Powder Blue comes across as a series of short and uninteresting stories that writer/director Timothy Linh Bui couldn’t stretch into an entire film. Instead, he put a few together, changed some details in order to have them collide with one another, and called it a feature film. The obvious comparisons to Crash are going to be made, but while that film had one primary focus (racism), Powder Blue is all over the place in terms of theme.
This is an ensemble picture involving a ton of characters and a few stories. Arguably the most prominent is the one of Jessica Biel’s Rose-Johnny (everyone just calls her Johnny) as a stripper working in Patrick Swayze’s joint. Her son is in a coma, her dog ran away, and she’s being stalked by a man who just got out of prison (Ray Liotta). Eventually, she meets a man named Qwerty Doolittle (Eddie Redmayne) — yes, I swear that’s his actual name — and they two connect, for some reason.
The next story involves Charlie (Forest Whitaker) as a suicidal priest. He drives around town with $50,000 offering it to people like a transvestite prostitute and a mortician in hopes that someone will end his pain (his wife died and he can’t deal with it). Suicide will send him to Hell, I assume, meaning he needs to be murdered in order to still be okay with God. This isn’t explained to us, but it’s what I’m guessing. He also meets Lisa Kudrow working as a waitress at a restaurant, and there’s clearly some sort of connection between them.
Parts of these stories interweave with each other, and there are a couple of minor subplots that don’t get enough attention, but these are the two big ones. An example of the stories mixing: The mortician that Charlie tries to coerce into murdering him is Qwerty from the first story. Oh, and Kris Kristofferson (billed in the poster for whatever reason) makes a cameo appearance who meets with Ray Liotta’s character. I wish the poster wasn’t so deceptive, as I was looking forward to seeing more of Kristofferson.
Powder Blue is a character drama without the deep plot to keep us engaged. It has the characters down, but doesn’t explain them. I wasn’t sure why certain individuals always acted the way they did. For instance, I think one guy had cancer, but if you blink during the one scene it’s mentioned, you’ll miss it. That never gets mentioned again, and when it’s shown, it seems more like a dream than anything else.
Without understanding the characters, many scenes make little sense. This leads to a few “huh?” moments, while also getting in the way of whatever the film was trying to say — if it’s trying to say anything. It initially seems to be about mortality (“Would you kill someone for $50,000?”), but that’s quickly forgotten about for a bunch of other half-hearted ideas.
Apart from the situations presented, I wasn’t sure why I should care for these people. Biel’s stripper’s son is in the hospital, sure, but when she’s cussing out a doctor who can’t do anything (and not to mention that she’s in the hospital after visiting hours), it’s hard to think she’s worthy of sympathy. Liotta’s character is nothing more than a stalker, and an unsurprising revelation late in the film doesn’t change that. The only characters I actually liked were Whitaker’s and Redmayne’s, as I actually understood them (for the most part).
With that said, there are even more ideas forgotten about than what I mentioned earlier. Qwerty’s business is in the tubes, and he needs money (so we’re told), but after the scene where he learns this and denies Charlie’s murder request, it’s never brought up again. He even feeds a dog that isn’t his, buys roses and so on, despite this apparent lack of funds.
Forgetting about things is something that Powder Blue is very good at. The ending doesn’t wrap up all of the subplots, with many of them presumably stuck in Limbo. The major stories get completed — on an often depressive note, I might add — but it’s the minor details that can make a film better than average. This film does nothing new or special, and never reaches the heights that it could.
The performances are the only things that keep this film consistently watchable, even if you’re not quite sure why everything’s happening as it is. Biel, Swayze and Whittaker are playing their roles way over-the-top, which is quite funny, while Liotta and Kudrow actually give their characters a subdued nature — even if the former plays a crazy man. Having the actors do things that we care about would have improved the film, but, hey, watching them is still fun.
Powder Blue is ultimately not worth your time, even if I liked most of the actors in it. There’s too much going on to tie up by the end, with a lot of (seemingly) important points being forgotten about at the mid-way point. Characters are difficult to understand as well, leading to more than one point in the film where you’ll wonder why exactly they act the way they did (Biel’s character is guilty of this constantly). I also wasn’t sure of what Powder Blue wanted to tell me, which is also part of the problem of using such a crowded and messy screenplay.