Sometimes a Great Notion 

Eric Byler's debut feature starts off well, but gets hazy as it proceeds.

Charlotte Sometimes introduces us to Michael (Michael Idemoto), a taciturn mechanic who also happens to be a landlord. Lori (Eugenia Yuan) is his tenant, and one of his best friends, allegedly, but she's also a fabulously beautiful woman who acts irritatingly flirty with him all the time, then has really loud sex next door that he gets to hear through the wall. Don't you hate that?

Michael is clearly just a little bit frustrated that the hottest lady he knows insists on being platonic and seems to have no clue that she's driving him crazy. Lori says she thinks her current passionate boyfriend with perfect abs, Justin (Matt Westmore), may be "the one," but Justin doesn't seem entirely happy that, postcoitus, Lori tends to go next door to Michael's pad and fall asleep there. The masculine rivalry remains unspoken, but occasionally manifests itself when Justin demonstrates his ineptitude with a garage-door opener, a failing that Michael is always quick to correct.

Enter Darcy (Jacqueline Kim), who espies our handy mechanic in a club -- the same club, as it turns out, where he first met Lori. Darcy is eager to get it on, but it's impossible to read Michael: Is he just inept with women, or does his buried lust for Lori preclude thinking about others? It's not entirely clear at first what Darcy sees in this brooding, blank slate of a man, but it turns out that she's no stranger to Lori. Don't worry, no spoilers here as to the exact nature of their connection, mainly because it isn't even entirely clear by film's end (although the title seems to be a clue). Writer-director Eric Byler, in his debut feature, eschews overexplanation, which is good, but making the audience work is a smart tactic only if their work pays off in the end. The jury's still out on that.

It's a simple enough setup to be a play, but Byler is smart enough to use many different locations, thereby showing the power of cinema to enhance character-based tales with a variety of backgrounds. It's an intriguing premise, too: At least in the film's early stages, we're drawn into this microcosm, and somewhat invested in what will happen. Sadly, towards the end, things fall apart.

For one thing, our apparent protagonist, Michael, is a bore. Yeah, the character's a stoic. And though it may seem refreshing that he doesn't have to give one of those acting workshop-type scenes in which he breaks down and confesses all his inner turmoil, he needs to give us at least an inkling of what motivates him, but it never comes out. Every line Idemoto delivers makes it sound like a loved one has just died. Why Lori would hang out with this guy rather than her shallow-but-fun-loving boyfriend is a mystery -- as is Darcy's interest in him.

There's also the fact that Darcy and Justin ultimately act out of character in a manner that seems designed to further the plot rather than organically grow out of the situation. Neil LaBute could have a field day with this type of material, but Byler, even though he seems to want to make larger points about Asian Americans via archetypal characters, doesn't have the chops just yet.

Which is not to say that Byler doesn't have skills -- that he engrosses us as much as he does in the characters is testament to that. His visual sense is also sound; though clearly low-budget, the movie never looks amateurish. Byler does fall a bit too in love with the soundtrack music. Cody Chesnutt's songs sound great at first, and set the mood well, but by the time you get to the tennis montage, the tunes have gotten a little overboard.

Lazy critics are already comparing Charlotte Sometimes to Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow, simply because it features a young Asian cast. One might as well compare it to Enter the Dragon, though come to think of it, Bolo Yeung does exude more of a sexual vibe than Michael Idemoto does. Lin's tale of high-school delinquents has many potential breakout performances, while Charlotte Sometimes makes the mistake of putting the uninteresting Idemoto front and center. Yuan and Kim have some potential, but mostly they're asked to look beautiful and act tempting, which doesn't necessarily tax the thespian muscles. Westmore makes a great dumb guy, though.

Byler may yet have a great movie in him, but Charlotte Sometimes is only half of one.


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