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Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Funnier than a barrel of nutcases

In the Pool

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Satoshi Miki
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

We all have our quirks, don't we? Usually, we try to keep them hidden from colleagues and friends, until they burst out into the open, revealing us as charming eccentrics -- or full-blown neurotics. In the West, we'd know how to find help for the more disabling forms of nuttiness -- see a shrink or pop a pill or both -- but what about Japan, with its keep-it-under-wraps, gut-it-out ethos?

News photo
Matsuo Suzuki, Maiko and Joe Odagiri in "In the Pool"

Satoshi Miki's "In the Pool," a comedy based on Hideo Okuda's Naoki Prize-winning novel of the same title, offers the answer in the form of one Hideo Irabu (Matsuo Suzuki), a staff psychiatrist at a large hospital (that his unseen father runs and will one day, we are told, bequeath to him).

Wearing a fake leopard-skin shirt under his white coat, ensconced in a moldy basement office with only an Angelina Jolie look-alike (Maiko) in a distractingly tight nurse's dress for company, Irabu treats patients as though they were punch-lines in a private joke. As played by Matsuo Suzuki, a veteran stage comedian with a quickly lengthening list of screen credits ("Chicken Heart," "Cutie Honey" and his 2004 directorial debut, "Koi no Mon"), Irabu combines the con-man impudence of Groucho Marx with the antic moods of a younger Jim Carrey. Imagine a shrink who has absolutely no idea what is he doing, but does it anyway, with an uninhibited, unhinged gusto that somehow carries his patients along like leaves in a crazily shifting wind.

Though his shtick can be blow-it-out-your-nose funny, Suzuki does not dominate "In the Pool" -- to the film's detriment. Instead, he shares the screen with three mostly ordinary neurotics. Two are Irabu's patients, one is his acquaintance -- and all three discover that the root causes of what ail them are the mostly humdrum disasters of everyday life. It's as though a Marx Brother movie were to detail the pearl-collecting mania of Margaret Dumont -- not as much fun as watching Groucho chat her up, while simultaneously taking her down.

Miki, a much-in-demand director of TV comedy and variety shows ("Downtown no Gottsu-e Kanji," "Warau Inu no Seikatsu," "Trivia no Izumi"), keeps the comic pot bubbling merrily and consistently. Along the way he creates -- or rather makes room for -- moments of inspired madness, whose ultimate message is reassuringly sane: It's almost never as bad as you think, folks. Not that neurotics will listen.

The film's first case, who gives it its title, is Kazuo Ohmori (Seiichi Tanabe), a busy young executive in charge of an outlet mall development. Stressed by the demands of his job -- and his affair with a pretty subordinate -- he finds relief in swimming laps an hour a day, without fail. When his pool routine is interrupted, he goes to pieces, though he finds temporary relief by plunging his hands into sinks full of water. Meanwhile, a fellow swimmer, Irabu, always seems to have time for a carefree splash and paddle (while driving the lifeguards to distraction with his cheerful defiance of their rules). What, Ohmori begins to wonder, is his secret?

Stranger is the case of Tetsuya Taguchi (Joe Odagiri), a mild-mannered salesman at a manufacturing company who awakes one day to find himself with a permanent erection. Horrified by this Kafka-esque transformation (assuming that Kafka had a schoolboy sense of humor), Taguchi does everything to hide his condition from his colleagues, even if it means shaking hands from a crouch. Desperate, he consults Irabu, whose first request is to drop trou -- and whose first response to what he sees is a cackle.

More common, and funnier, is the case of Suzumi Iwamura (Miwako Ichikawa), a magazine writer and classic obsessive-compulsive who can't leave her apartment without wondering whether the gas and electricity are off and rushing back to check . . . and check . . . and check. Irabu begins by kidding her about the size of her bag, crammed with gear she needs "just in case," then sticking her with a coffee shop bill and borrowing her umbrella, soon after which . . . but it should be obvious shouldn't it? Not getting results with insults, he tries other, bizarre treatment options, while Suzumi blows yet another big assignment, obsessing on an imaginary flying beetle.

Of the three actors playing these characters, only Ichikawa -- she of the wide Julia Roberts mouth and bulging Shelley Duvall eyes -- is a real comedian, who can get laughs just by counting "off" switches. Odagiri ("Akarui Mirai," "Chi to Hone") and Tanabe ("Hush" "Koi no Mon") are capable enough as slightly warped Everymen, but Jim Carrey they are not, even the relatively sedate 2005 version. Instead they primarily serve as straight men to Irabu -- and the various low tricks life plays on them.

Hollywood, which usually prefers its comic volume several notches higher than Miki's medium setting, will probably cast Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in their roles in the remake. But who can replace Suzuki? The short answer, no one can -- and Hollywood shouldn't. Comic genius speaks a universal language, even in fractured English.

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