When European cinema burst out of the soundstages in the late ’50s, it hit the street at a sprint. One of Truffaut’s titles, Love on the Run, could apply to dozens of New Wave films, although what is perhaps the era’s exemplary title belongs to Godard: Breathless. Euro-film’s pace has slowed considerably since then, however—which is why every burst of precocious energy over there is carefully scrutinized. The latest object of intense investigation is writer-director Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, which not only beats Go at its own game but also has certified box-office clout: Among home-grown products in its native Germany last year, the movie was outgrossed only by the substantially stodgier The Harmonists.
Like Go, Run Lola Run turns on a drug deal, has a techno heartbeat, and is divided into chapters. Rather than telling a fractured story from different viewpoints, however, Tykwer offers three variations on the same saga. A playful vamp on chaos theory, the film shows how differently events can transpire as a result of only split-second changes of timing. And Tykwer doesn’t just demonstrate how these tiny variations alter the fate of fuchsia-haired Lola (Franka Potente) and her hapless boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). As a viewer service, he also offers capsule biographies of people Lola touches (or almost touches) at random.
The setup is elementary: Manni makes a delivery and accepts 100,000 Deutsche marks to carry to his pitiless boss. Because her moped has just been stolen, Lola fails to arrive to give Manni a ride. He hoofs it to a rail station and catches a train, but absent-mindedly leaves the bag full of cash behind. It’s discovered by a homeless man, and Manni calls Lola in a panic: He has only 20 minutes to replace the money and is planning to rob a supermarket. Lola tells him to wait for her instead; she’ll get the 100,000 marks somehow.
Lola’s father (Herbert Knaup) is a bank executive, but when she goes to see him, it’s not a good time (to say the least), and he’s unsympathetic. Indeed, everything goes wrong for Lola, who arrives at her rendezvous with Manni just in time for a bullet to—but wait, maybe that’s not the way it happens. Tykwer hits Rewind and soon is suggesting a second scenario for Manni, Lola, her father, and a host of supporting characters whose lives are affected by Lola’s running toward an especially uncertain fate. She can be the angel of life or the angel of death, as well as the person whose actions—in an elaborate visual gag—determine whether or not a huge pane of glass gets shattered.
Before the first variation has galloped its course, it’s clear that Run Lola Run is no exercise in naturalism. With directorial intrusiveness that is both cosmic and comic, Tykwer juggles video and various film stocks, splits the screen, switches briefly to black and white, and even depicts Lola’s run in animation. (In one episode, when the young woman heads for the door of her apartment, the camera swoops to the TV, which is showing cartoon-Lola’s dash.) By the final version of Lola’s quest, film noir despair has yielded to pure wish fulfillment: Lola has run all the way from Berlin to Hollywood.
This setup could be unsettling, if Run Lola Run weren’t so zippy, playful, and taut. Lola’s adventures unspool in a mere 81 minutes, which is to say it’s about as long as an album by Underworld (a group whose style is an obvious influence on the score, which was composed by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil). The movie may draw on the formal experiments of such groundbreaking films as Rashomon and Last Year at Marienbad, but in spirit it’s more like a Road Runner cartoon, a video game, or—as Tykwer indirectly acknowledges—a soccer match.
Like techno, Run Lola Run is brash, sleek, and vigorous—and not so fresh as its partisans imagine. To Tykwer’s German fans, the movie may seem a promise of new possibilities, a youthful declaration of independence from a half-century that can’t exactly be called sprightly. For Americans, though, the movie is just a romp, as lively as its ’60s forebears but hardly as resonant. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how fast Lola runs, because she’s not really going anywhere.
Hanif Kureishi came to prominence with his scripts for My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, films in which young Asians (as the Brits call people from the Indian subcontinent) stand up to their grasping, hypocritical elders. Since then, however, Kureishi has gotten older, and young people have gotten reactionary. So the hero of his latest script, My Son the Fanatic, is a warmhearted, middle-aged Anglo-Pakistani taxi driver, Parvez (Om Puri), who one day discovers that his carefully assimilated son has forsaken both his accounting studies and his engagement to a nice Anglo girl to join a group of fervent young Muslim fundamentalists.
Actually, that’s only one of two essential plot strands in director Udayan Prasad’s admirably thoughtful but frustratingly episodic film. In the other, Parvez falls in love with Bettina (Rachel Griffiths), one of the prostitutes he procures for an arrogant, vulgar German businessman (Stellan Skarsgard) with the distracting name of Schitz. A jazz and blues fan who feels few ties to his old country after 25 years in Britain, Parvez is more comfortable with Bettina, a fellow striving outsider, than with his wife, Minoo (Gopi Desai), who loyally supports him as she subtly points out his failings. (Parvez, for example, has accumulated no wealth, while a childhood friend has gotten rich owning a local restaurant.) Of course, there’s little that Parvez could do that would more deeply offend his newly devout son, Farid (Akbar Kurtha), than to consort with a white hooker.
My Son the Fanatic was in part inspired by an incident in Bradford, a Yorkshire city known for its large Muslim population, in which Islamic fundamentalists led a violent protest against local prostitutes. That event is echoed in the film, which is set in Bradford, far from Kureishi’s usual London haunts. (The tricky print ad, with its silhouette of the Houses of Parliament, is an attempt to conceal the movie’s unglamorous locale.) When Farid and his new cohorts—inspired by a visiting Muslim cleric who takes up residence at Parvez’s house—decide to drive the prostitutes from the city, the two parts of the cab driver’s life collide.
Despite that narrative pileup, however, the film doesn’t quite come together. It has vivid characters and powerful, revealing incidents—notably one in which Parvez, Bettina, and Schitz visit a comedy club where the cabbie quickly becomes the butt of the performer’s crude ethnic jibes—but the result is bewilderingly unfocused. Perhaps because the script has its origins in one of Kureishi’s short stories, it never makes the transition from introspective study to full-bodied drama. Prasad wisely focuses on the rueful yet witty Parvez, impeccably embodied by Puri, but in the process loses the tale’s flow. My Son the Fanatic plays like a flurry of unusually perceptive postcards from one frontier of contemporary British culture clash: Anglo vs. Asian, Islam vs. humanism, family vs. love, independence vs. obligation, Tricky vs. Louis Armstrong. Only when the film is over does it become clear that it actually had the makings for something altogether more coherent. CP