Film Review: Busman’s Holiday

Busman’s Holiday

A “Busman’s Holiday” refers to spending one’s vacation days much the same as you do your vocation days (i.e. a lifeguard relaxing at the beach). That’s not exactly what’s happening in Austin Smithard’s sophomore narrative feature. But when retired NYC cop Michael Busman (Jamie McShane) has no reason to decline a free trip around the world in pursuit of a missing teenaged relation, it’s not long before he finds himself outside of both his time zone and his comfort zone. Smithard’s script is an engaging existential meditation on life, love, travel, unfulfilled dreams, and forgiveness. But it doubles as a virtual field trip for anyone who has missed getting on a plane and waking up somewhere new.

Michael Busman doesn’t even want to even leave his bed let alone the country. But his cousin, Warren, knows that Michael doesn’t have much going on in his life he needs a big favor. Their distant uncle’s 19-year-old daughter, Suzi, didn’t return from her worldwide trek. Local law enforcement say they have no reason to suspect foul play, but the parents just know something is wrong. Busman is reticent to take on the search, but since his wife has recently split, he realizes it’s actually a good time for him to get out of Dodge. He soon finds himself in Ireland, interviewing his distraught relations, Brendan and Joan. Suzi sent postcards from every destination, but the last one they received says she was going to double back to some of the places she’d already visited. That was 2 months ago and they haven’t heard from her since. She’s not using the credit card, her phone is disconnected, and she’s gone dark on the socials. Michael decides that the best way to find her is to retrace her steps as closely as possible, which means traversing thousands of miles across the likes of Norway, India, Tanzania, and Italy.

This film unfolds like a TV drama bottle episode featuring a supporting character. Indeed, McShane is known for such roles on Bloodline, Bosch, and Southland. He plays Busman as a man in transition. He thought he had the rest of his life mapped out. But his wife’s departure threw his whole worldview into turmoil. While Michael is searching for a missing girl, he finds himself along the way. Cheesy though that sounds, it plays out subtly in the film. Michael begins to see the journey through Suzi’s eyes as he meets the people who will never forget her. Reluctant though he may be to move forward with the rest of his life, his search for Suzi forces him to let go of his past and embrace the present. Suzi narrates from some omniscient source that’s too detailed and confessional to be the brief postcards she sent to her parents. We never see how Busman reacts to her thoughts, though we can’t help but contrast her lust for life with his more jaded view.

Suzi’s spirit haunts every scene, though we barely get a glimpse of the girl herself. We can make out a shadow from the voiceover and the wistful looks in the eyes of those she touched in her travels. You never forget that this story is really about someone else. Someone we don’t see. Not even in photographs, really. She’s just vanished, but she’s memorable enough to have touched the lives of the people she met, even though they all seem certain their chapter in her life is over. Personally, I would have preferred to see the story from Suzi’s point of view, but I get that this was the story Smithard wanted to tell and the way that he felt he could tell it most effectively. It’s probably for the best when middle-aged men stick to what they know rather than try to speak for young women. I just get a little tired of stories about missing/dead girls as catalysts to male growth. Nothing against Smithard and his script. I can see this film, and especially McShane’s performance resonating with a demographic that more closely resembles Busman, rather than Suzi.

Shot on location before the world shut down, Busman’s Holiday offers a rare glimpse at some of the world’s most beautiful and remote places. It’s filmed like a travelogue with postcard-perfect cinematography. The really nice postcards that your mom would want to buy and frame. Smithard worked and studied alongside Steven Spielberg before making this film that he has deemed his cinematic swan song. As far as magnum opuses are concerned, this is a noble effort.

Film Review: Minor Premise

Minor Premise was shot pre-pandemic, but the panic, paranoia, and desperate isolation Eric Shultz’s debut delivers will doubtless resonate with occupants of this modern world. We may as well get used to scripts like this. With only 3 characters, and one primary location, the film still manages to build a riveting narrative off of an extrapolated premise. The protagonist is Ethan (Sathya Sridharan, Bikini Moon), a neuroscientist who is falling apart under personal and professional pressures. With a looming deadline, he decides to fast track his current project by experimenting on himself. Obviously, this tinkering has some pretty dire consequences.

The narrative joins Ethan in the middle of his crisis. He ran a program on his own brain and now he repeatedly blacks out and loses time. He misses an important meeting, prompting Allie – his former flame and current colleague – to check on him. Allie (Paton Ashbrook, TV’s House of Cards) catches Ethan at a bad time and he locks her in a room. When he neutralizes, he and Allie quickly manage to work out what’s going on in the old noggin.

Ethan was attempting to carry on his recently deceased father’s work – a machine that isolates and records memories. The ultimate goal is to curate thought in order to treat people with PTSD or addiction. Ethan figured out that memory is tied to emotion and, as such, accidentally split his own psyche into 10 parts, or traits. Each trait gets to party in full control of his body for 6 minutes per hour. This in-and-of-itself isn’t great, but this constant switching also fries significant amounts of brain cells during every transition. There’s a limit to how much he can take. He needs to merge is brain back and fast. He’s got two useful selves: intellect, and a sort of baseline personality that is his unified brain. The other parts are more id-driven traits such as anger, libido, anxiety, and euphoria, during which time he’s not particularly productive. This gives Ethan and Allie essentially 12 minutes per hour to figure out how to fix Ethan before he becomes a vegetable.

It’s not often that a visibly low-budget sci-fi film still works as a successful genre picture, but the script co-written by Schultz, and producers Thomas Torrey and Justin Moretto, is tight, cerebral, and rooted in real science. The three writers all have degrees to back up the neuro-babble. Ethan is a rogue academic so it stands to reason that he would have to work on a fixed budget out of his basement. It doesn’t even seem that incredible that he might fashion a neuron-altering machine out of an old salon hairdryer chair. Schultz utilizes the most basic filming and editing tricks, such as slow motion, jump cuts, erratic camera movements, and soft focus to effectively convey Ethan’s unstable mental state. A wall clock and a watch timer help temporally orient the viewer. Security camera footage fills in gaps inside and out of the narrative. Schultz and team were clearly influenced by thinky sci-fi the likes of Primer and Pi, with a little Eternal Sunshine brain-mapping for dramatic tension.

Of course, the plausibility of this premise relies heavily on performance. Sridharan must convey 10 distinct selves, all whilst still being essentially himself and he must do it with very few props or scene partners. Much of the film consists of close-ups of Ethan’s sweaty face so it’s a damn good thing Sridharan has the range to pull this off. It’s an extremely impressive performance from a man who must wake up confused about 1000 times and instantaneously inhabit a different concentrated part of his personality. Sridharan is mesmerizing and honestly, without this caliber of talent, the film wouldn’t have held together nearly this well. They mostly brush past his base personalities but we do get a much-needed musical interlude/dance break. Allie and Ethan get a brief chance to reconnect on an emotional level during another visit from Euphoria.

With Sridharan happily chewing the meaty bits of the script, that unfortunately leaves Ashbrook with the gristle. Allie is unquestionably supportive of Ethan, despite her “ex” status. They don’t go into what ended their relationship, but the implication is that Ethan was the one who drove her away with his consuming drive. You wouldn’t know there were any hard feelings based on her head-first dive into this risky plan to save Ethan. It’s not just risky for him. He also has an angry side that physically assaults Allie, and a sinister mysterious side that seems to be actively attempting to sabotage their mission.

Allie does have one other dimension which is that of the curious mind. She cares about Ethan and wants to save him, but she is also invested in the science itself, which allows for some natural expository dialogue about what they’re working on from scene to scene. The third player in the story is Malcolm, the head of the department who is lighting a fire under Ethan’s ass for results goddamnit. When Malcolm (played by Paton’s uncle and Twin Peaks alum, Dana Ashbrook) shows up unexpectedly at Ethan’s place, he’s greeted by one of the more violent personalities and they have to add keeping him unconscious and wiping his memory to their already monumental to-do list.

With Minor Premise, Schultz has cemented himself as a sci-fi director to watch. I can only hope he doesn’t let a budget destroy his creativity.

Paid in Puke S4E10.1 HOLIDAY SPECIAL: Happiest Season

On our (slightly late) Holiday Special, we’re talking about the controversial 2020 film Happiest Season, directed by Clea Duvall and written by Duvall and Mary Holland. It marks our 3rd Mackenzie Davis film. It also stars Kristen Stewart, Holland, Alison Brie, Mary Steenburgen, and Aubrey Plaza. We talk about how Abby should have left Harper for Riley (2/3 of us are Team Riley, and Baxter is a Harper apologist), the very unnecessary and perplexing shoplifting plot, Dan Levy’s pitch-perfect performance, and our complex personal relationships to the holiday season.

Happy Holidays to our beloved Paid in Puke listeners. We will return in Feb-ish with Series 5!