Road movies often fall into ruts, as do pictures about uptight guys who are liberated by the attentions of freewheeling girls, but Fatih Akin’s sophomore feature merges the two to surprisingly engaging effect. “In July” has considerable charm, wit and style, and does the unexpected often enough to keep you consistently amused.
The picture centers on Daniel (Moritz Bleibtreu, the hapless boyfriend from Tom Tykwer’s “Run Loa Run”). We meet him in an eye-catching opening sequence as a bedraggled hitchhiker in the desolate Bulgarian countryside, begging a ride from a short-tempered, theatening driver named Isa (Mehmet Kurtulus), who–we soon learn–is concealing something inconvenient in the trunk of his car. The narrative quickly enters flashback mode, backtracking a few days to depict Daniel in his earlier guise as a rigidly controlled, nervous teacher planning to spend the coming holiday at home in Hamburg. But he bumps into a free-spirited girl, Juli (Christiane Paul), who finds him attractive and plants a “magical” suggestion she hopes will eventually draw him back to her. Instead, however, he falls for Melek (Idil Uner), a Turkish tourist he encounters making her way back to Istanbul, and before long he’s resolved to chase after her and declare his love. On the way, however, he links up with none other than Juli, and as the two squabble their way through a series of comic adventures on the way southeast, Daniel gradually comes to see that he’s been pursuing the wrong woman, and loosens up to be able to tell Juli so.
There’s certainly nothing innovative or surprising to this story–it’s just a variant of the old formula, used so often by filmmakers (John Hughes employed it repeatedly in his high school comedies), about the guy who’s too dense to notice, until the final reel, that the person meant for him is right by his side, combined with the wacky road trip escapades filmgoers encounter so often–but Akin gives it enough pleasantly eccentric touches to make it seem almost fresh. (Only an episode involving Branka Katic as an ostentatiously uninhibited gypsy named Luna–a name with special resonance in the plot–seems forced.) His leads, moreover, have some real chemistry. Bleibtreu is a winning hero, his hangdog expression and helplessness coming across as endearing rather than irritating, and Paul avoids the smugness that might have rendered Juli all too precious. The colorful supporting cast helps too, with Akin himself offering a nifty cameo as a border guard. Technically the film is adequate if unspectacular, with good location atmosphere.
Plotwise “In July” may take a well-worn route, but it takes enough twists and turns along the way to make it, if not the vacation of a lifetime, a generally enjoyable trip.