Not Yet Rated - Running Time: 1:30

The press kit for Bottom, an independent film from Atlanta-based Calligraphy Pictures about corporate downsizing and the desperate acts it occasionally provokes, describes writer/director Joseph L. Stovall (who goes by the pen name Jelese) as a former “computer man” who left the cubicles to pursue a career in filmmaking. Well. Maybe Jelese shouldn’t have quit his day job just yet. While I hate to discourage ambitious youth, I daresay Mr. Stovall has a fair distance yet to go before he becomes the next Quentin Tarantino. However, although his debut release (which, incidentally, won the 2004 Jury Prize at the Spaghetti Junction Urban Film Festival) is fraught with problems, they are not all his fault—many of them can be blamed on his actors, whose technique ranges from mediocre to truly horrendous. I have said before that good performances can cover a multitude of sins, but when the acting is bad, all the other flaws are brought into sharp relief. Frankly, I’ve seen better acting in porn movies.

Job security is a major concern among many office workers in the United States, especially in the highly competitive computer industry, where there is often a glut of potential employees for relatively few positions. Such is the case in Bottom, where the staff of an Atlanta computer firm (we never really learn what the company does) faces cutbacks for the third time this year. The film starts with Derrick Jones (Jason Turner) discussing this issue with his friends on the other sides of his cubicle. Although his co-workers, Bob (Gary Prewitt) and Leila (Eva Acosta), are somewhat tense about the upcoming meeting, Derrick seems confident that he is safe, especially since he is referred to as “the best damn programmer in the district.” This is why it comes as such a shock when Derrick discovers that he is among the several people named in the latest round of corporate layoffs, and his feelings of desperation are intensified when he finds out that his young wife (Sherie DeBellotte) is pregnant. Soon he is cruising around his neighborhood—hopped up on something that looks like red cream soda in an unmarked plastic bottle—and after a trip to a weapons store, he returns to his workplace to exact revenge on his supervisor.

While Jelese’s well-meaning screenplay is really only guilty of being rather dull and simplistic, it is the delivery of such by his lackluster cast which has pretty much damned this movie from the start. Its technical problems (muffled, inconsistent soundtrack, occasionally pixellated video, harsh, artless lighting, etc.) could be excused as the simple financial realities of a struggling industry newcomer, if his film had a cast with the talent to overshadow them. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. The principals, like Turner, Acosta, Prewitt, and DeBellotte, are almost adequate—their range suggests that of people who haven’t had much experience in acting but who show at least a spark of talent—and the same could be said of some of the actors populating smaller roles, like Kermit Rolison, who plays another disgruntled worker, and Barbara Washington (the supervisor who must announce the painful news). But then there are a few who truly stink up every scene they’re in, like Steve Warren and Deborah Childs, whose terribly trite dialogue is underscored by their howlingly bad reading of it. Warren, cast as an openly hostile white racist who apparently doesn’t have the good sense to shut up even when he’s talking to co-workers who belong to the groups he condemns, is bad enough when he’s simply chatting, but truly awful when his character is supposed to show some emotion. Surprisingly, it is he who has the longest and most impressive résumé of the entire cast, even appearing in such mainstream upcoming films as Bobby Jones, Stroke Of Genius (starring everybody’s favorite Jesus Christ, Jim Caviezel) and Last Goodbye, with David Carradine and Faye Dunaway. My apologies to Mr. Warren—he must have something I’m not seeing.

A few years ago, Mike Judge addressed the issues of corporate cutbacks in the computer industry, and did so hilariously, in his film Office Space. While I wouldn’t suggest that Jelese take his film so far in the comic direction as Judge did, he should realize that a little humor, or romance, or sex, or meaningful character relationship, can be helpful to bring out the drama or tragedy of the more weighty scenes. While his text shows that he is obviously passionate about this subject (heck, maybe he even popped a few people when he left his last job), its gravity is all but undone by its own single-mindedness. No one in this movie ever talks about anything but job insecurity and money troubles; no one laughs, no one jokes, there is very little sub-plot, sub-text, or significant art to the writing. The twist ending does add an unexpected caveat, but this is not nearly enough to make it interesting; the script has a simplified, after-school-special feel to it which, again, is emphasized by the styleless acting and the lack of convincing effects. There is plenty of violence in this movie, but very little blood. People are shot, they fall to the floor, they lie motionless, as in a school production, but there is no realism to suggest the seriousness of the situation. What’s more, while the music of several artists is heard during some scenes, the most emotionally charged sequence, the climax, occurs without a note playing. Music is not something I often notice enough to comment on, but the lack of it during this crucial scene just makes it look awkward and amateurish.

Perhaps Jelese’s wife and casting director, Kecia Stovall, must bear some of the blame for the failure of this production, but maybe she was simply unable to attract more talent to the project. Whatever the reason, one would hope that this young team put their collective Bottom behind them and press on. After all, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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