I've always visualized Christian Slater as being the age he was in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume -- the kid with aspirations of being Jack Nicholson. I never thought of him as having anything in common with character actor Stephen Root until I saw He Was a Quiet Man at SXSW, and it was rather a shock to remember that Slater is nearly the same age I am, which is not exactly teen-aged.
He Was a Quiet Man opens with a voice-over monologue from Slater, one of those "angry white guy" speeches about the state of the world today and why a man can't be a man anymore. Societal changes, especially feminism, just ruined it for everyone, y'know. When we finally see Slater peeking over the edge of a cubicle, it's a shock. He looks just like Milton, Stephen Root's red-stapler-loving character in Office Space. Only instead of cradling a red stapler and muttering about burning the office down, Slater's character Bob is cradling a loaded gun and pondering whom in the office he would shoot if he went on a killing spree. He targets his jerk of a boss, the chick who busts him for looking at her bust ... everyone except the lovely Venessa (Elisha Cuthbert), whose smile "lights up a room," as everyone keeps saying. You can imagine him doing it, too.
We can tell that Bob is certifiable -- even his goldfish taunts him for not having the guts to go through with his rampage, and he cherishes a hula girl figure a little too fondly. And when enough is finally enough and Bob accidentally drops a bullet on his way to possibly pulling the trigger this time, he ducks under the cubicle ... and hears gunshots. His cubicle neighbor is bolder than Bob is -- he's got his own gun, and is taking out the office staff instead.
The fascination of watching Bob's transformation from his repulsive cubicle worker into a different sort of person is the high point of the movie. I wish we'd had the opportunity to watch Venessa transform to -- we only have her word that she was different before the shooting spree occurred. I also wish Bob didn't look so much like Milton, which was terribly distracting. Fortunately, Slater managed to overcome this odd doppelganger problem and gives a powerful performance. And you know I can't get through this review without mentioning William H. Macy as the CEO, in a role very much reminiscent of Fred MacMurray in The Apartment. (That has to be intentional -- Macy's character is named Shelby, MacMurray's was Sheldrake.) Macy's character is more complex, however; he's not definitely the bad guy by any means. John Gulager nearly steals the film, even from Macy, as the voice of Bob's goldfish.
The movie takes place in unreal settings, obviously designed to look over-the-top. We're told that the office is decorated for Christmas, but Christmas seems to take a long time to arrive, and the decorations look more Valentine-y in shades of red and pink. Shades of red are frequently used as accent colors during critical scenes of the film, in obvious contrast with Bob's tendency to wear muddy shades of green and gray. He Was a Quiet Man reminded me a lot, both in visual design and in watching a former teen idol in a nebbishy role, of Eugenio Mira's 2004 movie The Birthday, which starred Corey Feldman. However, The Birthday was intentionally surreal and Lovecraftian; He Was a Quiet Man veers between realistic and artificial settings. We cannot always tell what's real and what's fantasy, which feeds into a terribly ambiguous and contradictory ending that unfortunately undermines the entire film.
He Was a Quiet Man is a very dark comedy, meant to be a romantic comedy at times in a Harold and Maude kind of way. Once again, a movie posits whether the love of a good woman can cure an insane man. Slater and Cuthbert have an interesting chemistry together that helps keep the movie afloat. Unfortunately, the blending of fantasy and reality doesn't quite gel, and sometimes it does seem like we're watching the evil twin of Office Space blended with aspects of The Hudsucker Proxy. If you do see this movie, bring along some friends and go have a drink afterwards so you can all discuss the meanings intended by the ending. And if you figure it out, let me know.