The Tenants Movie Review
Danny Green's film of the Bernard Malamud novel starts off with Henry Lesser (Dylan McDermott hidden behind decade-appropriately unfortunate facial hair and hideous eyewear), a writer of the most masochistic sort. The only resident left in a deserted, falling-down building in a seedy corner of Brooklyn, he's hacking away at his typewriter, day after day, trying to finish his third novel; the first one was well received, the second not so much. Occasionally the landlord (Seymour Cassel) comes by to bang at the door and offer him increasingly large sums of money to get out so he can sell the place, but Henry, a creature of habit, keeps begging for more time, saying he'll move after he finishes the novel.
Further disturbing Henry's writing is the occasional tapping sounds he hears. The source turns out to be an ostensibly empty apartment on his floor, now occasionally inhabited by the lanky Willie Spearmint (Snoop Dogg), a roustabout struggling novelist aflame with the idea of Black Power. Eventually the two men develop a professional friendship of sorts, with Willie using Henry's apartment to store his typewriter in and occasionally asking writerly advice. Snoop's natural cool, combined with Willie's bobbing and weaving animosity, plays perfectly off Henry's monk-like reticence, and though this is hardly a feel-good story about opposites attracting, the few sparks of understanding struck up in the gulf between them are momentarily thrilling.
The Tenants is most successful when it sticks to focusing on the relationship between Henry and Willie. Stuck in their post-apocalyptic wreck of a building, obsessively hunting the perfect, finished novel in their ascetic cells, they're like haunted wraiths existing outside of time. It's a grey and otherworldly setting, strangely unnerving, with a subdued David Lynch quality to it. But for whatever reason, whenever the story is opened up and ventures into the outside world, it loses focus and takes away from Henry and Willie's dynamic, which is never fully developed. A critical flaw rises up when Henry falls in love with Willie's white actress girlfriend, Irene (Rose Byrne), a monumentally uninteresting character who seems to exist mostly to articulate the fact that beneath it all, Henry and Willie are essentially the same closed-off misanthrope concerned only about one thing - finishing their book.
Malamud's novel ends tragically in an explosion of racial vitriol and artistic jealousy. Green's film concludes in a similarly tragic manner, but the punch isn't there, and not just because the uglier language - Willie's anti-Semitism and Henry's racism - seems to have been toned down, but because the viewer hasn't been given enough time to get inside the heads of these two. The end result is that Snoop's charisma automatically makes him seem by far the more sympathetic of the two, upending the symmetry and understanding that might have made for a more compelling finish. It's a good try from a first-time director that never quite hits the mark.
Reviewed at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival.