Through an incredible forty-eight films, Japanese audiences enjoyed the amorous misadventures of the lovable loser Tora-san and his long suffering family. During this year’s Asian American International Film Festival, actor Hiroshi Watanabe explained the example of Tora-san inspired his performance as Hajime “Jimmy” Beppu, the luckless protagonist of Dave Boyle’s new indie comedy White on Rice (trailer here), which opens in L.A. on Friday.
After his divorce, “Jimmy” has been living with his sister Aiko, sleeping in the bunk-bed above his nephew, Bob. Aiko and Bob are relatively okay with the situation, but his brother-in-law Tak is running out of patience. Supposedly looking for a new wife, Jimmy thinks he has found her when Tak’s niece Ramona temporarily moves in with the happy family, even though he would indeed technically be her uncle as well.
“Jimmy” knows a lot about dinosaurs, but he is out of his depth romancing Ramona. Of course, a series of misadventures follow, which threaten to completely destabilize Aiko’s household. Will Jimmy finally grow up and get the girl? Tora-san spent forty-eight studio films looking for love, can Jimmy pull it off in one indie?
Rice is at least as amusing as most Hollywood comedies and about ten times funnier than the average Judd Apatow movie of the week. Watanabe hits the right endearingly goofy notes as Uncle Jimmy, despite the creepy Woody Allen nature of his character’s romantic obsession. Japanese actress Nae lights up the screen as Jimmy’s indulgent sister, showing an easy rapport with Watanabe. However, while Mio Takada (recognizable from his appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but whatever happened to that guy?) and newcomer Justin Kwong do what they can as Tak and Bob respectively, but the parts are somewhat underwritten, relying on the shopworn stereotypes of workaholic father and over-achieving secret prodigy.
Boyle and Joel Clark’s screenplay has a fair number of laughs, some of which are surprisingly large, like the scenes from Ambush at Blood-Trail Gate, the cheesy samurai film that is Jimmy’s one claim to fame (notably featuring the voiceover work of cult-actor Bruce Campbell). Likewise, as the family pulls together, the film essentially avoids overly saccharine sentimentality. Still, Rice has some credibility issues, like when Jimmy spurns the advances of Mary (a.k.a. Banana Girl), who as played by Joy Osmanski, is at least as attractive as his niece-by-marriage, if not more so.
Rice keeps things quick and breezy, wrapping things up in just under ninety manageable minutes. If not the deepest film of the year, it is a harmless comedic diversion and another bizarre screen credit for Campbell. It opens at the Laemmle Sunset 5 this Friday (9/11).