This movie was a conundrum that I’ve never experienced before. I’ve seen movies that lacked any sort of character developed beyond taglines for a CW RPG: The Slutty One, The Drunk Guy, Whatsherface, Intellectual Asian. I’ve seen movies where there was practically no plot besides explosion, explosion, catchphrase, explosion. I’ve even seen a movie where nothing happens. But White on Rice was new on me: a collection of really wonderful and appealing characters doing completely baffling and uncharacteristic things. The closest explanation I can muster is it would be like one of your favorite TV shows filming a particularly awful fanscript. Or say they decided to do a “West Wing” musical episode. Sure, those particular actors probably have brilliant singing voices and they might come up with interesting songs, but really, it wouldn’t fit at all into the overarching tone of the show. That’s what happened here. The characters kept doing and saying stupider and more awful and inexplicable things until the brain-meltingly putrid finale. Cinematically, it was like pouring all of your liquor cabinet into a trashcan full of ice. The end result made me nauseous, angry, confused, and unexpectedly pregnant again.
Hajime (Hiroshi Watanabe) — Jimmy to his friends (if he had any) — is a 40-year-old manchild living off the sympathy of his younger sister Aiko (Nae), much to the chagrin of her crotchety older husband Tak (Mio Takada). In most other movies, the manboy character is usually some sort of loudmouthed, selfish slob (I’m looking at you, Will Farrell. Now stop showing us your ass hair). Here, Jimmy’s more of a giant kid. He’s really obsessed with dinosaurs, has no sense of responsibility, and has no impulse control. His ex-wife left him, and when she did, she cooked him three months worth of meals so he wouldn’t starve to death. When he ran out of food, he moved to America to live with his sister. He can’t keep a job and is pretty much a well-meaning nuisance.
Jimmy desperately wants to find a new wife and immediately sets his sights on Tak’s niece Ramona (Lynn Chen). Ramona is home from medical school and busy rekindling her romance with Tim Kim (James Kyson Lee, “Heroes’” Ando). Jimmy tries with Wes Andersonesque ardour to unsuccessfully woo Ramona, taking advice from his ten-year-old, business-savvy nephew Bob (Justin Kwong). It’s the single-minded obliviousness as he pursues Ramona where the film tips from quirky to shitballs. About two-thirds of the way in, the romantic plot fizzles when it’s made repeatedly, uncomfortably clear that Jimmy has absolutely no chance with Ramona. The movie felt like it was time for awkward bows and fortune cookies when Jimmy realizes this, but instead he becomes homeless for awhile, while the writers figure out how to shift to a coming-of-age story. Then they give up on that and make it a romantic comedy again. If he sat down and made an army of origami bullfrogs that came to life and murdered his entire family, it would have made more sense that what actually happens. (I’ve decided to start re-writing the endings to these movies I’m suffering through. It’s not like any of you people are watching them anyway. You’ll never know. Sometimes writing my reviews feels like playing chess on postcards with a death row inmate.)
The film would have worked if it were just a lighthearted off-beat romantic comedy, but writer-director Dave Boyle (who shares script credit with Joel Clark) has no idea how to set-up his own jokes. I don’t know if these two clowns are secretly Mormons or if they actually have any Asian lineage, but the script reads like the former rather than the latter. The humor is awkward, mostly because the set-ups either don’t go anywhere or go absurdly too far. Every night before Jimmy goes to bed he kisses a picture of his ex-wife goodnight and tells her he still loves her, and also that he will find someone better than her. (The one time during the entire movie I laughed out loud.) While on his hunt for a new wife, he finds a picture of his ex-wife on a dating website. That’s it. That’s the last we hear of her. On the other side, Tak gets into an argument with Jimmy about making a mess in the kitchen. Tak slips and punctures his stomach with a ten-inch filet knife. Jimmy drags him outside in a wheelbarrow, blood smeared everywhere. Everything works out, but seriously, it’s so jarring to suddenly see that much blood in what was progressing as kind of mellow and fluffy. It’d be like an episode of “The Office” if Stanley snapped and went on an explicit murder spree with a chair leg. Yeah, it’s funny kinda, but it’d have repercussions you don’t want to think about.
Which was a shame because aside from the terrible plot, the characters were buoyant and lovely enough to keep the film relatively afloat. They were still a bit boilerplate for my tastes, but the actors were able to rise above the script. Tak spends most of the movie scowling, but damn if he doesn’t do it well. The ladies are a little lackluster, but assuredly, it’s the way the script is written. Boyle and Clark have them mostly reacting to what the men say. It was nice to see James Kyson Lee getting a John Cho role, playing the hip Asian with a perfect American accent — he will escape “Heroes” relatively unscathed. I really enjoyed the kind of Jackie Chan-ish baffled glee that Hiroshi Watanabe brought to Jimmy; he really was like a giant excitable child. But the best part of the movie was Justin Kwong. Little Bob was something straight out of Rushmore, and I really wished they had focused more on him rather than the other needless subplots.
Everything gets wrapped up neatly and supremely convenient by the end. It’s kind of painfully convenient, in fact. Completely, senselessly, stupidly, how-the-fuckidly-can-you-even-think-that’s-worth-it wrapped up. The progression towards the end actually had both myself and my significant other howling and shaking with rage (sorry, other patron of the theatre — I’ve never actually yelled profanity out loud in a theatre before). As opposed to the Brothers Bloom which just wouldn’t fucking end (grrrr. — DR), this one was like trying to end a phone call with my mother. They’ve said goodbye about 12 fucking times. Just go. Stop talking. Leave. The film’s bubbly enough and has some chuckles that you can’t get too mad at it, but it’s really not worth straining yourself to make an effort to see it.