Mia Wasikowska has often had a light touch, but Robert Pattinson?
Take away the (literal) glitter in his makeup from the “Twilight” movies, the need to be serious most any place else, and he can do deadpan with the best of them. Yeah, he’s done comedy before, but seriously, you have never seen “R Patts” like this.
Wasikowska and Pattinson took a flyer with “Damsel,” a comic Western by actors turned first-time feature directors, the Zellner Brothers. And for 75 minutes or so, their leading man and leading lady are a sagebrush-and-saddle-sore delight.
It’s just that the inexperienced Zellners turned that into a 113 minute movie, one with too little shared screen time between the co-stars and a protracted and far less whimsical third act.
Pattinson plays Daniel Alabaster, and his screen entrance here is one of the ages. He rows to a foggy, scenic Western show, opens the crate he has on board and the cutest miniature horse ever trots out.
No, he doesn’t ride it. When Daniel gets into “town,” a veritable freak show of drunks, murderers, bad wigs, bad teeth and a short-armed piano player, he spends a lot of time explaining the horse, wincing at whisky (which he doesn’t like) and brushing off insults to his manhood.
He’s a man with a mission. He’s looking for Parson Henry (David Zellner). And once he’s sobered him up, they set to honoring their contract.
The Parson is to accompany Daniel as they travel to meet his intended, the fair and dainty Penelope (Wasikowska).
I should mention that the opening credits of “Damsel” are set at a square dance and “cake walk,” and we have rarely seen two actors on a no-budget Western dancing and interacting with more unalloyed delight.
It’s also worth mentioning that the first scene after that is between an embittered old preacher (Robert Forster) and a “Go West, young man” (Zellner) greenhorn, with whom he inveighs about trying to “spoon feed religion to the savages” as they wait for a stagecoach in the scenic netherworld of Monument Valley. The crazy old man passes on his profession, and Bible and raiments to the kid.
Daniel? He’s got a picture of Penelope in his watchcase, a guitar (he’s written her a song, “My Honey Bun,” the funniest moment in the movie), a rifle, a six-shooter and a miniature horse he knows she’ll love, a horse named Butterscotch.
“I’m just a man who believes in love.”
The preacher, in his enforced sobriety, starts to wonder what this dude’s deal is. And then a shootout and chase give away the game. Penelope’s been “kidnapped.” Daniel is hellbent on getting Penelope back. The Parson isn’t just his preacher. He’s to be his posse.
The filmmakers lean heavily on the sardonic here. This is “Raising Arizona” without the breathless pace and unrelenting dimwit buffoonery. The leads dazzle, but the film around them tests your patience, after a while.
Seriously, tighter cutting, maybe workshopping the script with folks who know Westerns could have rendered this into the bouncy, edgy delight they were going for.
The anachronisms in their speech are funny, and the supporting characters, the ones rendered into “types,” pay off. But both Zellners wrote themselves acting roles in it (Nathan plays a fur trapper/mountain man whistling “Aloutte” when we meet him). Both parts should have been smaller.
It’s the tale’s dark twists and the characters’ quirky deviations from Old West cliche that must have drawn in Pattinson and Wasikowska. But if there’s one thing those giddy opening credits show us, they needed more screen time together — preferably flashbacks.
“Damsel” could have joined the ranks of, if not great Western comedies (“Destry Rides Again,” “Support Your Local Sheriff”), at least pretty good ones (“Cat Ballou,””Support Your Local Gunfighter”).
As it is, we can guffaw at the characterizations and situations for a good hour before that horse is plum played out.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence, language, sexual material, and brief graphic nudity
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, David Zellner, Robert Forster
Credits: Written and directed by David and Nathan Zellner. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:53