Sinister dolls are nothing new in films; the series of Chucky “Child’s Play” movies are the most recent, if hardly the best, examples. So it’s not surprising that a first-time writer-director should have embraced the premise for his debut. The doll in “Love Object” is no children’s toy, though; it’s a sexual device that exercises an evil control over the poor sap who purchases it, much the way the ventriloquist’s dummies did in “Dead of Night” and “Magic.”
But that’s not the only obvious cinematic debt Parigi owes. His picture opens like a starker version of “Office Space” with a touch of “Dilbert” on the side as oily boss Mr. Novak (Rip Torn, doing remarkably little with the part) gives a big new assignment–and a promise of a bonus–to his best technical writer, stiff, introverted Kenneth (Desmond Harrington). He also gives Kenneth something he doesn’t want: a temp secretary named Lisa (Melissa Sagemiller). Kenneth spends the bonus he hasn’t yet earned on the doll, called Nikki, but after he begins using it, he gets interested in the real thing, Lisa. Cut to Parigi’s take on “Vertigo” as weird Kenneth strives to remake Lisa in Nikki’s image, only to have Nikki–in the poor fellow’s fervid imagination, grows jealous and possessive. Though it wouldn’t be fair to reveal precisely what happens in the last act of the picture, it can be said that if the initial third is a black comedy and the second a sort of psycho-thriller, the final one moves deep into horror movie territory. Much blood doth flow in the process, some of it involving Udo Kier, who (like Torn) isn’t at all challenged by the trite material he’s given as the nosy apartment manager.
The problem with “Love Object” is that it moves progressively downhill. The first part has the virtues of a good film school project. Using fairly simple means, Parigi captures the cold, antiseptic environment of Kenneth’s office, and Harrington (who most recently played the bland hero in the gruesome slasher flick “Wrong Turn”) manages a reasonably good imitation of the dry, distant fellow totally unable to connect with other human beings. When Kenneth first acquires Nikki, there’s a funny scene in which his neighbors badger him about the unwieldy box that’s been delivered to his door, and another in which he and the doll watch a video of “The English Patient,” which he’s been told women love. As the picture segues into its “Vertigo” portion, however, it becomes less amusing and more stilted. And Sagemiller, sad to say, doesn’t bring a great deal to the party: she’s attractive enough, but basically lukewarm, and the relationship between her and Kenneth never seems remotely plausible. But it’s the last third of the picture that goes completely off the rails. Kenneth’s obsession with merging Nikki and Lisa is obvious, but the way in which it’s dramatized, with the fellow taking on the characteristics of a deranged Dr. Frankenstein, is so tonally at odds with what’s preceded (as well as unpleasantly graphic) that it sours one’s recollections of what had gone before. (It’s much the same sort of miscalculation that put the final nail into “May” last year.)
The upshot is that though there are moments of considerable promise in the film, particularly in the first hour or so, its ultimate stumble largely cancels them out; even a fairly clever ironic ending fails to salvage things. “Love Object” proves that Parigi has seen many different kinds of movies, but he hasn’t been able to meld his homages to three of them into a satisfying whole. Though you might admire bits and pieces of it, overall this movie is unlikely to be the object of anyone’s affection.