written and directed by Josh and Jacob Kornbluth with Josh Kornbluth opens Sept. 21 at Guild 45th
TEMPS, UNITE! You have nothing to lose but your chains—or, at least, your enslavement to the mind-crushing, soul-numbing 9-to-5 routine that both oppresses and inspires the talents of monologists like Josh Kornbluth. The San Fran-based performer of Red Diaper Baby began developing Haiku Tunnel as a stage piece in 1990, and this long-brewing screen adaptation never strays far from the boards. Call it a lack of ambition or technical polish, but the writer-actor and his brother, Jacob, make the most of such slacker limitations. In fact, they embrace them.
Haiku won't win any awards for cinematic sophistication, but its lumpy sad-sack star instantly earns your sympathies as he waddles into an ominous, sterile S.F. law firm, seemingly carrying the weight of the world (or his neuroses) in his pockets. You immediately love the guy; like Zero Mostel or Jack Black, Kornbluth has you on his side about 30 seconds into the movie. Never mind the frumpiness, floral shirts, or bald pate—the guy only wants to write a novel on his disapproving employer's word processor. Who can't relate to such Mittyesque dreams?
One bad boss and a few supporting secretaries attend our hero Josh's basic dilemma ("To perm or not to perm?"), with 17 misplaced, unsent letters serving as the MacGuffin to his funny ruminations upon life, meaning, and the most swipe-worthy ballpoint pens. Kornbluth breaks the proscenium throughout Haiku, interrupting the movie (and acknowledging his debt to more accomplished monologists like Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian). Still, the guy is learning. The thoroughly likable Haiku has a flimsy, cheap, but engaging quality to it, never pretending to be more than it is (yet never rising to the more acute observational level of, say, Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine in dissecting the inanities of office life).
Inside Josh's overstuffed cranium lurks the soul of a fretful ne'er-do-well who can't commit to a gorgeous mountain-biking girlfriend and the spirit of a schlemiel who rocks out to the Pixies, They Might Be Giants, and Stravinsky. His creator has the talent to attract Spinal Tap vet Harry Shearer into a cameo as an orientation-day trainer ("Toner—watch it!"); such comic flourishes help compensate for the picture's raggedness and lend to its modest charm.
In a world where corporate efficiency is so overvalued, the comic worth of such a familiar, bungling office drone as Josh is almost priceless. If you don't know one at work, you may be one yourself.
Meet the Kornbluths
HERE FOR SIFF this past June, Jacob and Josh Kornbluth bear no grudges against the law firms and corporate suites of the world. "Josh's main problems are internal," says Josh Kornbluth of his character. "His problems are not that he's stuck in a stultifying office environment—his problem, to me, is that he's stuck in an incredibly ungrounded world of temporariness. He's going to need to go perm in some way. Yes, he fears his boss, but his boss doesn't turn out to be such a bad guy. Even the system doesn't seem to be a bad guy."
Indeed, given the vagaries of personal and professional life for Gen-X and -Y office workers, adds Jacob, "There's beauty in that there's pens in the storage room and copies come out of the machine and there's a coffee room . . . there's something you yearn for." Josh chimes in: "It's a rock. It's an oasis in a way. But the problem is if you don't have other stuff going on."
Finally, both brothers emphasize how they intentionally made Haiku a hybrid between straight monologue adaptation (e.g., Swimming to Cambodia) and dramatization (Talk Radio). "It's visual; the medium plays with itself," concludes Jacob.