At one time, Michael Keaton was the man. He was ‘Batman,’ he was ‘Beetlejuice’ and very few actors were bigger. What happened? He sort of made a comeback with the terrible ‘White Noise’ but it’s been a matter of puttering along in starts and fits. In 2009, he directed and starred in a tiny film that came and went with little notice. That film was ‘The Merry Gentleman.’

Katie (Kelly Macdonald) is an abused woman who runs away to Chicago, far from her policeman husband. Once there, she quickly finds a nice office job and lives quietly, keeping everyone at an arm’s length. The trouble is, people keep asking her about her black eye and her past, but she is unwilling to open up.

Since it is around Christmas time, Katie decides to get an absurdly large tree for her apartment. A mysterious stranger with a bad cough gives her a hand after she runs into a bit of trouble. His name is Frank Logan (Keaton). Unbeknownst to Katie, Frank is a contract killer.

With the law closing in on Frank and Katie’s abusive past never too far away, will these two lonely people find solace in each other

First thing first: Keaton’s direction is fine. The actors are kept in line and most of the action is framed appropriately. It would be nice to see him working with some stronger material next time. If there is a next time.

There are just too many genres squeezed together. The mildly humorous elements undermine the mood cultivated by the spousal abuse and loneliness themes.

Why is Frank a hit man? It’s always a cool concept that plenty of screenwriters use to create mysterious characters with the potential for violence, suspense and surprises later in the story. Here, the choice seems arbitrary. He kills a few people at the start of the story, but outside of an incident late in the game, his occupation doesn’t really come up again. Keaton also sort of underplays the role. Frank is borderline mute early in the story which isn’t really necessary. Couldn’t he be a little more articulate and expressive, while still keeping mum about personal details? His character is certainly pleasant and we eventually get to know him a tiny bit more by the end, but it does leave us wanting more answers.  Is Frank the titular merry gentleman?  He doesn’t seem very merry.

Kelly Macdonald is her usual likeable self. The real question is: why does she fall so hard for Frank? It’s like the plot is forcing these two characters together, not so much against their will, but against what nature intended. Sure, the obvious alternative is the overeager cop who is out to win her affections. His nosy questions and ceaseless prodding into her past make her uneasy.

Special features include: only a theatrical trailer.

The story does breeze by quickly, a few of the more important characters are pleasant and as long as you expect a slow paced, low-key character study, you might be alright with a lot of the film. You have to overlook some ridiculously well-worn themes all mashed together and some weak dialog, though. For most people, that’s simply too much to ask.

Rated R              110 minutes        2008

When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!

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