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Movie Review

Bleak 'Junk Mail' Delightfully Pushes the Envelope

April 24, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Roy is a postman, but he's not exactly in the heroic Kevin Costner mold. Downtrodden, woebegone and about the loneliest guy around, Roy is so listless he doesn't hesitate to throw mail away when his load weighs him down. "Junk Mail" is his story and what a wonderfully eccentric black comic fable it turns out to be.

Winner of the International Critics Week prize at Cannes last year and a top box-office attraction in its native Norway, "Junk Mail" is a Scandinavian delicacy possessed of the fine sense of bleak but amusing absurdity that invariably characterizes comedies from that part of the world.

Yet, as put together by co-writer (with Jonny Halberg) and first-time director Pal Sletaune, "Junk Mail" boasts appealing elements missing from similar films by Finnish director and art-house favorite Aki Kaurismaki. The pace is faster, the sense of narrative greater, and the humor, while still off-beat, is considerably more accessible.

The heart of "Junk Mail" is actor Robert Skjaerstad's performance as Roy, the all but lifeless romantic hero of the piece. The soul of ineptitude, with a gift for making everything he touches worse, Roy is such a lost soul even his misfit postal buddies in Oslo can't think of anything he's good at. "Walking," someone tentatively suggests, but even that appears to be suspect.

With Skjaerstad supplying the look of fearful desperation that is Roy's constant companion, "Junk Mail" imagines and observes his character in such careful detail that though the situations he's involved in get odder and odder we never have any doubt of their reality.

Initially Roy leads a life of almost monastic solitude. After a day spent delivering as much mail as he can handle, Roy retires to an evening in a chaotic apartment steaming open pilfered letters and eating unheated spaghetti out of an ancient can. The last time he washed a dish, or himself, could well have been decades ago.

One day, killing time in a bookstore when he should be working, Roy notices a young woman (Andrine Saether) shoplifting a book. The sense of complicity with her life that moment gives him provides an almost erotic charge that curiously galvanizes the slovenly postman.

Through a combination of amateur sleuthing and blind luck, Roy discovers that the woman, named Line, works at a cleaners and has hearing difficulties. Without even the shadow of a life of his own, the opportunity to eavesdrop on someone else is more than a natural snoop like Roy can resist. When fate puts the keys to Line's apartment in his hands, he can't help but let himself in and look things over when she's not around.

Crossing that most ordinary threshold and investigating a living space most notable for Line's impressive supply of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes turns out to be a through-the-looking-glass experience for the befuddled Roy. After that moment, nothing about his life has any chance of being the same again.

Though it's characterized by a dark and droll, pleasantly surreal sense of humor, "Junk Mail" balances its mordant sensibility with elements of a thriller plot. Armed robbery, physical violence, a suicide attempt, bad sex and drunken nights out with blotto postal workers doing karaoke versions of "Born to Be Wild" suddenly appear like apparitions in Roy's existence. It's hard to imagine a more bizarre romantic scenario than the one "Junk Mail" illustrates, and that is the heart of its charm.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: nudity and scenes of physical violence.

'Junk Mail'

Robert Skjaerstad: Roy

Andrine Saether: Line

Per Egil Aske: George

Eli Anne Linnestad: Betsy

Released by Lions Gate Films. Director Pal Sletaune. Producers Dag Nordahl, Peter Boe. Screenplay by Pal Sletaune & Jonny Halberg. Cinematographer Kjell Vassdal. Editor Pal Gengenbach. Music Joachim Holbek. Production design Karl Juliusson. Sound Ragge Samuelson, Sturla Einarson. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0202; and Edward's University, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (714) 854-8811.

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