because Chris didn't buy it from him. Ashley Judd has a big-cat unpredictability that keeps viewers on their toes. Luke Perry is both impressive and off-puttingly opaque as Chris; at his peak, he's like a Marlboro man eaten up inside by love instead of cancer. At one point, Chris gives a former colleague from the force a used copy of Jim Thompson's pulp milestone The Killer Inside Me, a novel that walks the reader straight through a sociopath's psyche. But McNaughton and company look at their protagonist from the outside; they can't help Perry indicate the magnitude of Chris' obsession with Pam.
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