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Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke, 2008)
Fernando Eimbckeís Lake Tahoe recaptures the same mixture of melancholy and mirth that defined Duck Season, his promising first feature. What it lacks, somewhat, is the element of disarming surprise that made that movie something of a crowd pleaser. A gentle refinement of the formula that worked so well in Duck Season, Lake Tahoe is nonetheless a stylistically distinctive comedy that bandages its lack of ambition with no small amount of charm.
Set over roughly twenty-four hours, Lake Tahoe tells the story of Juan, a despondent young man whose broken down car forces him to re-engage with the world. Eimbcke follows his lead character as he traipses around a small Mexican town, in a series of static shots, often punctuated by cuts to black, making the movie feel something like a comic strip. Often his scenes offer a single gag, which becomes apparent only as the character traverses the frame. The approach allows comedy to emerge at its own, laid-back pace, and also highlights the anonymous locations used for the shoot.
The people Juan meets are an odd bunch, lending the film the same overall mood of a Jarmusch comedy. Quirkiness for its own sake can quickly become cloying and tiresome, especially when itís played for laughs. Here, though, character quirks represent the gap between an idealized and actual life. A mechanic who performs katas because he wants to be a Shaolin monk, a girl who sells auto parts instead of pop records, and a lonely old man who has his dog join him at the dinner table all become totemic reminders of lifeís disappointments, even as they make us laugh. Their presence doesnít distract, but rather predicts the ultimate transition of the nature of the protagonistís problems from practical to emotional. Thanks to them, this tonal shift is far less jarring than it would otherwise be.
Lake Tahoe is likable, to be sure, but it is entirely defined by its limited scope. Eimbcke may be filming his comedy outdoors this time, but the differences from Duck Season are minor otherwise. The surprises that this new film offers are few, even if it missteps rarely (the overt crisis that the lead character finally has would be one flaw, however). Films played in a minor key are not inherently problematic, but sophomore films that play in the same minor key as their predecessors are something of a red flag. In sum, Lake Tahoe confirms Embicke as a promising young talent, but simultaneously raises some worries that heís only able to offer a small, singular form of pleasure.