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Movie Review

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

A Boston film that plays a different tune

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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Of the many movies set in or near Boston in 2010, the black-and-white one about kids who erupt spontaneously into song might be the most exciting. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’’ isn’t as well-acted as “The Fighter,’’ as suspenseful as “The Town,’’ as brilliantly structured as “The Social Network,’’ or, for that matter, as confusing as “Shutter Island.’’ It is, however, new and young. Those other movies were made by artists we know well. “Guy and Madeline’’ is the work of an artist — Damien Chazelle — you want to know better. It’s whimsical and winsome and a touch quaint.

Not only does the movie look like it’s set somewhere, it feels, cinematically, to have arrived from someplace — early John Cassavetes, the French New Wave, Eastern Europe. The characters drift around Copley, the Back Bay, and South End, with the camera at their backs or near their shoulders. They don’t say much. But Chazelle gives his movie a mood that feels precise. In one early shot, the Hancock building is obscured by a fog that extends to a few of the characters.

Essentially, this is a break-up movie. Guy is a trumpeter, played by the actual trumpet player Jason Palmer. He loves music. He loves women. It’s simply unclear whether he’ll ever love a woman. He’s dating Madeline (Desiree Garcia), and our time with them lasts for a couple of scenes. Their split confirms that she needs to get her life together. But the lovesickness never leaves her face. In fact, singing about Guy near the old North Church only makes it worse. His spirit is freer. One afternoon, on the T, he meets someone else. Her name is Elena (Sandha Khin), and they spend the better part of their ride staring at each other in the way that is customary for two horny strangers. We just saw her giving her phone number to some performer in Faneuil Hall, and now, two scenes later, Guy is lying on the frameless mattress she calls a bed.

Calling this movie “Guy and Madeline’’ instead of “Guy and Elena’’ suggests that, at heart, Chazelle is old-fashioned. Madeline is a dreamy romantic. Elena is riskier, more carnal. Not that we see her carnality in action. By “old-fashioned,’’ I actually mean chaste. This could have been made in 1957 without having to do much more than change the characters’ races — Palmer is black, Khin is Asian, Madeline Hispanic. But this doesn’t feel like a throwback or even a tribute to another age. It’s as though we’ve picked up a rock and discovered a colony of jazz nerds who attend cramped house parties where tap-danced musical numbers break out.

These numbers are earnest but they feel completely organic. Chazelle is going for something close to Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourgh,’’ a musical, from 1964, choreographed to seem absolutely natural. The considerable charm of Chazelle’s movie is that its handful of musical eruptions feels somehow more organic than Demy’s. One song and dance, led by Garcia, at Jasper White’s Summer Shack, is a moment of easy beauty.

Guy, Madeline, and Elena don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going. They do make surprising choices in the company they keep, particularly the women, and the windows of possibility that are a fact of youth appear only partially opened for them. These are young characters with heavy old souls. If he’s interested, Chazelle could go further into sex and eroticism than he tries to here.

The camera does glide down that trumpet as it rests in Guy’s lap, pretty much wringing dry its phallic worth. He might turn into Denzel Washington in “Mo’ Better Blues.’’ For now, he’s Sidney Poitier in “Paris Blues.’’ What’s most exciting about “Guy and Madeline’’ is that Chazelle bothered to make it at all. Other artists his age (he’s 25) and a little older make stage musicals and wind up with “Bat Boy,’’ “Urinetown,’’ “Avenue Q,’’ and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’’ He made a movie musical, instead. I hope he loves the art form enough to make more.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Jason Palmer, Desiree Garcia, and Sandha Khin

At: Brattle Theatre

Running time: 82 minutes

Unrated (singing, dancing, longing sexual glances)

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