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“Starbuck” is a small joy of a film: sweet without being cloying, gentle without being dull, and, above all, unassumingly, organically funny.
David Wozniak (Patrick Huard) is a genial bear of a middle-aged man. He’s affable, forgetful, bumbling, with a strong back, a widening middle, and a mane of dark hair. He’s the delivery driver for his father’s boucherie but can’t drive across town without getting a parking ticket. He’s dating a local police officer, Valerie (Julie LeBreton), but never invites her over because he’s growing pot in his apartment. He’s a friend to all and no one, a punchline within his own family, going nowhere and not really resenting it. Under his old warm-up jacket he wears the worn T-shirts of favorite hockey, futbol and baseball teams. He’s 42 and you get the feeling he’s been sleeping on a couch half his life. He’s been hibernating. He’s about to wake up.
He’s awakened at the start of this movie by local toughs, French-Canadian gangsters, who want the $80,000 he owes. Later that day, he discusses it sheepishly with one of his brothers at the family butcher shop.
Brother: How much do you owe?
Brother: 80 thousand?
David: When you say it with a face like that, it sounds like a lot.
Everyone else is more interested in the jerseys. David has volunteered to get the jerseys for their own futbol squad and they assume he’ll screw it up. They keep reminding him, he keeps assuring them, until finally he explodes: “I have the jerseys!” There’s a pause until one responds, matter of factly, “He obviously doesn’t have the jerseys.”
He doesn’t. Attempting to retrieve them, he gets into an argument with a man in a sportscar who has taken his parking space, and while he’s arguing the shopkeeper closes shop. He has to talk him into reopening the shop, by which point he’s got another parking ticket. But he’s got the jerseys. “They’re in the van,” he tells his friends. Cut to: the van being stolen. Cut to: the taking of the team picture, with everyone but David looking annoyed, and everyone but David attired in something besides the team’s red jersey.
Then his life gets complicated.
One of the running gags in the film involves all the different people who break into his apartment. The gangsters are first. A slick lawyer is second. He informs him that during the period between 1988 and 1990, under the pseudonym “Starbuck,” David donated sperm 693 times at a local sperm bank. (We later learn he was earning money to take his Polish-immigrant parents to Italy before his mother died.) Of those donations, 533 kids were born. Of those 533, 142 are enjoined in a class-action lawsuit to overturn the sperm bank’s confidentiality agreement and uncover who he is.
Oh, and Valerie’s pregnant, too.
There are good, honest bits on the horrors of children. “Never reproduce,” his brother with a pregnant wife tells him. His lawyer and friend (Antoine Bertrand), who must contact the local bar to get his license back to take David’s case, talks about his post-parent impotence. David wonders how he can use such language in front of his kids, but his friend remains unfazed. “I can say whatever I want,” he responds. “They don’t listen to me. They don’t pick up the frequency of my voice.” Even level-headed Valerie worries about what kind of mom she will be. She sees the snotty-nosed kids at the local playground and wants to smack them around.
All of David’s kids, of course, with the exception of Valerie’s, are in their early 20s now. David is given a manila envelope with the names and stories of each. He’s told not to look at it. Being David, he can’t resist.
The first is a professional soccer player. He and his lawyer attend a game and whoop it up. The second is a would-be actor working as a barista. David takes over for him so he can make an important audition. The third is a young drug addict. David takes her to the hospital when she ODs.
In this manner, anonymously, and seeing himself less as father-figure than guardian angel, he makes contact and tries to help those who need it. He’s as curious about them as they are about him. One is a lifeguard, another is a street musician, a third is autistic and living in an institution. David follows one offspring around town, a handsome gay man seemingly meeting boyfriend after boyfriend, until he hooks up with a girl in front of a fancy hotel. David follows them inside and into a conference hall where—he slowly realizes—he’s attending a meeting the 142 children of Starbuck. By this point he’s standing, looking around in disbelief at all of the life he’s helped create, and he’s asked, by the moderator, the street musician (played by French-Canadian musician David Giguère), why he’s there and what he wants. He claims to be the adoptive father of the autistic child who can’t make it. But he bucks them all up. He tells them that they may not know their biological father but they now know half-brothers and sisters. They now have another family. Everyone applauds.
“Starbuck” has its problems. All of the characters are a little too good-hearted. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. The gangsters, for example, have the patience to wait out the rest of the film, and break no bones, merely hold David (and then, more horrifically, his father) underwater in a bathtub. The second time they do it to David, in the midst of all his problems, he doesn’t even struggle. He seems to be thinking, “Well, this is one way out.”
Then there’s the scene with the drug addict, Julie, played by former child actress Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse. David helps her, trusts her, and the next morning she doesn’t betray that trust. Problem solved. Anyone who knows anyone who’s alcoholic or a substance abuser knows this means shit. One morning is nice but it’s one morning.
And how did David wind up owing $80 K anyway? It’s the opening salvo that drives the rest of the film but it doesn’t fit into his T-shirt and sweatpants lifestyle. Is he a gambler? Did he sink all of that money into sports memorabilia or harebrained business schemes? How do we know he won’t do it again?
Even so, the script by Ken Scott and Martin Petit, which won the Genie Award for best French-Canadian screenplay last year, goes in interesting, unexpected directions, and it never stops being funny. Its lead, meanwhile, Patrick Huard, handsome in profile, with a bit of Gerard Depardieu in his stunned, close-set eyes, and a bit of Bill Murray in his overall slacker demeanor, is glorious.
“Starbuck” winds up celebrating what it mocks (fatherhood, for example) but in a grounded way that never tips into schmaltz. Its joys are small: a baby’s hand in the tip of your finger; a montage of folks jumping off a dock and into a lake. Its laughs are big.
June 4, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard