Director: Mike Testin
Writer: Mario Carvalhal
Producer: Raphael Margules, J.D. Lifshitz
Stars: Lukas Haas, Sarah Rafferty, Chloe Bridges, Abhi Sinha, Jocelin Donahue, Bodhi Elfman
A lonely bachelor¡¯s ordinary life turns upside-down after someone mysteriously steals and impersonates his identity.
¡°Browse¡± starts strangely. Jocelin Donahue comes into focus on a beach staring straight into the lens. Her image flickers with pixilated glitches before cutting to an empty room with a piano. Another flicker shows a woman sitting at the piano for a split second. Then a rewind races backward through a montage of more moments without context. Cut to a Los Angeles skyline in a small box growing to fit the full frame. Establishing shots set up an apartment building where Lukas Haas smokes alone on the rooftop. Fade to black. Fade up on the title.
Get used to not being entirely sure what this movie is up to. I¡¯m not sure ¡°Browse¡± always knows either.
Few actors play sad sacks as sympathetically as Lukas Haas does. Haas embodies another one with Richard, an ordinary average guy in every literal sense of the term.
Still suffering from the heartbreak of his ex-girlfriend Roxy (Donahue) moving on with another man, Richard takes to Facebook stalking Roxy¡¯s new life to twist that torturous knife even further. Richard¡¯s work situation isn¡¯t any better. His condescending boss wants to downsize the department, and Richard can¡¯t bring himself to can his coworker Claire since she might be his only true friend. Well, unless you count the frazzled apartment manager who regularly gossips about tenants, or the professional camgirl Richard pays for sex.
Richard¡¯s dour days as a lonely bachelor receive a brief reprieve when an online dating app introduces ¡°too good to be true¡± musician Veronica. Conveniently a neighbor living in a building across the street, Richard and Veronica engage in a few flirty texts that appear promising.
Weirdly, this potential new romance coincides with an alarming string of circumstances upending every aspect of Richard¡¯s life. A rental company repossesses Richard¡¯s furniture even though he swears he hasn¡¯t missed a payment. Management threatens to evict him over late rent too. The bank can¡¯t help because Richard¡¯s debit card turns out to be counterfeit. A humiliating sex video posted publicly continues fueling suspicion that someone seeks to ruin Richard irreparably. Uncertain if he¡¯s dealing with a doppelganger or with doxxing, Richard drowns in a deepening sea of paranoia as Roxy and Veronica both threaten restraining orders over obsessive acts Richard knows nothing about.
Since previews are promotional tools often produced without the filmmaker¡¯s involvement, it¡¯s usually poor form to talk about a trailer when critiquing a movie. Yet to talk about ¡°Browse,¡± we have to talk about calibrating expectations.
Its trailer paints ¡°Browse¡± with the colors of a mind-bending Hitchcockian thriller. Richard spies through his camera ¡°Rear Window¡±-style. Sketchy smiles and ominous sound bites hint at strange surroundings populated by peculiar people. Richard unravels as clips intensify to show the tangible terror of being helplessly trapped in a spiraling situation driving one man mad. Who is impersonating Richard and why?
¡°Browse¡± isn¡¯t the modern mystery those 90 seconds present it as, although I don¡¯t blame PR people for marketing the movie as a cautionary techno-tale centered on identity theft. That film is easier to sell than the one ¡°Browse¡± actually is: a neo-noir drama, complete with jazzy cymbals crashing alongside trumpet warbles like a fedora-wearing detective might emerge from smoke at any second, masking a metaphor about the dangers of fantasy.
Expect a traditional thriller rife with suspects, motives, twists, or big reveals and disappointment will be on the docket, particularly upon arriving at a non-ending guaranteed to anger approximately half of all viewers (hence the 50/50 split on the review score). Truth be told, there isn¡¯t much to the movie¡¯s mystery. Herrings couldn¡¯t be any redder, with threads like shady business dealings for Richard¡¯s boss and unidentified men asking questions of Richard¡¯s landlord flapping in the breeze without ever being tied. ¡°Browse¡± does what little it can to keep clues concealed, but runs out of hiding places in short order.
CONTEXT CLUE SPOILERS
I inadvertently walked a step ahead of ¡°The Sixth Sense¡± when I wondered, ¡°why is Haley Joel Osment the only person who talks to Bruce Willis?¡± ¡°Browse¡± trips into a similar giveaway when Richard noticeably doesn¡¯t ask Veronica why she stood him up for their first meeting. ¡°The Sixth Sense¡± did a great job with magician-like misdirection, such as in the scene where it appears as though Willis and Toni Collette are in conversation before Osment interrupts. ¡°Browse¡¯s¡± moves aren¡¯t as cinematically suave. A text-to-speech trick standing in for Veronica¡¯s voice flies an early red flag regarding what¡¯s really going on. So does a setup where Richard and Veronica are supposed to seem like they¡¯re texting while looking out their windows toward each other.
¡°Browse¡± instead has to be taken as that aforementioned analogy for getting hung up on an imaginary life you wish you had instead of focusing on what¡¯s in front of you. In that light, interludes where Richard immerses himself in a virtual reality headset no longer seem like misplaced segues. Screenwriter Mario Carvalhal appears to use his script as a therapy tool for working out depression and resentment issues through Richard¡¯s jealousy and inferiority complex concerning success.
See it this way and ¡°Browse¡± might be therapeutic for you too. Struggle to connect on a conscious level of straight psychological suspense and you¡¯re liable to not connect at all.
¡°Browse¡± can be closely compared to the underseen 2017 film ¡°Never Here¡± starring Mireille Enos and Sam Shepard (review here). Much like that lukewarm, loosely qualifying thriller, ¡°Browse¡± sets its stakes in gauzy drama over outright action. It¡¯s not all the way up to ¡°arthouse,¡± though ¡°Browse¡± would be more at home playing there than in a mainstream multiplex. Excellent moments from Lukas Haas, and from Bodhi Elfman as an unfiltered scatterbrain whose buffoonish appeal almost escalates into obnoxiousness, keep ¡°Browse¡± captivating as an exercise in acting and exploratory execution. Be careful about setting anticipation in another direction though, because ¡°Browse¡± isn¡¯t the movie it might initially look like.
Review Score: 50