When critics refer to a film as formulaic, it’s often meant in a derogatory way, as it suggests that the film in question adheres too much to expected conventions, possibly to the point of tediousness. When it comes to genre pictures, there’s nothing wrong with formula per se, especially when it’s done right. After all, mysteries, romantic comedies and horror movies may need to conform to certain conventions in order to remain recognizable as a member of a particular genre, but that doesn’t mean they can’t provide something new and innovative in the process.
This preliminary discussion about the benefits of formula seems particularly apt in light of the movie being reviewed here: 2009’s White on Rice. From its earliest scenes, the film suggests that it will provide a conventional coming-of-age-story for its hapless manchild of a protagonist, and yet the film proceeds to defy convention by having the character remain exactly the same. While subverting expectations is often thought to be a goal that all films should strive for, White on Rice proves that altering the formula so dramatically can yield terrible results.
This arrested development comedy centers on Hajime (Hiroshi Watanabe), an exuberantly child-like, if tragically dimwitted forty-year-old divorcee. Called “Jimmy” by most everyone, he lives with his younger sister Aiko (Nae), who has always stood up for her brother despite his obvious incompetence and the strain his presence puts on her marriage. Aiko’s much older husband, Tak (Mio Takada), can’t wait for his unwanted houseguest to leave, although Jimmy seems more than happy to stay indefinitely, as he shares a bunk bed with his ten-year-old nephew, Bob (Justin Kwong).
Although somehow able to hold an office job, Jimmy comes across as unbelievably moronic - a character who has been coddled by almost everyone who has had emotional ties to him. For instance, when Jimmy’s unhappy ex-wife left him, she went to the trouble of cooking three months worth of meals for her former husband, worried that he’d be unable to fend for himself. Once the food supply dwindled down to nothing, Jimmy packed his bags for California to be under the care of his doting sister. While Jimmy may indeed be depressed by the breakup of his marriage, there’s no denying that he’s socially awkward, lacks a filter when speaking to other people, and seems a little too old to be as obsessed with dinosaurs as he clearly is. To put it mildly, Jimmy qualifies as a loser – and not a lovable one.
Aiko tries in vain to set her brother up on dates, but all of them end in disaster, especially a cringeworthy dinner date involving a tall Japanese American woman. Callous and hurtful with his off-the-cuff remarks about the woman’s size, Jimmy seems less childlike and more childish than anything else. Creepily enough, Jimmy has romantic designs on Tak’s much younger niece, Ramona (Lynn Chen), who’s staying with the family while she’s off from school. Ramona apparently has some unresolved romantic issues with her old flame, Tim Kim (James Kyson Lee of Heroes), who just so happens to be Jimmy’s co-worker. With the help of his nephew Bob, Jimmy tries to woo Ramona, but to no avail.
In addition to Jimmy’s story, White on Rice, contains two additional subplots. The first involves Bob, who turns out to be a secret piano prodigy. To pay for his lessons, Bob mows lawns, unbeknownst to his self-absorbed parents. The other subplot involves Tak’s insecurities about his age, feeling that he’s much too old for his wife, who seems more interested in doting on her brother and working at her job than spending quality time with her hubby. While Justin Kwong generates definite sympathy in his role as the overlooked child, the resolution of both these plots are somewhat perfunctory, largely because we have little investment in the lives of the parents. This is perhaps a direct byproduct of the fact that the film is largely “The Jimmy Show” – for good or for ill.
Leading man Hiroshi Watanabe, who appeared in director Dave Boyle’s previous Big Dreams Little Tokyo (2006) and Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), does an admirable job in the largely thankless role of Jimmy, giving the character some measure of charm, although not quite enough to make you root for him. In truth, Jimmy – a thoroughly unlikeable, idiotic Japanese immigrant – teeters on the brink of a very unflattering racial caricature. In stark contrast to Jimmy, we have Lynn Chen and James Kyson Lee who come across as much more realistic human beings, so much so that they feel like stand-ins for the audience, as the two seem puzzled by Jimmy’s outlandish actions.
And yet all of this could have been remedied had Jimmy experienced some sort of epiphany about his life, demonstrated some personal growth, or redeemed himself in some discernable way. Sadly, the film’s terrible final act exposes White on Rice’s fundamental problem: Jimmy – a character who has proven to be insensitive to the feelings of others, unabashedly lusts after his brother-in-law’s much younger niece, and causes untold number of problems for the people who cross his path – learns absolutely nothing on this presumed journey of self-discovery. In fact, an event late in the film causes him to believe that he’s saved the day.
And to make matters worse, the film rewards Jimmy with Mary (Joy Osmanski), a young, cute girlfriend who inexplicably has the hots for Jimmy, despite the fact that he ignored her in favor of Ramona. One would expect a scene in which the two discover their mutual interests, bond, and fall for each other. Such a scene does not occur. As such, Jimmy’s change of heart seems to have been dictated by the parameters of the script rather than anything shown onscreen. I don’t mean to suggest that all movies should be about hugging and learning, but is it so much to ask for a protagonist with some redeeming characteristics?
Despite my harsh words, White on Rice isn’t a horrible film by any means – its vision of an otherwise normal Japanese American family showed real potential, despite its lack of a suitable payoff. And whatever complaints I have about Jimmy as a protagonist, I have to admit that his immature shtick did keep the proceedings amusing. Out of leftfield lines like “I had a dream that I killed you” are sure to elicit more than a few chuckles.
Director Dave Boyle – a white, former Mormon missionary from Tucson, Arizona – has said that the title, beyond a reference to the Asian preference for rice, was meant to suggest the closeness of family. But in the case of our hapless hero Jimmy, I think White on Rice gets a little too close for comfort. (Calvin McMillin, 2011)