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Conspiracy Theory: A TIFF Review of ‘Poolman’

September 19, 2023Ben MK

Best known for his roles in such films as Star Trek, Wonder Woman and Into the Woods, Chris Pine has made a successful living playing a certain type. Whether it's the cocky starship captain, the rugged WWII fighter pilot, or the handsome fairy tale prince, Pine's good looks and natural charisma have helped him imbue his characters with a believability not many actors could pull off. It's a stark contrast to Pine's directorial debut, Poolman. And while the decision to play against type is understandable, it's also a strategy that backfires, as the film itself never manages to live up to its ambitions.

Set in modern-day Los Angeles, the story sees Pine starring as Darren Barrenman, a pool man at the Tahitian Tiki Motel who also considers himself something of a social activist, filmmaker and part-time detective. A lonely conspiracy theorist who lives out of a modest trailer and who writes letters to his idol, Erin Brockovich, every day, Darren is no stranger to the ins and outs of city council. However, when Darren begins to suspect that local congressman Steve Toronkowski (Stephen Tobolowsky) is in cahoots with a wealthy land developer (Clancy Brown) to shutter a proposed low-income housing development, he unwittingly makes himself the target of a more dangerous enemy. Along with his good friends, Jack and Diane (Danny DeVito and Annette Bening), Darren begins investigating the potential wrongdoings at the highest levels of city council, not realizing what he's getting himself into. When he finally starts to get a grasp of just how much trouble he's in, though, will Darren be able to claw out of the hole he's dug for himself? Or will he become just another casualty of L.A.'s noir side, not unlike what he's seen happen over and over again in movies like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential?

A misguided attempt to pay homage to the neo-noir genre as well as to satirize it, what follows is the type of film that demands a certain degree of nuance. Yet, despite Pine's undeniable talent, he's never quite able rise to the challenge. From the movie's ham-fisted dialogue to the way Pine dials up the intensity of his performance to eleven all the way through, the result ultimately devolves into self-parody. So while Poolman might not be an unmitigated disaster, as far as its ability to swim beyond the shallow end, it mostly ends up treading water.

Poolman screens under the Special Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 40 min.

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