Everything's jake to Johnny Twenties. Johnny is a newspaper man, see. He's got moxie and nobody's gonna play him for a sucker -- even if he is blissfully unaware of the world he lives in.
You see, Johnny Twenties is about 70 years behind the times. He's a fast-talkin', wise-crackin' upright joe straight out of a Howard Hawks comedy -- but he's resides in Manhattan, circa 1999.
The fedora-sporting hero of the neo-B-grade, screwball comedy "Man of the Century," Johnny is the invention of screenwriters Adam Abraham (who directed the film) and Gibson Frazier (who plays Johnny), who have created an ingenious homage to the kind of flicks that came and went in a week the 1920s and 1930s -- the kind of dime-a-dozen comedies that delighted the masses during the Depression, but will probably never be seen on American Movie Classics now.
The gimmick of "Man of the Century" is that Johnny hasn't a clue that he's a fish out of water. When people swear at him (the movie is rated "R" for language), he doesn't even notice. A perfect gentleman, he drives his sexually frustrated girlfriend (Susan Egan) crazy because they've been dating for six weeks and the closest they've come to sex is a peck on the cheek. He's so dapper and genteel he's often mistaken for gay. "Well, of course I'm gay!" he replies. He has no idea what he's admitting to, he's just a happy-go-lucky fellow with an outdated sense of slang.
While searching for a hot story -- any hot story -- to save his job (modern budget cuts), Johnny takes the newspaper's new photographer -- a cynical art student played by Anthony Rapp ("Dazed and Confused") -- under his wing. But he just doesn't understand why the kid doesn't share his rose-colored view of the world. When the mob tries to muzzle him after stumbling on to the biggest scoop of his career, Johnny just quips to the brutes, "You keep ridin' on me like this and you're gonna have to pay the fare."
Abraham and Frazier do an incredible high wire act in seeing modern Manhattan through the eyes of hapless Johnny. The movie is shot in black and white, makes use of early Hollywood narrative techniques and features a cast of antiquated archetypes, including a starry-eyed innocent with Broadway ambitions (Cara Buono), a nervous newspaper editor (David Margulies), a domineering dowager (Johnny's mother -- the actress is not named in the credits -- who herself is trapped at the turn of the Century) and even an obliging bathroom attendant (famous cabaret jazz man Bobby Short) who offers anecdotal advice.
Frazier's acting is, of course, overly mannered, while the girl, the photographer and the mobsters lean more toward method acting. It's mind-bending and inherently funny to see the styles collide like an elaborately staged celluloid train wreck in scene after scene.
The movie even concludes with a screwball climax that comes off a little bit dumb and a lot too easy -- and this is intentional. The movies "Man of the Century" mimics were not exactly Shakespeare.
The fact that Abraham and Frazier are so true to the kind of film to which they pay tribute -- the fact that they're not tempted at all to invoke modern technique or more savvy storytelling -- is what makes "Man of the Century" both bold and hilarious. Many a hackneyed filmmaker could drop a character from another period into a modern movie ("Encino Man," for example), but to drop the modern world into a period mind, now that's moxie!
Run time: 77 mins
In Theaters: Sunday 24th January 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $33 thousand
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Fresh: 12 Rotten: 5
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Adam Abraham