Got you! Though White on Rice’s deceptive title suggests a stereotype-ridden culture comedy, this indie flick is an equal opportunity workplace of family, romance and slice-of-life humor. But too many angles leave no room for solid development, and despite strong acting and clever staging, White on Rice’s mishmash of comedy and an annoying lead make incompetence appear front and center.
Jimmy (Hiroshi Watanabe) fails at life. Fresh from Japan, the odd-jobs man recovers from a divorce, mooches off his sister’s family and shares a room with his 10-year-old nephew. His sister defends him because he keeps things entertaining, but Jimmy is ready to find a wife — and his brother-in-law’s fetching niece seems like the perfect solution.
The film follows Jimmy’s incompetent quest for love as he stalks his intended, vandalizes property and forges his way through the rest of the Quirky Comedy checklist.
All the bits of a successful comedy are there. Romantic ineptitude? Check. Endearingly strange characters? Check. Amusing cultural stereotypes? Check. But none of the aspects feel developed enough to build into bigger laughs, and spark only scattered chuckles instead of solid gut-busters.
White on Rice can never decide which quirky comedy it wants to be — the putting-the-fun-in-dysfunctional family flick, the smug-but-astute racial commentary or the simple let’s-watch-an-endearing-freak-validate-his-existence piece. It tries on all three and buys them all.
Little Miss Sunshine, Harold and Kumar and Napoleon Dynamite may not have clung to subgenre guardrails, but each had a definite focus. With White on Rice’s eclectic approach, the film wanders from scene to scene and scrounges for any gag it can get. Perhaps White on Rice wanted to prove that one cannot put a genre on life. Yet life has too many comedic angles for even the most ambitious comedy. Trying to catch them all spreads the humor far too thin.
White on Rice has a second inescapable flaw: an unendingly irritating protagonist. Characters do not have to be likeable — just look at As Good as it Gets or A Christmas Carol — but the audience should care. With Jimmy, can someone just get this 40-year-old moron off the screen? He is just too pathetic, too ridiculous and too static to invoke any empathy. It’s no fun hoping for his untimely demise either; while the film throws in a few surprises, there’s no doubt that it’s a fluffernutter comedy.
Jimmy’s incompetence as a lead also grates because he takes time away from other, far more compelling characters. His brother-in-law, Tak (Mio Takada), is a cranky fogey who just wants to put some pizzazz in his marriage, while Jimmy’s wunderkind nephew, Bob (Justin Kwong), has all the deadpan charm of Charlie Brown and none of the cutesiness of many comedy kiddos. In fact, Tak’s dissevered family would make a great comedy — a scene involving a seamy lingerie shop proves it.
Somehow, Watanabe’s performance saves Jimmy — and much of the movie — from total dissatisfaction. The subtly he gives to the ridiculous character, from his indignant terror at a towering woman to his smugly world-weary advice to his nephew, are thoughtfully nuanced and fun to watch. It’s when Watanabe has to read from the erratic script or carry out the film’s ridiculous plot development that even he can’t save his character.
The other actors do not slouch, either. From Takada’s geezer rage to Kwong’s deadpan pragmatism, White on Rice features several talented actors who could carry their own comedies.
Director and co-writer Dave Boyle, a new face in comedy, clearly has much to offer. While the film might lack focus, it does not lack subtlety: Little touches, such as a samurai spoof called Ambush at Blood Trail Gate or business-savvy Bob’s portable credit card reader, add substance and laughs to a film that wanders across the comedy board. Despite a small budget, the film never feels cheap or corner-cut, at least in physical construction.
Ultimately, White on Rice suffers from what it could have been. As it is, its weaknesses do not squash all enjoyment. If it had more focus, more direction and a lead who could garner more than snickers, it would have been the little indie treat it seeks to be. As White on Rice reaffirms, even dancing bananas cannot solve all problems.