Fantasia Festival, Film, Film Review

FANTASIA REVIEW: The Oak Room (2020) dir. Cody Calahan

World premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival

by

There’s an old bit from the venerable National Lampoon Radio Hour sketch comedy show in which Brian Doyle-Murray (brother of fellow cast member Bill) delivers a fractured parody of a stand-up comedy set. The skit begins:

A man walks into a nightclub with a beautiful girl on his arm. The show begins, and the comedian comes out for his first show of the evening. The comedian says, “A man walks into a nightclub with a beautiful girl on his arm. The show begins, and the comedian comes out for his second show of the evening. The comedian says, ‘A man walks into a nightclub with a beautiful girl on his arm.’ Just then, a man stands up in the front row and says, ‘I think I’ve heard this before!’ The comedian says, ‘Maybe you caught my first show of the evening.’”

Doyle-Murray continues from there, looping back and forth through the premise, each time making it slightly more recursive and alien (“A man walks into a nightclub with a tattoo of a beautiful girl on his arm”; “A man walks into a nightclub with a beautiful arm on his girl”). It’s a stellar and underrated bit of comic nonsense, playing with familiar storytelling conventions and twisting them until the focus is on the conventions themselves. I was reminded of this routine while watching The Oak Room, which effectively takes this formula and applies it to a rural, bottle-episode neo-noir. The Oak Room’s looping structure is at times maddeningly opaque, and by far favors style over substance, but like a good story told in a smoky barroom, there’s no denying its tactile pleasures.

The Oak Room opens, appropriately enough, on a Dark and Stormy Night– a blizzard, to be exact. Barkeep Paul (Peter Outerbridge) is just closing up for the evening when clean-cut young Steve (RJ Mitte, Breaking Bad’s Walt, Jr.) bursts in from the snow. Steve’s arrival is met with hostility; the prodigal son of a late local legend, Steve left town for a stint in college and a few years of aimless drifting, and evidently left some scores unsettled. As Paul phones local heavy Stelly to collect on Steve’s (unspecified) debt, Steve offers a bargain: in lieu of money, why not let him pay with a story? Despite Paul’s skepticism, Steve launches into a tale about a different bar, on a different snowy night, where a different bartender (Ari Millen) is met with a different mysterious intruder (Martin Roach). After some terse dancing around of words, these two exchange stories as well. Eventually, we snap back to the present, where Steve reveals that this is actually the end of the story, and it doesn’t make sense without the beginning. But before he can reveal all, Paul has some stories of his own.

Perhaps ironically, The Oak Room is not about its own story. Rather, it’s about the idea of story, about the act of storytelling. It’s not about the man who walks into the bar, but about the bar itself, and its function as a place in which one might be regaled with a long-winded man-walks-into-a-bar story. What the Oak Room does well is establish a sense of place, smoky and stuffy and deeply Canadian (one dramatic reveal literally involves a cardboard box labeled “Gord’s Fishing Stuff”). Both bars feel believably lived in, lovingly lit and appropriately worn. When Steve settles into his father’s barstool, you can sense the history and small-town rhythms between the two men. When Steve introduces his story, you can’t help but grin– especially now, when the simple act of sitting down and talking to a stranger in a cozy bar feels as fantastical as anything out of Star Wars.

Yet, as when you find yourself in a meandering conversation with a drunk, the film is at times frustratingly roundabout. The Oak Room is based on a play by Peter Genoway, and its stagebound origins show; its primary function seems to be as a vehicle for its actors to roll the juicy, tough-guy dialogue around in their mouths. The actors are all up to the task (particularly Mitte, in a role that refreshingly does not foreground the actor’s cerebral palsy), but characters can only talk in vague metaphors for so long before you snap at them to get to the point. In The Oak Room, the point seems to be that there is no point. For all the floridly profane storytelling, the details of its own story are deliberately left out, perhaps to let the audience fill in the gaps for themselves. Think of it as Last Year at Tarantinobad.

Subsequently, what you get out of The Oak Room will likely depend on what you bring into it. It’s tempting to go in as a detective, looking for clues to unlock the puzzle box. This is exactly the wrong approach; if the clues are there at all (which they may or may not be), they’re deliberately left to subtext, and anyone expecting a big Keyser Soze reveal will likely come to the conclusion that the whole thing is bullshit. What The Oak Room is is a film about bullshit– or, in Paul’s words, “goosing the truth.” The key to enjoying The Oak Room is to approach it as a mood piece, an evocation of a particular sort of smoky hole in the wall and tough-guy raconteur. I’m not sure I was entirely won over, but then, I watched it on a sunny summer morning. Let’s circle back on the next dark, snowy night– I just might have a different story to tell.

The Oak Room
2020
dir. Cody Calahan
89 min.

World premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival– click here to follow our ongoing coverage!

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