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According to legend, when Raymond Carter was asked by the screenwriters who were adapting “The Big Sleep” (including William Faulkner) who killed one of the many victims (a chauffeur) in the labyrinthine story, he reportedly said that he didn’t know himself, and the question remains a matter of dispute among fans. Those who watch Dave Boyle’s “Man from Reno” might be similarly perplexed about some of the plot twists after seeing the picture and might find it difficult to parse things out successfully even after a second or third viewing. (One of them, appropriately enough, involves a dead chauffeur—something that’s surely no accident.) But they’ll probably enjoy the picture as it unspools, and find the puzzle it constructs pleasurable to reflect on afterwards, even if they can’t make all the pieces mesh perfectly.

The picture begins in a bifurcated way, juxtaposing two apparently unrelated disappearances. In one, county sheriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna) comes upon an abandoned car as he’s driving through the fog one night, and as he continues the drive strikes a man (Hiroshi Watanabe) who initially runs away but eventually winds up in the hospital; the night morning, though, he borrows some clothes and runs off, leaving the sheriff to try to track him down.

Elsewhere, Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani), a successful but glum detective novelist, flees Japan to seek anonymity and quiet in San Francisco. (In an amusing turn reminiscent of what once happened to Agatha Christie, the press back home will speculate wildly about her sudden disappearance.) There she meets a handsome stranger (Kazuki Kitamura) who introduces himself as Akira Suzuki and quickly charms his way into her room, and her bed. The next day, however, he too disappears, abandoning a suitcase containing, among other things, a head of lettuce, an oddity that’s only explained later on when Aki discovers something else that he’s left behind in the hotel.

The apparent separateness of the two mysteries is only deepened by the fact that the first is played out in English and the second in Japanese, with subtitles. (At one point the script will make an important plot point over the proper English translation of a Japanese word overheard by a loquacious German fellow played by Karl Heinz Teuber.) But, of course, the two incidents aren’t unrelated at all. Before long the sheriff is knocking at Aki’s door, inquiring after Suzuki. Since by this time she’s already been accosted by some threatening men looking for the man, she’s eager to join the lawman in ferreting out the truth about her one-night stand.

What follows is a veritable avalanche of clues, revelations, close shaves and red herrings involving a slew of secondary characters including one of Del Moral’s rich benefactors back home, the ill, more than slightly sinister Luft (Derrick O’Connor). It turns out that the labyrinthine plot features smuggling, identity theft, alternative medicine and murder. Boyle and his co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman toss in allusions to lots of prior pictures, including “Chinatown” and “Vertigo” and even “The Maltese Falcon” and “Charade,” but their intricate narrative seems especially reminiscent of “The Usual Suspects” in the lavish proliferation of direction and misdirection it tries to tie together in the end—as well as in the decision to avoid a resolution that would leave the audience smugly satisfied that justice has prevailed.

Whether “Man from Reno” really manages to fit all the shards and suggestions it’s strewn along the way into a truly coherent solution is debatable. What isn’t in doubt is that Boyle pulls it off in moody style, aided by Katy Porter’s atmospheric production design, the languid editing by Sean Gillane and Yasu Inoue, Richard Wong’s evocative cinematography and Micah Dahl Anderson’s spare but brooding score. The cast contributes to the feel of the piece, with veteran Serna’s regular-guy geniality complementing Fujitani’s dour determination nicely and Kitamura giving Suzuki a dose of real charisma. Among the supporting cast O’Connor makes a particularly telling impression.

The picture makes a few missteps—a plot thread involving Del Moral’s daughter, who’s also his deputy (Elisha Skorman) is extraneous and could easily have been eliminated. But they can be forgiven in a film that can be frustrating in its steadfast refusal to be clear about who’s who, but by the end has become an effective neo-noirish parable about how slippery and shifting the truth is.


An extended sitcom with surprisingly little comic bite, “Adult Beginners” aims to be a breakout vehicle for Nick Kroll, but its mildness does him absolutely no favors.

Written by Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive and limply directed by producer-turned-helmer Ross Katz, the film introduces Kroll as Jake, a well-heeled New York entrepreneur who loses his wealth—and the tolerance of most of his investors—in a catastrophic rollout of a piece of electronic paraphernalia called Minds I, glasses that will supposedly open the world of the Internet—and beyond—to their users. Broke and friendless, he repairs in disgrace to his childhood home in the suburbs, now occupied by his pregnant sister Justine (Rose Byrne), her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale) and their three-year old son Teddy (Caleb and Matthew Paddock).

Danny, a friendly, gregarious sort of fellow who’s fixing up the place with an eye toward selling it, suggests that Jake could carry his weight around the place by taking care of Teddy while he and Justine, a teacher, are at work, saving them the cost of daycare; he even offers a token payment of $300 per week. Of course, initially the hyper-active kid proves too much for his uncle to handle, but it seems like no time at all before the two are bonding. Jake also strikes up a relationship with Blanca (Paula Garces), a nanny he meets while taking the boy to the park.

Everything can’t run smoothly, of course, and so the script introduces a potential speed bumps—Jake’s discovery that Danny has enjoyed a date at a massage parlor with a pretty co-worker, his receipt of a job offer at a tony financial firm—and rather tiresome secondary characters (a loose-living bachelor friend of Jake’s back in the city, an erstwhile high-school classmate) are introduced to provide a semblance of variety. But the movie is basically about what so many are—the importance of family—and the point is made in crushingly obvious form toward the close, when Jake has to choose between putting his job first or racing off to be with his sister when she needs him. There’s very little doubt about what his choice will be.

Kroll proves himself adept at delivering supposed zingers, as well as scowling and rolling his eyes on cue, but there’s a phlegmatic quality to his performance, as though he were constantly waiting for a laugh track to kick in. Far more capable are Byrne and Cannavale; she brings a bright, engaging, slightly ditzy likability to Justine, while he once again conveys perfectly the image of a laid-back, genial middle-class guy who enjoys sneaking out for a joint every once in a while. Garces is pleasant as an easygoing girl who doesn’t mind when Jake’s sister tags along on what’s supposed to be a date, and the rest of the supporting cast gets by without offering much that’s special.

In the final analysis, though, “Adult Beginners” is just too familiar, and Kroll’s shtick doesn’t raise it above the ordinary. The title, incidentally, refers to the fact that Jake and Justine join Teddy in his swimming lessons despite the fact that they have to overcome their fear of the water. The movie itself neither sinks nor swims; it just floats along on a current of bland affability that identifies it as yet another sadly toothless American independent comedy.