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Joel Bissonnette, left, and Adam Scott hit the road in Passenger Side.
Joel Bissonnette, left, and Adam Scott hit the road in Passenger Side.

Passenger Side: Orphaned adults in a very strange land Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Passenger Side

  • Written and directed by Matt Bissonnette
  • Starring Adam Scott and Joel Bissonnette
  • Classification: 14A

Simple and smart, Canadian director Matt Bissonnette's Passenger Side is what's known in theatre circles as a two-hander, a two-person play in which everything depends on dialogue and performance. The film also fits into another familiar genre, the road movie, although in this case it's two brothers on a wandering day trip around Los Angeles and its environs in a beat-up vintage BMW. The older brother, an acerbic writer, is Michael (Adam Scott); the younger brother is a recovering junkie named Tobey (the director's brother Joel Bissonnette).

The film begins with that most annoying of attention-getting devices - the unanswered telephone - which rings in Michael's apartment repeatedly. Michael is a technophobe; his answering machine still uses a cassette tape. We subsequently learn that he's an author struggling to write a second novel, and to compound things, today is his 37th birthday. Tobey wants Michael to pick him up and drive him around town to run errands since his own car has broken down. Reluctantly, Michael agrees and the rest of the movie consists of their day, as they go on a sojourn out of the city, to the desert and back.

Michael and Tobey dive immediately into a kind of hostile, familiar banter. Tobey's annoyed with Michael's message machine, which he describes as "like calling East Germany in 1982. ... You have a fear of the future."

"No, I don't," says Michael. "I love the future. I think it's going to be the next big thing."

And so the talk goes along with the journey, both pointed and somehow pointless. Tobey says he has a new job. Michael sounds skeptical. Sad, indie-rock songs play on the soundtrack. We learn that Tobey is a failure but an optimist, while Michael is slightly successful but embittered. While Tobey keeps stopping to visit various houses, we spend a lot of time sitting with Michael in his car. At one point a trans-sexual prostitute, Carla, hops in with him and begins initiating business, which rattles Michael's facade of cynical composure.

In the course of their day travelling through un-touristy backstreets and dull byways of Los Angeles, they meet a lot of eccentric characters, including a Mexican man who has just severed two fingers, a spooky clairvoyant who serves them lunch, a drunken party girl with right-wing political views and the cast of a porn movie. Early on, Michael believes Tobey is using him for a drug connection, but Tobey says no, he's on a different kind of quest, a search for a woman.

At times, the plot meanders, but there's a shape to the events, a sense that the brothers - Canadians, as it turns out - have been orphaned here in Los Angeles in their adult lives. In the midst of the verbal and physical detours, there's a conversation about hockey (like director Bissonnette, they're Montrealers). Later, they're chased by an angry anti-Canadian gas station owner, one of the film's quirky evocations of The Odyssey. Finally, they arrive back in Los Angeles for an ending that has been signalled but has a twist which puts their journey in perspective.

The lead actors have their familiar, sibling banter down cold - dialogue that's half-funny, half-bitter and designed mostly to kill time. Scott, in particular, shows himself to be one of the best young American actors going. Though he has appeared in small roles in dubious mainstream films ( Monster-in-Law, Leap Year and Step Brothers) and has a lead role in the upcoming horror film ( Piranha 3D), his best work is here and in another indie film The Vicious Kind, which had its debut at Sundance last year. There are echoes of a young Michael Keaton or even Jack Nicholson in his performances, which have that great rare quality of vulnerability and danger.

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