Sleep Easy, Hutch Rimes shows the troubling side of comedy

The third season of the Williamstown Film Festival (WFF) began with the students of Williams College intermingling with the filmmakers and members of the community for the first time. After a day spent at and about Images Cinema, viewing and discussing the works of Williams alums D.W. Maze and Stacy Cochran, we headed over to MASS MoCA for a bigger venue and the slightly more recognizable faces of this weekend’s offerings.

Sleep Easy, Hutch Rimes, starring Steven Weber, Swoosie Kurtz and Gabriel Mann, is the third feature directed by Matthew Irmas. Hutch Rimes (Weber), the owner of an insurance company, is a successful businessman involved in an office affair with his domestically-abused secretary. The woman enlists Hutch in a scheme to kill her husband that tragically results in her own accidental death at her husband’s hand.

Fast forward ten years. Hutch, remarkably unscathed by the incident, finds himself engaged in an affair with another busty, blonde secretary just as the husband of the first woman is being released from prison. Complications ensue, with Hutch finding himself both unsuccessfully trying to extricate himself from his latest affair right as the old one finally catches up with him.

WFF publicity characterized Sleep Easy as ’40s film noir meets the Coen brothers (makers of Fargo and most recently O Brother, Where Art Thou). And while one could argue that the Coens have already met that genre on several occasions, the Coen spirit of twisting conventional genre-narrative is quite evident here. Sleep Easy slips into a mix of uncomfortably serious issues and loopy plot twists that are both hilariously unexpected and more than a little unsettling.

The film is anchored by Steven Weber’s performance as Rimes, and augmented by two other wonderful performances: Swoosie Kurtz’s funny, sad turn as Rimes’ most loyal employee Binny Redwine, and Gabriel Mann, whose stubborn humanity in the thankless role of the ex-con Cotton Proudfit is ultimately wasted in the demand of the plot’s final (and cheapest) machination.

Many side plots and secondary characters seem more interesting and successful than the main ones. Dewey, the jilted husband of the second act (Memento’s Stephen Tobolowsky), is more comically successful for not having to rely on anything other than old-fashioned slapstick clumsiness. The rough negotiations of emotion after the reunification of Jesse Proudfit and his father threaten to bestow the film with a heart it may never have aspired for.

Director Matthew Irmas is not short on the twists and turns. As Hutch Rimes’ trials unfold and refold upon themselves, complications accrue in the way a film like ‘Fargo’ stacks corpses, in tragic domino fashion. Hutch continues to dabble in the company ink establishing the familiar noir (and Shakespearean) momentum in which a character’s tragic flaw or single mistake in judgment will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Radio ads and billboards for Hutch’s insurance agency encourage consumers to “sleep easy with Hutch Rimes.” The titular comfort Sleep Easy bestows upon Hutch seems not only a sidewise poke at The Big Sleep, but an evocation of the assured and insured comfort of the modern consumer age.

Both comedy and noir thrillers rely on surprising plot twists and the helplessness of its protagonist, and we begin to understand that Hutch Rimes is simultaneously at the mercy of two different genres. He can slip and fall on his face, and we laugh, but the next moment finds him abetting his lover in the murder of her husband.

The really troubling thing about the film’s coupling of loopy comedy with dark thriller, however, is that the two genres’ successes seem mutually exclusive. Early in the film, a brutish bully of a husband punches his wife in the mouth for some meaningless domestic misstep, grotesquely splitting her lip. She wears the unsightly scar for the remainder of her doomed existence, and though the movie tries to recover from the moment and press upon us again the comic desperation of her character, nothing’s funny because we can’t take our eyes off that wound.

Seeing a movie at MASS MoCA cranks up aesthetic expectations, as though museums could only be the site of classier, more erudite film fare. High aesthetic expectations seem in hindsight to be rather beside the point in a film like Sleep Easy, Hutch Rimes, a scattered, often entertaining film with admittedly milder aspirations.

Sleep Easy tries to be a couple of things over the course of its hour and forty-five minutes; high art is not one of them. Its generic combination of black comedy and film noir is such a standard mixture in Hollywood today it practically constitutes a new genre in and of itse

lf. Sleep Easy manages to pull off elements of both modes from time to time, alternating between dark psychological drama and ridiculous characters behaving ridiculously. However, it doesn’t manage to sustain either effect, or to fully combine or successfully integrate its comedy and drama.

All of which doesn’t go to say that the film is not entertaining. If the reaction of the audience at our screening may be taken as representative, the film is exactly that. Perhaps that’s what is so troubling about the harsh violence coinciding with comedy: audiences more and more often don’t seem to mind such juxtapositions. Our audience on Saturday night was an enthusiastic one, agreeably laughing at even the lamest jokes, as if by cue.

What seemed apparent on Saturday evening, and through the entirety of this first weekend of the Williamstown Film Festival, was that the audience was enthusiastic just to be there.