Review by Evan Kindley
Posted on 25 June 2010
Source Lions Gate DVD
92YTribeca Film Series: Crime Wave
An Interview with John Paizs
Springtime in Greenland
In the sedate Canadian town of Exceptional Vista – once thriving, but severely depressed ever since “the nut factory went bust” – strange happenings are afoot. The first thing we see in John Paizs’s long-awaited sophomore feature Top of the Food Chain is a fisherman sitting by a babbling stream, watching a fishing show on a portable television. Suddenly the signal is interrupted and a beautiful woman in a midriff-baring half-shirt appears out of nowhere to ask the question: “Would you like to perform a copulatory act with me?” Once the meaning of this proposition has been clarified a bit more for the fisherman’s benefit, he readily agrees—to his doom!
From here we progress to a seemingly unrelated story involving a visit to Exceptional Vista by Dr. Karel Lamonte, an atomic physicist with a classic 1950s professor look (tweed jacket, horn-rimmed glasses, neatly trimmed beard, and a long pipe) and a desire to escape the grind of Big Science in a relaxing, rural atmosphere. In the general store he meets the breathy-voiced, flirtatious innkeeper Sandy Fawkes, who convinces him to take a room with her for an indefinite period. A plot develops slowly at first, but rapidly accelerates once Dr. Lamonte discovers the fisherman’s corpse during one of his speedwalks through “the lumpy, bumpy part of town,” which proves to be only the first in a series of mysterious unexplained deaths. With the aid of Sandy, her brother Guy, and several other pillars of the Exceptional Vista community, Dr. Lamonte takes it upon himself to solve the murders and restore the town to its former peace.
Neither as formally experimental nor as tonally ambiguous as Crime Wave, Top of the Food Chain is nonetheless identifiable as a Paizs film by its bright color palette and its wry, sideways humor. This is all to the good, as visual flourishes – like a Lodge Banquet catered with unappetizing green foodstuffs – and clever editing touches often fill in the gaps of a somewhat uneven script by veteran TV writers Phil Bedard and Larry Lalonde. The movie also boasts a dead-on comic performance by Campbell Scott as the buttoned-up Dr. Lamonte; particularly chuckleworthy are his “scientific” diagnoses on the order of “he’s in some kind of post-scared state” or “he’s suffering from post-cranial bang syndrome.” Unfortunately, Scott’s Swiss watch comic timing sometimes gets thrown off when he’s placed less surefooted actors. Tom Everett Scott, who plays Sandy’s dimwitted brother Guy Fawkes (named, for no discernible reason, after the British radical behind the Gunpowder Plot), is likable enough but often gives the impression of bluffing his way through his role without being quite sure what’s funny about it. The result is that a lot of potentially sharp exchanges don’t come off quite as well as they should, though some are good enough to survive anyway, like the following:
“We have to save the human race from worldwide predation.”
“Worldwide being eaten, Guy.”
While a few supplemental cast members also have their moments (I enjoyed Bernard Behrens as a drunken mayor given to exclamations like “St. Lawrence on a skewer!” and “By the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb!”), the other first-rate comic performer in Top of the Food Chain is Fiona Loewi, who plays Sandy as something like a cross between Natalie Wood and Parker Posey, equal parts naive charm and knowing sadism. “Gosh, you’re just filled with girlish enthusiasm,” a townsperson observes of her early in the film, and it’s true: Sandy’s beatific smile and indiscriminate seductiveness lift every scene in which she’s featured into a higher, giddier dimension. Some of the film’s best moments, unsurprisingly, play out between Scott and Loewi, who have convincing enough chemistry to make a screwball comedy together. It emerges early on that Dr. Lamonte is deeply sexually frustrated (“There aren’t many atomic lady scientists, after all”) and Sandy sets her sights on him, throwing herself in his general direction at every opportunity. “Would you… could you… hold me?” she asks him in a vulnerable moment, leading him to place his whole hand, extended claw fashion, over the face; not exactly what she had in mind, but she goes with it.
As the scene described above suggests, there’s a persistent strain of kinkiness in Top of the Food Chain that keeps you guessing. Everyone in town has some sexual perversity or other: Guy is unhealthily obsessed with his sister’s underthings; Dr. Lamonte keeps a blow-up doll with a facsimile of his own head on a female body in his bathtub; the pompous, blundering Officer Gale likes to arrest his mistress and spank her while she’s wearing handcuffs. But while this all sounds like something out of a John Waters movie, there’s a low-key oddness to all of it that seems distinctively Canadian, the collective affect dialed-down a lot lower than it would be in an equivalent American film. A decent comparison might be the Kids in the Hall’s recent comeback miniseries Death Comes to Town; there’s also more than a little of the whimsical erotic fantasy of Paizs’ fellow Manitoban traveler Guy Maddin, particularly his mid-period Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.
But the law of genre, as always, imposes itself in the end. Ostensibly a science-fiction film, Top of the Food Chain is virtually special effectless until its last twenty minutes, when the murderous “moon men” reveal themselves as such and we’re treated to a little facial expansion, a couple of long reptilian alien tongues, and some cool cathode ray pyrotechnics. Leading up to that late turn toward sci-fi convention, the film is fascinatingly hard to peg: sometimes a subtle comic character study, sometimes a Lynchian seedy-underbelly-of-small-town-life piece, sometimes a witty parody of 1950s B movie conventions (in the vein of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Mars Attacks!—a gesture signaled better by its alternate title, Invasion!), sometimes something entirely sui generis. Throughout Top of the Food Chain Paizs deftly avoids the obvious, if not the archetypal, and produces a watchable, original, and sometimes sublime sci-fi comedy. Here’s hoping he gets a chance to do it again.