Entropy (2006): Phil Joanou Self-Reflexive Drama, Starring Stephen Dorff

Having made several disappointing studio movies (State of Grace, Final Analysis), Phil Joanou takes the independent route with Entropy, a low-budget, self-reflexive meditation about the (im)possibility of personal moviemaking and romantic love in an increasingly cynical, bureaucratic and highly-pressured world.

Filled–and often burdened–with stylistic touches, such as fast-forward, slow motion, accelerated montage, and split screen, this post-modern reverie aspires to belong to the league of Truffaut’s charmer Night for Day and other classics about moviemaking, but has little new or interesting to say about the subject. A small distributor may take this movie, whose romantic story is far more touching and engaging than the film within film, as a showcase of Stephen Dorff’s extremely strong and appealing performance as Joanou’s alter ego.

The narrative structure of Entropy is more innovative than that of Joanou’s previous Hollywood pics. Story is framed by a long flashback, in which Jake Walsh (Dorff) addresses the camera directly and tells the audience how he began drinking and smoking and how he found himself one day married to Pia (Kelly Macdonald), a woman he had met the night before. Sitting on his bed, wearing a white T-shirt and shorts, Dorff offers running commentary on various episodes in his life as a filmmaker and as a romantic; at one point, the narrator and the character even share the same screen.

While attending a fashion show with his leading stars, Claire and Kevin (Lauren Holly and Jon Tenney), Jake becomes intrigued with Stella (Judith Godreche) a French fashion model. It’s love at first sight: They begin dating and soon after move in together. Their respective careers keep them apart for a while, but they maintain their passion over the phone. When Stella gets pregnant, Jake is not particularly sensitive or excited and she goes through a painful abortion. The beauty of the central romantic drama is that, despite its simplicity and familiarity (from other films), it’s still freshly observed and emotionally enacted.

The problem with the film-within-film format is not only its heavy reliance on cliches and its lack of humor (it’s not funny in the way that DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion was), but that it’s extraneous to the proceedings. There is no urgent need for Jake to be a moviemaker; his character could have been any kind of artist (or pro) and the personal story would have still worked. Worse yet, the well-known gallery of dramatis personas–a callous studio chief, a pair of sleazy producers, an “artistic” leading lady who first refuses to expose her breasts, then realizes she can get a lot of money for it–is entertaining when first introduced, but then gets irritatingly repetitive.

Surprisingly, what gives Entropy a measure of charm and poignancy is the love story. Spanning a year and taking place in various exciting locations (the film was shot in N.Y., L.A., Paris, Dublin, Cape Cod and Las Vegas) Joanou’s insightful, occasionally sad tale centers on a young, arrogant, immature moviemaker who almost had it all and who became a victim of his own doing. It’s too bad the Joanou doesn’t delve deeper into the more intriguing elements of his script, such as the notion that real life is always smarter and less predictable than the reel life portrayed in formulaic Hollywood movies.

Joanou’s work has always suffered from excessive stylistics and the use of gimmicks that overshadowed and often diminished the little dramatic substance there was in his movies. Reflecting helmer’s former work in music videos, Entropy is no exception. At first, these gimmicks are diverting, lifting the conventional material from a level of tedium, but then it becomes clear that these excesses simply camouflage a routine story of a director in conflict with is producers, stars and just about everybody else on his turbulent set. For a while, it seems as if Joanou uses the genre’s cliches in order to contest them, but quite disappointingly, he uses them straight.

Most of the secondary characters are constructed as stereotypes, used by Joanou as props to highlight the central relationship between Jake and Stella, played with exuberance by the two leads. Watching the lovely and graceful Godreche brings to mind numerous French actresses of the past generation, who have played similar roles in European art films. Ultimately, though, pic belongs to Dorff, who dominates every frame, proving again what a gifted and commanding presence he is.

Considering the small budget (about $3 million) and the cross-cultural scope of the film, production values are impressive, and likely to be enjoyed by viewers who subscribe to the MTV sensibility in big-screen entertainment.

Credits

A Tribecca Films production in assocition with Phoenician Entertainment. Produced by Elie Samaha, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Brad Epstein, and Phil Joanou.

Executive producers, Ashok Amritraj, Andrew Stevens. Directed, written by Phil Joanou. Camera (Fotokem), Carolyn Chen; editor, John Galt; music, George Fenton and Mr. Dan; production design, Lisa Albin; costume design, David Robinson; visual effects supervisors, Billy Kroyer, Kerry Colonna; casting, Pat McCorkle.

Reviewed at the DGA (opening night of the L.A. Indie Film Fest), L.A., April 15, 1999.

Running time: 104 min.

Cast

Jake Walsh…….Stephen Dorff
Stella………Judith Godreche
Pia…………Kelly Macdonald
Claire…………Lauren Holly
Kevin……………Jon Tenney
Sal…………..Frank Vincent
Andy…………Paul Guilfoyle
The Chairman…Hector Elizondo