Dir. Jon Shear
(2000, R, 105 min)

The movie Urbania ends up being is better than the one it starts out as. Along the way it wanders through four or five other different movies as well, and that’s its problem. Starring Dan Futterman as Charlie, a young, gay New Yorker having a dark night of the soul, it begins like an anthology of urban legends in New York. There’s the one about the man who loses a kidney during a one-night stand. There’s the one about the dog in the microwave. And the one about the rat in the hot dog. What a scary and forbidding place this city is with its unconfirmed reports and secondhand horror stories. Though you’re certain it really happened to a friend of a friend of your second cousin twice removed, it has probably already been disproven by the MythBusters.

In his search for a tattooed man from his past, Charlie meets a bartender (Josh Hamilton) who, apparently having no other customers to serve, tells Charlie a protracted story about how he encountered an older woman who paid him to expose himself to her. And then Charlie visits an old friend (Alan Cumming), who used to be flamboyant and cheerful but is now depressive and living in squalor. What happened to him is not exactly clear; this scene has more subtext than text. And then there’s a possible sexual encounter with a closeted soap star (Gabriel Olds) who likes dangerous men.

These stories are introduced but don’t go anywhere, and it’s not clear why the film includes them at all. The screenplay – by director Jon Shear and Daniel Reitz, based on Reitz’s play – develops like a shaggy dog story told in non sequiturs, wandering the seedy streets of New York in search of its own plot.

Then Charlie is reunited with the tattooed man, Dean (Samuel Ball), and suddenly the film develops an urgent, uneasy energy. We kinda sorta think we know why Charlie wanted to find this man, having been misled by the aggressively cryptic editing of flashbacks along the way, but their scenes together develop a sinister energy and the film finally builds to something substantial. I won’t describe more, because this is the one storyline with real dramatic force.

A quick search of IMDb shows that this film is Shear’s first and only directing credit. Stylistically it’s often overcooked, unsure of its tone, choppily edited in order to tease us without tipping us off to the story’s conclusion. I don’t think he entirely plays fair with his narrative trickery; there are some scenes that stretch logic when placed in their proper context and seem to have been put there solely for the audience’s benefit. Shear cuts between flashbacks, fantasy scenes, and hallucinations that feel overwrought (how sunny the past was! how desperate the present is! how fearsome the city is!), and he rarely settles down enough to just let a scene develop.

But as the true nature of Charlie’s journey is gradually revealed and Shear is able to stop dancing around the margins of the story, he’s able to create genuine dread. We feel an actual story developing, one that’s well shot and paced, though at first it’s difficult to trust the material because what came before was so fractured. I’m not sure it’s quite enough to redeem the entire film – what seemed irrelevant in the early going proves even more so by the end – but after an unpromising start it’s enough to suggest that somewhere within this 105-minute film is about 40 minutes of good drama. It just takes a while to find it.

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