Free Radicals (2004)

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 09/25/03 23:28:58

"Chaos theory doesn't always translate so well to film."
3 stars (Just Average)

We don't get to see too many films from Austria these days, so perhaps we ought to cling to any that manage to slip through the cracks. Maybe we ought to cut those that achieve a decent level of mediocrity a little slack just for the fact that they even exist in a place not known for movie-making. But then, maybe a film that starts off big and manages to stumble, sputter and eventually choke to death should be kicked around a little bit, regardless of where it comes from. Let's go with that option.

First, let's get the wild praise out of the way. Free Radicals is a stylish piece. Filmmaker Barbara Albert manages to take a concept that is relatively difficult for most folks to understand, that of chaos theory, and explains it better than most others have. She conjures rich images and characters that vary from the breathtaking to the decrepit, and she keeps her story humming along at a nice rate... but.

While nobody could really doubt Albert's skill behind the camera, her skill with the word processor might be a little tougher to defend. Oh sure, she can write, but here she's tackled a big quest - making a film about chaos by showing the lives of barely connected folks who don't seem to have a single redeeming feature amongst them - and to my way of thinking she hasn't pulled it off.

Clearly inspired by Paul Thomas Andersen's Magnolia, though the PR for the film claims the inspiration stems from Fassbinder, the similarities between this film and the aforementioned can be seen all the way down to an opening narration about 'coincidental' catastrophes. But hey, no drama there - if you're going to be inspired by a film, I can think of thousands worse than Magnolia to grab the coat-tails of.

The storyline unfolds on Manu (Kathrin Resetarits), a young woman caught in a plane crash on her way home to Austria from Rio. Pulled from the sea with injuries and long term issues, she gets married, has a kid, and while she's out one night with a friend at a club, she's involved in a head-on collision and killed.

The friend Manu was out with (Ursula Strauss) feels awful that she let her friend go home alone, breaking down at her funeral, but the events that follow reveal a long-standing affair between her and Manu's husband (Georg Friedrich).

Meanwhile, Manu's brother (Rupert Lehofer), a high school teacher with no people skills, develops a crush on a young black store clerk (Belinda Akwa-Asare). One of his students was in the crash with his sister, and the black gal sings in a choir, alongside an aging woman who has a crush on one of the other choir-members and then there's Manu's prostitute sister (Marion Mitterhammer) who is screwing a one-legged old man with a daughter who goes to school with one of the kids from the car crash and...

Okay, you're getting it now, aren't you? Everyone's connected and each of our actions impact the lives of everyone else. Butterfly flaps its wings in New York, Tokyo goes down in a hurricane, you kjnow the schtick. The problem here is that these stories are SO loosely connected that there are entire storylines and characters that don't seem to have anything to do with anything. Until one tiny connection tells you, "See, this is why you've been watching this guy for the last fifteen minutes - he bought a newspaper from her once."

At the heart of any problem you'd have with this screenplay is that these characters simply DON'T influence each other. Missing a green light on your way to work might influence your day ahead, but the fact that someone you share a cubicle with has a daughter who goes to school with your cousin's niece twice removed doesn't change anything.

Which isn't to say there's nothing worth seeing in Free Radicals - there is. The depiction of modern Austrian life is eye-opening to say the least, especially the casually racist manner that seems to be prevalent in the society shown on screen. Sure, we're no angels on this topic, but we seem to be light years ahead of the largely Germanic nations of Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

Also somewhat disturbing is how the culture of America has made its way into Europe. No sweeping boulevards of century-old archietecture here - the centrepiece of proceedings is a new shopping mall, and the site or a huge Jennifer Lopez 'Enough' poster behind one character had me cringing. The world is an eclectic place, and we seem to be filling it with crap as a matter of pride.

Free Radicals is by no means the worst film I've seen at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival, and it's right up there at the 'above average' level of films I've seen this year... it just seemed to be a lost opportunity to do something bigger. The actors showed up, the camera was on, but the script wasn't up to the task.

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