The idea that Los Angeles is a city of angels run by devils – that this is where people go to make their dreams come true and where dreams go to die – is, by this point, a completely overplayed cliché. (One based in truth, some might argue, but still.) But the notion that Hollywood, as both a place and a concept, remains a great place to stage a murder mystery? There’s still fertile ground to be tilled on the corner of Fountain and Fairfax. Exhibit A: Gemini, a chilled exercise in numbed-out noir that from its very first shot – the signature palm trees of Southern California, only seen upside down – suggests something that’s both familiar and slightly off. Yes, you know this Tinseltown. It’s also going to seem a little topsy turvy.
Jill (Mozart in the Jungle‘s Lola Kirke) is the personal assistant to movie star Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz), which means she’s also her bodyguard, go-between, bearer of bad news, best friend, babysitter and whatever else needs to be done on a whim. So she runs interference with boundary-less superfans and staves off the paparazzi who keep spreading rumors that she and Anderson are an item – a smoke screen for the actress’s actual under-the-radar relationship with a model (Greta Lee). Jill offers counsel and cocktails and only slightly flinches when her boss casually asks her, “You have a gun, right?” The two crash at Anderson’s mansion, where the celebrity thinks someone is lurking outside. The next morning, Jill leaves to take a meeting. She returns to find a corpse.
It’s not a coincidence that the cop (John Cho) who thinks Jill did the deed is meant to evoke a thousand other skeptical detectives from yesteryear’s thrillers. (This is your periodic reminder that John Cho is an incredibly talented actor who is vastly underutilized and should be working more. See also: Columbus.) Nor is it an accident that the blonde wig, sunglasses and trenchcoat that Jill dons as a disguise as she searches for answers is the universal uniform for noir femme fatales, or that a movie named Gemini is going to feature a lot of doubles and mirrors. Like Search Party, the TBS show that could be this movie’s east-coast cousin, it’s a variation on a formula laced with a hipster-ish vibe that keeps undercutting itself with bitterness and bemused dread: Forget it, Jake, it’s Silverlake.
Anyone who’d been checking in with the class of the Great Mumblecore Wave of ’07 could tell you that writer-director Aaron Katz was always the one to keep an eye on; from the Before-Sunrise-in-Brooklyn opus Quiet City (2007) to his golden-oldies road trip flick Land Ho! (2014), the Portland, Oregon native has a knack for the recognizably offbeat. He’s dabbled with sleuth stories before, in his 2010 masterpiece Cold Weather, and there are moments in Gemini where you can feel him reaching for elliptical, existential riffs that felt effortless there and winds up straining a tad here. Better to look at this as Katz’s skewed, aloof idea of a Los Angeles movie, one set in an industry town filled with Insta-obsessed stalkers, late-night karaoke joints and the belief that redemption is just one micromanaged TV interview away. The locust won’t have their day, but the crickets chattering on cellphones might.
So is Gemini a joke, you ask? You’re never sure whether Andrew Reed’s cinematography is straight borrowing from Michael Mann’s cool-blue visuals from Heat or mocking the sort of Angelenos that would watch that heist film and see nothing but a decor schematic for every single interior. Or, for that matter, whether composer Keegan DeWitt is parodying the sax-heavy scores of Skinemax thrillers past or simply copying one in between icy techno interludes. The fact that the performers, especially the exceptional Kirke, keep their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks helps ground things, as does the fact that the jabs are featherweight enough to pass as shrugs. It may feel insubstantial at times, but somewhere out there, there’s a twin of this film that lays on the L.A. Self-Owns Itself mojo in thick clumps. Gemini is the good-sibling version. It’s worth a whirl.