The Swiss are known for their precision, neutrality and cheese. Whilst Small Apartments is gloriously devoid of neutrality and cheese (except perhaps some lethal plot-important squeezy cheese), the Swiss tenets of precision are very much in place in Jonas Åkerlund’s heartfelt ode to the crazy in us all. And why the Swiss reference? From the day-glo Swiss flag billowing from the outset like a tourist interlude at Eurovision ‘84, Matt Lucas’s pallid hero Franklin Franklin makes no bones of his obsession with all things Switzerland. Wedged into a sweat box of a condo apartment alongside a disparate rosta of neighbours, Franklin’s only company is his collage of vintage Swiss photos, an alpine horn and lederhosen-fuelled daydreams straight from a cheese ad. Von-trapped in a rut of Moxie drink bottles, bad wigs, pickle jars and neighbours Johnny Knoxville and James Caan, Franklin is desperately clinging onto the esteem once afforded him by his now absent brother Bernard (James Marsden). Bernard now resides offscreen in a psychiatric unit, but his daily cassettes of self-recorded wisdom and warmth give Franklin purpose, comfort and a reason to check the mailbox in his Y-fronts each morning. Oh, and Franklin has just killed his foul landlord Mr Olivetti (Peter Stormare on greasy, throat-clearing form).
Adapted by Chris Millis from his own novel, Small Apartments is very much from the mind of prestigious commercial and pop video director Åkerlund with its nods to genre pics (Shallow Grave, Blood Simple) and garish bursts of a skater-boy California world sans the skater-boys. Miami pinks, James Marsden’s sea-blue eyes, day-glo bowling alleys and a condo-park Americana are rendered with just enough LA cool and dignity from non-local Åkerlund. Roxette’s Per Gassle (yes, that Roxette) provides a melancholic, yet fitful score and writer Millis’ world is one of “brain attacks” - where characters talk with utmost honesty, yet are oft ignored adding to everyone’s desires just to go it alone. Whilst the film’s indie mantra “happiness is a state of mind” is at best an indie cliche, Åkerlund and Lucas dress and fill Franklin’s predicament and life with an original heart and soul. Apartments is ultimately about needing others but pretending otherwise.
The physicality of Franklin – his rota of hospice wigs, tattoo-like stretchmarks, high riding shorts and pants with one sock rolled down (or possibly one always rolled up) – is of course part of Lucas’s stock-in trade. But this comes from the book and never at the expense of Åkerlund’s skewed world as Lucas’ ability to flip the brutal into the funny and the ludicrous into the heartfelt creates intriguing vignettes on the fragility of life and the eternal opinions others have over people’s normal/crazy. With the landlord’s heat-swelling body soon battling with that alpine horn for floorspace and Franklin’s dog for his fingers, Franklin soon sets about burying, burning, sawing, torturing and blasting away all evidence of foul play. Yes Lucas works the comedy of this, but never at the expense of Franklin and his spiralling predicament. It is up to whisky-weary cop Billy Crystal and his “fire department” alias to piece together what did happen, then help decide what does happen. Franklin is unable, forever distracted by himself.
Containing less drugs and more heart than Akerlund’s triptych debut Spun – yet still set around the same sun-drenched West Coast lunchtimes and convenience store forecourts – Small Apartments is a black comedy about a lot of black sheep. Almost echoing A Clockwork Orange with its garish domesticity, violent bursts and concrete stairwells, moreso it recalls Jonathan Carouette’s Tarnation or Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude with their sense of “we’re fine, it’s just everyone else”. Seemingly random and insane encounters create a beautifully sane whole and even He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) pops up as an uber-tanned self-help guru clearly helping no-one. A wonderfully played convenience store encounter with neighbour Juno Temple soon becomes a haphazard homage to American Beauty as a bedroom window floorshow ends on a beat of teenage insensitivity. And Johnny Knoxville’s punk neighbour cuts a sad figure at the tipping point of ditching his bong-bashing routine as his mother (Amanda Plummer) adds a parental shoulder Franklin is sorely without. Knoxville and Temple’s last act exchange is a searing beat, as is the final trick Franklin’s bro has up his sleeve for sibling. Though what a shame Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids) is used so fleetingly.
Small Apartments is released in UK cinemas on March 22nd and available on DVD from April 1st 2013.