2008, Movie, NR, 106 mins


Filmmaker Cecilia Miniucchi's smart, unpredictable feature debut is a truly fresh take on the romantic comedy: It's as sad as it is funny, and the boy-girl match so misbegotten you can't help but pray it won't work out in the end. Call it an anti-rom-com, and see it if you can.

Sweet faced, soft-spoken Claire Barney (Samantha Morton) knows she's one of the most despised people on the planet, not because of who she is but because of what she does: Claire is a City of Los Angeles parking attendant, a widely hated public official who, in a more chauvinistic age, would have been called a "meter maid." Claire spends her days patrolling the streets in her little traffic enforcement vehicle, checking meters and taking abuse from angry parking violators whom she has no choice but to ticket. Meek Claire remains courteous and polite throughout, and though she knows her job is really about municipal revenue, she likes to think the parking attendant also an important part of the community, someone who can help lost people who require directions or overloaded mothers in need of help opening car doors. Fellow officer Jay Caswell (Jason Patric), on the other hand, uses his limited power to ticket and shackle cars with a Denver Boot as a weapon against the world. Once a promising Berkeley physics student, until an unwanted pregnancy and unsuccessful "instant marriage" ended his academic career, Jay is angry, insecure, arrogant, nasty and downright cruel, an embittered loser whose interpersonal relationships are limited to online porn sites and prostitutes. And for some reason, he's taken a shine to sweet, innocent Claire, whom he woos and insults in equal measure. As the Christmas holidays approach, Claire decorates the home she shares with her mute, wheelchair-bound mother (Teri Garr), listens patiently as her best friend, Wilma (Illeana Douglas), urges her to get out and live a little, and considers the possibility of a relationship with Jay, who doesn't simply run hot and cold, but vacillates wildly between bearable and downright hateful.

It's clear from the start that an abusive relationship is in the works, and the audience can't help but side with Wilma who, after her own curbside run-in with Claire's sociopathic beau, warns her friend to cut and run as fast as she possibly can. But thanks to two brilliant leads, the issue is never so cut and dried: When lonely Claire wonders whether having something, anything, is better than nothing at all, you kind of see her point. Bolstered by a good performance from Morton, the film relies on a great one from Patric who, 10 years after his terrifying turn in Neil Labute's YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS, once again dares to walk the dangerously thin line between dangerous charisma and utter loathsomeness. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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