Thursday, May 13, 2010

Serbian Love Connection: Here and There

It’s love, Serbian style. But not for Robert, a New York jazz musician, who has hit rock-bottom. He is only the groom. Love, music, and furniture moving all collide for the distinctively coiffed tenor-playing protagonist in director-screenwriter Darko Lungulov’s Here and There (trailer here), the winner of the Best New York Narrative Award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, which finally opens theatrically in New York tomorrow.

Robert is not making it in New York. He has only cut one poor selling record in his career and he has not even touched his horn in months. When evicted from his apartment, he calls Branko, a cut-rate Serbian mover. When Robert explains his situation, Branko offers him the strangest wedding gig of his career: fly to Belgrade, marry his girlfriend, and legally bring her back to Branko in America. Having burned all his other bridges, Robert reluctantly agrees.

In Serbia, Robert stays with Branko’s divorced mother, the still attractive Olga, who only knows he is a friend of her son. While waiting for Branko to come through with his money, Robert discovers Belgrade is a much nicer city than New York to be down and out in, despite many of the locals’ obvious defensiveness regarding recent Serbia history. There is also no denying the charm of Branko’s mother, who even convinces Robert to start playing his tenor again. However, the nature of Robert’s arrangement with Branko looms over his tentative new romance.

As Robert, David Thornton gives a well-modulated performance, expressing the world-weariness and desperation of a flawed, but not utterly unlikable character. Thornton’s hair will be instantly recognizable to audiences for his many supporting performances in both film and television, including the recurring role of slimy defense attorney Lionel Granger on Law & Order: SVU. He is perfectly balanced by veteran Serbian actress Mirjana Karanovic, who brings a memorable warmth and dignity to the role of Olga.

Thornton’s real-life wife Cyndi Lauper also appears in a cameo role, as a friend fast losing patience with the self-destructive Robert. She also contributes an original, but forgettable, song to the film. However, the rest of Dejan Pejovic’s soundtrack is quite distinctive, incorporating jazz, traditional Serbian Guča-style brass band music (featuring those crazy sideways Balkan trumpets), and some lush romantic mood music.

Sensitively helmed by Lungulov, H&T conveys a strong sense of both cities. In fact, with the majority of its dialogue in English, it should be accessible to those easily intimidated by foreign films. Unfortunately, it was disqualified by the Academy when Serbia officially submitted it for the best foreign language Oscar, for that very reason. Impressively, H&T is a truly rare romantic comedy that almost completely avoids any form of sentimentality. Yet, it still has a romantic heart buried in there somewhere. Highly recommended, it opens at the Quad tomorrow (5/14).