Swedish filmmaker Jonas Akerlund returns with his third feature, Small Apartments, based on a novel by Chris Mills which was the top prize recipient in a Canadian Three-Day Novel Contest back in 2000. Akerlund’s 2002 debut, Spun, may have generated a sort of cult audience, but his last narrative directorial effort was a dismally received 2009 Dennis Quaid apocalyptic thriller Horsemen. This latest title still doesn’t even come close to outshining his best work, namely music videos for Madonna’s “Ray of Light” or Lady Gaga’s “Telephone”, and instead sees the filmmaker returning to garish, quirk oriented material, adapted for the screen by the text’s original author. While this may be miles ahead of the original source material of Akerlund’s Quaid clunker (which had been penned by Dave Callaham, best known for his Expendables screenplays), this tonally uneven venture plays like one extended distraction after another, depending on an odd assortment of characters that never quite feel fully realized.
An overweight, bald pale man named Franklin Franklin (Matt Lucas) likes to hang out in his underwear and bellow on his cartoonishly large alphorn and fantasize about one day being able to play his instrument somewhere on the Swiss Alps. His next door neighbor, Mr. Allspice (James Caan), a grizzled, unhappy painter, vehemently dislikes Franklin’s disruptive playing. As we navigate through the squalor of Franklin’s other remaining neighbors in the dilapidated Los Angeles apartment housing complex (including Rebel Wilson, Juno Temple, Saffron Burrows, and Johnny Knoxville), we also learn that Franklin Franklin may not be all there as he wanders around outside in his soiled whitey-tighties, applying a fright wig to his pasty head whenever he has to leave his hovel littered with pickle jars and empty liters of Moxie pop.
Through his narration and flashbacks, we learn that Franklin has a brother in a sanitarium, (James Marsden), who sends him disparaging mix tapes of craziness and wisdom, inspired by the works of a popular self-help guru, Dr. Sage Mennox (Dolph Lundren, looking like a hopped up Peter Weller). We also learn that Franklin has also killed the asshole landlord, Mr. Olivetta (Peter Stormare), currently lying dead in his kitchen. Attempting to smuggle Olivetta’s body back to his own home and stage an absurd suicide scene, a fire investigator, Burt Walnut (Billy Crystal) senses foul play and soon comes snooping around looking for answers.
Despite featuring an alarming amount of notable names in its overly expansive cast, no one seems to be acting as if they’re in the same feature film. Many of these names are barely substantial cameos, such as Rosie Perez, or Rebel Wilson. Poor Saffron Burrows doesn’t even get any lines, spied at by the voyeuristic Lucas as he paws at his window blinds. At the center of this garishly lit and tackily shellacked quirky hell is Matt Lucas of the BBC’s “Little Britain” in an undignified and unflattering performance where the stretch marks on his rotund tummy get more screen time than his costars. Lucas, a notable comedic talent more than deserving of a lead motion picture vehicle, is wasted in this underdeveloped role that feels like some desperate concept that doesn’t quite come to life.
Some minor subplots like Knoxville’s gas station worker Tommy Balls, his born again mother Amanda Plummer (uttering lines like, “You came out of my hoo haw”) and soon-to-be-runaway-stripper Juno Temple could all have been more than easily excised from the proceedings entirely. A surprise revelation from Franklin’s brother allows him to escape “out of the bondage that is L.A.,” but since Small Apartments fluctuates wildly between dark, broad comedy and strangely melancholic character details, there is never any possibility for any pathos to be established for these odd people or the seedy bondage that happens to be their squalid surroundings and unsatisfied livelihoods.