The musical Fruit Fly circles
the life of Bethesda, a performance artist who has recently moved to
San Francisco, where she hopes to develop her next work based on the
same theme on which she has based all her previous works: Her search
for her biological parents – well, at least her mother – and by
extension, someplace she can call home. Most of her new friends/house
mates are themselves artistic to one degree or another, and several
are gay, and in various ways they try to help her, either by
introducing her to S.F. nightlife – where she is quickly dubbed a
“fag hag” (or “fruit fly”) – or by aiding her search for a
venue in which to perform.
The film is the directorial debut of
H.P. Mendoza, who also wrote the screenplay, wrote and produced the
musical numbers, handled the sound design, and edited the film. Given
the time and effort it takes for a single individual to wear so many
hats on a production, I was rather impressed with the overall
technical quality of the film. At many points it feels like something
more than a director's first movie.
The film's writing, however, left me
much less satisfied. I ended up wanting to like it more than I
actually did. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “It's not a story; it's
just a bunch of stuff that happened.” Now, there are different ways
in which “a bunch of stuff” may be made into an actual story. The
plot events themselves may be very compelling (even if they're
contrived), as in a thriller or action-adventure tale, or they may be
organically driven by interesting characters, in a more low-key and
relatively “realistic” manner (as in Kevin Smith's debut,
Clerks). (Or some combination of both techniques may be used.) But
for it all to “work” – i.e., for the “bunch of stuff” to
add up to something that's more than the sum of its parts – the
events must ultimately affect characters we care about, in ways that
both make sense and matter to us.
And for me, Fruit Fly is not
nearly as successful as I would wish, in this regard. By the end of
the film I ended up liking Bethesda less than at the very beginning,
and I found the reactions of various characters rather arbitrary or
unbelievable. Here's a summary of how I saw the film (and I guess I
should say “spoiler alert” – such as it is – here): Though
she seems nice enough at the beginning, Beth spends most of her time
being rather self-centered and whiny, to the point that she ends up
insulting the friends who manage to line up a venue for her work –
after the venue she originally wanted turned her down – because she
thinks that what they got for her is too small. They eventually
forgive her (though don't ask me why – except for the character of
Windham, described below – because she never really even
apologizes). In return, she helps one of her other house mates –
whom I found even more whiny & annoying than Beth – with one of
his projects. For whatever reason, all of this makes Beth decide that
she's finally found her family, and a home where she can put down
roots and grow. (At least, that's what I think the last musical
numbers and bit of performance art are supposed to indicate.) The
I should be clear that my problems with
the film have nothing to do with the acting of the major roles. L.A.
Renigen does a fine job as Beth – making me like the character much
more than I think I otherwise would have – and Mike Curtis (who
reminds me of a somewhat scruffier Campbell Scott) is thoroughly
enjoyable as Beth's newfound gay best friend, the nurturing Windham.
And it's not as if nothing about the
writing is enjoyable. There are nice moments and bits of cleverness
here and there, both in the music lyrics and in the “straight”
portions of the film. I particularly liked a bit near the beginning,
when Beth is being introduced to various people in the house, and
each one – including Beth – sings the line, “I won't be here
long” to him- or herself, presumably indicating that everyone sees
his or her current situation as just a temporary stepping-stone to
bigger & better things. But when Beth sings this to herself upon
meeting Windham, he “hears” her, and surprises her by smiling and
singing something in return.
This was a neat little way of
establishing the instant rapport that would exist between the two
characters throughout the movie, and I thought it would be an
indication that other points in the film would also use song to help
amplify character or move forward the plot, as the best musicals do.
(Think Richard Gere in “Chicago” manipulating people like puppets
and directing a circus show during the murder trial, simultaneously
progressing the story line and getting across how his character sees
Sadly, though, such use of music seems
to be the exception rather than the rule, here. Most of the musical
numbers in Fruit Fly essentially exist in a vacuum; they could
be removed with no loss to the overall plot or character development.
Beth arrives in San Francisco; let's sing about public transport.
Beth has her first night at the gay bar; let's do a song-and-dance
number to dub her a fag hag. Windham tricks with some guy; let's sing
about that. In general, the songs are sufficiently clever and the
routines are enjoyably choreographed and energetically delivered –
though several are a bit too long and repetitive. But they just don't
matter to the story.
And perhaps that's the basic problem: I
get the impression that Mendoza may have been more interested in
creating excuses for song-and-dance numbers than in actually telling
the story of Bethesda's personal journey. I understand that I'm most
likely in the minority here, but I probably would have enjoyed it all
more if the musical numbers had simply been cut and more time had
been spent showing Beth doing some nice stuff for her friends before
the very end, rather than always being on the receiving end of their
generosity. Maybe then the resolution would have felt deserved and
organic to me, rather than just tacked on.
Having said all this, there's
definitely some enjoyment to be had in watching the film, and there
are many aspects of it of which Mendoza and the filmmakers may
justifiably be proud. I just hope that in the future, Mendoza focuses
on writing a good movie first, and a good musical second.
Fruit Fly is not rated and is
available on DVD October 19.