It’s always interesting to see what actors do the first time they step behind the camera to direct. Some choose to cast themselves, which others prefer not to appear on screen in a story they’re not fronting. In the case of Chris Pine, who has demonstrated his range as an actor with credits like Hell or High Water, Into the Woods, and the Star Trek series, his directorial debut Poolman is a wild and fascinating mess. There is a great deal of intrigue but just as much baffling confusion, revealing a film with tremendous potential that makes selective use of its assets for a hypnotic but ultimately chaotic viewing experience.
Pine plays the title character, Darren, who lives in Los Angeles, where he begins each day by cleaning his apartment complex pool and writing a letter to his hero, Erin Brockovich. He attends the city council meeting each day, railing against its president (Stephen Tobolowsky) in favor of a revised and more functional bus schedule. When the president’s new assistant, June Del Rey (DeWanda Wise), shows up at Darren’s door alleging a vast conspiracy, his interest is piqued and he enlists the help of the few friends he has to expose what is going on — all too ready to digest numerous hits of misinformation along the way.
Darren is a character who doesn’t feel entirely real, as if someone surely should have punched him in the face more than once for his belligerence and the truly odd things that become his obsessions. He enjoys a warm relationship with friends Jack (Danny DeVito) and Diane (Annette Bening), and a less stable romance with Susan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), but he doesn’t seem to have much in the way of serious connections with anyone else. Darren is erratic and prone to temper tantrums, yet somehow he’s made it this far. That he doesn’t get himself killed within moments of being approached by June — since he’s just that hapless, and subtlety and discretion are not in his wheelhouse — is a miracle.
Pine has amassed a phenomenal cast for this film, which also features John Ortiz, Clancy Brown, and Ray Wise, though they’re not always given that much to do. Everyone has at least one standout scene, with Bening, DeVito, and Tobolowsky getting more significant screen time. They all approach their roles with a true focus and seem to understand the script’s unique tone, even if the film itself isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Pine, on the other hand, is distractingly casual in his freewheeling portrayal, earning laughs but also playing his character in a perplexingly loose manner.
This film feels like an amalgam of Chinatown, a frequently-referenced favorite of Darren’s, and, oddly enough, Babylon, setting up a distinctly Hollywood noir story with just as much excess as plot development. Questionable transitions make time feel like it’s either not passing all that quickly or rushing by at rapid speed, making for a disjointed viewing experience that fluctuates between dreamlike and downright bizarre.
However, Poolman is not nearly as bad as some have proclaimed, but rather exudes a vibe of unfulfilled potential, as here, the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. Shooting in 35mm (which didn’t play properly at the first TIFF screening) gives the film a particular look, and while it has style to spare, the story isn’t quite as polished… or even coherent.