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At the AFI National Film Theater

to Aug. 14

Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen, Oscar-recognized for his shorts and the writer of such Dogmatized fare as Mifune and Open Hearts, has turned to genre for his feature directorial debut. A hit in Denmark, Flickering Lights is a buddy-gangster film that’s being promoted as a black comedy, though the designation will disorient those who approach the movie expecting a foreign Pulp Fiction.

Torkild (Søren Pilmark) is a career criminal going through a midlife crisis. Before his surprise 40th-birthday party, he nearly shoots one of his partners when he hears rustling in his darkened home. Later, he laments the fact that his main present is an AK-47. (“I should get a golf bag,” he muses.) Indebted to “the Eskimo” (Peter Andersson) for a job gone wrong, Torkild gathers his crew for an assignment involving a suitcase full of money. He soon decides, however, that he and the boys will run off with it to start a new life.

On their way to Barcelona, Torkild, Peter (Ulrich Thomsen), Arne (Mads Mikkelsen), and Stefan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) are forced to crash in an abandoned restaurant after their van breaks down in the woods. It’s here that the action remains, at first out of necessity—Peter has been shot and can’t be moved—and then by design: Torkild takes a hunk of the heisted 4 million kroner to buy the place, with the intention of reopening it.

With its reconstructed-gangster angle played inconsistently but emphatically, Flickering Lights is at times syrupy-sentimental. An impromptu skinny-dipping romp at a nearby beach cuts to a pale-faced Peter cracking a mournful, melted-monster smile. And Torkild justifies spending most of the gang’s money on the restaurant with “All I want is right here—the woods, the beach, you guys.” Neither, however, is as hopeless as Stefan, who squires a twitty girlfriend, Hanne (the impressively annoying Sofie Gråbøl), and cries while reading a book of poetry from which the restaurant—and the film—draws its name. Candy-colored flashbacks in which each man reflects on his dysfunctional childhood, though artfully shot, add little to the story, which is more convincing during expletive-heavy pissing contests or the deployment of an encyclopedic arsenal of firearms.

Still, Flickering Lights is occasionally compelling, thanks mostly to its cast. Pilmark, who has the grizzled good looks of a Jean Reno, lends Torkild at least the appearance of the tough-guy Renaissance man the script hints he is. Open Hearts vet Mikkelsen is outstanding as the unstable, gun-obsessed Arne, giving his character ever-watchful eyes that assess the seriousness or stupidity of any given situation with disconcerting quickness. Lie Kaas, meanwhile, makes Stefan a likable bumbler, and though his character often remains quietly in the background, in his scenes with Gråbøl he displays a perfect balance of affection toward Hanne and uncertainty about bringing her into his world.

Jensen’s use of Gråbøl’s pleasantly dim Hanne as an intruder into Torkild & Co.’s close-knit guyishness builds up to the film’s most satisfying and tension-filled moment. Introduced early, at Torkild’s party, Hanne is quickly and crushingly dismissed by Stefan’s partners. When she later shows up at the restaurant after a call from Stefan—a move that the rest of the crew thinks will get them killed—Hanne is again treated with contempt. Yet she smilingly, ignorantly tries to get to know her lover’s friends, convincing them all to sit around a table to, uh, blow eggs.

Gråbøl is at her irritating best as Hanne attempts to elicit conversation and then shoves the focus to Torkild, forcing him to try to blow out an egg and then laughing and teasing him relentlessly as he can’t—while the others either timidly try to shut her up or wait for their boss to explode. The discomfort and suspense are palpable—and culminate in a convincingly brutal flash of violence—yet this is one of Flickering Lights’ few scenes in which no weapon is in sight.

Also absent is any sense of levity that might earn the film its American marketing campaign. Jensen’s screenplay lands a group of eccentric characters in an eccentric situation, but little comes of it besides temper tantrums and miscommunication. The men of Flickering Lights are often unsure of what to do with their predicament and present company—one thing, at least, that any Tarantino-loving viewer will understand perfectly.

Many gangster films of the past decade have used the Flickering Lights approach, loading their characters with quirks until their psychological profiles are more interesting than rap sheets. In Gigli, writer-director Martin Brest takes the opposite tack—to most infelicitous effect in this Year of Ben and Jen.

I’ve always suspected that, in the writing of the Oscar-winning screenplay Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon was the idea man, while best bud Ben Affleck was in charge of typing. Still, Affleck has largely made film choices that have saved him from seeming like the Dumb One, picking roles that perhaps didn’t stretch his talents yet never were cause for embarrassment.

Not so with Affleck’s Larry Gigli, a tough guy charged with kidnapping a federal prosecutor’s mentally challenged brother, Brian (Justin Bartha). Soon fellow gangster Ricki (Jennifer Lopez) shows up at Larry’s apartment, sent by his boss to ensure that the plan, whatever it is (details aren’t exactly the film’s strength), doesn’t fall apart.

Brian is supposed to be both the movie’s heart and its source of humor, but Rain Man this ain’t. Larry’s puzzlement at Brian never goes away, and his confusion escalates from mere annoyance to screams of “What’s wrong with you?” and “Just act normal for a minute!” As Ricki, meanwhile, Lopez is an affront to lesbians everywhere: Despite the character’s assertion that she’s a stone-cold one, she apparently finds Larry so hot she can’t resist him.

And though newcomer Bartha acts circles around the rest—including Christopher Walken and Al Pacino in head-scratching, self-caricaturing cameos—his character is a painful sight. We’re supposed to laugh when Brian swears, sings “Baby Got Back,” or says “God bless you!” when Ricki—I swear—”makes [his] penis sneeze.” His only request, having been freed from institutionalization, is to go to “the Baywatch,” which actually is kind of cute—until he’s given a speech in which he describes his fantasy and then repeats, “I think that’s where the sex is” as dreamy music swells in the background.

In fact, there’s lots of speechifying in Gigli, from Larry yelling that he’s “the original gangster’s gangster” to Ricki going on about the wonders of the vagina in, yes, a debate over girl parts vs. boy parts. But, really, the whole thing is tiring and shameful to watch—which makes it very hard to decide whom Brian’s recurrent “You’re the stupidest person!” applies to best. CP