The split screen is almost as old as the movies and has been put to imaginative use in films as diverse as Abel Gance's silent "Napoleon" with its wide-screen triptych, Richard Fleischer's "The Boston Strangler" and Andy Warhol's "Chelsea Girls."
With "Man of the Year," director Straw Weisman applies the technique with a vengeance to a "Dinner at Eight" plot in which friends and colleagues have gathered to honor an energy tycoon, played by the late John Ritter, at the sleek Hollywood Hills home of his best pal, played by Clayton Landey. A digital feature shot in one night from a detailed outline, which called for 25 actors to improvise their lines, the film has been described succinctly by its makers as a "reality/surveillance/improv dramedy."
However, Weisman slices and dices his images to such an extent that it takes a lot of time for the story lines and the key characters and their tangled and changing relationships to emerge with any clarity. And when it becomes possible to identify the people and keep track of them, they by and large prove to be generic characters rather than distinctive individuals.
The film does have a certain flair and pace and is lively enough to be mildly diverting. It's no more than that because beneath its mosaic surface, "Man of the Year" is yet another overpopulated bad-party movie with lots of uninteresting and often unsavory types that in real life many people would be loath to spend a very long evening with in the first place. Weisman's inclusion of apt and amusing clips from "Metropolis," "The Cocaine Fiends," "Reefer Madness" and "Teenage Zombies" unfortunately backfires in that they suggest that any of those films would be more fun to watch than "Man of the Year."
Not surprisingly, Ritter's smooth, debonair Bill is facing more personal crises than even he knows. Sex, drugs and money preoccupy most of the partygoers. There's the predictable philandering and other typical treacheries and follies, but while there is some humor the film could have used lots more.
Ritter is his usual nimble self and brings all possible shades and nuances to the glib, shallow and reckless Bill; unfortunately, the California energy crisis that provides the context for his character and his wheeling and dealing is no longer so timely. Heidi Mark, as his glamorous spouse, has a chance to show that her Carol is more than a trophy wife, and lovely Annie Sorrell also has the opportunity to reveal some depth as the live-in mistress of Landey's Stuart.
The luckiest actors in the cast are Jade Carter and Adria Dawn, for their Jim and Chloe, because the development of their relationship is the film's key source of amusement and freshness. Most everyone else in the large ensemble performs respectably, but there is an aura of theatricality to the entire enterprise that gives it the feel of an acting class exercise.
"Man of the Year" is not the last screen appearance of John Ritter, who died suddenly of a heart ailment Sept. 11. He is in "Bad Santa," which reunited him with his "Sling Blade" director and co-star, Billy Bob Thornton, for whom he gave arguably his finest, most offbeat performance as a diffident, middle-aged gay man living in a small Southern town. He also appears in Bobby Roth's "Manhood," screened at Sundance this year and has yet to be released.
In film, as on TV, Ritter will be sorely missed.
`Man of the Year'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Sex, nudity, drugs, language
A Media Financial International presentation. Conceived and directed by Straw Weisman. Producers Andrea Mia, Andy Goldberg, Betsy Fels, Richard Mann. Executive producers Straw Weisman, Debbie Weisman. Co-directors Tamara Friedman, Andy Goldberg, David Roy, Jonathan Tydor, Barry Zetlin. 18 cinematographers-camera operators. Editor Bill Black. Music David Kates, Jeffrey Silverman. Costumes Alexa M. Stone. Production designer Alan E. Muraoka. Set decorator Galit Reuben. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.