Micro-budget movies come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but the undisputed champions of the form are almost always those which avoid splashy effects, embracing their shoestring aesthetic, and all the wild creative freedom that comes with it. The more gonzo the better, and it’s safe to say that David Buchanan’s Laguna Ave mostly gets it right, borrowing from the best of the best in weaving together a slowly unraveling LA neo-noir with the sort of splashy campiness of John Waters, crossed with echos of mad-eyed genre greats from Tetsuo to Troma.
Russell Steinberg’s washed-up one-handed drummer is the sort of witty stoner that seemed to make up a hefty majority of American movie leads in the 1990s; furiously trying to make rent without a stable job, with his relationship hanging by a thread and quiet oblivion not far out of reach. In fact, the whole first third of Laguna Ave is really nothing new at all, slyly sliding in crumbs of conspiracy along the way, but largely sticking to the same sort of mumbling, meandering, character comedy as Kevin Smith’s Clerks. It even has the drab, unflashy monochrome of Smith’s film to boot, and an eccentric ensemble of local weirdos and burnouts for Steinberg to complain about, and to.
It’s not until a decent chunk of the way in that Laguna’s plot really starts to pick up, when writer Paul Papadeas’s script hooks onto its greatest asset, in mysterious silver-suited downstairs neighbour Gary (played with a trashy, campy sort of gusto by James Markham Hall Jr.) who totally sweeps the whole film into another dimension entirely. To say that Laguna shifts gears or even genres here would be a howling understatement; it almost becomes another film entirely, and a much more engaging one too.
Director Buchanan swaps wandering intrigue for a cyberpunk-inspired nightmare; Under the Silver Lake becomes Tetsuo the bloody Iron Man, with all the kinky, uncanny excess, done on a gaffer-tape-and-tin-foil kind of budget. It’s a sight to behold, and one that just as quickly becomes wildly entertaining, jumping madly from ludicrous telekinetic training montages to poorly choreographed penis-handed fist fights. Markham Hall Jr. hams it up harder and harder at every opportunity he’s given, and Steinberg evolves beyond the dull-as-dishwater layabout into some sort of tragic, maniacal antihero. It’s a stroke of genius, even if it is one that comes about half-a-movie too late.
As a full 80 minute feature from beginning to end, Laguna Ave is a weird and unruly beast. The balls-to-the-wall giddiness of the final third will make this a must for so many cult and genre buffs, but it’s hard to know how many will bother sticking with it through the cookie-cutter mumblecore of an opening.
This isn’t so much a case of half-a-good film and half-a-bad one; Laguna Ave is a DIY oddball treat through to its core, it just takes a little too long to realise it. Patience is a virtue, and with this one, it will undoubtedly pay off.