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At The Picture Show
April 2013

The Brass Teapot

American dream

Uneven but charming 'The Brass Teapot' takes a simple premise into strange territory

The Brass Teapot
Magnolia Pictures
Director: Ramaa Mosley
Screenplay: Tim Macy
Starring: Juno Temple, Michael Angarano, Billy Magnussen, Alexis Bledel, Stephen Park, Alia Shawkat, Bobby Moynihan and Jack McBrayer
Rated R / 1 hour, 41 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

From the very beginning, The Brass Teapot seems destined to run out of steam. After all, how long can a movie survive when its central premise exhausts itself after only 20 minutes?

But right as those expectations are being validated, something changes. Almost as if conscious that it's about to fall into a deep and inescapable rut, the film reinvents itself on the fly, shifting tone and the basic conceit of the story while asking us to adjust our expectations accordingly.

In doing so, the film is able to exploit, if not all, then certainly many of its fundamental ideas and implications, while simultaneously saying much more about its principal characters and their relationship. At the half-hour mark, I expected, at best, a frivolously amusing lark that couldn't justify a feature-length run time; what I got instead was a lightly absurd, screwball-laced, coming-of-adulthood comedy.

The idea is this: a struggling young couple, eminently likeable but hopelessly naive, stumbles upon a magic teapot that will seemingly take care of all their financial woes. No, it doesn't grant wishes - it's much more demanding than that. It'll spit out wads and wads of hundred-dollar bills, but not until you bleed first. Its pleasure is in your pain.

Get punched in the face, it spits out a thousand or two. Burn yourself on the stove, that's another grand. Get a tooth pulled without anaesthesia? That's another few thousand. The world is yours, just as long as you're willing to pay for it with black eyes, bruises, welts, burns and - if necessary - body parts.

What ensues is something of a demented fairy tale, a cross between The Mask and every cautionary tale about lottery winners you've ever heard - with a little bit of Lord of the Rings thrown in for good measure (a reference point the film uses explicitly for comedic effect).

When we first meet our young couple, they're at home in bed, and they're happy. John (Michael Angarano) may hate his job as a telemarketer, but at least he gets to come home every day to Alice (Juno Temple), his high-school sweetheart. Alice is eternally, and foolishly, optimistic, believing fully in her husband's work prospects (which are dubious at best) and in her own ability to land a top-flight job based solely on the strength of her bachelor's degree.

She, more so than John, is still under that youthful spell that makes you believe you can - and should - start out on top. As foolish as we know her to be, her expectations get an ironic justification when, on little more than a hunch, she swipes a teapot from a local antique shop and discovers the seductive power it brings with it.

Once John is on board with Alice's new, er, fundraising plan, the film has a lot of fun with the ways the couple decide to hurt themselves - from putting their hands above the blue flame of their stovetop, to picking a fight with the biggest, meanest, murderiest guy at the pool hall, to getting themselves tattooed at the local parlor. The bumps and bruises and mutilations pile up, but the cash keeps rolling in, just as long as the teapot is always along for the ride. It, after all, has to bear witness.

But as I mentioned, the movie can only get so far on that idea alone. Some of the later developments are to be expected - like the people who come after John and Alice looking for the teapot, claiming it's their "rightful inheritance." But the most interesting wrinkle is the way the teapot gradually begins to adjust its requirements, forcing John and Alice to confront what they're willing to do - and more importantly, what they're even capable of - and the emotional toll those decisions and realizations take. The Brass Teapot never stops being a comedy - it takes a sardonic approach to even its darkest material - but it's not just satisfied with finding out where its plot goes. It cares about what the teapot reveals about each character.

Some of the finest moments come courtesy of Stephen Park as Dr. Ling, who has been searching for the teapot for years and years, and comes to warn John and Alice of its dangers. Park is one of those reliable character actors that I'm always happy to see pop up - most famously as Mike Yanagita in Fargo (though I loved him just as much in another Coen Bros. movie, A Serious Man).

He is the conscience of The Brass Teapot, particularly in a crucial late moment in which he calmly, sadly delivers an explanation of why he has been seeking the teapot for so long, and why he cares. It's a perfectly executed moment by a very good actor.

The film itself is not without its flaws. It doesn't handle John and Alice's rags-to-riches transition especially well, especially the treatment of their "best friends" (played by Alia Shawkat and Bobby Moynihan), who show up in a few scenes to make a point and then otherwise disappear. But I was impressed with the chances the director Ramaa Mosley and writer Tim Macy took with the material; and for a film that on paper seemed doomed to grow old far too quickly, it kept me pleasantly surprised.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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