TIFF 2023 | Poolman (Chris Pine, US) — Special Presentations

By Josh Lewis

Of the dozen or so actor-turned-director features at TIFF this year few had as endearing a concept as Poolman; a Big Lewbowski-esque paranoid stoner-noir with a long-haired, short-shorts-attired Chris Pine as the himbo-goofball city council activist/pool cleaner Darren Barrenman (aka DB), who stumbles upon a literal Chinatown LA water conspiracy. Unfortunately, movies are made up of more than a premise and famous actor friends who will improv with you (in this case: Danny DeVito, Annette Bening, Jennifer Jason Leigh, DeWanda Wise, all giving pretty baffling performances), and as charming a screen presence as Pine might have in Hollywood, little of it manages to translate over to his directing. The final result is closer to his fellow Chris’ failed TIFF directorial Before We Go than the Under the Silver Lake sequel it appears to pitch itself as. (“Wait, Chris Evans directed a movie?” you might be asking. Which, exactly.)

Part of the issue might be that according to producer Stacey Sher—who introduced the film in Toronto—Pine conceived of much of this as an inside joke between him and Patty Jenkins on the set of Wonder Woman 1984, which certainly explains the randomized assemblage of lazy gags, but worse than that is the complete misunderstanding of its own genre trappings. “Have you seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” DB asks a corrupt county representative played by Stephen Tobolowsky at one point, and at another DB rewatches Chinatown not far from his framed photo of Erin Brockovich; despite the obvious tonal differences, the thing these works have in common is that they are expertly crafted formal pastiches that genuinely reckon with their stylistic romance for their LA history/Film Noir milieu and paranoia. And though Pine might very well know that the transit system in LA is bad, he has no feel for the passion and control behind the camera in order to express that. Instead of putting the work into structuring or pacing this out or even conceiving of a single striking/original image, he consistently chooses to fall back on pretty shameless and sentimental Ted Lasso therapy-speak energy that renders whatever he’s trying to do here into nonsense. There’s a difference between being a non-cynic and a moron, and I suspect Poolman will be a useful tool in the future for illustrating that distinction.