An exploration of the arts and racial tension in 1970s America, The Tenants is an intriguing film that’s not entertaining in the least but for some people might be worth watching due to its central premise and the fact that Snoop Dogg is in a semi-serious role. Whether that’s genius or terrible casting is still something I’m trying to figure out, although I do know that he did fine in a role that, like the entire film, is far too one-note to hold our attention for 90 minutes.
The lead is Harry Lesser (Dylan McDermott), an author attempting to finish his third novel and the only tenant left in a crumbling building the landlord wishes to tear down. He sits at his typewriter and writes for hours each day, only leaving his home to get groceries. One day, he hears the clickity-clack of another typewriter. He leaves the apartment, heads down a few rooms, and finds Willie Spearmint (Dogg) also writing away. Soon enough, they get to talking, become acquainted, and seem like good enough friends, even with Harry’s reserved nature and Willie’s eccentricity.
Willie had a girlfriend, Irene (Rose Byrne), who eventually becomes one of the prime spots of conflict for the pair. The other occurs whenever Willie asks Harry to read his writing. I swear this happens at least twice, maybe three times: Willie asks Harry to read his work and give his honest opinion, Harry does so and offers some critiques, and then Willie freaks out before bolting off for a day or two before coming back as if nothing has happened.
So, there we have it. We have our two, diametrically opposed characters. We have two points on conflict. Now we can just let them play out, occasionally bringing in larger, cultural points, like race and art, and we should have a movie, right? I suppose so. That’s about all there is to The Tenants. That appears to have been the strategy taken by the filmmakers. The Tenants is an adaptation of a 1971 novel written by Bernard Malamud, and by some accounts it’s relatively loyal to its source material.
The problem is in the characters and in the boring and repetitive story. Harry seemingly wants nothing more in life than to finish his novel; his affection for Irene is about the only growth his character undergoes, assuming you can call it growth. I don’t even think you can, given his prime focus — and he says as much later in the film — is still his novel. Willie has even less of a character. He also wants to finish his book, and he wants to do it his way ’cause no white man’s gonna tell him otherwise. Or something like that. It’s unclear why he even wants to write apart from giving the story’s protagonist an opposing force.
I’ve already described most of the film. It doesn’t do much to deviate from the groundwork I’ve laid out, and it’s predictable from the first time we hear Willie speak. Once Irene gets involved, you can see everything begin to fall into place. You’re unlikely to be surprised or taken aback by anything in The Tenants, and in a film that tangentially wants to be about something, that lack of surprise hurts its ability to make a point.
It’s possible that part of the issue is that the novel was released in 1971 and might have been more relevant and edgy then. The film is also set in this time, but being a 2005 release means we’ve seen these particular ideas addressed before, and in a more effective manner. The Tenants isn’t even entirely clear on what it wants to say — it just knows that there are topics to explore. Exploratory pieces are fine but this one doesn’t delve that deeply, either. It just sits on the surface, makes a few broad statements, and then leaves.
The only genuine question I had after The Tenants was this: “Why couldn’t the landlord evict Harry in the first place.” The landlord, played by Seymour Cassel, shows up from time to time offering Harry an increasingly large sum of money to find another place to live. Harry claims he needs to finish his novel in the place he started it. What sort of landlord can’t evict a tenant? Isn’t that the real question here?
At times, indie films like The Tenants feature great performances that elevate the project to a watchable level. And while this film doesn’t have terrible performances, they’re not good enough to do that. Dylan McDermott shows less range than a typical Keanu Reeves role — he sort of looks like Reeves, too, don’t you think? — although I’m hoping that was by design. Snoop Dogg gets a far showier role, although I never once thought he was stretching; his random rants could easily have been improvised and based less on his character’s feelings and more on his own.
The Tenants explores a couple of ideas that might have been more relevant or necessary back in 1971, when the novel it’s based on was released, but as a 2005 release it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The plot is predictable and surprisingly boring, the two central conflicts don’t wind up being strong enough to hold our attention, and the characters are all one-note. This is a film that lacks anything to keep us watching. You have little reason to watch it, unless you’d like to see Snoop Dogg in a semi-serious role.