Finding North (1998): Tanya Wexler’s AIDS Serio-Comedy

Palm Springs Fest 1998–Soft and sentimental, Finding North is a predictable AIDS serio–comedy about the unlikely friendship between a gay man mourning his lover’s death and a lonesome female bank teller.

Though scripted by a different writer, Kim Powers, the movie bears resemblance to–and suffers from the same problems that marred–Kiss Me, Guido, which was also produced by Redeemable Pictures.

Primary target audiences are gay men, but pic is so obvious and schematic, and Tanya Wexler’s debut helming so commonplace, that it’s doubtful a major distributor would take a risk with a genre that’s no particularly commercial even when it’s better-made, as Jeffrey, Love! Valour! Compassion! and Kiss Me, Guido recently demonstrated.

Attempting to rekindle the charm of such 1980s pictures as Desperately Seeking Susan, Finding North similarly revolves around a woebegone, bored woman, Rhonda Portelli (Wendy Makkena), who’s curious enough to seek adventures beyond her dreary milieu. In the movieish opening act, Rhonda and her two buddies are stuck in a traffic jam on the Brooklyn Bridge. Spotting a naked man about to jump into the river, Rhonda rushes to save him, but when she arrives at the scene the man is presumably dead; all that’s left is one Hush Puppy loafer.
In the next scene, Rhonda is late for work at the bank. Her colleagues throw an impromptu celebration for her thirtieth birthday–complete with a male stripper–and Rhonda gets fired. Adding to the chaos is the sudden appearance of Travis Furlong (Love! Valour! Compassion!’s John Benjamin Hickey), the man from the Bridge. Upon confronting him, Travis rushes out of the bank, and before leaving dumps on Rhonda huge amounts of cash.
Afraid to tell her parents that she had lost her job, Rhonda spends the night in a diner, where she devours with relish the remains of her birthday cake. However, determined to help Travis through his emotional crisis, Rhonda follows him all the way from Flatbush Avenue to a small Texas town.

From here on, the movie assumes the logic of a routine road comedy, in which two opposites are thrown together and have to make the most of it. In Kiss Me, Guido, it was a flamboyant gay man and a simpleton Italian-American; here, unfortunately, it’s a depressed homosexual and a straight femme. Adhering to generic conventions, Rhonda and Travis bicker, separate, reunite–and bicker again.

Meant to be an offbeat comedy about platonic love and friendship, Finding North is instead a tedious movie that gets increasingly worse. Kiss Me, Guido was also schematic and full of cliches, but it was funnier and better-written. Lacking plausibility, Finding North is the kind of movie in which the heroine, presumably a bright woman of the 1990s, spends a whole reel until she figures out her companion is gay.

Central narrative ploy, a journey that follows the last tape recorded message by Travis’ lover, Bobby (voice provided by Jonathan Walker) also proves wearisome. Along the way, the couple stops at Bobby’s old Aunt Bonnie (Molly McClure), who pulls out a box full of treasured objects that belonged to him and explains their meaning to a tearful Rhonda. To alleviate the prosaic plot, scripter has Rhonda and Travis go on a shopping spree, model country clothes, lose the tape in an amusement park, and so on.

In the manner of soap opera, secondary characters are also uninventively constructed. Rhonda’s loving parents, whom she periodically calls from the road, are an overbearing mother (Angela Pietropinto), always with curls in her hair, and her silent, Weather-Channel addicted hubby (Freddie Roman), a gig that’s funny the first time around, but is repeated too many times.

The secret of Hollywood’s great screwball comedies lied in the charismatic personality of the bickering partners and in the chemistry–and sexual tension–between them, two factors that are missing here. Makkena displays some verve and charm, but Hickey’s lackluster acting makes his bleak yuppie even duller than he must have been in the script. And since, under the circumstances, there can’t be sexual reconciliation (like the falling walls of Jericho in It Happened One Night), the rapprochement between the duo is devoid of any tension.

With the notable exception of Katelyn Burton’s costumes, tech credits, particularly Thom Zimmy’s rough editing, are average, which may be a reflection of the low budget.

Credits

A Redeemable Features production. Produced by Steven A. Jones, Stephen Dyer. Executive producer, Hal “Corky” Kessler. Co-producer, Mike Dempsey. Directed by Tanya Wexler. Screenplay, Kim Powers. Camera (Eastman, color), Michael Barrett; editor, Thom Zimmy; music, Cafe Noir; production design, James B. Smythe; art direction, Terry Osburn; costume design, Katelyn Burton; sound (Dolby), Lance Hoffman; assistant director, Dempsey; casting, Brett Goldstein.

Running time: 93 min.

Cast

Rhonda Portelli………Wendy Makkena
Travis Furlong…John Benjamin Hickey
Voice of Bobby……..Jonathan Walker
Mrs. Portelli……Angela Pietropinto
Mr. Portelli…………Freddie Roman
Aunt Bonnie………….Molly McClure