Hugo Pool (1997): Indie Misfire, Directed by Robert Downey

Sundance Film Festival 1997 (World Premiere)–The best thing to be said about Hugo Pool, a bizarre love story between a female pool cleaner and an immobile man in a wheelchair, is that it puts quintessential indie director, Robert Downey Jr., behind the camera after a long absence.

A labor of love by all concerned, the movie is a follie de grandeur (pardon my French), one that seldom achieves the quirky, zany rhythm it strives for. Primary target viewers are actors, who will appreciate–and envy–the total freedom granted to thesps like Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr., Patrick Dempsey and rest of gifted ensemble. Other audiences may have to travel the festival road, or wait for the video version, as theatrical prospects don’t appear to be very bright.

Written by Downey and his wife of 14 years, Laura, who died of ALS (the Lou Gehrig disease) at age 36, there is no doubt that Hugo Pool is a most personal film, an unabashedly tender tribute to the magical powers of love. There’s also little doubt that pic’s aspirations far surpass its level of execution in all departments, scripting, helming, and acting.

Charming protagonist is Hugo Dugay (Alyssa Milano), a lonely, disenfranchised female pool cleaner, whose L.A. clients represents a desperate bunch, to say the least. Hugo’s parents are estranged midlife crisis poster children: Mother Minerva (Cathy Moriarty) is a chronic gambler, and father Henry (Malcolm McDowell) is a lost soul, trying to kick all of his addictions at once, particularly heroin. The joke is that young Hugo is much more rational and cool than her supposedly mature parents.

Faced with 44 pools to clean in one day, instead of panicking, Hugo recruits the help of her wretched parents. Mother Minerva carries a huge debt to pay on schedule, or else she will have to sleep with her repulsive bookie. Father Henry also could benefit from doing something “useful,” which in this case, is bringing “legal” water from the Colorado River to fill the empty pool of Chick Chicalini (Richard Lewis), an obnoxious bully. Along the way, Henry meets a mysterious hitchhiker (Sean Penn), who becomes his helpmate and kind of guardian angel.

Unfolding as a road comedy, with the group going from one pool to another, pic’s structure recalls Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, which was also set in L.A. and also consisted of bizarre encounters with bitter and angry residents. Here, the most eccentric client is Frank Mazur (Robert Downey, Jr.), a Hungarian filmmaker on bail, having shot a movie extra in Mexico for overacting. Walking around in colorful jackets, Franz utters things like, “Thank God it’s Los Angeles,” totally ignoring his six-year debt to Hugo.

Central character is a new customer, Floyd Gaylen (Patrick Dempsey), an attractive man inflicted with ALS, which keeps him trapped in a wheelchair and speaking with the assistance of a computerized talking device. Ironically, Floyd, who joins the two women in their journey, is the healthiest in spirit, the most positive in thinking–and the most genuinely romantic. Functioning as a human angel, not unlike John Travolta’s character in Michael, Floyd brings laughter, love, and even luck to the group of cynics. Floyd’s romantic scenes with Hugo provide the film’s most touching and lyrical moments.

Downey has never been a polished filmmaker, but his original indie films of the l960s and l970s, most notably the trilogy of Putney Swope, Greaser’s Palace and Pound, were irreverent, often absurd satires, laced with an almost insane humor. Though much more accomplished visually, Hugo Pool lacks these qualities, suffering from a slender, undernourished script and set pieces that are not sufficiently weird, crazy or funny. Here is a comedy that, for a change, should have been technically messier and more wildly outrageous and lunatic.

The film’s ensemble of mostly character actors must have admired Downey for, as a director, he stands aside passively, letting them use their unbridled imagination in conceiving their roles. It’s not surprising that the quietest and most sensitive acting comes from Milano, who ably holds the entire film together, and Dempsey, who refreshingly underacts. It’s also not surprising that the most idiosyncratic performance belongs to helmer’ real son, Downey Jr., a brilliant actor who has a tendency to overact and here has a field day with his over-the-top European accent and mannerisms. Rest of the cast falls somewhere in between, though Lewis and McDowell are a bit disappointing in their respective “big” scenes.

Production values are good, including Joe Montgomery’s radiant lensing, Lauren Gabor’s colorful production design, Danilo Perez’s vibrant music, and Joe D’Augustine’s crisp editing.

Credits

A Nomadic Pictures presentation of a Downey/Ligeti production. Produced by Barbara Ligeti. Executive producer, Douglas Berquist, Mike Frislev, Chad Oakes. Directed by Robert Downey, Sr. Screenplay by Robert and Laura Downey. Camera (Foto-kem, color), Joe Montgomery; editor, Joe D’Augustine; music, Danilo Perez; production design, Lauren Gabor. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (premiere), Jan. 22, 1997. Running time: 92 min.

Cast

Hugo Dugay……….Alyssa Milano
Floyd Gaylen……Patrick Dempsey
Minerva…………Cathy Moriarty
Henry…………Malcolm McDowell
Franz Mazur…..Robert Downey, Jr.
Chick Chicalini…..Richard Lewis
Mysterious hitchhiker…Sean Penn