Oh what an intricate web is woven in Jenna Ricker’s “The American Side.”
An homage to everything from film noir to Alfred Hitchcock to Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer, the film plays out at such a rapid pace, you will need to pay really really close attention to keep track of characters that appear and disappear (I’m still not sure who some of them are supposed to be) in the blink of an eye.
But that’s a minor infraction in this otherwise fascinating whodunit/whatisit thriller that’s sure to leave some questions unanswered. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The story centers on a Buffalo, New York, private investigator (“the only one in the phone book”), Charlie Paczynski (Greg Stuhr, the veteran Broadway actor familiar to Chicago audiences for his role two years ago in Bruce Norris’ “The Qualms” at Steppenwolf Theater) who makes some extra cash blackmailing married men with wandering eyes and a lust for Charlie’s raven-haired stripper accomplice Kat (Kelsey Siepser).
Things go way wrong when Kat is murdered during one of their scams and Charlie is propelled into a mystery involving Niagara Falls, energy company millionaires (well-played by Matthew Broderick and Robert Forster) and the never-realized inventions of Nikola Tesla, the turn-of-the-century Serbian genius engineer who designed the power plant at Niagara Falls and who, in 1942, died a pauper in a room at the New Yorker Hotel (his works are apparently still studied by contemporary scientists and engineers). The story goes that immediately after Tesla’s death, federal agents mysteriously seized all of his belongings. Almost all, according “The American Side.”
Charlie, trying to find those responsible for Kat’s murder, is soon on the trail of a Tesla document — plans for some kind of energy-harnessing mechanism capable of creating an army of killing machine-like super-soldiers who could help any rogue nation (or evil energy company magnate) take over the world. The trail leads the chain-smoking, liquor-swigging PI to an array of quirky characters (thanks to well, quirky, cameos by Robert Vaughn, Janeane Garofalo, Grant Schaud and Harris Yulin), beguiling women (Camilla Belle and Alicja Bachleda-Curus) and harrowing near-death experiences (including a machine-gun-equipped prop plane a la “North by Northwest”).
All of it is such a throwback on so many levels (Charlie’s car, his clothes, his incessant use of pay phones) that you just go with it, no matter how many confusing twists and turns the conspiracy theory plot takes thanks to co-writers Stuhr and Ricker. That Charlie even goes over the falls in a barrel (in one of the most darkly funny scenes you may ever come across), well, let’s just say it’s all in a day’s work for this gumshoe.
The cinematography by Frank Barrera (“The Mindy Project”) is dark and lush, the score by David Shire (“The Conversation,” “All the President’s Men”) the perfect scene-setter.
Does Charlie put all the pieces of the puzzle together? Are the culprits revealed? Does our hero get the girl? I won’t tell here. That would be like reading the last page of a murder mystery first.
The Orchard presents a film directed by Jenna Ricker and written by Ricker and Greg Stuhr. No MPAA rating; Running time: 104 minutes. Opening Friday at the Wilmette Theatre. Ricker and Stuhr will participate in Q&A’s after the 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday screenings.