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Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: The Merry Gentleman is an ironic title, opening with three characters looking separately forlorn around the holidays and including so many suicides, both attempted and successful, that I stopped counting. And Michael Keaton’s directorial debut, featuring the aforementioned along with everyone’s sad story revealed at a less-is-more snail’s pace, is an unrelenting bore. It’s a disappointment for anyone who’d been missing Keaton—who also co-stars—or looking forward to seeing him show some range. As well as for those who prefer to see their Christmas movies in June. Perhaps the release date is the first warning.
Keaton hadn’t planned on directing but took over when scripter Ron Lazzeretti became ill. (Presumably unrelated to the quality of the film, but you never know.) The former plays a nearly mute assassin named Frank Logan, but the focus here is on Kate (Kelly Macdonald), an irritatingly fragile and obtuse woman who cries when she sees her old Christmas tree banished to the Dumpster and insists that it instead be burned in a field. Kate’s single—and admittedly not insignificant—show of strength is when she leaves her abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale) and starts fresh in Chicago. She and Frank meet cute when he goes to her apartment building to kill someone and first finds her pinned beneath the tree she was trying to drag upstairs.
But really Kate had seen Frank a day before, a shadow standing on a ledge and ready to jump after he finished a job. She screams “Nooooooooo!” in an unintentionally comic way; he gets flustered and falls backward. Kate files a police report, which leads to repeated interactions with a cop who’d like to date her (pretty much every man she meets asks her out within five minutes of their meeting). And her magic spell also pulls Frank more deeply into her world. Think the fuzz and the assassin will cross paths, too?
Who cares. The Merry Gentleman is a slow build to nowhere, all gray cityscapes and darkness at 4. The characters barely speak, and when they do, it’s usually awkward small talk or fibs. Sadly, Keaton shows hints of the physical comedy he’s capable of, but Frank isn’t written to be even occasionally funny—it’s like a tic the actor can’t control. The exception to the solemnity and stiffness is one scene in which Kate’s ex tells her in a flood of excitement that he’s found Jesus. It’s meant to be heartfelt, but really it’s just laughable. If only the film were similarly so-bad-it’s-good instead of an interminable snooze.