Have you ever watched a movie and thought to yourself: “Hey, that doesn’t look so hard. I could probably do that too!” We all have, there’s no need to lie. Especially if it’s relatively small in scope and doesn’t require a huge budget. It’s natural to think, or at least hope, that you would be able to produce art that seems just as effortless. However, the harsh reality is that’s not true. Directing, like any craft, takes years of dedicated study and practice to hone. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to film school, though it does require competency. Let’s define that before we continue. “Competency: the ability to do something successfully or efficiently.” With his feature directorial debut Poolman, Chris Pine demonstrates a complete lack of competency as a storyteller, and an embarrassing display of hubris for the duration of the film’s excruciating runtime.
Chris Pine is considered by many to be the most talented of the Hollywood “Chrises” and an actor making the leap to directing is always an intriguing prospect. Ben Affleck and Jordan Peele quickly come to mind. Pine has been a working actor for over two decades and the general consensus is that he flaunts loads of charisma. From his first big break as the charming Nicholas Devereaux in The Princess Diaries 2: The Royal Engagement to the audacious Captain Kirk in Star Trek to his role as Steve Trever in DC’s Wonder Woman, Pine has won our hearts on screen time and time again. It’s fair to say that because of his talent alone, he was able to naturally engender a lot of goodwill and genuine interest in Poolman. It’s a shame then that this directorial debut is anything but adequate.
Inspired by the neo-noir classic Chinatown (something the film insists on reminding the audience of), Chris Pine’s Poolman is centered around maliciously affable local poolman and “activist” Darren Barrenman (also played by Pine). When June Del Rey, portrayed by the magnetic DeWanda Wise, bails Barrenman out of jail following his unlawful outburst at a city council meeting, he becomes ensnared in a nefarious political conspiracy. June confirms Darren’s suspicions that the city councilmen are indeed corrupt and are involved in the siphoning of large amounts of water from an underground reservoir. With no one else to turn to, June implores Darren to help her uncover the truth for the greater good of Los Angeles’ citizenry.
Initially apprehensive about doing amateur detective work, Darren sees June’s plea as the portentous sign he’s been waiting for and chooses to help. Barrenman then further enlists the help of his pseudo-parents, Jack (Danny DeVito) and Diane (Annette Bening), and his alleged girlfriend Susan (Jennifer Jason-Leigh). Under Darren’s lead, the group begins tailing politicians and putting together the disparate pieces of this waterlogged mystery.
The plot of Poolman might not sound particularly offensive at first. Derivative of Chinatown and boring? Maybe… but as catastrophic as the log scene from Final Destination 2? Now, that’s hard to believe. While Chris Pine’s debut doesn’t initially seem like the kind of film that has much time to go off the rails as much as it does, its screenplay is truly horrid. Written by Pine and Ian Gotler, the script is full of characters that do nothing but espouse vapid and patently unfunny dialogue over and over for nearly two hours. How Pine bamboozled so many talented actors into participating in his vanity project is anyone’s guess, and yet he manages to waste their talents quite brilliantly nonetheless. Even though many of them do a serviceable job in their roles, it’s hard to see why anyone other than Pine would have wanted to be involved in Poolman.
It’s equally hard to believe that Chris Pine thought this script and character were in any way deserving of being adapted to screen. However, the fact that he conceived the character while working on the set of producer Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 may offer some explanation. As previously mentioned, Poolman is essentially one big Chinatown homage (the characters even sit down to watch it before they start their investigation), but it’s done in the vein of a really bad SNL sketch. It may have clear parallels to that classic film, though it’s not as if Pine’s writing is offering contrasting commentary or is intelligently updating its narrative either. In fact, by repeatedly bringing up Chinatown, Poolman only succeeds in making itself look that much weaker in comparison.
Chris Pine’s directorial choices are uninspiring as well. Stylistically, he borrows from directors more talented and experienced than himself (the Coen Brothers, mostly) hoping you’ll mistake his creative aping for genuine acumen. Poolman is exhausting for a plethora of reasons, primarily because of its script, but also because the movie never settles into a felicitous rhythm or pace. It doesn’t have scenes that flow well into the next, often feeling jarring and tedious. Poolman being a patch job interferes with your investment in the already overly familiar plot as well.
There’s perhaps one scene in the entire thing that feels like it was made with well-defined and sincere intent, and it comes in the last thirty minutes. Pine’s Darren Barrenman and the councilman he suspected of corruption (Stephen Tobolowsky) share an intimate, blessedly quiet moment. This is the singular instance where the directing and the writing work in synchronicity and it perhaps points towards where Pine’s inherent directorial strengths lie as it’s also the only scene where Poolman not trying to imitate another work.
Very few directorial debuts are perfect. Many filmmakers don’t find their “stride” until their second or third feature, but it’s rare to see someone stumble out of the gate this badly. If Poolman were directed by someone with no connections to the industry, it would be ridiculed and forgotten about within months – if it managed to be screened for an audience at all. Yet, this is directed by Chris Pine and that means… well, the film will still be forgotten about but not before it receives the attention it doesn’t deserve. As for Pine, as charming as he is, maybe he should put the camera down, take a cue from his own character, and do some serious soul-searching.