Like protracted rape scenes or graphic foot torture, the level of tolerance one has for quirkiness in film varies greatly from viewer to viewer. Some just can’t get enough of childish middle class characters dressed like Manga drawings stuttering through scenes of smirky, awkward flirtation and living dizzy, unconventional lives while playing with the arts. This reviewer, on the other hand, finds himself curling up into a ball of miserable anger at the mere sight of Jason Schwartzman’s name in an opening credit sequence.
So that may make me a less than ideal person to rate and review Booked Out, the debut from writer/ director Bryan O’Neil, as it is not so much a film as a parade of quirk, a crayon coloured celebration of all things cute and self consciously Ker-azeee.
Aidlih (Burke) is a life loving artist with a short pixie-ish haircut who spends her days scribbling out comic books and taking Polaroid snaps of the people coming and going from her London apartment block. Of most interest to her is handsome Jacob (Weeks) who each day visits the flat across the hall from hers and spends strained, joyless hours watching television with peculiar, numb Jaqueline (Garvey). She also makes regular visits to elderly neighbour Mrs Nicholls (Syms) who is attempting to cope with the recent death of her husband. Things heat up when Aidlih decides to pursue Jacob by deliberately spilling the contents of her folder over him in the stairwell.
In the interest of fairness it is probably right to leave aside the quirkiness for a moment. This is no easy feat considering Booked Out‘s quirk content is close to a medically unsafe 85%. It is, however, a lower than low budget Brit indie shot almost entirely in a poky London apartment block, so let’s try to focus on the remaining 15%. Yet doing so only reveals some stark, underlying problems with the film’s mechanics. Though O’Neil has done well to pull the tiny budget and limited facilities he was handed much further than might be expected, it is not enough to cover up some alarming gaps in the narrative. The script reaches constantly for life affirmation yet it is limited by brittle dialogue, perfunctory characterisation and an over-reliance on zanyness as a substitute for wit.Worse still the script never gets a handle on the elements of pathos it attempts to introduce in its final third. For example, the clearly troubling elements of the sub-plot involving Aidlih and Jacob convincing Mrs. Nicholls that her dead husband is still alive in order to comfort her during her grief (i.e. the possibility that their zany, quirky behaviour may actually be protracting the torment of a grieving old woman) is never confronted with anything like the discomfort it deserves. Similarly the absurdly aggressive manner in which Aidlih confronts Jaqueline late on in proceedings seems to be simply forgotten by the predictably joyful climax.
All of which makes Booked Out, a film which would very much wish to be loved, very, very difficult to like. Seemingly conceived as a British Amelie, it tries plenty hard but falls incalculably short of that high standard.