Theatrical Review: WHITE ON RICE

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
September 11th, 2009


Rating: 4.5/10

Writers: Dave Boyle, Joel Clark
Director: Dave Boyle
Cast: Hiroshi Watanabe, Nae, Mio Takada, Lynn Chen, James Kyson Lee

Jimmy (Watanabe) is a mid-life crisis loser. He’s moved in with his sister, brother-in-law, and nephew because his wife has left him. He’s so unable to survive on his own that he has actually decamped from his native Japan to the United States, just to have some family to live with. And while he doesn’t mind living in the upper bunk of his nephew’s bunk beds, the rest of his family certainly does. But Jimmy has a plan. Find a lady, get remarried, continue on with life. WHITE ON RICE attempts to track that particular life course, and some of the unexpected twists and turns it takes.

Here’s the first unexpected twist and turn of Jimmy’s new life. It’s not funny. It’s actually totally awkward. We’re expected to see Jimmy’s ineptitude in all parts of life as somehow charming or refreshing. It’s not. It’s actually kind of scary. At some point, I stopped viewing WHITE ON RICE as a comedy. It made Jimmy’s weirdly off-putting package a lot easier to stomach.  There’s a frenetic desperation that runs through Jimmy that is not so much funny/sad as it is funny/scary. If everything I had read about the film hadn’t told me this was a comedy, I would have spent a lot more time on edge, waiting for Jimmy to snap. As it is, someone does end up stabbed and bleeding nearly to death in a wheelbarrow in the film. I am not kidding.

But more than a fundamental discomfort, WHITE ON RICE goes so far to introduce even more elements that would make even a sympathetic character difficult to take. It’s hard to not feel uncomfortable with one of the biggest plot points of the film – the fact that forty year old Jimmy spends most of it pursuing a girl nearly half his age, who also happens to be related to him (fine, it’s by marriage, but it still brings on the icks). It’s heavily implied that Jimmy has known his niece-in-law since she was a kid, making his moony-eyed observations that she’s a grown up now more awkward than good taste would allow. Then, of course, he starts to clumsily court her, including a groan-inducing jaunt to a dinosaur park, an invasive look inside her journal, and a brief foray into motor vehicle theft. It’s significantly less funny on the screen.

The one bright spot of the film is Jimmy’s nephew, Bob. As so much of the film is handled in a way that best be described as “inappropriately,” Bob is a lovingly crafted character, who doesn’t veer into the easy “cute indie kid” traps. He’s precocious without being grating. Whimsical without being cheesy. If this movie was solely focused on Bob, it would be a winner. Justin Kwong is a find, and I hope to see him in many more projects.

WHITE ON RICE picks up a bit in its last half – even if it does so by going gimmicky. One of the funniest scenes takes place on Halloween, and it’s pretty easy to wonder, is this only funny because that weird girl is wearing a banana costume? My guess?  Yeah, it is. People dressed up as fruit are inherently hilarious. There are other brief flashes of humor throughout the film, including a couple of dates Jimmy goes on before he sets his sights on young Ramona. But all of this doesn’t curb the consistently nagging sense of unease that overtakes the entire film, leaving the audience with a decidedly bad taste in its mouth.

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