TREASURE ISLAND

Written and directed by Scott King

With Lance Baker, Nick Offerman, Jonah Blechman, Daisy Hall and Suzy Nakamura

Distributed by King Pictures

**1/2

Opens in New York March 10th



A real UFO of a film, TREASURE ISLAND is so inventive that I'm tempted to preface my review with a rant about how tired it makes the cookie-cutter exercises in niche marketing that pass for "independent film" look. However, uniqueness alone can't guarantee success, and TREASURE ISLAND remains more enticing as a concept than a film. Despite all the craft evident in the finished product, something got lost in the transfer from paper to screen. If the film's ultimately a failure, it's a mighty accomplished one, though: the best film I've disliked so far this year.

Set on an island naval base outside San Francisco during the final stages of World War II, TREASURE ISLAND revolves around two men who work together, linguist Frank (Baker) and mathematician Samuel (Offerman). Their job creating phony messages  to mislead the Japanese takes on a new dimension when the dead body of a young man (Blechman) turns up in the bay. The Navy sees this as a perfect opportunity to create fake letters accompanying his corpse, which will be dumped back into the sea for the Japanese navy to find,  and sets Frank and Samuel to work generating these missives. As their writing progresses, their individual sexual preoccupations begin to play a role in it. Frank is a bigamist who happens to be dating a third woman. Furthermore, his wife Yo-Ji (Nakamura) is a Japanese-American hiding from  internment  in Chinatown. For his part, Samuel likes having three-ways with his wife Penny (Hall) and other men.  Uneasy with the  implications of this desire, he projects his fears about homosexuality onto the corpse.

TREASURE ISLAND isn't exactly a neo-noir, but it adopts the chiaroscuro look - in addition to his writing and directing credits, King is also responsible for the gorgeous cinematography - and sexual queasiness of  noir classics like THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and GILDA.  The opening film-within-the-film - a spy drama starring "Rio Haywood" - and set of newsreels - with a voice-over describing the accomplishments of "our Jap citizens" in internment camps - are pitched a half-tone away from campy facetiousness, but the rest of the film steers clear from comedy. King was wise to avoid full-fledged campiness, which could easily have led to an air of superiority over his characters and their era, but he never quite finds something to take its place. The fantasy scenes are simultaneously lurid and overly distanced, while the characters seem like case studies in derangement. Flashbacks and fantasies alternate with the daily work of writing letters to go with the body, and the film becomes more dreamlike as it progresses without ever quite finding a comfortable narrative rhythm.

TREASURE ISLAND is a film about imagination, or more precisely, about the failure  of imagination: the inability of our fantasies to transcend the historical circumstances and petty neuroses that produced them. Forced into the position of creating an elaborate fiction, Frank and Samuel fail miserably at this task, even thought they come up with a few good stories. In place of fiction,  their bad faith - half-heartedly repressed sexual peccadilloes, overt and covert, obsessive racism - rises to the surface.  Unfortunately,  this bad faith isn't the great revelation King takes it for. In describing the film's historical context, its press book suggests that "experience and memory clash...in the amber-colored vision of our own collective past: World War II is seen as America's last innocent time, where everyone was fighting, united, for one cause. But the reality of this era was very different. Wartime America saw numerous race riots, violent labor strikes, the rise of juvenile delinquency, and the ascendancy of women into a man's working world."

In the wake of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN's idealization of WW2 America, there's definitely something to be said for TREASURE ISLAND's insistence on the inaccuracy of rose-colored glasses. But is it really that surprising that - to pick another quote from the press book - "despite all beliefs to the contrary, people lived their lives pretty much they way they do now?" Is it that much of a leap to suggest that a man with a penchant for "heterosexual" three-ways might really be gay, or that whites often perceive people of color through the distorted mirror of their stereotypes? TREASURE ISLAND's inquisitive attitude towards American history is refreshing, but the answers it finds are frustratingly  facile.